Audiobooks: Stories Meant To Be Heard

Recording an audio book.

What was it our elementary school teachers  used to tell us when we chit-chatted in class  instead of paying attention? It’s the same  advice that  marriage therapists may have  given us when our relationships hit the  rocks: “God gave you two ears so you could  listen for twice as long as you speak.”

The explosion of audiobooks simultaneously embraces talking and listening, so that advice wasn’t far off. And it turns out there’s a lot of opportunity in audiobooks. A lot of money, as well.

If you’re an author—published or unpublished, fiction or nonfiction—you should consider tapping into this burgeoning market. The A-list already has: In a November 2014 feature in the New York Times, bestselling author, Jeffery Deaver, was among the first to roll out his novel, The Starling Project, solely as an audiobook.

Last summer our team attended the HEAR Now festival in Kansas City, MO, and the Podcast Movement in Philadelphia, where the prognostications were everywhere we looked: Audiobooks are predicted to surpass sales of print books and even e-books by 2020. That’s only a year away.

Even if this seismic shift doesn’t occur until 2025, you’re going to see a lot more ‘readers’ with earbuds given that audiobook titles are flying off the digital shelves. Think we’re kidding? Consider ACX.com, an audible company. As of this writing, they’ve posted more than 72,000 titles for which they’re seeking narrators. Read that again. Your writer and author colleagues want their books voiced.

There are more than 50 audiobook publishers ready and willing to absorb the demand. No fewer than 10 of those companies have installed in-house studios. And Amazon’s audible (they like the ‘A’ lowercase BTW) invested $5 million into audible Originals last February to foster the development of long-form audiobook content.

Writers do their best work behind the keyboard, not necessarily behind a microphone. Hence the explosion of voiceover narrators from Audie-winners to armchair wannabees. The really good VO pros have little problem bringing multiple characters to life even within the same story. But that comes with a considerable price tag. The industry standard uses a per-finished-hour (PFH) model. No matter how much time the narrator spends in a studio recording your story, the narrator is paid on a pre-arranged rate (anywhere from $140 to upwards of $1000/hr) for a running time of between 10 to 15 hours, for example, for the produced story.

A pro can usually record an average of 9,200 words per hour with a modicum of pickups (corrected mistakes) that are then cleaned up in post-production. If you’re fortunate enough to attract a pro amidst the sea of writers and authors competing for them on platforms like ACX.com and Voice123.com, it can cost you $4,000 to $10,000 per audiobook. Multi-cast productions? Well, consider taking out a second mortgage as $30,000 to $50,000 isn’t unusual. Like with many industries where people spot a good thing, the audiobook industry has been flooded by more hopefuls than pros. Seems anybody with a laptop can be a voiceover narrator these days.

Well, not quite. The Audie Awards, presented since 1996 by the Audio Publishers Association, covers 29 categories including Fiction, Literary Fiction, Mystery, Fantasy, Thriller/Suspense, Romance, Paranormal, and even Erotica. There are no fewer than 10 non-fiction categories. But the Best Female Narrator and Best Male Narrator awards are dominated by entertainment/literary/voiceover luminaries such as David Sedaris, Tina Fey, Colin Firth, and Johnny Depp.

Bestselling authors are often as at ease with a Neumann TLM 103 or an AKG C414 XLII microphone, which are both just north of $1,000. They also pull in trophies in the Best Narration by the Author category. The Multi-Voice Performance category, featuring multiple readers, is one of the newest categories.

As content producers, this last category is of particular interest to us. While the best voiceover talents have little problem creating multiple characters that appear in your story, multiple actors, provided that the actors are versatile and skilled at what they do, playing multiple characters in your story, are likely to deliver you a theatrical event that is more often only possible by dynamic interaction between actors. There’s something that happens when a troupe of thespians enter the studio and talk to and with each other while performing your characters from behind the mic. How do we know? Take a listen to a sample from, Needles, an audiobook we’re producing for San Francisco Bay Area author Jeremiah Treacy:

While this production benefits from a host of post-production touches—including the incorporation of music and sound effects—it also has a quality that’s difficult to achieve when one actor plays all the parts, which are later sliced together. Or recorded linearly. But this level of quality don’t come cheap. When working with union talent (some of the actors in Needles are SAG-AFTRA), you have the added per studio hour price tag. Whereas PFH sees voiceover actors paid only for the hours of the story’s final running time, union actors, by contract, are almost always required to get paid for every hour they’re in studio.

So how do we keep costs down? R.E.H.E.A.R.S.A.L. For us, that means Read Everything at Home. Enter a Recording Session Already Loaded. Not drunk or high, but ready to fire off a beautiful performance. With minor adjustments the voiceover actors with whom we contract do just that. In the words of the coaches: “Acting choices then choose voices.” Our actors know the characters. They become the characters. And the voices of those characters follow. What comes out of every session is something pleasing to those two appendages that are the doors to your creative soul: your ears.

Guest author Ralph Scott is Supervising Producer at SPEAKS VOLUMES, a division of TNP, LLC, a Bay Area Video/Internet/Audio production company. He and his team are always on the lookout for a really gritty story waiting to be taken to the mic.

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