You probably don’t know Renee Raudman by name — but there’s a good chance you’ve heard her voice.
Raudman is one of the most requested narrators in the multibillion dollar audiobook industry, having recorded well over 300 books since 2006.
In less than a decade, the actress-turned-voice-over star has won several awards, critical acclaim, and changed the landscape of the genre.
“When audiobooks were first being produced for a more mass market, the trend was toward a ‘single-voiced’ read with, at most, subtle changes for each different character,” she says. “However, I didn’t know that when I narrated my first audiobook. I just assumed the approach I took — voicing a distinctive personality for each major character — would be best suited for this medium as well.”
Her goal, she explains, was to make a movie for the mind.
And she has succeeded.
Business Insider spoke with Raudman about how she got into the fascinating world of audiobooks, and the most exciting and surprising aspects of her job.
Business Insider: Can you tell us a bit about your background?
Renee Raudman: I was raised in the small town of Kalkaska, Michigan — a beautiful place to grow up. I graduated from Michigan State University with a Bachelor’s degree in Communications. (Go Spartans!) Immediately after graduating from Michigan State University, and about five years into the corporate world of advertising and marketing (and loving it) in the suburbs of Detroit, I decided that I didn’t want my life to pass by without finally listening to this little voice deep within me — that, up until that point, I was terribly afraid to even acknowledge — that begged me to move to Los Angeles to pursue a career as an actor.
BI: What happened next?
RR: One of the girls that I worked with at the ad agency told me her brother was a pretty big agent in LA. I asked if I could interview him, and she kindly set up the meeting. I flew to Los Angeles and asked him to give me every piece of advice that he could, in addition to what he believes the biggest mistakes other aspiring actors make, that ultimately lead to their leaving the business unfulfilled. He smiled and said nobody had ever asked those questions, because they probably didn’t really want to know the answers, and he proceeded to give me a detailed list. I took copious notes.
Within 30 days, I moved to Los Angeles and had taken every step of advice he gave me. When I called and gave him this update, there was a stunned silence on his end of the phone. He said, “I never thought I’d hear from you again. And certainly not within a month!”
BI: So how did this lead to your narrating career?
RR: While having success in a variety of daytime and prime time television and film opportunities, my “voice over” star was rising. I had voiced hundreds of TV and radio commercials, including several national campaigns for retail and political ads, as well as cartoons and video games.
In 2005, I met someone who narrated audiobooks — which I personally always loved! Can you guess what I did? I sat him down, asked him dozens of questions, and … I took copious notes.
BI: Did you ever imagine you’d have a successful career in the audiobook industry?
RR: Well, when I was in third grade, my parents had given me a little cassette recorder for Christmas. I used to come home after school and take that tape recorder into the bathroom (no one bothered me in there, and the acoustics were fantastic) and I would act out all the characters from my history class I had learned that day. I would give each notable person from history a different voice, and make up all these stories about Eli Whitney and the cotton gin, the Hopi Indians, etc.. At seven years old I was recording and acting out full stories with different voices.
I still have that tape recorder.
When I tell you I loved listening to audiobooks, I mean I loved it. I would drive to San Diego from Los Angeles, just so I wouldn’t have to stop the tape. And do you know, it never occurred to me to pursue this medium.
BI: When did it finally occur to you?
RR: About nine years ago, I met a fellow who was dating my sister at the time named Scott Brick. He was, and still is, the male voice in audiobooks. And as I mentioned, I was fairly successful in my own right in the commercial VO world.
Given my fascination with audiobooks, I hung on his every word when he told me of his industry. We agreed to trade information about the other’s voice-over world. The rest is history, as they say.
BI: Did he help you break in to the industry?
RR: Yes. He kindly helped me put together a demo reel, I sent it out to seven companies and heard back from four of them within the month — which was unheard of at that time. Very few women back in 2006 had their own home recording studio, so it allowed me to work for several different publishers from home, and it also allowed me to work in every genre of audiobook imaginable.
