When I was a kid and would visit my father (my parents divorced when I was very young), my Dad would read a bedtime story to my brother and me every night.
And let me tell you- our Dad was just a terrific storyteller. A professional actor for years, our Dad did every voice, every imaginable accent, every different character and his well of imagination never seemed to run dry. Bob Theis really knew how to bring a well-written story to life.
Our favorite book- which he read to us from beginning to end twice– was “Watership Down.” If you don’t know it (and you should) it is this terrifying, hilarious, touching, upsetting and uplifting book with dozens of different characters (each with his own, unique voice) and we would always beg Dad for an extra chapter when he started to close the book for the night.
More than anyone else, my father was responsible for showing my brother and me that there was nothing more enjoyable than to read a truly great story from an actual, tactile, hold-it-in-your-hands book.
As a result, I have always loved to read stories aloud. I read into a tape recorder when I was a kid, listening to myself intoning “Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator” and critiquing myself unmercifully.
Later, in college, when Sara and I were first dating, I read William Goldman’s “The Princess Bride” to her every night and the story has become woven into the fabric of our relationship. (By the way- if you’ve only seen the movie and never read the book, you are doing yourself a huge disservice. The book is ten times better.)
I was lucky enough to get involved with the storytelling program in Chicago called “Stories on Stage,” which featured local actors reading the greatest short fiction ever written. Each performance was recorded and the best of them were chosen to be aired on the local public radio station, WBEZ, on Saturday nights. The pride I took in hearing that one of my stories had been chosen for broadcast remains a highlight of my entire acting career.
Then, after Milo and Gwen arrived, the storytelling gene really kicked in. Between the two of us, Sara and I have read both of our kids all of the best books we could find. And aside from the satisfaction of imparting the best stories on Earth to our children, it has also been great practice for us as actors. Seriously- you want to hone your cold reading skills? Read a few novels aloud to your kids. You’ll be among the best cold readers on the planet.
Little did I know that all that reading aloud was a prelude to what could- potentially- be a new and extremely lucrative career.
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Audiobooks (or, as they used to be called in the 1930’s “Talking Books”) have been around for over a hundred years. In fact, soon after he invented the phonograph, Thomas Edison began promoting “phonographic books” to allow blind people to enjoy the great works of fiction.
Unfortunately, the recording formats available in those early days made reading entire novels nearly impossible. The recording tubes on those first-generation phonographs only allowed for about four minutes of reading time. Even when they began selling record albums in the 30’s, the brand new closed-groove records only brought the available reading time up to about twenty minutes. So…short stories and poems could fit on them, but Dickens was out of the question.
By the 1950’s, Caedmon Records entered the scene and became pioneers in the spoken word field. Their first release was a recording of Dylan Thomas reading his poems. Needing filler for the B-side, they had him read his own “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” and were shocked when it became one of their most popular offerings. The company would go on to record some of the 20th century’s greatest authors reading their own works, including Carl Sandburg, e.e. cummings, W.H. Auden, Tennessee Williams, T.S. Eliot and Eudora Welty.
But perhaps most importantly, Caedmon put a lot of actors to work. Laurence Olivier, Burgess Meredith, Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff, Vincent Price, Peggy Ashcroft…the list of titles and performers is endless. And they were very popular.
By the 1970’s, cassette tapes came into wide usage and the market began to expand, but mostly “books on tape” were used as listen-in-the-car instructional manuals (“Learn Spanish in Three Easy Lessons!” and “Stop Smoking Today!” and “Don’t Waste that Commute: Try Kegels in the Car!”, that sort of thing.)
It took a traveling salesman named Henry Trentman (who listened to a lot of tapes on sales techniques as he traversed the nation) to realize the potential for the audiobook market. Mr. Trentman created Recorded Books, putting real money into the kind of high-quality recording studios we see today and hiring professional actors to read the stories.
It started off slowly but Mr. Trentman’s idea eventually caught on. By 1984, there were eleven audiobook companies, including Caedmon, Metacom, Newman Communications, Recorded Books, Brilliance and Books on Tape. They all had fairly small catalogues and made, at best, decent money.
Everything changed in 1986, when the Audio Publisher’s Association was formed to promote awareness of the industry. Soon, publisher after publisher woke up to the economic potential of recording audiobooks and the literary clubs all across America- Time Life, Book-of-the-Month, and Scholastic- started offering audiobook titles to their members.
The APA also began to give our annual awards for the best in audiobook production and named their award- to no one’s surprise- the Audie.
By the end of 1987, audiobooks were a $200 million market. By the mid-nineties, it had ballooned to $1.5 billion. With each leap in audio technology- from cassette to CD and then CD to digital download, the market got bigger and bigger.
