AUTHORNOMICS Interview with voice talent J. Christopher Dunn

With a publishing industry that is ever in flux, it can be hard for an aspiring author to figure out what information is relevant and what she needs to do to be successful. Recognizing this, literary agent Andrea Hurst and writer/blogger Cherise Hensley present a series of weekly interviews with publishing industry specialists. The AUTHORNOMICS Series features literary agents, editors, authors, marketing experts and more talking about their opinions on the publishing industry, writing, and what a writer needs to know.

AUTHORNOMICS Interview with J. Christopher Dunn

J. Christopher Dunn_5x7_B J. Christopher (Chris) Dunn is a voice actor living and working on Whidbey Island, WA who enjoys early morning walks, trying new and interesting foods, and photographing the natural beauty around the Salish Sea. He’s an audiobook narrator and producer with titles available on Audible.com and also spends time in his studio recording voiceovers for commercials, web videos, podcasts, product demonstrations, on-hold messaging and documentaries. When not in the studio, he creates character voices for radio dramas and can occasionally be spotted in stage performances.

His voice is described as friendly, warm and trustworthy – the guy next door or the voice of high-profile corporate presentations. He delivers voiceovers that sound authentic, confident and experienced. Chris excels at understanding client needs and welcomes direction. Comfortable creating voiceovers for a wide variety of audiences, he is capable of quickly evaluating scripts and creating a voiceover that gives life to any project. Follow him on Twitter @JCDunnVOX and visit him at JChristopherDunn.com or TheNarrator.biz.

Can you give us an overview of the ever-expanding voiceover field?

Voiceover is anything that deals with spoken word audio. Commercials, web videos, product demonstrations, corporate presentations, documentaries, trailers, and audiobooks are a few of the genres where spoken word audio is used.

We are surrounded by voiceover work.  Besides the obvious movies, radio and TV, every telephone voice tree, every prerecorded announcement at airports, and even SIRI on Apple mobile devices…they are all produced by voiceover talent.

How did you first get into voice work?

I started out working in a number of radio stations in Washington and Montana, first as a Production Assistant then an on-air personality and Production Director. The job included producing hundreds of commercials and radio promotions. Part of the production process was reading scripts, either written by a salesperson or me.

What’s one thing people incorrectly assume about your line of work?

So many things come to mind. The biggie is that there are buckets of easy money to be made. The work is not easy! There’s more to it than connecting a microphone to a computer and reading. I’m not only the voiceover talent; I’m also the audio engineer, contract negotiator, marketer, and my own business partner. I find my own work and make sure I’m paid.

There are many spinning plates. It’s hard to make a living when just starting out. The first year or two I didn’t break even. The constant rejection can be a huge downer and drag on the creative process: and not at all fun to deal with. That alone, is difficult for many people entering into voiceovers. There is money to be made. Easy money? Nope.  Clearly not

In the voiceover business, how important is having a regional accent? The ability to do accents?

Many of my clients are not on the West Coast or even-Midwest. Most are on the East Coast or in other countries. My accent is neutral, although I’ve been accused of sounding “too American.

Most often, I’m hired for the lack of accent as it has a wide audience appeal. If a client is looking for a regional accent, they’ll hire somebody from that region.

Audiobooks are different. A narrator can be the voice of several different characters, all with a different ‘sound. It takes practice to be able to switch convincingly between them. Toss in an accent, and the challenge increases. Some talents are very good at accents. They can adjust their read and delivery to the tastes of the copywriter. Accents don’t have to be spot on; they do have to be convincing, though.

What are some characteristics of your speaking voice that make clients choose you for their projects?

The tonal qualities of my voice match well to long form narration, such as corporate presentations, documentaries, e-learning and audiobooks. It sounds confident, smooth and warm. The registry of my voice is baritone and is flexible enough to handle projects that target a variety of demographics.

Are there particular things clients look for in a voiceover professional?

Clients like talents who listen and ask questions and are willing to bring words to life. Clients rely on voiceover talent to take the script and interpret it in a believable, listenable way. Being able to take direction well is also important.

Sometimes a client doesn’t know what they are looking for and finding a talent that can provide options will improve the chances of the client finally hearing their ‘right’ voice. This also increases the chances of the talent landing the next gig.

What is the most challenging part of being a voice talent? What’s the most rewarding?

The challenge is to bring the listener into the theater of their mind. Voiceover is acting without being physical so a voice talent needs to find ways to emote with their voice instead of relying on body movement or facial expression to portray what’s being said. Apart from an occasional sound effect, there are no props. A voice talent needs to set the stage, act appropriately (or inappropriately!), and engage the listener into believing what’s being said.

For me, the most rewarding part is working with interesting clients and fulfilling their voiceover needs. A close second is having my client return with more projects. It’s a good indicator that I’ve done what they were looking for or gone beyond their expectations. I like happy clients.

Is there a recommended training that a person should go through in order to become a successful voice talent?

Success could depend on a number of elements in voiceover. What makes one successful may not make another as successful. What is success, really? The meaning can be quite different from one talent to the next. Is success measured by income? Does an amazing client list make a talent successful? It’s hard enough breaking into the business that even a talent’s first client could be the definition of success.

Now, with the philosophical part out of the way, before training come the basics. Reading is the primary function of a voice talent. Add to that, the skill of acting. One of the most beneficial things a voice talent can do is continue to learn. Working with a voiceover coach, taking workshops and participating in theater are helpful in developing as a voiceover talent. It might even make success more tangible.