In a way, it’s a “right time, right place” kind of story. The audiobook world was just beginning to explode with digital downloads and a lower price-point. Amazingly, this series of events led me to be able to make a living at something that I seemed to be destined to do from such an early age.
BI: Have people always complimented your voice?
RR: What an interesting question! I guess they have; yes. But I’ve worked really hard on what my normal speaking voice sounds like. In my early 20s I heard myself on a recording, and I thought, YIKES!
I then began to take note of how other’s spoke. For example: If they had a squeaky, tight, breathy, baby, or whiney voice. (Amazing at how it would match to their personality.) While at the same time, I would feel so attracted to people’s voices that were calm, relaxed, in control, at a lower more natural register, etc.
After a little research, I found that if I strengthened the muscles of my diaphragm and use them from which to speak, that it gave my whole being a sense of ease, control, and confidence. It did away with my shallow breaths, and higher pitch. Honestly, transforming my voice had an incredible impact on shaping who I am as a person today.
BI: Can you tell us more about what it’s like to record an audiobook?
RR: Without a doubt, audiobook narration has been the toughest work I’ve done in the world of entertainment. I’m not complaining, as there are other jobs in our world that are truly backbreaking hard and dangerous!
Narrating is like running a marathon versus a sprint. Unlike a radio commercial, which might take an hour to record, I work full eight-hour days, five days a week, with just two short breaks a day and lunch. I sit for long stretches of time in a dark small studio (usually by myself, unless recording with a partner). It’s fairly exhausting, because during those eight hours, I’m talking the whole time, and there’s never a moment where I can stop and return emails, phone calls, or not be in full performance mode. Let’s just say I’m not the best conversationalist when I get home.
BI: How do you prepare for a narration?
RR: It really depends on the project. While I do prep for every book I narrate, a non-fiction book typically takes a lot less time than a fiction novel. The prep on a non-fiction title is usually limited to pronunciations, and some research, based on either the author or the subject matter. For the most part, as the narrator, I am responsible for coming up with all pronunciations in the book. Whether it’s medical verbiage, names of towns in foreign countries, or another language all together, we are responsible for it being 100% accurate.
However, fiction is another story. Because of the number of books that I record, I’ve found that I can be more productive if I have assistance in the preparation of almost every novel I narrate. I, personally, pre-read the manuscript. Simultaneously, I’ll hire someone else who will go through and prep the physical manuscript. This will include creating character sheets, pronunciation lists, story summary by chapter, as well as “coding” the script.
“Coding” includes putting initials next to each line as to who is speaking, highlighting direction or emotion if it appears after the line of dialogue, and the change of character’s point of view.
As far as warm up goes: Other than a cup of coffee several hours before recording, and then a cup of tea and glass of water in the booth, I’m pretty much ready.
BI: What’s the typical starting salary for a new audiobook narrator? And how high can that number go for an experienced narrator?
RR: The wages tend to be pretty hush-hush. If the title is 10 hours long, you get paid an hourly rate based on the finished hours. I believe starting salary is approximately $100 per finished hour for newcomers, and can go up to anywhere in the neighborhood of $500 for the cream. This would not include celebrity reads.
BI: How many books do you record a year?
RR: I used to take every book that was offered to me. However, I’m trying my best to add more balance to my life. My new goal is to narrate no more than one to two books per month. I’m trying to go from approximately 40 books a year to 24 books a year. (Except I sort of blew it this month, because I recorded four titles and a short story in the last two weeks alone.) Exhausted doesn’t begin to describe how I feel!
BI: How long does it typically take to record an audiobook?
RR: A fairly standard title would take me about 1.5 times the length of the book. The audiobook world is measured by the “PFH” (per finished hour). So if a title is 10 hours, it usually takes me about 15 hours of actual recording time. However, two of the aforementioned titles I recorded in these last couple weeks, took over twice the PFH. One had approximately 130 different characters in it, many of those returning from prior books in the series.
BI: How many narrators work on any given book?
