What can Audiobooks offer actors?

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Who’d be an actor now?

COVID-19 has been a grim time for actors.  Theatres across the world have closed, with no real certainty on when they may open up again.  Film and television sets have closed down and have only recently begun to re-open, with limitations imposed to control the spread of the virus.

On top of this many of the less well known occupations for actors such as workshops in schools, role-play training in businesses and even face to face drama classes have all been put on pause.  It would be reasonable to think that David Tennant and Michael Sheen, who produced a comedy on Zoom, were the only actors working at the moment.

But that is not the case.  I am an actor and spend most of my time narrating audiobooks.  I have been as busy as ever and there is no sign of that slowing down.  Although some titles had their launch dates moved back to the Autumn during the peak of the virus, there have still been plenty of titles launching to keep me reading every day.

And I am not alone.  There are others, like me, who narrate nearly all the time and treat it as a full time job.  It is not something that can be achieved overnight but it can be done.  Some narrators, further into their careers than I am, have become minor celebrities in the Audiobook world, a world that is growing.

Aren’t Audiobooks a bit “Niche?”

Audiobooks are definitely the little brother in the publisher’s armoury of hardbacks, paperbacks and e-books, though recent industry data suggests that audioboooks are overtaking e-book sales as digital book sales slide, while audiobooks continue to grow.

This is not a new phenomenon.  According to a survey produced by the Audio Publishers Association in the United States (APA), audiobook sales have enjoyed 8 years of double digit revenue growth each year, growing 16% from 2018 to 2019 to reach $1.2billion, with no sign of this coming to an end.

And it isn’t just in the US that revenue is growing.  A Deloitte publication shows that similar growth is experienced in China and Europe.  The UK market is expected to reach £115 million in 2020.  Overall the global market is worth $3.5billion and growing, dwarfed by print books at $145billion but still growing.

What does this mean for actors?

While audiobooks may still be the little brother they are growing and so are the opportunities for actors.  As well as sales increasing, so are the number of books being recorded, with over 60,000 titles produces in 2019, and each of these books needs a narrator.

The APA survey also showed that listeners prefer to hear professional narrators rather than the author reading to them.  This opens up possibilities for actors willing to learn the skills to become professional narrators.

As Alex Preston mentions in his article in The Guardian the rise of audiobooks provides a new income stream for actors and can be a wonderful way to combine the joy of acting with bringing up a family and paying the mortgage, especially if you invest in a home studio from which you can record for publishers and producers all over the world.

What are the rates?

Audiobooks are paid “per finished hour” which means a finished hour of audio ready to listen to.  An average novel of 330 pages or so is around 10 finished hours when narrated in full.  In the UK rates vary from £60-£100pfh and in the US the SAG -AFTRA base rate is $210pfh, so a novel can earn an actor between £600 and over $2,100 (roughly £1,600).

Narrating an average of 2-2.5 hours each day an actor can earn this over a week and can build up a portfolio of clients to narrate an average of one book a week.  Even if you don’t want to take it this far, a book a month goes a long way towards making the dream of making a living as an actor a reality.

What do I need to do?

Narrating is a skill in itself, like film or stage acting, and has some elements that can be adapted from what you already know and a few that need to be developed.

Narrating requires stamina and has been described as the marathon of the voice acting world.  The most obvious may be the vocal stamina, but in my experience my attention drifts long before my voice gives up!  Keeping yourself in the world of the book for every moment you narrate so you can bring it to life for your listeners is not always easy.

It also demands a level of versatility as you have the joy of playing all the characters in the book, or your part of the book.  These need to be distinguishable but not overwhelming, as you have a very intimate connection with your listener, often being literally in their ears as your voice comes through their headphones.

Then there are the technical skills of self-recording, or even understanding enough about sound recording to appreciate the role of the sound engineer when you are working in a studio.  Sound engineering, editing, mastering and proof reading are all skills that need to be applied to produce a great audiobook.

Finally there are the business skills.  While actors are creative beings they, like publishers and writers, are in the business of creativity, and need to understand what their audience wants from them and how they can market themselves effectively.

Why would I want to do this?

Well there is the money, of course, and audiobooks even have their own version of the Oscars, the Audies, but we all know actors aren’t just in it for the dollars and the trophies.  Actors are actors primarily because they love it, they want to tell stories and to touch people through their craft.  And audiobooks is one of the most intimate and wonderful ways to do that.

As an audiobook narrator you can help a child sleep as you read to them at night, support a dyslexic child as they struggle through set texts for exams, entertain a frazzled mother as she cooks for her family, soothe a fraught commuter as they slump into their seat in the train and comfort the sick as they listen to take themselves away from their suffering.

It is an absolute privilege, and in this age where we are unable to touch each other, to hug a friend or offer physical support, our voices can still pass from one person to another and let each other know that we are not alone.  Our voices are our breath, carried from our body, transporting our spirit from us to all those who listen.  What could be more precious than that?

If you want to know more:

Please come and join my free Facebook community: The Audiobook Studio.

This is a community for actors, writers and audiobook producers to support each other and learn more about the craft of audiobook creation.

I am also working on a course for aspiring audiobook narrators so please keep your eyes peeled for that!  Details coming soon!

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