How much equipment or technology does your work require to create a polished, finished product? Do you recommend setting up a home studio or using a commercial facility?

It used to be that a voice talent would audition in person in front of a client, copywriter, director and other assorted stakeholders. After the selection process, the chosen talent would be scheduled for a session at a recording studio to work with a booth director and engineer to record the script. Most work was done in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

The price of recording equipment and software has made it possible for home studios to be built. Not all, but most of the Nonunion, independent work is done in personal studios. Relying on recording sessions in a ‘professional’ studio is, in many cases, no longer necessary.

Equipment prices and the Internet have helped fuel the explosion of new talent entering the market. With a quiet recording environment and the correct equipment, good quality work can be done wherever an Internet connection is available.

What advice do you have for voice talents just starting out? Do voice actors need to have an agent or a manager?

Don’t quit your day job! The first few years are tough and a new voice talent will need a way to pay the bills. Survival is at the top of the importance list.

Next, understand that creating voiceovers is a business. It’s fun to get behind the microphone and do an award-winning read for a client. However, voiceover is more than that. As mentioned before, today’s voice talent is also a recording engineer, marketer, bookkeeper, social media wizard, and contact manager. It can be a great deal of work for one person, and more demanding than most home-based businesses if a person isn’t a good organizer.

An agent is not necessary. They provide opportunities to audition, not guarantee work. I’m aware of several voice actors who work without one.  Since an agent receives 15% of the revenue from each gig a talent lands, agents are looking for proven talents who can win auditions with large clients.

Getting representation by an agent or several agents could be a long-term goal. Voice artists don’t need one before starting their voiceover careers.

Can you explain about the company ACX and how authors can get audio books produced?

Sure.  ACX. or Audiobook Creative Exchange is a company where writers can hire narrators or producers to create an audio version of their book. With the various levels of talent and skill available for audiobook production, an author can find someone that meets their budget and creative needs. ACX provides an open exchange to audition talent and contract the conversion of published books to audiobooks, plus handles the contracts, fulfillment (sales and distribution) and accounting for all parties.

The payment options include PFH or Per Finished Hour, Royalty Share, and ACX stipend.

With PFH, the author pays an agreed upon amount to the narrator or producer for each finished hour of audio. A typical finished hour involves 3 to 4-hours to create. This includes pre-reading and prepping the book, recording, editing, Q/A and word by word verification, mastering and delivery.

Royalty share entails a 50/50 split between the rights holder and voiceover producer of 40% of the audiobook sales through Audible, Amazon.com and iTunes.  ACX is compensated 60% of revenues for owning and operating the exchange and providing its services to all parties.

ACX identifies successful books it believes will sell well as audiobook editions; and when they become available to produce, ACX may offer a stipend to the producer for their production time in addition to Royalty Share.

What should the author be thinking about when selecting a voiceover talent for producing audiobooks?

Ideally, the voice talent should be an integral part of the author’s team, like an agent or an editor or publisher.  The better the voice talent “gets” the author, the better job they are going to do transferring that book to audio.  The audiobook is a success if a new listener comes away with a desire to read more of the author or buy another of their audiobooks.

How you sift through auditions, connect with a voice talent and develop that serendipitous relationship is probably a blog by itself.  We can talk about that sometime.

What are some ways to find clients?

Ultimately, you want clients to find you. A well-produced demo, or several, is the first thing to consider after receiving coaching from a reputable voiceover professional. Good demos are essential.  Once you have demos, create a website to pre-qualify clients. A website is a voice talent’s store front and online business card. It should contain easy-access demos, info about the talent, testimonials and a way to connect.

Business cards are a necessity and an easy, immediate way to get information to prospects met in person. Let everybody you know that you’ve gone into the voiceover business. Ask them to keep you in mind should they happen to need a voice talent or come across somebody who does. Referrals from people who know you or have worked with you will help build your client list.

Establish a presence on one or more of the voice marketing websites. Keep in mind these are crowded and typically jobs awarded go to the lowest bidder. It’s a good starting place, though.

Cold call production companies, advertising agencies and studios and ask if they are accepting demo reels.

For audiobooks, ACX is a great place to begin. From there contact audiobook publishers and productions houses.

Do you have any upcoming projects we can look out for?

I’m currently working with a client in India on a project for security and protection of business, government and personal assets.

I’ve been contacted to narrate an educational documentary about the recent de-listing of the Gray Wolf from the endangered species list—it’s in post-production and should be wrapping this summer.

And, for the fourth consecutive year, I’ll be narrating the 2014 KU Alumni Awards show for the University of Kansas Medical Center.

Thanks for interviewing with us, J. Christopher Dunn!

Andrea Hurst has over 25 years experience as a published author, developmental editor for publishers, and skilled literary agent. She works with both major and regional publishing houses, and her client list includes emerging new voices and New York Times best-selling authors. Andrea represents high profile Adult Nonfiction and well crafted fiction. Her clients and their books have appeared on the Oprah Show, Ellen DeGeneres Show, Good Morning America, National Geographic network and in the New York Times.

Cherise Hensley is currently pursuing her M.A. in English at the University of Idaho. She graduated from Whitworth University with a B.A. in English and marketing and also has a copy editing certification from UC San Diego. She has interned with Andrea Hurst Literary Management as well as the Rock & Sling literary journal and has been involved in the production of other print media such as newspapers, magazines, and yearbooks. Cherise is an editor and a writer, and loves discovering new books to distract her from everyday life.

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