So, I want to talk about audiobook contracts and marketing. Specifically, royalty share contracts and the marketing of audiobooks by narrators.
It’s a surprisingly touchy topic. And one of those in which a large degree of miscommunication and preconceptions – along with an unhealthy dose of resentment – exist.
- I’ve seen narrators complain about authors asking them to “work for free.”
- I’ve seen authors argue that narrators shouldn’t be making as much on an audiobook as the author – who spent months if not years writing – does. And even more appalled when a narrator proposes a hybrid contract, adding a small per finished hour rate on top of 50% royalties.
- I’ve also seen authors requesting or expecting a narrator to share at least half of the burden of promotion and marketing, with the argument that since they have an equal portion in the profits, they should share an equal portion in the costs (financial, time, energy) of marketing.
This is not going to be a short, to the point reply to these concerns. Because there’s a lot to it, actually, and to really understand it all requires digging down deep.
Let’s start with the narrators complaining about royalty share being “work for free.”
Yes, there are a lot of requests for voiceover work where potential clients want totally free products in exchange for “exposure.” That’s not what royalty share is.
Royalty Share is deferred payment. It’s not free. It is, in fact, HALF of what the author will ever make on that audiobook. Indeed, if the title is released by a publisher, you’ll actually be getting MORE than the author in royalties, because the publisher will retain their portion from the author’s earnings.
Bottom Line: Please stop calling it free, just because the author isn’t writing a check.
Now, to the authors, there’s a bit more to explain. I’ve lumped the topics of narrators’ general hesitation to royalty share together with narrators’ lack of taking equal share in promotion, because ultimately they are intimately linked.
First, a brief history of audiobook narration*.
For decades, audiobook narrators have been paid on a per finished hour rate, which means they get paid in accordance to how long the final audiobook production is.
Since the days of books on tape this has been the case. Royalty Share wasn’t even an option. In fact, I doubt it was even considered. Until very recently, audiobooks were incredibly expensive to produce. As in, a single audiobook would cost more to produce than I’ve ever made in a year. As such, publishers would only produce their very best selling titles in audio. Per finished hour meant that the narrator would get paid a few thousand dollars per production. Royalty share on a NYT Bestseller would mean many many times that. Absurd, and not at all worth it.
Recently, the rapid advances of technology have changed the game. While it still costs $5-$10k to set up a professional home recording studio, that is insanely cheaper than it would have been ten years ago. With digital downloads via iTunes and Audible dominating distribution, people can skip the expense and hassle of offering and distributing audiobooks in CD format. And websites like ACX.com allow independent authors to connect with independent narrators working from home studios.
ACX is largely responsible for the explosion in available audiobooks. They also, I believe, introduced the option of paying narrators in royalties rather than a per finished hour rate.
Bottom Line: Royalty Share is NOT the standard form of paying for narration.
*Note: This is the history as I understand it. Lord knows I could be wrong about some details.
Next, a quick look at the industry standard rate for professional narration
Professional audiobook narrators have the option to join the SAG-AFTRA Union. Union membership offers a myriad of benefits. SAG-AFTRA also has contracts in place with practically all of the audio studios producing titles for major publishers, which guarantees a minimum rate of $225 per finished hour for audiobook narration. (PLUS an additional 12.5% paid on top of that by the publisher to the narrator’s health & pension fund)
Note that in these studios, narrators are just that – narrators. That rate is simply for narration itself. With independent work, such as producing via ACX, the narrator is also accountable for all the necessary editing, proofing, and engineering that goes into a finished audiobook production. Outsourcing these tasks to a seasoned professional costs around $70-$100 per finished hour.
This makes the standard rate for professional quality independent audiobook production somewhere around $295-$325 per finished hour. This is important for our next point.
Bottom Line: The typical rate for professional-quality audiobook production is $295-$325 per finished hour.
A Royalty Share offer is an immediate red flag
Let’s say you’re a professional narrator who does work for the major studios, but you supplement that work with independent production as well. Your rate is $300 per finished hour, and to consider a royalty share project you’ll of course want it to earn out to at least that same rate.
Note: Newer narrators will of course work for lower rates, but professionally minded ones won’t move the bar too far lower, because that a) drives down standard rates for narration in general, hurting the industry and b) can create ill-will from others in the industry, largely because of point a.
For a title estimated at 10 finished hours (93,000 words), a narrator on royalty share contract can anticipate approximately $2 in royalties per sale. This then requires roughly 1,500 copies sold for the book to earn out.
For that same title, an author offering $300 per finished hour will earn $4 per sale, requiring 750 copies to break even.
See the math issue?
When narrators see a book offered for royalty share, they tend to ask themselves…why?
- Does the author not expect the book to sell well enough to earn back the cost of production?
- Does the author expect high sales, but doesn’t have the cash or credit on hand to pay for production?
- Is the author new to audiobooks, and perhaps underestimates its success?
- Is the author just crazy generous and doesn’t care about maximizing profits?
If an author offers a book for royalty share, the general presumption is that the author doesn’t expect the book to sell well enough to cover the costs of per-finished-hour production. This means the author anticipates it will sell less than half of what the narrator needs for it to earn out.
Conversely, if an author expects the book to sell particularly well, then offering it for royalty share would be a major mistake, as they’ll lose money in the long run.
While sometimes it is for other reasons – such as #2-4 above, the shared experiences of narrators suggests it is far more often because of #1.