RR: Typically, only one person narrates an entire book. But some titles will beg for a full cast of narrators (for instance, The Bible). Several of the bigger name authors, like Catherine Coulter, can request — and their audiobook sales can support — hiring two narrators; usually a male and a female.
I’ve done several duo narrations for Catherine Coulter, and they are a blast to narrate. To make it more of a movie for the mind, Catherine allows us to take all the “he saids/she saids” out of the book. It’s also a real treat to get to read and play off of another actor.
BI: Do you have a favorite book that you’ve narrated?
RR: Boy, that’s so tough. Truthfully, I don’t have a favorite. Certain titles move me to tears. Others make me laugh out loud. Some provide me a day’s (much needed) escape. And in others, I fall in love. Who can pick a favorite? I will say, I was just recently chosen by Disney to narrate Tangled and because my 3-year-old niece absolutely loves this movie, this was a very exciting job to get.
While I can’t pick a favorite book, I am so, so, lucky to work with some of the best selling authors in the world. I have to pinch myself some days. Really! Danielle Steel, Catherine Coulter, J.T. Ellison, Suzanne Brockmann, Nora Roberts, Ilona Andrews, Deborah Coonts, and the list goes on and on.
BI: What’s the coolest or craziest experience you’ve had as an audiobook narrator?
RR: Perhaps that I lost an “Audie” (our industry’s Oscar equivalent) to Johnny Depp.
Will you indulge me one more?
BI: Of course.
RR: In addition to narrating audiobooks, my company also has professional recording studio, and we produce audiobook textbooks for online universities in Southern California and Colorado.
So, one day, I needed to buy an office chair, and had heard that a nearby garage sale had a brand new one. My fiancé and I went to take a look. The place was hopping with people, but for some reason the homeowner took a shine to me and began asking a lot of questions about what I did and where would I use the chair.
When I told her that I narrated audiobooks, she said, “You’re kidding! They’ve changed my life! I would never be able to get my college degree without taking courses from an online college. And I wouldn’t be able to get through the classes but for the fact they offer their textbooks in audiobook format. Have you ever heard of such a thing?!”
I said that I had. And then she said, “How cool is this?!” and whipped out her iPhone and pushed play: “Welcome to Anthropology 101. Narrated by Renee Raudman….”
My fiancé, John, started giggling and said, “that’s her” and pointed to me. We all had a good laugh.
But truly, I can’t tell you how proud I feel to be able to contribute something so worthwhile. I’m someone who learns much better by listening than reading. So that was a powerful and really cool moment for me.
BI: Do you listen to you own audiobooks after they’re completed?
RR: Once in a great while I’ll need to listen to characters from a prior series, or if I’m working on a new accent and want to hear how it came out. Though it does pain me. I’m completely hyper-critical. I always want to get back into the studio and fix a line here and there and find myself cringing. However, there are times where I’ll be listening and get caught up in the story and think: Hey, that was OK!
BI: Has a stranger ever recognized your voice?
RR: As I mentioned, I am from Michigan. Upon first moving to Southern California, I had a very strong Michigan accent. My very first radio spot was for Security Pacific Bank and had nine words: “College, clothes, my own car, Christmas vacation … spring break!”
My Michigan accent was particularly strong in words like car. I was in the McDonald’s drive through here in So Cal. After placing an order, the girl, through the speaker, asked, “Do you have a bank commercial running right now?!”
BI: What’s the one most surprising things about being an audiobook narrator?
RR: I guess a few things. One, I didn’t know it would be so labor intensive. Two, until recently, it never occurred to me that I might have fans. And three, that reading a love scene in a book is a whole lot different than acting one out. (I’m not saying it isn’t fun. I just have to be careful with what titles I recommend to mom and dad.)
BI: What’s the best part about being an audiobook narrator?
RR: I get paid to read what I’d read if I were on vacation; I get to be all the characters behind the mic; and I get to fall in love over and over again, every time I step into the booth.
Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.