So my friend Trevor Algatt — one of the creators/hosts of the awesome Inside Acting podcast which every actor and their mom should be listening to — asked me to share some tips for folks since I’ve been having what could be seen as some success with the audiobook narration portion of my career. After a time of pondering, I decided to put it into a post here for all to share in and hopefully make me look wiser than I actually am.
I’ve been working audiobooks for a little over two years now. (Take a look at my body of work to date). With the exception of a couple of short stories, they’ve all been nonfiction titles, so everything I say here will be through that lens.
All of my audiobook work has come from auditioning on ACX. This is a free service provided by the good folks at Audible, the world’s largest audiobook retailer/producer. They are the 800-lb gorilla because A) they’re owned by Amazon, and 2) they are the exclusive provider of audiobooks for iTunes. When you buy an audiobook in the iTunes Store, you’re getting it from Audible.
ACX makes it easy for publishers and authors (called “rights holders” by ACX) to connect directly with narrators & producers (that’s myself and a lot of other folks) to create audiobook versions of their works. If you’ve got a computer, a microphone and a quiet place to record (which, if you already do other VO work, you probably have), you’re set.
First, the bad
- Don’t expect a great return on investment for a while. Many of the titles* available on ACX are offered on a “Royalty Share”, which means that no one makes money unless the audiobook sells. And even then, the most you’ll make at the start is 25% of the retail price. That percentage will increase as the book sells more copies, since Audible reduces its take the higher it sells but in this day and age most of these books probably won’t sell that well. However, if you build up a large portfolio of work, that can help in the long run with creating an influx of money.
- UPDATE 2-27-2014: I got word from ACX this morning that for new projects booked after March 12, 2014, the Royalty Share rates are being reduced, so a narrator’s share starts at 20%. Current projects and books on sale will still be at 25%.
- There are a lot of books available to audition for on ACX. As of this writing, a little over 3700 titles, in fact. That said, there are a lot of books whose quality has not been, shall we say, controlled. ACX doesn’t really police this stuff per se and some self-published authors have decided to put their entire catalog of books up at once, resulting in a flood of well-intentioned but poorly written books. (Those of you reading this who are aspiring book editors, there’s a great opportunity here, I think.) So be prepared to do some digging.
- A brief corollary to this: There is quite a bit of erotica, gay erotica, paranormal erotica and even gay paranormal erotica (true story) available to audition. Not my cup of tea, since it’s fiction, but I know some folks who have done quite well with those types of books, so no harm in trying. If you land the gig, you always have the option to release it under a nom de la voix**, as I call it.
- Unless you have the resources to hire a professional audio editor*** (or just know one who owes you some major favors), expect to do the recording and editing yourself. While editing for audiobooks is not complex, especially if you’re already great on the mic, it is tedious and very time-consuming. My first book “American Drama in the Age of Film” has a running time of just under nine hours, but took me nearly three months to complete since I was still figuring out my workflow… along with working full-time, doing other projects, being active at the theatre, etc. Ideally, you would be spending about 3 hours of editing time to get one finished hour of audio (a ratio of 3:1). My first book was at about 8:1, probably closer to 9:1. That’s a lot of time… and this is coming from a guy who actually has a bit of experience as a theatrical sound designer! I got so stressed from the experience I actually took a summer break from that so I could focus on other things. In that time, I picked up some other techniques (which I’ll share later) that shaved that down and now, nine more books later, I’m at around 3.5-4:1. So it could take a long time with your first book, but again, if you’ve already got good mic technique you’ll be fine. I don’t suck at it, but I pause a lot between sentences and things, so I spend a lot of time taking out those gaps.
Now, the good
- This is a great (and free) way to gain experience with almost zero cost but for your time. If you don’t have any voiceover experience, I’d recommend getting into a class. I personally learned from the folks at VO2GoGo.com, back when it was just David H. Lawrence XVII teaching. (Sidebar: Trevor is an instructor with VO2GoGo as well and, according to my spies, he’s terrific.)
- You can actually make out in a good way. In addition to the Royalty-Share as well as a flat, per-finished-hour rate, ACX also has what are known as “Stipend” projects. These are really great projects to great, because… well, I’ll just let ACX explain it themselves.
- Beside experience in narrating and editing, it can be a terrific learning experience in general. In doing nonfiction books almost exclusively, I’ve learned something new from every title I’ve worked on. Don’t get me wrong, I want the money, too… but I don’t feel as bad if it’s not rolling in the way I hoped because I’ve still gained.
- Did I mention that signing up and auditioning for projects on ACX was free? If not, guess what? It’s totally free!
- In you’re worried about being union or non-union, stop. ACX has a special contract with SAG-AFTRA so everyone can compete for the same projects with no hassle. Read the details of that sweetheart deal!
Okay, okay. I’ve made you wait/scroll through all this long enough. Here are what I hope are some good tips to get you going:
- If you don’t have it already, get Audacity for recording/editing. It’s free and will serve you better than some other platforms for this work (*cough* GarageBand *cough*). That said, if you have a professional audio editing suite that you’ve used and prefer, I won’t stop you. In addition to Audacity, you’ll want to download Levelator. Levelator will help on the back end once all the recording and editing is done. If you don’t know how to use these, I’d be happy to talk you off the ledge– er, help you get all that up and going for yourself or you can take a class with VO2GoGo. They’re actually covering audiobook technique in depth in their March and April classes, according to their class schedule.
- If you’re just starting out, look for projects with a short running time. When searching for projects to audition for, there are a number of filters you can use to whittle down your search. There’s one called “Projected Length” which will let you sort by ACX’s estimation of the running time. (And let me tell you, they’re frighteningly good at estimating.) At this writing, there are over 1000 titles with an estimated time of 3 hours or less. And if you sort by gender or genre, that list shrinks even further. So play with that.
- Only audition for titles that seem interesting to you. I try to apply this to my on-camera work as well, as we all should as actors/small business owners. If a project seems interesting to you, you’re more likely to be engaged in it and that will come across on the mic when you’re auditioning and (hopefully) producing the final product. It’s worked out pretty well for me.
- Don’t expect to hear right away from folks. Most are pretty good about casting a narrator and getting moving straight away, but I still have books I auditioned for back in 2011 that haven’t been cast yet. So there’s that.
- Celebrate the little things. If you book a project, congratulations! Now get to work! Did you finish the work? Yay! Did the rights holder approve your work? Woo-hoo! Did ACX finally up tell you it’s for sale? Strip naked and shout it from the rooftops!!****
So I hoped that helped give you a realistic picture of what awaits you. If any of that scared you, then follow the supposed rules of life and “do what scares you”. Unlike a lot of things for actors, it will only cost you some of your time and attention.
* By “many”, I mean about 3600 of the current 3700+ total are Royalty Share deals.
** Literally, “Name of the voice” (A pseudonym)
*** By the way, I’m not opposed to being hired to edit your audiobook work for you. I’m very reasonable…
**** Please don’t strip naked. Naked rooftop shouting can get you marked as a public menace and possible suicide risk… (What? I heard it from some guy I know.)