"You know what I like about daffodils? The way they come up year after year. I always feel good when I see them in the spring. It tells me another year has gone by. I'm still here, and you're still here, and we are absolutely making it together."
"Life is too short to be lived half-heartedly, and far too short to lose ourselves in the day-to-day drudgery of the hustle and bustle. Dedicate yourself to the things that deserve your dedication." -- Matthew Kelly
"I was raised among books, making invisible friends in pages that seem cast from dust and whose smell I carry on my hands to this day."
I would like to give a warm welcome to John McLain as the third featured "Mentor" to my blog. He has narrated over 125 audiobook titles, from mysteries to westerns, thrillers to history, and science fiction to historical fiction. In 2012, he was named a finalist for an Audie® Award for his performance of Sharon Ewell Foster’s powerful novel, The Resurrection of Nat Turner, Part 1: The Witnesses. I asked John to share some helpful advice for new audiobook narrators. What follows is insightful guidance for new and experienced narrators, I hope you enjoy the interview as much as I did.
#1. If you could go back in time, what is the one piece of advice you would give yourself as a beginning audiobook narrator?
Never, ever stop marketing your business! This is especially true for home studio narrators outside the hot zones where publishers live and work. Make it a daily habit to spend five minutes or so doing something to keep yourself on the radar. Just don’t overdo it. And if you’re fortunate enough to build some momentum, don’t get complacent! Think of your business as a campfire. If you walk away and let it go, it will start to die out. And if you let the embers grow cold, well, you get the idea.
#2. Are there any books that you've done that you are especially proud of? If so, which ones?
Several, yes. The Resurrection of Nat Turner, Part 1 – The Witnesses by Sharon Ewell Foster tops the list. I was so blessed to begin my audiobook career with such a wonderful piece of writing. It didn’t hurt that it was nominated for an Audie Award, either! Also, I was cast to narrate the true story behind the hit film “The Vow.” That was an emotional journey that has a very different theme from the motion picture. More recently, I did a book by a wonderful author named Sterling Nixon; an action-packed novel called Seven Days. It was the kind of book that makes my heart race.
#3. What professional organizations do you belong to?
I am a proud member of SAG-AFTRA, as well as the Audio Publishers Association (APA).
#4. How do you decide which books to audition for? What criteria does a book need to have?
Well, I don’t audition for a whole lot of books. Usually, the publishers I partner with simply approach me with a title they would like me to consider, since they know my personal style, strengths and weaknesses, and the like. There are rare occasions when I do audition, but either way, the process is the same. I believe narrators need to know who they are. You need to clearly define for yourself what your boundaries are, based on your worldview, personal beliefs, etc. And I can tell you that the vast majority of publishers will respect those boundaries. I can think of many occasions when I’ve been offered a book that for one reason or another was over my personal line, and I’ve respectfully declined it. They don’t mind; in fact, publishers prefer it. After all, they know that if a narrator is uncomfortable with the material, a quality performance is very, very unlikely. Frankly, I did books early in my career that I now wished I hadn’t. But it’s all a learning process, and part of growing as a performer.
#5. Can you briefly describe your typical day?
My days are seldom typical, but as a general rule, the first thing I do is begin drinking water. I’ll drink a 16 ounce glass first thing. Then a few morning household chores later, I drink some more. Eventually I arrive upstairs at my studio and start working through the overnight email. Then I’ll spend a few minutes with social media. I seldom enter the booth before 10am, unless I’m just really up against a tight deadline. Once in there, I read until either my brain or my voice tells me it’s time to quit for the day. It’s usually my brain. On a good day, I’ll compete between two and three finished hours of audio. There are always exceptions, though. There have been days where I’ve been in the booth before 7am, and days when I’ve worked into the night. The demands of my clients dictate my day. If I’ve done a good job managing my calendar, then it’s pretty easy. If not, then it can get very difficult – grueling in fact. But missing a deadline is never an option. When I make a commitment to a client, that’s that. So I’m careful. My integrity is everything, and when I give my word, I mean it.
#6. How much time do you spend marketing/promotion?
My pat answer for this is “not enough.” Ideally, about ten minutes per week. That’s really all it takes I think. Today, we have the magic of social media, which has made reaching lots of people so much easier. Like all things, balance is the key. Don’t be a pest, but don’t disappear either. I also think it varies depending on your individual personality. I find that many actors, myself included, tend to be fairly shy people. So marketing and promotion become a discipline. Others who are more outgoing might find that marketing and promotion happen almost organically for them. That said, though, marketing and promotion are not optional. One way or another, they must happen. If you let it slide, as I must confess I have done before, you can find yourself in a terrible slump. Not fun.
#7. Are there any books, webinars, classes, or conventions you have found particularly helpful and informative?
Yes – first of all, get a coach. If you can study with that person one-on-one or in a small workshop scenario, all the better. Narration is a very personal skill, and I strongly believe it demands personal nurturing and direction to truly flourish. Personally, I have studied with Patrick Fraley, Scott Brick, and Paul Ruben – all wonderful teachers. So that’s the craft part. In terms of the business end, the annual Audio Publishers Association Conference (APAC) is a terrific opportunity to meet new friends. And that’s what it’s about. Mixers, often put on by the APA, are great as well. I spend a lot of money on education and travel. I’ve never been sorry.
#8. Is there anything I didn't ask that you would like to share?
The audiobook industry is, economically speaking, a very new thing. With advances in technology, change is rapid and constant. Be prepared to ride these waves. Publishers are constantly adapting to new ways of doing business, maximizing profits, and improving workflow. The successful narrator will be sensitive to this flux, and do everything reasonable to accommodate them. Our goal is the same – produce and present quality audio content to an ever-expanding audience. Make your publishers’ jobs easier, and they will love you for it. I’ve seen it time and again, and it has served me well.
#9. A brief profile of your statistics like how long you have been doing this, how many books you've recorded, what software/hardware do you use, etc.
I began narrating audiobooks full-time in early 2011. My first title was released in June of that year. I have over 125 credits now. Currently, my studio chain begins with a Neumann TLM103 microphone inside a Vocal Booth. There are no computers or fans in my booth; I have a window so I can see into the control room. My control surface is a wireless Frontier Tranzport, which allows me to control my recording software without leaving the booth. I read from an iPad, using the iAnnotate app.
My control room is 100% Mac, which is good since I don’t know how to use Windows! I’m currently running ProTools 11, and a Focusrite preamp. Studio monitors by M-audio. I also have a nifty DAW called Twisted Wave, which I like to use for simple editing jobs. I never use headphones in the booth, but I do have an earbud monitor available for publishers who prefer that I deliver a punch-and-roll recording.
Before I became an actor, I worked as an audio producer in the broadcasting industry for many years, so I am a skilled editor – and that has paid off big time in my audiobook career.
#10. What is your favorite part of being a voice actor? Least favorite?
It’s fun – I mean, I get paid to perform. That’s the main thing. It’s like doing a play, but I get to play every part! The community is wonderful. I enjoy a great amount of freedom in my schedule, and that allows me to spend quality time with family and friends. It’s terrific being your own boss.
Which is also the downside. Taxes for small business owners are punitively high. It takes a tremendous amount of discipline and drive to keep everything moving forward, all the time. The buck stops here, and if things go south, there’s no one to blame but the guy in the mirror. So it can be a lot of pressure. But when things go right, it’s all worth it!
I love books! I love reading books! I love reading them aloud so others can hear the characters I imagine when I read.