Okay, so here was the original plan:
Save up as much money as possible. Get in shape. Prepare like crazy. Study up on the business. Perform your due diligence.
Then, when you’re ready, throw all caution to the wind and do the unthinkable:
Quit the day job. Move to California. Give the West Coast a shot.
And…hope for the best.
That was back in December. And everything, at least as much as it could, went according to plan.
I saved up a sackful of dough. I hit the gym and turned my middle-aged body into a middle-aged temple (or a reasonable facsimile thereof). I gleaned every bit of knowledge I could from those who had dipped a toe into the L.A. waters and lived to tell the tale. I lined up my supplies, my clothes, my pictures, my website– everything just as it should be.
And then, like an explorer ready to scale Everest’s southern slope, I studied the terrain as best I could from a distance and made my plans accordingly.
Finally, when I felt the time was right- or as right as it could ever be- I handed in my notice, boxed up my belongings, kissed my family good-bye and jetted off to sunny L.A. to try and conquer Hollywood.
Yadda, yadda, yadda, three months later, I came home.
(To fill in the yaddas, read the last sixty or so posts from the beginning of this year. Go ahead. It won’t take long. I’ll be right here when you’re done.)
My last posting on this site was in late March. So you may be asking (or maybe you aren’t): What has happened since then?
The answer is: A whole hell of a lot.
Me, on any given day.
For one thing, I have not set foot in an office since my return to Chicago. No boss. No HR director. No punching in and out. No predetermined lunch breaks. No chains holding me to a desk. No staff meetings, mid-year reviews, legal pads, interoffice memos, post-it notes or urgent, do-not-ignore-this-message emails from my corporate overlords.
In short, no day job of any kind. For over three months. I have lived and worked, since my return to my home town, purely off the sweat of my artistic brow.
I have never been happier. I have never been more free.
And I have never, in my entire life, been so absolutely, gut-wrenchingly broke.
No, seriously. I don’t have a freakin’ dime.
Oh, I’ve worked, no question. In fact, you could argue that I’ve never worked harder in all my born days. But, try as I might, I have barely been able to keep my family’s head above the perilous and frigid financial water. (And as you’ll see later in this post, we’ve scrimped and saved like the goddamn Cratchit family, but it has made little difference.)
The truth is that, without the day job, I simply could not make my nut.
And, later this month, there’s an extremely good chance we could finally dip below the surface and get a good, fresh, bracing lungful of water.
And that, my friends, is a truly terrifying development.
But, before we get to that, let’s back up just a bit and look at the good news, shall we?
All evidence to the contrary (i.e. no real paying West Coast work and the fact that, in the end, I came home), the trip to Los Angeles proved to be an incredibly positive experience. Here are a few of the highlights:
For one, I landed an agent right out of the gate. In fact, I was lucky enough to have landed two agents, one for voice-over and one for film and TV, almost from the moment I landed.
So, given the odds, not too shabby.
What’s more, I tried my hand at stand-up comedy and found, to my utter shock and disbelief, that I didn’t completely suck at it. In fact, I even got hired to do a professional gig at an actual comedy club after my first and only audition. So that was pretty cool. (And they’ve called to re-book me, too!)
Plus, I got hired to do a film. Yes, an independent film on a SAG waiver (i.e. no payment). But still: I was before the camera, playing a character, with a real, live crew in no less a place than Hollywood, U.S.A.
And really, how many people get to do that? (P.S. The finished product looks fantastic and should make a nice addition to my reel.)
What’s more: I finally finished the first draft of the play I had been toiling on for more than two years. And as anyone trying to write anything will tell you, finishing even the first draft of any project is cause for the popping of corks and the tossing of small amounts of confetti.
Not to mention all of the people I was able to reconnect with in Los Angeles after so many years apart- both those I knew from college and others from my career in Chicago. Great performers and long-lost friends (some of whom fit both categories) came out of the paneled woodwork to offer their support, their encouragement and their renewed camaraderie. And- bonus- it was absolutely fascinating to see how life on the left side of the country had treated them and how they had changed (or not).
Finally, to my great surprise, I began to explore and develop an interest in the professional audiobook industry.
