Audiobook production 1

If you’re under the impression that Audiobooks are created for people with a visual impairment, think again! Audiobooks are the fastest growing segment of the digital publishing industry with the United States being the biggest marketplace with sales of over $2.5 billion dollars. Michelle Cobb of the Audiobook Publishers Association (APA) said that, “26% of the US population had listened to an audiobook in the last 12 months with an estimated 79,000 new audiobooks, published in the last 12 months, a 29% increase from 2016″. Major publishers in the US confirm that the only way that their digital units have consistently been in profit, is due primarily to audiobooks as e-book sales decline. Currently in the UK only 12% of the population listen to audiobooks.

Audiobooks – producton and narration is a huge topic … a genre of voice work that I spend most of my time working in and which I am passionate about. Because of the amount of information that I want to share, I have split this article into two parts. Firstly … lets find out more about Audiobook Production. . . 

Audiobooks are a growth industry; there is no doubt about it. Thanks to the expansion of Audible and the development of portable audio platforms, thousands of audiobook titles are published every year. Google are getting in on the act and so is Apple – so the growth can only continue and it seems that the sky is the limit in terms of the number of audiobooks produced and sold every year. And it is not just new titles.

There are Audiobook producers, in the US particularly, who specialise in producing and publishing recordings of ‘out of copyright’ material – this is fantastic news for narrators because it means that those of us who are unlikely to be cast by a major production house to re-think an Austen, or a Dickens, a Mark Twain or F Scott Fitzgerald can step up to the mic and add their recordings to the archive. The classics are widely available and there are often multiple recordings of same book. 

Check out ‘Pride and Prejudice’ by Jane Austen for example. There are 48 audiobook versions of the actual novel in English and several other languages, plus various multi voice and full cast versions. There are also over a hundred ‘spin offs’ – even a zombie version (Is nothing sacred?)! Narrators range from famous Brits (including Juliet Stevenson, Joanna Lumley, Jenny Agutter and Rosumund Pike) through famous Americans (Angela Lansbury in a very strange heavily edited version – and Katherine Kelgren) who both give ‘Pride and Prejudice’ a ‘British’ accent; and the not so famous Americans, (who are probably best left nameless) who deliver a P and P set somewhere in Manhattan! In addition, there are numerous reads of the same novel by excellent professional narrators whose names are familiar to those of us who are also narrators, but who may not be so well known outside the industry – Shiromi Arseno, Alison Larkin, Rosalyn Landor and Anne Flosnik and many many more. And I am sure that tucked away in that list, particularly in the ‘P and P’ spin offs (or ‘Variations’ as Audible likes to call them) alongside many by respected professionals like Pearl Hewitt, Nancy Peterson, Brigid Lohry and Elizabeth Klett, I am sure that there are several recorded by complete amateurs in their back bedrooms. 

Audible’s aim is that every book that is published in print (or as an e-book) should also be available in audiobook form, preferably published at the same time as the print and e-book versions, and there is even talk about creating titles that are only available in audio format. This all sounds like great news for both producers and audiobook narrators as if all goes according to plan there will be an almost endless supply of books – all needing readers to read them and publishers to publish them. However, there are many hundreds of books by well known and established authors which haven’t been created as audiobooks and are never likely to make it to audio; or which have audiobook versions available only in the US – or only in the UK – and I have no doubt that many publishers have a ‘back catalogue’ of titles that will never make it into the studio, sometimes because the book just doesn’t lend itself to audio and sometimes because the likely sales just don’t merit the expense. 

I am by no means an expert in acquisitions and rights, but it appears that the reason that not all books make it to audio is largely down to cost. Audiobooks are expensive to produce and publishers, even if they hold the audio rights, don’t necessarily deem it worthwhile to bring a book to audio unless the sales are likely to justify the expense. So if a book is likely to be a best seller then a simultaneous audio and print release is likely. If a book sells well, the audiobook may follow some time after the initial print publication. If it doesn’t sell so well, then even though the publisher holds the audio rights, it may never actually go into production.

How an audiobook is created

Firstly, let me just say that Audiobook production in the UK follows rather a different route from the way things are done in the US.

In the UK many audiobooks are still cast and produced in the traditional way: a casting director and/or producer contacts a voice agent and negotiates the deal choosing from one or more of the actors or narrators represented by that particular agent. The narrator may be asked to do a cold (sight reading) read of a section of the MS, or they may be cast on the strength of their previous work, and the recording is almost always done in a professional studio – the majority of which are in London. There are currently only one or two audiobook producers in the UK who are happy to work with a self-recording narrator from their personal studio, though some are experimenting with remote recording using ipDTL or a similar system, so that the producer, director or engineer actually presses all the buttons and makes the recording – the only difference being that the narrator is working in a remote studio, which may be their personal one or a pro studio near to their own home. But as I say, this is a rarity.

In audiobooks, as in so many other areas of VO work, the celebrity and recognisable voice (often belonging to a well known actor) rules. It comes down to the public preferring generally to buy a book read by a voice they are familiar with … indeed research indicates that audiobooks are generally chosen because of the narrator rather than the author – and this applies on both sides of the Atlantic. 

Of course there are USA produced Audiobooks that are also cast in the traditional way where a represented narrator is cast via their agent. There are also some American publishers and producers whose requirement is for a narrator to record in pro studios – but, no doubt in some part due to the sheer size of the country – and the fact that flying in a narrator from one side of the country to the other is not only time consuming, but costly, there are many more audiobooks being recorded remotely in personal studios. APA estimates that 80% of USA based narrators now work regularly, though not necessarily exclusively, from their own studios. 

