Has the Audiobook industry in the UK become obsessed with keeping down costs? Judging by the numerous discussions on various Facebook Narrator and VO groups, the answer is ‘yes’.
Despite being told that Audiobooks are the darling of the publishing industry – the largest growth area in publishing for decades, it seems that rates for all the creatives involved in audiobook production are not showing any improvement. Are audiobook publishers asking studios to compete on price rather than on quality? If profits are so high, why are the rates for bread and butter audiobook narrators, not to mention freelance producers, audio proofers, editors and audio engineers in the UK, sinking so low?
We all know that fewer audiobooks are published in the UK than in the US. There is less demand for audio, but even here, there is a slow realisation that audiobooks (and podcasts) are an invaluable way for people to absorb books. As sales rise, surely, we, the creative workers, should be feeling more of this audiobook related golden-glow? UK sales are a long way off the figures in the US, but UK studios seem to keep pretty busy, but rates for narrators in the UK appear to be static – I am regularly turning down work that is offering the same rate (or in some cases rather less) than I was being paid four years ago.
Audiobook production in the US effectively operates within an agreement by the American Entertainment Unions, The Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, (SAG – AFTRA) which represents around 160,000 film and television actors, journalists, radio personalities, voice actors, and other media professionals worldwide. SAG – AFTRA rates for audiobook narration are significantly higher than UK rates, even when the exchange rate is unfavourable. UK competition law means that the British Actors’ Union, Equity is not allowed to set a minimum rate for Audiobook narration – nor even to set a recommended rate as a guideline, so narrators are left with the choice of rejecting job offers in the hope that publishers will come back with a higher rate – or of accepting lowball rates that undervalue our contribution, and the amount of work involved in narration.
Thankfully there are some UK production houses and publishers who recognise our value and who are more generous, and naturally, some narrators are able to command a higher rate than others. Well-known actors and recognisable voices may be paid significantly higher rates than those offered to an inexperienced narrator, we all understand that. But most audiobooks are not voiced by stars or celebrities, but by jobbing actors and narrators who don’t command high fees. Many of us, as well as many producers, proofers, audio engineers and editors – not to mention authors, who, unless they’re A-listers, are also poorly compensated for their work, are deeply concerned that the trend is heading in the wrong direction. And with the growth of AI and the disbanding of copyright legislation by the current UK government, the situation could become more perilous.
British producers and production houses are competing against each other for titles – and cost and rates seem to be what they are using as a bargaining chip. As Neil Gardner, the Managing Director of renowned Audiobook production house Ladbroke Audio Ltd wrote in a recent article on LinkedIn . . .
“We are all fighting for the titles, and we all use the un-British topic of fees as one way to differentiate ourselves. Whilst quality of end product is important, money is always a key issue.”Neil Gardner – Managing Director – Ladbroke Audio Ltd.
Studios are competing for titles in the US too of course. but I wonder whether the fact that there is a broad agreement regarding the minimum rate, means that producers in the US are using some different bargaining chips when they’re negotiating – perhaps they highlight their production values, the talent and range of their narrators, the technical skills of their proofers and editors, their turnaround time, their collective skills – or perhaps they shave costs in other areas. In the US, remote recording is totally acceptable, and I understand why. There are just not enough studios available to meet demand. Remote recording narrators working with US publishers (including many UK based narrators who regularly record for US publishers and production houses) have to compete on quality rather than on cost, so we invest an enormous amount to ensure that we can deliver audio with the highest possible production values.
Despite Covid bringing about some changes in the UK, remote recording is still not universally accepted, and is often blamed for bringing down rates and reducing quality. Actually neither is truel Remote narration is normally paid at a higher rate that studio recording, and as I said earlier, quality both technical and artistic, is paramount.
When winning an Audiobook title boils down to how far you’re prepared to discount, how low you’re prepared to go, then everyone loses out – the producers, the narrators, the engineers and editors … and more than anyone else, the listener – because when corners are cut, quality suffers.
It seems that view is widely shared. Richard Woodhouse of Electric Breeze Audio Productions commented on Neil’s original article:
“I struggle to see the ‘Boom’ that everybody speaks and writes of, when we are indeed almost controlled in what we can offer for bulk production here in the UK. I’ve been recently informed by one potential client that my rates could be bettered elsewhere. Therefore to be competitive I have to drive my rates down. This goes against all good business practice in my view and in the long run will lower standards and quality expectations across the industry.”Richard Woodhouse – Electric Breeze Audio Productions Ltd.
I know that payment is one of the many topics that The Audiobook Creators Alliance is examining – and that can’t happen quickly enough. Judging by a recent thread on a Facebook Forum for professional narrators, some publishers are trawling for new narrators and are not only offering lower rates, but are asking them to do more for their money on top of the narration, so intervention and some kind of consensus can’t come soon enough.
It is an overcrowded profession – it has always been – there is a seemingly endless flow of new readers wanting to join what is seen as a ‘boom’ industry, and they’re so keen, they’re prepared to work for very little or even potentially for nothing at all. There are lots of would-be narrators joining ACX in the UK (largely encouraged by the huge success of ACX in the US) who are prepared to record on a Royalty Share deal, for which they’re paid only when a book sells. RS deals can make savvy narrators and authors a good deal of money as witnessed by the sales figures published regularly by successful US narrators. However, sales are significantly lower in the UK – and we’re traditionally not nearly as good at marketing ourselves and our products as our US counterparts. When an RS Audiobook isn’t well marketed, or is just not very good, then the narrator’s 20% share of sales can struggle to get above double figures. Against that background, a rate of £60 or £70 per finished hour sound attractive to someone who is dipping their toe into the water, who is desperate to build a portfolio and to gain experience. Many will jump at the chance of recording an audiobook for a mainstream publisher.
At the end of the day – I can’t tell anyone to turn down work. It is up to the individual to decide on what fees they find acceptable. All I will say is that many colleagues who have held out and rejected low rates were subsequently offered a higher rate.
Remember the amount of work involved – audiobook narration is never going to be easy money, so know your worth, and your value too. And quote accordingly.