Like many indie authors grateful for new outlets for their work, I was drawn last year to the world of audiobook production. This was thanks in large part to the recommendation of author friend Ian Thomas Healy, who’d had a positive experience adapting his work for audio. His personal history with it, combined with the rise in audiobook popularity, led me to follow Healy’s example and create an audiobook at ACX, Amazon’s audiobook production platform.
When I entered into that first relationship with an audiobook narrator/producer, I knew absolutely nothing about how an audiobook was made (beyond the obvious “skilled voice actor records a reading of a book”). This meant I also had no idea how much there was to know. My “extensive” research involved learning the difference between the PFH (per finished hour) and RS (royalty share) payment systems offered on ACX and browsing voice samples in ACX’s pool of available narrators.
What I learned as part of the production process was that the more an author knows going in, the less potential there is for strain in the author/producer relationship. As uninformed as I may have been, and as lucky as I was to find a narrator who was easy and fun to work with, one element impossible to be blind to was the explosive potential of this recipe: writer/artist protective of original work and its intent + narrator/artist protective of professional ability to deliver a valid interpretation of the original work.
And that doesn’t even graze the issue of fair payment. What I didn’t learn until recently was that the $100-$200/PFH I had seen offered by many narrators at ACX and therefore thought was reasonable compensation is, according to seasoned professionals who frequently discuss pay issues in a Facebook group for audiobook narrators, woefully inadequate. Had I done more research in my earlier audiobook days, I’d have learned that other production companies, such as ListenUp Audiobooks, charge $450 per finished hour. This in turn would have helped me not balk at the $250/PFH minimum requested by many ACX producers in the Facebook group. (The group’s regular users often direct new narrators to audiobook narrator Julia Sage’s website, which hosts a helpful cost calculator as well as a comprehensive explanation of the differences between Per Finished Hour, Royalty Share, and Hybrid agreements. Highly recommended for authors considering adaptation.)
Pay issues can be resolved fairly easily, but artistic conflicts can be trickier. How much input should an author have when it comes to the narrator’s interpretation? When is feedback helpful, and when is it frustrating?
For answers to these and other questions, I reached out to someone who’s not only experienced in the field of audiobook production, but who has also interviewed countless other narrators, and a few authors, about their own experiences with audiobook production: Rich Miller (@RichMillerVO), stage and screen actor, audiobook narrator, and creator and host of The Audiobook Speakeasy podcast.
Rich has been a storyteller since he was a kid. When he was around 10, he started reading to his family after dinner (his favorites were The Lemonade Trick and The Big Joke Game, by Scott Corbett). As an adult, Rich started acting in musicals and plays, and from there went into theatrical sound design and voiceover work. For the past five years, Rich as been focusing on telling stories through audiobooks. When he’s not in the recording booth, he’s dodging Tucson drivers on his bicycle or creating a new cocktail.
KRISTEN TSETSI: What awkward moment or mistake, whether mechanical or self-inflicted or in an exchange with an author, did you experience as an audiobook narrator that you don’t believe you’ll ever forget?
RICH MILLER: I think the worst mistake I’ve made is agreeing to narrate a book that was primarily made up of text that was handwritten by dozens of people, often poorly photocopied. It was grueling work, more stopping-and-starting than any other book I’ve narrated. It reinforced something that I knew was true, but that’s easy to forget or minimize when you’re working as an entrepreneur: it’s okay to turn down work when there’s a good reason to do so.
You’re both a stage-and-screen actor and a book narrator. Does narrating take a special skill, or could most actors also be audiobook narrators?
I’d actually answer “yes” to both questions.
Stage actors who cross over into film learn that the mediums are very different, so they learn how to use the skills they already have in a different way. So it is with audiobooks: having a background in any form of acting gives you a leg up, you just have to adapt the tools you already have for use in a different medium.