Bottom Line: Most narrators assume authors offering royalty share anticipate low sales.
Authors and Narrators have different marketing audiences and goals
This is where we start to move into the promotion topic…
Authors make their money by generating sales. The more books they sell, the more money they make. It’s a simple equation. Their marketing audience is therefore readers, and they work to build a personal brand and a following of loyal readers who continue to purchase their titles.
Narrators make their money by generating clients. Even if the narrator takes on a large number of royalty share projects, narrators can’t produce work without having books to narrate. Their marketing audience is authors, publishers, and studios. Narrators work to build a brand of professionalism and quality.
Authors need to convince people to buy their titles.
Narrators need to convince people to hire them.
Both are selling their product, but for authors the product is their book, for narrators that product is their service.
Narrators still invest a lot of time, energy, and money in marketing. But the difference in audience and goals means that their websites, conference choices, and social media activities are often going to look very different from an author’s. There is cross-over, as the promotion of individual titles can lead to new clients, but the underlying focus is different.
Bottom Line: Narrators are (and should be) pursuing clients, not sales.
Narrators do not have the following that authors do.
Let’s do a high-profile case study.
Scott Brick is one of the most celebrated, talented, and award winning audiobook narrators in existence. He’s narrated books by David Baldacci, Orson Scott Card, Michael Crichton, Terry Brooks.
Now let’s look at their official number of Facebook Page “Likes”:
David Baldacci: 213,738
Orson Scott Card: 98,804
Michael Crichton: 221,728
Terry Brooks: 107,207
Scott Brick: 1,574
When a narrator does a really good job, the listener becomes lost and engrossed in the book. When they finish, they sit back and go, “Wow, that was amazing!” If they want more of that awesomeness, what do they look up? More titles by that same author.
This is the way it should be. The book is the star, not the narrator. The book is what is being consumed, the narration is just the medium. A terrible narration can ruin a good book, but the best narration in the world can’t save a bad book.
As a result, people follow authors, not narrators. Only the most avid of audiobook fans actually follow narrators. Don’t get me wrong, narrators love having fans! But they don’t attract them even remotely as much as authors do.
Asking a narrator to aggressively market a production of theirs is largely futile. Even if they do it, they just fundamentally do not have the same audience to share with. Most narrators are happy to assist in promotion. They can participate in author-narrator interviews, provide audio clips that authors can share, make social media postings with the author tagged and included. But to expect a narrator to have a large social media following is unrealistic.
Bottom Line: Listeners follow authors, not narrators.
Authors get more out of paid advertising than narrators do
The audiobook is just one edition offered of a given title.
This is an important thing to remember.
If an author aggressively promotes an audiobook release, they can generally expect to see an increase in ebook and print sales as well. Likewise, when an author runs a sale or special on their print or ebooks, the audiobook sales increase.
Narrators have noted this many times when authors are successful in running a Bookbub ad. Even though the ad is specifically for a reduced price ebook promotion, having nothing obviously to do with the audiobook, the audiobook sales skyrocket.
Most readers have a preferred method of consuming books. Some prefer ebooks. Some prefer print. Some prefer audio.
Many will consume a mix of them, a few are exclusive.
Meanwhile, regardless of the format that is emphasized, advertising for a book focuses on the content, not the medium. With audiobooks sometimes there’s an increased focus on the medium, but at the end of the day the story or information itself is what convinces people to make that purchase. People are sold on the story, not on the medium.
So when an author runs an ad, even if it’s medium specific, people who are sold on that story will ultimately buy it in whatever format they prefer.
What this means is that even though the author and narrator may split audiobook royalties 50/50, the author gets a better return for advertising than the narrator ever could; because some people who are sold by an audiobook ad will buy the print or ebook instead.
(Similarly there’s the whole whispersync deal. I’m not getting into whether whispersync pricing is awesome or the worst thing ever, BUT note that when somebody gets the bundle, the author is getting royalties on both the ebook and the audiobook, while the narrator is just getting the audiobook royalties.)
Return on Investment is vital when considering whether or not to run a paid ad. If a paid advertisement for an audiobook is successful, it will also generate sales for the ebook/print. Therefore…
Bottom Line: ROI for paid ads is always better for authors than for narrators.
I am an audiobook narrator.
I do take on straight royalty share projects. I love residual income! But I make most of my living on per finished hour projects. If I want to try to increase my residual income, there are currently 1,383 titles listed on ACX.com for royalty share and male narrators. Convincing a narrator to take a royalty share payment is an uphill battle. If you’re offering me a title for royalty share, I have good reason to believe that it will never earn out equivalent to a per finished hour. If you can mitigate that by offering a small per finished hour in addition to royalty share, awesome. If not, consider offering an extended deadline, so that I can work on it in between per finished hour projects.
I promote nearly every title I produce. I do it because, more than anything else, I think it’s fun. I like connecting with listeners. I like connecting with authors. The best promotional value I can ever offer an author, however, is material for their own marketing. Interviews, audio clips, etc.
Not all narrators like to promote. That’s okay. As depressing as it is for us narrators to admit, our promotional efforts make little difference anyway.
Just as not every title is worth printing in hardback or translating to German, not every title is worth publishing as an audiobook. That’s okay. You keep writing, and the narrators will keep narrating. We’ll still be here when you have that runaway success, trying to convince you to let us do it for royalties.
And if you’re smart, you won’t let us.