How Audiobooks Are Made, Narrator Emily Woo Zeller Tells All

Stacey here chatting with my Doppelganger and fellow PubCrawler Stephanie Garber about one of my favorite ways to read a book—audiobooks! A good narrator can really enhance the “read” in so many ways. So Stephanie and I thought it would be fun to chat with the person who narrated Under a Painted Sky to get a behind-the-scenes look.

Before we begin our interview, some basic understanding. Audio rights are one of several rights one can grant a publisher, and they are another potential revenue stream. If you grant this right, your publishers can either make your audiobook themselves through one of their in-house audiobook imprints (an example would be Penguin Random Audio for adult books and nonfiction, and Listening Library for YA and children’s books), or license the rights to a third party publisher (like Tantor Media, which published UAPS). Whether an audiobook is actually made simply depends on whether your publisher believes there is a demand. I’ve seen several estimates of how many traditionally published books turn into audiobooks each year, and the one I’ve seen most cited is 10%.

Now onto our interview!


Stacey: How did you get started in the biz of audiobooks?

Emily: I got started in audiobooks through an audition process. I found out about the submission information through my network of actor friends at the time. I had just moved back to the US from having done animation in Hong Kong for a couple of years and was itching to get back in the groove somehow. I was already immediately involved in theater so that was my base.

The ironic twist in my life. When I was in kindergarten, my teacher told my parents that I needed to pay more attention and practice reading out loud because I was struggling. Ha! I guess I took that information to heart.

Stacey: Where did you come by your beautiful, clear voice? Is it something people commented on (or got you dates or jobs)?

Emily: Thank you! I’ve used and trained it my entire life. I started singing and dancing and learning how to use my body and voice from a very young age. As I got older, my studies became about understanding alignment and breath, which have saved my voice. And I’m always learning.

Over the years, I have played many great parts in musicals and theater so that’s primarily where I got my kicks using my body/voice.

As a budding adolescent, I was told on a number of occasions by peers that my voice was sultry and I could work for a sex hotline. Oh, 13-yr-old conversation! Now that I think about it, maybe that early exposure to a sexualized existence for women and girls and the limitation to it helped me along toward my feminist ways. Not that there’s anything wrong with working on a sex hotline or reading steamy scenes out loud, but being a sex worker was perhaps not the only aspiration for a 13-yr-old girl.

Stephanie: I would love to know how you prepare for work. Do you mark up the books so you know which voice to do? How do you ‘create’ a voice for a particular character?

Emily: I always read the book beforehand—a piece of crucial information about a character or the plot may come up at the end of the story and heaven help the person that has to go back and fix everything!

Sometimes authors provide a lot of information about a character and so the voice comes very clearly based on that. How does that person stand, walk, breathe, what culture are they from, why is their voice scratchy or smooth or high-pitched or low-pitched, etc.? Sometimes all you know is that it is a woman or a man who works at the post office or serves food. Then, I get to have a little more room. On my first job, I was told that I could take it easier with the character voices because people were listening to a book (not watching a cartoon). It also depends on the tone of the book. Some are more fantastical than others and varying points of view from book to book lend toward different tones of narration.

Stephanie. How does one learn to speak with a particular accent? Do you speak any languages?

Emily: I speak conversational Cantonese and some Mandarin…and I can parrot very well phrases in Spanish, German, French, Japanese, Korean, Russian, etc. I love languages and accents and dialects and have had a lot of exposure to them.

Chinese is a language spoken at home and I studied Mandarin as a foreign language in high school and had a few dance teachers who spoke almost exclusively in Mandarin. I’m always listening for language variations and practicing. Perhaps being a singer/musician and learning both a tonal language and English together growing up helped with having an affinity and knack for a broad range of sound? If I weren’t doing it for books/work, it’d probably be a hobby! There’s also a great resource called the International Dialects of English Archive that I use when I don’t necessarily have an accent or dialect off of the tip of my tongue.

Stacey: During an especially emotional scene, when you sound like you’re crying, it makes the listening cry, too. Are you really experiencing sadness when you’re doing that voice in that a moment?

Emily: Often, yes. Narrating a story is participating in the story to a certain degree—sometimes more than other times depending on the nature of the text, but certainly always being invested in the telling of it.

Stephanie: How many hours a week do you spend narrating? Do you have a day job?

Emily: I am a full time voiceover artist and a good portion of the work I do is in audiobooks, though I sometimes also do work in animation, commercial, and other aspects of voiceover. I love the format of audiobooks. Though it can be very taxing recording long sessions for long stretches of days, especially as someone who does this work full time, I’ve learned how to take care of myself so that doing this work that I love so much is sustainable. I can’t record for more than 5 or 6 hours a day before everything (voice, brain, body) starts going haywire. I am an independent contractor who runs my own business, so the hours and work itself vary widely.

I also perform physical theater or something else where I’m acting, singing, and/or dancing. I am also a teacher, mostly teaching yoga now.

Stephanie: What’s your favorite voice to do?

ScissorhandsEmily: My favorite voice is one that I have yet to use in a book or show! It’s a shy young boy who has really bad allergies. I’m working on getting him into a project with some colleagues where he can be an animated character or a puppet.

Stacey: For people who want to go into the business of narrating audiobooks, what’s your best advice?

Emily: Be prepared to work hard: Take acting classes. Pay attention to how people sound and what makes them sound that way. Practice. Listen.