When going from stage to audiobooks, an actor needs to learn how to be “small”: you have to be able to portray the same level of intensity as you might do on stage moving around expressively and shouting, but without moving your mouth away from the mic too much and without actually shouting. This is similar to going from stage to film, with the added constraint of knowing that you can’t rely on facial expressions to convey anything to your audience: they may help you deliver lines believably, but alone they don’t add to the listener’s experience.
With fiction, there’s usually also the need for the ability to portray a character who is not the same gender as the narrator without taking the listener out of the story. There are a few narrators who can do this so well that it’s easy to believe that the audiobook is actually a full-cast production, but most listeners are fine as long as the characters are clearly differentiated without the narrator resorting to methods that make it obvious they’re faking something (e.g., a male narrator using a falsetto for all female characters). Subtlety is generally a good thing.
What made you decide to dedicate a podcast to audiobook narration?
I’d been narrating for a couple of years, and in that time I’d been listening to more and more podcasts about a variety of topics. I thought, “There’s got to be some podcasts out there about audiobooks,” so I searched and found some.
The problem was that most of the ones I found catered to listeners, and while occasional comments about why the narration in a particular audiobook did or didn’t work were interesting, I found myself wanting more content that would be helpful to narrators: input from coaches, engineers, casting directors at publishing companies, etc.
I met Scott Brick at the Audiobook Publishers Association Conference in 2017 and mentioned my idea to him, and he was kind enough to share some ideas with me based on the many interviews he’d participated in. During that same conference, I enjoyed sharing a few drinks with many friends in the industry, and since I’d become somewhat of an amateur mixologist over the past few years, framing the podcast as a friendly chat about audiobooks over drinks seemed like a natural fit. Thus, the Audiobook Speakeasy was born.
Your first episode, an interview with Sean Allen Pratt, includes a discussion about the three questions to ask yourself before agreeing to a contract: is the pay satisfactory, what will it do for your career, and will you have fun? How do you know whether you’ll have fun? That is, how much of the book do you typically read before deciding whether it will be fun, and what else helps you decide?
I think Sean’s advice is great. After doing this for awhile, I have found that I don’t actually think of those questions one at a time anymore, but each one of them absolutely plays a part in my overall decision-making process. In terms of fun, I feel like I usually get a good sense of the tone of a book within a few pages. If that tone doesn’t excite me in any way, I’m definitely focusing more on the other aspects — pay and career — when deciding whether to pursue a project.
In episode 17 of the Audiobook Speakeasy, Audiobookworm creator Jess Herring says in a conversation about sound quality of audiobook recordings, “Some authors want to record their own books.” In response, you almost inaudibly murmur in the negative. She goes on, “…which is a bold choice…”
Though it could easily be argued that you and Herring are right to warn authors not to read their own material unless they have an acting background (whether stage or straight voice), it could also be argued that there is legitimate concern on the author’s part that the narrator won’t correctly deliver a certain line of dialogue or the personality of a character. All writing is of course open to personal interpretation, but a silent reading allows for any number of interpretations; a voice reading, on the other hand, determines a single interpretation for all listeners.
What would you say about this to an author considering audiobook production for the first time and uncertain about whether to hire a narrator?
I think it’s perfectly reasonable for an author to consider narrating their own work. The problem is that most authors are not familiar with all of the elements that go into audiobook production.
In addition to the performance aspect, there’s understanding how to properly set up and treat a recording space; mic choice; mic technique; and recording software proficiency, to name a few.
There are certainly ways to deal with a lack of knowledge in those areas, such as hiring a director and an engineer and booking time in a professional studio, but many authors are not thinking along those lines, they’re thinking about self-producing. So whenever I hear that an author wants to narrate their own work, I try to caution them about everything they need to know before going that route.
I think that it’s also perfectly reasonable for an author, especially one who has never had an audiobook produced before, to have concerns about how a narrator is going to interpret their text. But a well-selected audition piece and open communication with the selected narrator should allay any fears. It’s also important to remember that while an author knows the characters that they created, it’s possible to get too close to one’s own work: a character that is portrayed differently than how you hear them in your head may resonate more with the audience.