And this pursuit- entering into the world of audiobooks- would prove to do more to change my professional life than anything else I experienced since I made the questionable decision to chuck it all and head off into the Great Beyond.
So, with all of those wonderful and enlightening experiences firmly tucked away in the memory bank, I zipped home to see what my new life would be like back in Chicago.
Turned out, it would be tougher than I could possibly have imagined.
For starters, I did not return to my day job. They didn’t offer and I didn’t ask. The firm seemed to run perfectly fine without me and I was determined (at least for the time being) to resist the lure of the cubicle unless and until it became absolutely necessary.
So I paid a kindly visit to my old employers, pressed the flesh, filled them in on my exploits (not all of the folks at work- like you, dear reader- stay informed via this blog) and then skedaddled. After all, I had work to do.
See, the plan was this:
I was going to become a professional audiobook narrator.
After my very brief experience with the audiobook industry in L.A., I felt as if I had finally stumbled across my true calling. To earn my daily bread, I would, for a fee, sit quietly in my basement and read stories out loud into a microphone, digitally process and edit the results, load them up to a production website and then…sit back and reap the rewards.
And you know what? It worked.
Kinda, sorta. But it really did work.
Remember, if you will, that back in L.A. I had auditioned for and booked two audiobooks almost immediately after I began submitting auditions. And what really surprised me was that I had auditioned for these projects under the most primitive and rudimentary of conditions- standing before a travel microphone in the padded closet of my friend Ed’s house with no “sound studio” to speak of and nothing more to offer than the dulcet sounds of my own speaking voice.
So, I figured, if I got back to Chicago and really set up a proper studio in the basement of my house, there was no way I could fail to get booked on dozens and dozens of additional audiobooks.
So, my friends, take a guess. Since I returned to Chicago in April of this year and began auditioning, how many audiobooks do you think I’ve booked and recorded?
Be optimistic. Five? Ten? Twenty-five? Forty? Before you read this next section, seriously: pick a number. See how close you can get.
Ready? Here’s the big reveal. All set? Got your number? Okay.
Drum roll please……….
Yeah, you read that right. I’ve now got sixty-three audiobooks either available for sale, in production or about to be released. Since freaking April.
So, naturally, I should be rolling in dough, right?
See, the majority of the books I recorded have been on the basis of what is known as a “Royalty Share.” For those of you unfamiliar with this concept, here’s the gist:
You get booked to record an audiobook. You lay it down at your home studio, edit it and load the finished product up to the website.
Then, it goes through a quality control process at ACX (which can vary from totally lackadaisical to completely anal). But, assuming your book passes muster and is approved, it is put on sale at Audible.com.
Now, throughout this process, you – my fine feathered Royalty Share narrator- do not get paid a single penny. Instead, you’ve taken a risk that you hope will pay off. You have to sit at home- utterly powerless- and hope that the book sells.
Because if it does, you get half of the author’s royalties for the audiobook. And depending on the book, these royalties can be either enriching, merely semi-lucrative or, if the book doesn’t sell at all, amount to absolute bupkis.
And that’s the deal. If the book sells, you make money. If it doesn’t, you wasted your time and your energy for zip-ah-dee-doo-dah.
Given this prelude, how do you think that I and my sixty-three books have fared? If you’re leaning toward “zip-ah-dee-doo-dah,” congratulations. You’re awfully close.
[FAIR WARNING: This next section gets pretty technical about the audiobook industry. If that’s not your thing, you may want to skip ahead to the next “*************” section.]
Let me emphasize: the theory- such as it is- is entirely sound. Record a bunch of books, put them up for sale and hope that they sell.
Even if I only sell a few copies a month, if I have enough books for sale, the royalties should add up to a nice, healthy check at the end of the month. (The royalties, by the way, last for seven years. So I will be paid for the sale of every book I record from now until the year 2023. Assuming they sell, of course. There’s the rub.)
And be assured, I am only recording very, very short books for Royalty Share. I cannot afford to spend an entire week recording a five- or six-hour book and then hope it will sell. That way madness lies. Instead, I only record books for royalties that are two hours long or shorter (some are incredibly short, between 20 and 40 minutes long).