Stacey is giving away the audiobook of Under a Painted Sky, so you can see for yourself how lovely Emily’s voice is!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

In the comments tell us what is your favorite audiobook and/or narrator?


18 Responses to How Audiobooks Are Made, Narrator Emily Woo Zeller Tells All

  1. Marina Nov 13 2015 at 3:45 am #

    This was great! I love audiobooks and I am really interested in them professionaly. I would love to see more on this subject. Thank you Emily!

    • Stacey Nov 13 2015 at 11:58 am #

      Thanks so much Marina! And I’ll make a note of your interest in seeing this more in the blog. Thank you!

      • Marina Nov 25 2015 at 5:29 am #

        Thank you Stacey. I just wanted to ask if you know anyone who handles audiobook only rights and, especially, audiobook translated rights; it would be wonderful to read their professional take on the business. I understand this would be far fetched but one could only hope! Love the blog, by the way, I am interested in every single article.

        • Stacey Nov 25 2015 at 12:50 pm #

          Usually agents handle those rights and the publishers of course. Agents use foreign agents to arrange foreign sales including audiobook rights. I don’t know if that helps, but thanks for your interest; perhaps we’ll track down an industrial professional on the sales/translation side to address that question one of these days!

  2. Anna Jordan Nov 13 2015 at 9:38 am #

    Stacy and Emily thank you so much for this wonderful look into audiobooks! I’d love for Emily to respond the question about process. Does she get a script or is it the actual book? Does she mark it up or highlight various characters with different colored highlighters or put in vocal direction before she reads? So curious!

    • Stacey Nov 14 2015 at 12:27 pm #

      Hi Anna, I believe she uses an e-reader! I think it used to be a hard copy (of book?) but times. She reads it before hand. As far as how she marks it up/reminds herself the vocal direction– I’m curious, too! Hopefully she can chime in.

  3. Diane Burton Nov 14 2015 at 7:27 am #

    Fascinating interview.

    • Stacey Nov 14 2015 at 12:28 pm #

      Thanks for reading, Diane!

  4. Sioux Nov 15 2015 at 5:32 pm #

    Such a great interview! I’m in the final stages of getting my audiobook up and running for my self-pubbed book and it was QUITE a journey. This was very enlightening on how a pro gets the job done – love it! (And also, ps, I LOVE AUDIOBOOKS!!!!)

    • Stacey Nov 15 2015 at 5:57 pm #

      Congratulations Sioux! I love seeing behind the scenes, too, and congrats for getting your audiobook out there.I imagine that’s a lot of work, but I think you can really expand your audience that way. Good luck!

  5. Patchi Nov 16 2015 at 10:04 am #

    Great interview! I love audio books. They make my hour-long commute bearable. There are so many great ones I’ve listened to. Elizabeth Evans’s narration of Reluctant Concubine was wonderful and I just had to buy the sequel to keep listening. I’m now listening to the Chantress series by Amy Butler Greenfield, narrated by Mary Jane Wells, and I’m so impressed at all the different voices she can make. But my all-time favorite, and I know it’s totally unfair to compare, was the production of Kristin Cashore’s Graceling performed by David Baker and the full cast family. Just wow.

    I’d love to win Under a Painted Sky.

  6. Stacey Nov 16 2015 at 1:08 pm #

    Patchi, thank you so much for your comments. Interestingly, the last book I read on audiobook (Book of a Thousand Days) was narrated by one of the cast members of Graceling. I love the full casts, but I also love it when a narrator can do all the voices herself, too! (Also, please make sure to enter the rafflecopter if you haven’t to win UAPS (link above). I’m adding the Chantress series to my TBL pile (to be listened to). 😉

  7. Heather Jackson Nov 16 2015 at 8:54 pm #

    Because I’m a chronic multi-tasker, audiobooks have become my new favourite way to read! And professional narrators make such a huge difference. I haven’t been listening to audiobooks for that long so I shouldn’t declare a fave just yet; however, I loved the Lunar Chronicles narrator so much that I listened to them all even though I’d read the series already. 🙂

    • Stacey Nov 17 2015 at 12:34 am #

      Hi Heather, I feel the same way. (And sometimes, when I’m really pressed for time, I listen to them at 3x speed.) Thanks for the recommendation! I haven’t read/listened to those yet, though my daughter LOVES that series. 😉

  8. Amanda Nov 17 2015 at 6:34 am #

    Great article! I’m new to audiobooks, and this article was perfect timing. I’m starting a new job soon with a longer commute, so I think I’m going to stock up on audiobooks to help make the drive go by faster (and to help me tackle my ever-growing TBR book list!). I just listened to my first audiobook- the Scorpio Races- and I loved it! I’m looking forward to getting more now.

    • Stacey Nov 17 2015 at 12:11 pm #

      Ohh, I’ve heard that Scorpio Races on audiobook is wonderful. 🙂 Keep us posted on the good ones you find. (Btw, the Bloody Jack books by LA Meyer are my favorite audiobooks ever).

      • Amanda Nov 17 2015 at 3:48 pm #

        Yes- I loved the Scorpio Races! The voiceover actors were amazing (I can’t remember their names off the top of my head). And I wasn’t sure I would like audiobooks at first, but now I think I am hooked. Thanks for the recommendation, I will have to check those books out! My mom also told me the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie society on audiobook was a must.

  9. Christy Nov 20 2015 at 11:33 am #

    I’m LOVING Illuminae on audio because they’ve got a full cast of 20 people!

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