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Don’t Give Away Your Expertise for Free

I first realized that I was on the professional narrator path (okay, maybe not on the path, but hiking alongside it, trying not to be lost in the weeds and avoiding the annoying insects that kept trying to distract me from the journey) when people started messaging me and emailing me, asking for advice on how to get started as an audiobook narrator. These were fellow podcasters, friends of family members, even coworkers from the dayjob who figured that since I had a few books out and had set up a recording space in my house, I knew more than they did and would be happy to share.

In the academic and podcasting spheres, there’s a mentality of open access and sharing. Among one’s tribe (or among those who perceive you as a part of their tribe), there’s the general understanding that we help each other out with questions and tips and details if we get stuck somewhere. “How did you teach this particular lesson?” “What’s the best way to post this quiz?” “Where did you get that awesome intro music?” “Do you know how I can contact the person who was a guest on your show a few months ago?” Little questions to connect folks or share a trick that made life a little easier, and we answer them gladly. If we don’t, then we’re perceived as being difficult and elitist, and slapped with the “Does Not Play Well With Others” sign. And when we give away stuff gladly, eschewing any and all attribution with a sunny “I’m happy to help, have a great day,” then people start to take that giving attitude for granted.

It happened at my dayjob. If I didn’t share things, like my very detailed lesson plans and course designs, it earned a frown and a “not everyone finds this easy like you do, you should help” sentiment. And so, I gave in… until, a year before I made my exit, I got an email from a former student asking me for a complete download of a course that I had developed, so that they could develop the same one at their new institution. I was shocked. Amazed at the sheer bravado it took this person to ask for something that had taken me *years* to develop and finesse. Remember, this was supposed to have been the cornerstone of my PhD dissertation, way back when. And they just thought I was going to zip it into a file and say, “Here you go! I’m happy to help,” without a second thought.

I didn’t respond for a week. What was I supposed to say, given that I’d worked for years on this particular project and made it a cornerstone of my professional identity? As I do in many of these situations, I talked with the MG to get his take on the problem.

(I’m exceptionally lucky in that my spouse also happens to be a great business manager and a fantastic cheerleader for my narration and writing careers. He’s also fiercely protective of my time, health, and talents, which means that he’s one of the first to wonder why I would give away so much of my hard-earned knowledge.)

After I convinced the MG that yes, this person had actually reached out with this request, he laughed and shook his head. “Tell them no,” he replied. “You don’t owe anyone your work, and this person knew how much time you spent on that course. They can start from square one, just like you did.”

My first response? “But… that’s not nice!” At the time (and even nowadays), I was overly concerned about not being a team player. I shared notes, outlines, article summaries for exam studies. Even if I didn’t get a tenth of that kindness in return, I thought that if someone asked, I should be nice and share. That’s what nice professionals do, right? They share. Someday, someone would be nice to me in return, right? (Spoilers: Nope.)

“It’s not about being nice,” he said. “It’s about protecting your work and what you’ve accomplished. Don’t just give it away.

And I didn’t. I told the person that I didn’t have access to the work anymore (okay, white lie… I backed up everything and still have syllabi that are older than my children) and couldn’t share anything beyond what the person had found. And, I never heard from them again.

Fast forward to the narrator life, with all of the networking and social media fun it entails. I connect with authors and listeners, and every so often, I get a message from someone who wants to know how to get into audiobook narration. I’ve got a stock reply, with a few recommendations, and I send people off in the direction of the Narration Path. It’s up to them to find their best hiking shoes and start walking.

Some people want more than general directions. They expect a step-by-step list of how I managed to get where I am (never mind that my journey wasn’t very typical and I had some serious “right place, right time” moments) and what they should do next. For those with whom I have a good relationship, it’s not a problem to provide more detail. Heck, did I mention that I LOVE my career? Helping a friend discover something that I love is one thing, but a relative stranger with only a passing social media connection… that’s another story.

I point people to Google, to Facebook groups for narrators and audiobook aficionados, to great Twitter feeds from established coaches. I recommend wonderful coaches and business mentors… and I’ve paid for their services and advice. It would be a disservice to me and to those professionals for me to give a full Cliffs Notes version of the knowledge and information that they’ve given me during their coaching sessions. They’re the experts, and I’m just a very willing and eager student. Did I take notes? Of course I did… but that doesn’t mean that I have to share them with everyone who asks.

If you’re interested in audiobook narration, the best place to begin is a new site by Karen Commins, a well-known narrator, publisher, and business consultant in the audiobook world. Narrator’s Roadmap is a site dedicated to providing a wealth of information about audiobook narration and voiceover to individuals who want to explore this career. If you want to know more, start with Karen’s site.

Another great resource is any number of audiobook workshops and seminars hosted throughout the country as well as online. Organizations like the Audiobook Publisher’s Association (APA) and Voice Over Xtra host webinars for narrators at all levels throughout the year. Many established coaches team up to promote workshops across the country, and one might be planned near to your hometown or favorite vacation spot. Johnny Heller’s workshops are some of my favorites; not only does he bring in other coaches and established narrators to share their expertise, but he’s got a great sense of humor and a genuine love of the craft. His site has more information about upcoming workshops and events, including the legendary Splendiferous Workshop that happens on APAC Eve.

These days, I’m on the path of the professional narrator, walking at a steady pace and seeking out advice from coaches and mentors. When I get stuck, I do my research and consult my notes. Part of being a professional is engaging in continuing education opportunities – workshops, coaching sessions, and networking with mentors. It means using money earned from completed projects to pay for those education opportunities, and planning for those workshops or seminars weeks or months in advance. But… I can say that the money that I’ve invested in conferences, workshops, and coaching has paid off, and my performance has improved. I’m booking projects with new authors and earning complimentary reviews on audiobooks. That success brings in money, a portion of which gets invested in… you guessed it, continuing education.

Those professionals don’t give away their hard-earned knowledge for free, and they shouldn’t. Similarly, I’m learning that what I’ve learned from them and on my own is valuable, and I don’t have any obligation to put that out for free, either. Recommendations and directions? Happy to give them, and I hope that they provide just as much guidance for other narrators as they have for me.

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