The Audies which are the Audiobook equivalent of the Oscars and are managed by the Audiobook industry’s ‘Audiofile Magazine’, feature many nominees and winning books which have been created by narrators recording remotely from their personal studios and Audible’s ‘Hall of Fame’ includes at least two ‘self-producing’ narrators, Simon Vance and Andi Arndt who record a large part of their considerable output in their personal studios. I know one very highly respected US narrator,Sean Pratt, who has recorded over 950 audiobooks to date, not one recorded in a professional studio.

So, there is a growing band of respected professional narrators on both sides of the Atlantic who are neither well-known actors or celebrities but who are acknowledged and recognised as narrators of skill and quality. US Audiobook Publishers and Producers (Bee Audio; Tantor; Brilliance; Deyan Audio, Findaway; and many more including many niche producers such as Christian Audio) use award winning voices who are almost totally unknown outside the industry and who regularly self-record in their personal studios. The majority of Audibooks produced in the US come under SAG/AFTRA Union agreements, and on top of fees, narrators receive a contribution to their pension and health insurance. Sadly, there is no Union agreement for audiobook narration in the UK, and narrators working for British production houses and publishers are paid around a third of the amount they earn when working for a US producer.

Remote recording is slowly beginning to happen in the UK (although much of this work is being done by British narrators recording here in the UK for US publishers and production houses). There is a considerable resistance, both from established UK narrators who have long enjoyed the luxury of working with a director and engineer on the other side of the glass and who are not keen to embrace new technology or learn new skills and also from many British Audiobook publishers and producers who remain unconvinced that good quality audio and high production values can be achieved by narrators working remotely from their own studios. 

I firmly believe that the traditional model will ultimately have to change – for the simple reason that there is just not the studio capacity to fulfill the demand for audiobooks. Not only is space limited, but the cost of running a professional studio is high, not only in terms of staff, but also because because of business rates and rent, especially in London. As is evidenced by the number of publishers now bringing audiobook production in house, there is a sustained effort to cut production costs. 

The Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX)

Since 2011 in the US, since 2014 in the UK, and since the beginning of 2017 in Canada and Ireland, there has been an alternative way for audiobooks to come to market. ACX – The Audiobook Creation Exchange which is an Audible company, is a digital platform which brings together authors or rights holders and narrators in order to create new audiobooks. In theory this means that every author, who is presumed to be the rights holder unless their publisher has picked up the audio rights, has the opportunity to create an audiobook by directly connecting with a narrator who produces the audiobook on their behalf.

 The basic idea behind ACX, which is an Audible company, is that authors (many of them self-published authors) post their books on ACX and invite auditions from narrators who not only narrate, but also produce the audiobook – so are responsible for proofing, editing and mastering as well as narrating. Some books are posted with a PFH rate ranging from $50 to $400 and in these cases, the author to pay the narrator as soon when the book is completed and ready for sale. Unlike a recording for a production house or production house, the narrator is not only researching and recording the book but on ACX is also doing the full production, so must be able to proof-listen, correct, edit and master the audio … though in reality most professional narrators hire prooofers and editors and concentrate on the narration. PFH payments are always a complete buy out no matter how many copies the book sells. 

If a book is published with a PFH deal, Audible keeps 60% of the money raised from sales of that book and the author gets 40%. So the cost to an author can be considerable. The average audiobook runs for 10 hours, even on a PFH rate in the middle of the $50 to $400 range, it will still cost around $2,500 to bring a book to audio. No wonder the majority of authors looking for narrators offer Royalty Share, especially here in the UK where the whole thing is comparatively new. 

Looking on the ACX UK site as I write this, if I search for titles for female narrators there are 1048 available titles. If I narrow this down to British accented female narrators the number drops to 76. If I search for available titles for British female at a PFH rate of between $200 and $400 and the number drops to just one – and this is a title which is actually no longer available! So … hardly a game changer at the moment!

The other option on ACX is Royalty Share … and examining the numbers above, this is obviously and unsurprisingly the favourite with authors for whom, with this option, there is no cost up front. However, Audible keeps 60% of the money raised from sales, so the author offering a RS deal has to split his or her 40% with the narrator, so each gets just 20% of money raised from sales – and only for the first seven years, any sales after that point attract no payment to either the author or narrator. You only have to break down these figures to realise how many hundreds of copies a book needs to sell to pay a decent return for the author or narrator, especially if they have hired print or audio proofers, and editors – for both audio and print.

I do think that ACX has a valuable role – it allows new authors and new narrators to gain experience and exposure, and certainly in the US, there are some well established mainstream and published authors who like the direct access to narrators that they gain from using this platform. Before ACX was available in the UK, I worked with several US producers on ACX titles, it was a way for me of getting my tonsils back to work in long form narration – and as way of building a portfolio of work having been away from narration for a number of years. Aside from the short story which I read in Clive Barker’s Books of Blood Volume 4 which was a PFH read, the others were Royalty Share; only one of which sold in any number. 

I tried again when ACX came to the UK and ended up seriously out of pocket as I made the decision to hire a professional proofer. And though ACX is a good way for new narrators to build a body of work, and a great way for self published narrators to bring their books to a wider audience, I actually haven’t yet found a way to make it work for me. I know there are narrators who are more successful, and in the US, ACX is an invaluable source of income for many narrators and many make a very good living from ACX narrations. 

The quality of audio books on ACX is very variable, both in terms of writing and production standards, and I am sure that this variable quality is one of the reasons that so many involved in audiobook recording and production have such a prejudice against remote recording. They just can’t believe that it is possible to achieve high quality audio with high production standards from a personal studio. A view that is, I have to say, a constant source of irritation to the many UK based narrators who successfully and regularly record remotely from their personal studios and who are more than capable of delivering reads which meet the production values and technical requirements of the most demanding of production houses in the US. 

Next time … I’ll be looking at audiobooks from the narrators point of view. See you soon.