By 2014, the industry had grown so large that an enterprising duo named Bob & Debra Deyan of Deyan Audio were inspired to open the Deyan Institute of Vocal Artistry and Technology (DIVA), the world’s first campus and school for teaching the art and technology of audiobook production. (Keep those names in mind, if you would. They come up again later.)
Long story short: Audiobooks are now big, big business. Bigger than….well, you know.
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Two weeks ago, on February 1st (the day I picked up my beloved Cherry and drove her down to Venice Beach), I attended a meeting at the SAG-AFTRA offices at the invitation of my friend Chuck Constant.
The meeting at the SAG offices was all about the efforts the union has made (and will continue to make) to convince the big audiobook publishers into signing union contracts. Many hundreds, if not thousands, of union members record audiobooks every year and the union, being the smart cookies they are, want in on the action.
At the meeting, Chuck walked me around and introduced me to the assembled guests. It quickly became apparent that I was standing in the midst of the Audiobook Elite. These were the best and most well-compensated audiobook narraters in the country and they had all come together to share their insights, tell their war stories and offer up their industry tips on how to make the business better.
It was, to put it mildly, an eye-popping experience. I learned, for example, that this past year, audiobooks outsold print books for the first time in the history of American publishing. Think about that for a minute. Hell, just think about the money involved in that for a minute.
I also learned that the union has been largely successful (though huge obstacles remain) in getting the big publishing houses to sign union contracts. Some are still resistant (especially the Big Kahuna, Audible.com), but the biggest of the second tier publishers- including BeeAudio, Tantor and Brilliance- have all inked agreements to abide by the union’s fee requirements when hiring members. Which is a giant step.
There are still plenty of publishers out there paying actors (specifically non-union actors) extremely low wages for audiobook work, but this is turning around. The more people learn about the standard industry rates for this sort of work, the more they will begin to demand a higher salary.
Let’s deal with that rate for a second, by the way: Actors get paid a pretty fair rate for audiobook work. Generally, it’s about $200 an hour or thereabouts. But keep in mind, that’s for a finished hour. Not for an actual hour’s work. A good narrator- and I mean a top-of-the-line pro- will record for an hour to get forty minutes or so of usable work.
So do that math: If you’re the best of the best, you’ll work five hours to get two and a half to three hours of material. That’s about five or six hundred bucks. A good rate? Absolutely. But if you’ve never spent five hours in a booth reading aloud…it is freakin’ brutal. You earn every goddamn penny of that money. Recording books is very, very hard work and you have to be highly skilled to pull it off.
And I haven’t even talked about the editing process yet….and I won’t. Because you can imagine how involved that is.
So…good work? Yes. Lots of titles out there and not enough talent? You bet. Easy industry to get into?
No so fast.
On the one hand, all you really need to get into the business- technically speaking- is a means of recording your own voice. But it’s a little more complicated than that. Getting a really clean, clear audio recording involves having a studio of some kind, even if it is rudimentary.
I’ve seen a few homemade studios cobbled together by my actor friends and they range from the sublime to the absolutely ridiculous. I have a setup in my own basement at home that would make most audiobook narrators cry. But it was good enough to pass muster when I recorded the audiobook for “Confessions of a Transylvanian,” so I’m not complaining.
And anyone can audition to record audiobooks. All you need to do is to sign up at the Amazon/Audible site for audiobook production, ACX.com. At ACX, anyone at all, union or non-union, can audition to record any title that is seeking narrators. Plus, through the website, you can winnow the selections down until the titles suit your type. You can choose based on age, sex, genre, pay scale and a host of other filters.
[SIDE NOTE: There is a metric shit-ton of gay porn lit on ACX. Frankly, I had no idea this was such a gigantic audiobook market. No joke: If you’re up for describing highly detailed dude-on-dude sex acts, you may have a big future in the audiobook industry.]
Pay scale options, by the way, range from the high end ($400-$1,000 per finished hour) down to the lowest end: a share of the royalties. If you opt for the royalties, you won’t get paid for a finished hour. You will instead get a percentage of however many audiobooks are sold. If the book sells a lot of copies…you can make out really well. If not- that’s a lot of work for nothing. So beware.
Another important note: You can get done recording your book, submit it to ACX (or any other publisher) for approval…and they can reject you. The recording quality may not meet their standards and that means you wasted twenty or more hours of your life recording some completely unusable digital audio. Which can be…frustrating.
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So, among the millions of other things I’m trying to do out here in L.A., I am also trying to break into the ever-expanding audiobook market. And the meeting at SAG-AFTRA was the most tantalizing glimpse I’d ever had behind the curtain and into the backstage machinations of the business.
Truly, I felt like I was standing on a dock, watching a packed party-barge of revelers float by and thinking “Hey…I’d like to be on that ship. Can I come aboard? Pretty please?”
Well, things took a step in the right direction this week.
