"What an insult! I've been an author for years and I don't intend to tell you how many books I've sold!"
This was the response of a writer to one of my voice over students who had made an enquiry as to the number of likely downloads her audiobook might achieve.
My student was merely doing the groundwork for a book the author had asked her to narrate. There was to be no upfront fee, but instead payment would be in the form of a fifty-fifty share of the royalties - half for the writer, the other half going to the narrator. Such a deal could result in a nice little earner, or a complete waste of time depending on how many copies of the audio version were bought.
In this case my student was taken aback by the brusque response, but came out with the perfect riposte:
"You've just answered my question, thank you".
In other words it seemed this particular author was reluctant to divulge the sales figures of her back catalogue for the simple reason she was selling very few books and that would mean poor earnings for the narrator. Not a good investment of time and effort thought my student and she resolutely walked away from the project.
So what is it with these royalty payments and how do they impact on a voice actor's earnings?
Not that long ago I wrote an article about how traditional TV commercial royalties had been replaced by a one-off buyout; the desire for a more transparent pricing structure and loss of union (i.e. Equity) influence here in Britain was changing the way voice actors were being paid as far back as the 1990s. But recently something strange has been happening: the royalty payment is making a comeback.
However this time it is different.
Instead of a way to reward voice over artists for repeat airings of television adverts, the new wave of royalty payments has shifted to audiobooks. The more downloads, the more money the voice over artist gets.
..... you could end up with less than you bargained for.
Here are few steps you can take to help you secure the best deal if you are offered a royalty payment scheme for narrating an audiobook.
♕ Check to see if the book is on Amazon. Has it garnered favourable reviews? Has the printed version achieved consistently high star ratings? If so, this is an indicator it may be a good seller.
♕ Despite my student's bad experience detailed above, don't be afraid to ask the author that direct question: has he or she any idea how many downloads they are expecting? Not everyone is like Mrs Snippy. One of my other students was given a very encouraging estimate (based on previous sales) of six thousand units; at £3 per download royalty share (the quote in this particular instance) this would yield a surprising £18,000 in earnings.
♕ Work closely with the author. It is in both your interests for the audiobook to sell well. Seize any opportunities you can to promote the work and increase sales. For example could you both do radio interviews? These could even be done by Skype or on the phone.
♕ Calculate what your hourly rate is in real terms. Always bear in mind there is a substantial ratio of time to record compared to the finished product. So a typical eighty thousand word novel would take approximately eight hours to listen to, but from your perspective as the reader it will take four to five times this length to record, correct mistakes, edit and review. That's around forty hours work!
Therefore if you pencil in a modest £25 per hour, you want your royalty payments to at least yield £1,000 for all that hard work you have put in.
At the end of the day, any voice over work involving a royalty share payment is a bit of a punt.
The question is whether you are willing to take the risk.
One of the ways to increase your chances of a decent royalty payment flow is to choose books that are part of a series. This is for two reasons:
- You have a better opportunity for a steady(ish) income stream, because of the number of audiobooks being recorded.
- If the writer likes your voice on one book, there is a fair chance she will pick you for subsequent works and perhaps even for the back catalogue.
Proving the point perfectly is my voice over student Sarah Evans who is three quarters of the way through a quartet of children's audiobooks. She is the narrator on a series of publications for girls aged five to eight, called Witch Trouble by Charlotte Bloomfield.
Sarah's voice and delivery are a perfect fit for the stories and you can hear how she develops the characters and storytelling across the collection, ensuring that her voice becomes synonymous with the tales.
She is creating a strong bond with the listener and developing a deep relationship with the author. In fact some writers often report that they have the narrator's voice in their heads as they tap away at the keyboard.
Which other genres pay royalties?
So if repeat fees on commercials have fizzled out, but royalty payments for audiobook narration are now commonplace, it begs the question do other categories operate a similar remuneration system?
Interestingly just last week I received an email from a start up company who were exploring the idea of creating self-help guides. These would not appear in written form, but just as mp3 downloads on their site; every time a customer bought a training lesson the voice over artist would receive a payment.
It is an intriguing idea, but again there is risk involved - what if these guides do not sell? If you are not being paid a flat fee, you are effectively investing in that start up. Your voice talents and time are valuable, so you have to decide whether you want to speculate to accumulate.
Conversely, becoming an early adopter with this company could produce significant results if they are successful. If they like your voice, you will be the voice of choice and that bounty scheme (for effectively that is what it amounts to) could pay handsome dividends.
At the end of the day, you must decide whether you want to invest your voice talents into an unknown quantity; do as much research as you can beforehand to minimise risk. Only then can you make an informed decision.
Oh, and if it is on the table, accepting a one-off payment may still be the most sensible and profitable route to take.
What is your experience? Do you feel cheated by royalty payments, or is it a good way of avoiding low rates?
Gary Terzza has been in the business for over 30 years and has been running his successful Voice Over MasterClass since 2005.