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.


  1. Thanks for all of the great JIAM posts! I've really enjoyed all of the behind the scenes info.

  2. I've listened to more than a dozen titles that you've done, Mr. Gardner, and currently I'm enjoying "The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. I," which is amazingly performed by you, as usual. (I especially like your rendition of the German housekeeper Twain codenamed "Wuthering Heights.")

    Considering your notes here, I imagine you can identify with Twain's efforts to get a larger piece of the action for General Grant from the General's own autobiography. Publishing doesn't seem to have changed all that much in the past century, despite the advent of so many new technologies!

    Thank you very much for providing your listening audience with a wealth of entertainment and enlightenment!

  3. Thoughtful and articulate, Grover — of course. I agree that the current basic 50-50 royalty-based model belies the potential for more creative and considered production and narration contract negotiation. It’s interesting, though, to see audiobooks break from convention in these tumultuous days for publishing generally.

    Several years ago I put together (rather painstakingly) an audio production contract that was largely royalty-based. But, as a hybrid, it also included some upfront acknowledgement of the producer/narrator's considerable role — specifically, an initial downpayment or advance, as well as a minimum payout guarantee in the long term. It took both my publisher-client and me not a little backing-and-forthing based on my work-for-hire project estimate and her projection of net sales, plus discussions of marketing options and new sales venues, etc.

    Sadly (for me, anyway), the publisher got an-offer-she-couldn't-refuse for the property and sold the rights before we got the audio underway. But I do still have the contract, which will soon be revisited with a new client — and in a time that's even more conducive to the approach, I think.

    I know I'll be doing a bit of work using the revenue-split contract. I’m curious to see firsthand how it plays out, and figure I’ll count any losses toward my “street education.” But to my mind, the deal is ultimately way too close to working on spec — a bad move in most any creative freelancing — and the risk pretty darned lopsided, with the producer/narrator shouldering a disproportionate burden.

    Judith West

  4. It's very distressing to think that audiobook sales might not benefit the narrator. Time and again I've found that the right narrator can open up a text for me after years of failed attempts to get interested. This was certainly true for your reading of "Rise and Fall". Others I can think of are Anthony Heald's "Moby Dick" and "Crime and Punishment," and the work you and others have done on Mark Twain's travel books. You can't put gratitude in the bank, but I hope it at least it helps in other ways.

  5. I just found your blog on June 30, so naturally had to go back and read every single one of your JIAM entries. Thank you for sharing your wealth of experience and opinion!

    As a lifelong performer, I have wanted to narrate audiobooks for years but shied away from actively pursuing it because, compensation issues aside, I could never get my admittedly tiny brain wrapped around the publishing industry in general. I've continued to watch though, and listen to some fantastic readers (and a few stinkers, too), and thanks to your blog, there are more on my listening list. I can't wait to tuck into them!

    I'm tremendously excited about recent developments in the industry, and finally ready to jump into the pool. Thanks again for your insightful observations!

    All is well,
    Donna Postel

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  7. These are a great deal of fun to read, and quite helpful to us up-and-comers as well. Thanks for the insights.