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Find more Voices in My Head
Tavia Gilbert, who has voiced or produced more than 300 audiobooks, gives an insider’s look at some of the challenges of the audiobook boom. “As audiobook narrators, we’re responsible for creating a product that is ever more quickly and efficiently produced in an industry under unrelenting pressure to cut costs and increase profit. In the relatively short time I’ve been in the industry—eight years this fall—I’ve seen a transformation in how the work gets produced and distributed. Years ago, books were produced with a narrator, an engineer, and a director, but now more and more audiobooks are being produced in home studios, and the narrator self-engineers and self-directs. Rather than increasing with the responsibility for multiple tasks, the narrator’s rates have substantially decreased.”
Gilbert explains, “Today’s audiobook narrator is paid per finished hour (pfh); a finished hour is one hour of listening time, which may take two or three hours of recording time to produce. Gone are the days when narrators were paid for recording a total number of studio hours, each actual hour of recording time in a professional studio. Now we’re mindful of the clock all the time. If it takes me three hours to record one finished hour, and my rate is $250 pfh, then I’m making $83.33 per recording hour. But add in those hours I spent reading, researching, and preparing, and my rate drops to $40 or $50 per hour. There’s a lot that goes into the making of a great audiobook. Our SAG-AFTRA union ensures that our rates will fall no further and that we can expect a fair minimum across the industry, with parity between union and nonunion narrators, so there is not an incentive to hire cheaper, nonunion talent. While actors have the right to negotiate a higher rate, they are guaranteed minimum rates and benefits, as well as health coverage. We’re fortunate to have the advocacy and skilled representation of SAG-AFTRA, which has steadily achieved relationships and contracts with publishers. Only a few publishers remain without a contract, but most recognize that having access to the very best talent is a necessity. In order to produce books with high production quality, exceptional performances, and attractiveness to a critical audience, they must invest in their talent pool.”
The audiobook boom has also fostered the growth of small publishers, and some narrators are embracing the challenge of creating their own companies. Narrator Amy Rubinate, who has launched Ideal Audiobooks, shares why she views libraries as a key partner in distribution. “I worked at the Ferguson Library one summer as a college page, and that made a big impact; I just can’t imagine producing a book that wouldn’t have life on a library shelf or in digital catalog. Librarians are enthusiastic advocates for great books, and libraries are an important way to reach a wide range of audiobook listeners. When I first got into audiobooks, I listened to 500 books on CD from libraries, so I understand the value of library patrons having access to a large catalog of satisfying books. With the rise of digital audiobooks and the high cost of production and manufacturing, there’s a temptation for new publishers to go digital-only. MP3 CDs make it possible for start-up publishers like me to offer our audiobooks to listeners in both digital and physical formats. In the past few years, the audiobook industry has been flooded with both amateur talent and celebrities, and some are quite good. But narrating requires a very specific skill set and is best when seasoned by years of experience. I’m always seeking that perfect marriage of book and narrator. When it happens, it’s a kind of alchemy, lifting the book off the page and turning it into a new art form all its own. For my company, I sought out experienced narrators I had long admired. As a longtime narrator, I have relationships with these colleagues, and they know that every book they narrate for me will be something they can be proud of.”
Tavia Gilbert echoes these thoughts. “It’s important that the audiobook industry continue to mindfully serve library partners and the countless patrons who love audiobooks. My first audiobook came from the library, and browsing audiobooks was just as satisfying as browsing the hardbacks. The shift to digital downloads from CDs shouldn’t leave library listeners behind; not everyone has a device ready for audio, nor access to the technology necessary to successfully download books. Not everyone is wired. We need to be forward-thinking in ensuring audio content is accessible and pleasurable to library audiences.”
Loyal listeners celebrate audiobooks every month of the year. As we select titles in formats that meet the needs of all audiophile patrons, we should seek out the very best titles read by narrators whose love of the format inspires them to go above and beyond an hourly rate. Although their royalties are solely the accolades of loyal fans, these professional narrators are truly the celebrities of the audiobook world.
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