And there, I think, is where the author/producer relationship has potential to get delicate. Actor and audiobook narrator Barbara Rosenblat says in episode 28 of your podcast, of her first time narrating an audiobook, “I thought, ‘That was the most incredible piece of work I’ve ever done. I mean, the control of being able to create all your own characters in this setting.’ And I thought, ‘Oh my god, this is brilliant!’”
An author might be of the mind that s/he is the creator of the characters and may be uncomfortable with someone else re-creating them, or re-envisioning them. Actors are used to taking direction when performing on stage or set, but novels don’t have directors—only their authors. Is feedback/guidance from authors received as it might be from a play or film director? That is, do you welcome their input or their suggestions about delivery, or are they generally not trusted because they’re writers and not actors (or not otherwise involved in the acting world)? Is there a commonly understood “just right” amount of input?
Unfortunately, there is no “just right” amount of input. I know narrators who are very explicit with rights holders when starting on a project, and go so far as to send a detailed description of how they’re going to work, including a statement about the fact that they will accept no creative or directorial change requests once the first fifteen minutes have been approved. In a recent podcast episode, I had a chat with an author/narrator pair who knew each other prior to audiobook production, and it was clear that the author gave a great deal of direction during the process. So it really depends on the people involved.
I think the important point is that the author is not the director: either the book is being recorded in a studio with a director and an engineer and a narrator, as often happens at the major publishing houses, or the book is being recorded by a single person who is self-directing (with an occasional outlier, e.g., an engineer is hired but no director), but in neither case is the author the director. That doesn’t mean that an author’s input can never be considered; it simply means that how much input will be welcome should be determined by the parties involved before embarking on the journey.
What list of helpful notes should any author provide after finding a narrator/producer but before the recording begins?
I think the most important things that should be communicated are whatever the author is most concerned about. This will vary from author to author, but generally speaking I think characterizations are most important: his words are bold, but are they coming from a place of power or insecurity? Her words are whiny, but is she simply spoiled or is she being manipulative? A lot of times, the answers to questions like that are fairly clear from the text; sometimes they’re not.
Pronunciations are also important: it’s up to the narrator to pronounce actual names (e.g., names of places that exist) correctly; but if your novel has fictional place names where the pronunciation can’t be researched, if you care about how it’s pronounced, make it clear.
If every author would provide this type of information up front, I think 90% of the conflicts that arise during self-directed audiobook production would disappear.
What kind of author is a horror to work with, and what kind of author is a joy to work with?
I think the most difficult interactions are with authors who want to micro-manage a project: requesting a pause be lengthened by a half-second, giving a line-reading on a character’s line of dialogue (or 100 lines of dialogue!), etc.
Again, most of those things can be avoided with a well-selected audition piece, good feedback on the audition and/or an initial submission (e.g., the first fifteen minutes through ACX), and a list of concerns before production begins.
The authors that I love working with are the ones who understand the creative and interpretive nature of the work, and can share a thought like, “That’s not at all how I heard that in my head, but that’s fine, what you did works great!”
There’s a recurring conversation on an audiobook producers’ Facebook page that centers on producer pay. Last year, when I was looking for a producer for my first audiobook, I would often see “Available for royalty share (no money paid up front, and author and producer split profits 50/50) or $100-$200 PFH (per finished hour).”
But what’s being said in the Facebook group is that no producer should accept less than $250 PFH (nor should they enter into a royalty share with any author who isn’t a sure-thing big seller) unless there’s a hybrid royalty share + PFH agreement.
This is a multiple-part question:
- What is the minimum an author should expect to pay for a narrator/producer, and why?
- When will an author know the producer is clearly overcharging?
- What is expected of an author who does manage to secure a royalty share agreement with a producer, and what is expected of the producer?
- When would you say to an author, “You’re not a likely candidate for a royalty share agreement”?
Recurring conversation is right! Hardly a day goes by when I don’t see a new conversation about rates, either because of an initial question or as a tangent to some other topic.
