Thursday, June 30, 2011
Blasts from the Past, Day 30
For my last post I want to discuss some issues, not about the past, but about the future. My featured title is The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer, which I recorded for Blackstone last year.
Now here's a great audio program. It has everything going for it: a evergreen non-fiction title, an epic journey for narrator and listener, and subject matter that never gets stale. It's doing extremely well on Audible and I'm sure it will make a lot of money.
Do I wish I had a little back-end participation? Yeah, that would be nice. Would Blackstone have offered it to me? That's debatable. On a sure money-maker like this, they're probably better off getting me out of the picture as soon as possible, rather than risk paying me three or four times my usual fee over the course of seven years.
Am I sorry? Well, no, because for every book like this, I've done eight or nine that probably won't come even close to making that kind of money. They're good books but they don't have the broad appeal of a book like The Rise and Fall.
Royalty sharing has become an issue lately, and it's worth looking at for a moment. It's not that it can't work. It can if you're very canny, or get lucky and hit the jackpot. But if you don't, the returns may not be what you expected. One problem is that most audiobook rights are limited to 7 years, at which point they revert to the rights holder. They might be renewed, but there's also a chance that they won't or they'll be transferred to someone else. Bear in mind that, of the over 750 titles I've recorded in my career, only about 300 are currently in circulation. Over half my output has disappeared.
Before jumping into anything like this, a narrator would be wise to have some knowledge of trends in the industry, as well as access to research tools like BookScan (though even that won't help with first-time or self-pubbed authors). It's no secret that book acquisition, for anyone except the major publishers with best-selling authors in their stables, is a gamble. Obviously it's worth the gamble, or companies like Blackstone wouldn't be able to stay in business. And with a catalogue of 4000 books, you're likely to pull in a decent profit over the long run.
My point is not to bash the idea of royalty sharing. It's to make it clear that, as more and more narrators are forced into entrepreneurial positions, you have to find out as much as you can about how the business works and how it's changing. And it's definitely changing, with breath-taking rapidity.
I was relieved not to be on a panel at APAC this year because my answer to just about any question about the future of audiobooks would have been,"I have no frickin' clue." Having spent a week in New York at BEA, however, I've got a little better idea. The most encouraging thing about the business right now is that those on the receiving end (talent, producers, directors, and so forth) are very willing to exchange information and insights with each other. This sharing of information is very beneficial, particularly to talent, because until various union efforts and rate scales are settled (if they ever are) the only way to support a stable rate structure is for people on the talent end to know what's going on. This works the other way, too. As a producer, it helps to have some sense of the range of what's acceptable to the majority of narrators. There's always the danger of collusion, but we're a long way from that right now: The market is too fragmented, and there are so many variables to take into account--timing, schedules, location, experience levels, book length and complexity, special language or character skills, and so on. Price is just one consideration in the production process. In fact, I think it would be very healthy to see more freedom of negotiation in the rate structure depending on all these factors.
About 90 percent of audiobook production is based on relationships. This is perfectly logical--you don't trust someone to do a 15 hour book in two weeks if you have no idea who they are. It also behooves me from a casting point of view to know who my narrators are, what they like and how they work. When these relationships are not fully engaged in and realized, the production process falters, sometimes disastrously. Maintaining these relationships is about 50% of my job as a producer who relies on a consistent stable of available readers.
As JIAM draws to a close today, my hat is off to all the new people coming into the business who have negotiated a path through what is still an incredibly loosely-structured, Wild West sort of industry. It's about to get wilder. Stay informed, ask questions, learn as much about the business as you can. Don't be afraid to pump people for information. The more you know, the better you'll be able to benefit from the changes going on as we speak.