On Saturday, I got a message from my dear friend James Sie, an audiobook narrator in his own right, who had just signed up to do some work (he hopes) with Debra Deyan. Remember her? She and her husband Bob were the two who founded Deyan Audio (one of the premiere audiobook houses) and later started up the first-ever audiobook school.
James gave me Debra’s email and recommended I reach out to her so, being the responsible actor I’d like to pretend I am, I shot her a message along with a link to my website’s Voice Work page. I pushed send and…never expected to hear from her again. (This is not pessimism. This is survival. Actors who wait by the phone go slowly MAD.)
Also on the menu this weekend: Recording new audiobook samples for submission. Brilliance Audio, for example, requires five separate audio submissions. They want four fiction (one straight narration, one with dialogue (preferably with a character of the opposite sex than the narrator to see how you handle that sort of thing), one with dialects and quirky character voices and one of your own choosing) as well as a non-fiction selection (instruction manual, self-help book, etc.).
My friend Chuck had invited me over to his house to lay down the tracks and I spent the entire afternoon in his jerry-rigged kitchen studio recording and uploading the MP3’s. (Chuck was a huge help, by the way, and his technical mastery of audio recording software is a sight to behold.)
Then, towards the end of the afternoon, Chuck said to me:
“Hey, I’m going to this industry event tonight, if you’d like to go. Producers, narrators, a whole bunch of people should be there. It’s a party over at Debra Deyan’s house. Have you heard of her?”
My heart about dropped out of my body.
“The owner of the audiobook company? Are you joking? I wrote to her yesterday, Chuck. And you’re inviting me to her house tonight?”
“Sure. The lady I was going to take to the party is sick. Want to go?”
Yes. Yes I did.
I zipped back to Paul‘s place in my Cherry car, dressed for the occasion (Chuck had said “casual” so I opted for jeans and a nice sports jacket) and at around seven, Chuck stopped off and drove me to the party.
And holy. Guaca. Mole. What a place. It is, quite simply, the House that Audiobooks Built.
Yeah. Like that.
You walk up the sloping driveway and you pass the guest house. That’s right. The guest house. Then you make your way to the back and step out onto the enormous pool deck where the first of three open bars awaits you.
The live jazz trio in the corner belts out “Girl from Ipanema” as you wander into the house, past the regulation pool table, the enormous living room with the unimaginably huge plasma screen TV, the phenomenal kitchen and the- no kidding- three recording studios.
In the house. Three recording studios. And that doesn’t count the two in the goddamn guest house. And, of course, all along the walls are framed Audie-award winning CD’s, lined up one after another, just in case you were confused about why this house existed.
It wasn’t until after I arrived at the house, however, that I discovered the reason for the party. I learned, to my horror, that it was Debra Deyan’s wedding reception. A couple of years earlier, after a long battle with ALS, her husband Bob had passed away and tonight, she was celebrating with her new groom- who had eloped with her earlier last month- and had invited all her nearest and dearest to toast her nuptials.
And me. I was there, too.
I recognized a number of narrators from the SAG-AFTRA meeting in attendance, including the most shining star in the audiobook galaxy, Scott Brick. Go ahead. Look him up. If there can be a “Michael Jordan” of audiobooks, Scott is the guy. He’s got 600 audiobooks under his belt and a trunkful of Audies to go with them. (And he’s very charming and not at all full of himself, actually. Which is always nice to discover.)
Eventually, I met the bride but Debra was understandably far too distracted and busy at her own wedding reception to really take me in. Which was perfectly fine. I only hoped she would remember me in some vague way when she finally checked her email and saw my message of the previous day.
Chuck and I spent the evening wandering about, meeting fellow narrators, noshing at the various food tables, helping ourselves at the open bar and goggling at the amazing house. At one point, I stood stunned as I recognized, across a crowded room…my new agent, Orion Barnes, accompanied by his lovely wife Erin. (I thought this town was supposed to be huge, but apparently not.) We even met Dan Musselman, the Director of Studio Production at Random House who, I would soon learn, could make or break me if he so chose.
It was my first truly swanky Hollywood party and I hope it shall not be my last.
Finally, Chuck and I bid the assembled guests adieu and hit the road. Chuck dropped me off and I can only hope I thanked him profusely enough not only for offering up his home and equipment early that day, but especially for the opportunity to go to the party meet Debra and her amazing parade of friends.
And then…when I woke up this morning, a miracle had occurred. Debra’s assistant Lauren at Deyan Audio had written back to me, lauding the audio excerpts featured on my website and asking me for more.
The party barge had pulled up to the dock. Was I available to climb aboard?
I spent the following day recording and re-recording the piece I want to send back and I will, with any luck, finish it up this morning and send it off for their approval.
And then, like a chump, like a rookie, like a newbie…
…I will wait by the phone.
Let’s hope that son-of-a-bitch rings, shall we?