It’s a bit of a dicey subject, because colluding with others to set a minimum rate would be price-fixing, which is illegal. So I want to make it clear that I am not trying to organize any sort of movement, or get any group of people to agree to a rate structure. But I can explain why the $250PFH number comes up so often.
Many of us look to SAG-AFTRA, the union that covers this type of work, as a good guide when deciding on a rate to charge. The union has negotiated minimum rates for audiobook narration with all of the major publishing companies; these vary from company to company, but I believe they range from somewhere around $175PFH to somewhere just north of $250PFH.
This rate is for narration only; post-production is not included. When a narrator produces an audiobook on their own, post-production IS included, and most editors charge between $60PFH and $100PFH. So the argument is that, in order to net a rate that would fall within union guidelines for reasonable pay for this type of work, a rate of $250PFH is the lowest a narrator should charge for full production.
One thing that’s important for authors to understand is the amount of time and/or money that goes into audiobook production. It’s easy for someone unfamiliar with the process to think, “Why should I pay someone more than $100 an hour to talk into a microphone?” But if someone is handling all aspects of the production, they will likely be putting in 4 to 6 hours of work for every finished hour of audio (probably more if they’re new to the work), bringing the rate down to just north of minimum wage. And if they’re outsourcing post-production (always a better choice), they’ll be cutting the time probably in half, but they’ll also be cutting the revenue: if they’re paying an editor $75PFH and then taking 2 hours to narrate every finished hour of audio for the remaining $25PFH, they’re once again down to somewhere around minimum wage. For work that requires the skill set and equipment that professional audiobook narration requires, this is unreasonable.
I think the only reason that an author should think that a producer is overcharging is if they paid a reasonable rate for professional audiobook production and the finished product didn’t sound like a professionally produced audiobook. But that’s always going to be at least somewhat subjective, so I think it’s impossible to come up with some sort of “test” that will give a definitive answer in every situation.
When doing a royalty share through ACX, the ACX contract that is generated is fairly explicit in many areas of responsibility. In my mind it boils down to: the author should provide the manuscript, give me any feedback on the audition that will help with the rest of the book, provide any information on characters, pronunciations, etc., that are important to them, and give me detailed feedback on the first fifteen minute submission. In return, I’ll provide them with a professionally-produced audiobook. As long as we both make a good faith effort to work with each other, we should be fine. I don’t really see the responsibilities any differently than for a PFH project (other than the responsibility of the author to pay me!).
When considering a royalty share project, I look at content, Amazon reviews (both the number of reviews in relation to how long the book has been out, and how the reviews look in terms of overall rating and whether anything negative is mentioned over and over), and social media presence of the author.
If I’m still not sure, I’ll ask for sales figures if the book has been out for more than a few weeks. I don’t do many royalty share projects these days, because the number that I think will earn out over time is very small.
What is the biggest challenge to you personally as an audiobook narrator?
My biggest challenge is borborygmi. Colloquially known as “tummy rumbles.” Gut noises are totally normal, but my gut makes a lot of noise. No, really, a LOT of noise. Frequently. Eating makes it noisy. Not eating makes it noisy. Drinking water makes it noisy. On the surface, it sounds sort of funny; but when you’re sitting in a small room with a very sensitive microphone, it can be incredibly frustrating to have blocked out a few hours to record, only to have an hour or two stolen by your own body. I’ve learned to be very flexible with my time, but it’s still a challenge.
In terms of performance, I think my biggest challenge has been “warmth”: making nonfiction more of a conversation than a lecture, and third-person fiction narration more engaging. Fortunately, with great coaches like Sean Allen Pratt and Carol Monda, I feel like I’ve come a long way on that front.
Thank you, Rich.
Kristen Tsetsi is the author of the novels The Age of the Child, Pretty Much True, and, under the pen name Chris Jane, The Year of Dan Palace. She’s a former adjunct English professor, former reporter/columnist/feature writer for a daily newspaper, former writing instructor, and a former editor of the literary journal American Fiction (New Rivers Press). She lives in Connecticut.