[SIDE NOTE: My dear friend Chuck, a very successful audiobook narrator in his own right, insists that the industry does not view a book that is under five hours as an “audiobook.” That may be so, but here’s the way I look at it: If you enter my name in the search bar at Audible.com, over fifty titles pop up. So…that’s impressive no matter how you cut it.]
In this way, I have been able to record between three and five books every week. Sometimes I have knocked off two books in a single day. And right now, you might be thinking two things:
#1- How do you get booked to record them in the first place?
#2- How have sales been?
Well, as far as the first question goes, I’ve actually been pleasantly stunned by my success rate. In fact, there was a time for about two weeks last month where it appeared that I booked almost everything I auditioned for. Which was awesome.
Until my daughter Gwen said, “Man, there must not be a lot of people auditioning for those, huh?”
Nothing like the unrefined honesty of a kid to give you perspective.
Anyway, true as that may be, I was enormously gratified by the number of books I was being offered. As a result, I began to get much more choosy in what I tried out for. For example- as previously stated elsewhere on this blog- there is a tremendous amount of gay porn/romance fiction on ACX. Really, much, much more than you might think possible. And while I’m about as liberal a thinker as you will meet, I cannot bring myself to perform one of these books. I just don’t, um, have it in me, so to speak.
So, instead, I became the Mr. How-To Book guy.
I’ve done almost half a dozen books on gardening.
I’ve recorded three separate books on dog training.
I’ve done motivational books both on how to start a business and how to straighten out your disastrous, ill-planned life (and no, the irony was not lost on me).
One on how to deal with a sociopath and another on how to spot a narcissist (hint: tune in to the RNC convention in about a week).
I’ve got a couple of true crime books. Another two on finance. A few diet books and a couple of cookbooks, too. (You want to know how to house-train a puppy or make an easy Thai dinner for four? I’m your man.)
By the end of May, I had twenty books for sale on Audible. And when I got my sales figures back for the month, I found that I had made (after hours and hours every day for weeks in my basement studio, talking to myself and painstakingly editing and uploading the recordings) a whopping….
….$170. For the month.
By the time I got that statement back, however, I was already halfway through June and I had another twenty books in the bank. There was no stopping me. I kept going.
After June came to a close, I had over forty books for sale. And my sales figures had, predictably, doubled. (I haven’t gotten my June statement yet, but I anticipate that the check will be for just over $300. For the month. Which is, quite frankly, just awful. But better than the previous month, right?)
But…you see the pattern, don’t you? Theoretically, if I were to keep going at this rate, locking up twenty books a month for the next, say, six months or so (and if my sales figures remained relatively stable), I would eventually start making some serious bank.
Because if July is a third higher than what I made in June, that’s $450. Which means $600 in August. Maybe $800 in September. By December? I’ll finally be looking at some very serious income from this little venture. For work that I did months ago.
And if one of them should actually become popular? Sell a couple hundred or- God willing- a couple of thousand copies? Then we’re looking at some impressive, eyebrow raising moolah.
The problem is, I’ll never make it. Not at this rate. I’ve already exhausted my savings, my checking account is almost entirely drained and I’m starting to eyeball my home equity line of credit just to keep the wolves at bay. There’s simply no way I can keep it up.
Plus, the family and I have already pared back our expenses so drastically, there is nowhere further down we can go. We’ve cut everything back as far as possible. No more eating out, of course. No vacations. New clothes only when the old ones are falling off. Generic everything from the Jewel. Hell, I even canceled my New Yorker subscription. We’re talking sacrifice here, people.
And to be clear, this isn’t the only work I’ve done since April. There have been all kinds of jobs scattered throughout the weeks and months since my return that have done very nicely to keep the coffers semi-full. I’ve had teaching jobs, deposition training for law firms, even a brief stint as a bookseller, all kinds of stuff. I’ve been working anywhere that will have me (short of an actual office).
And Sara, for her part, is also working, walking dogs all around Oak Park and earning a very much-needed bi-weekly salary.
Not to mention the fact that I rehearsed, opened and have been running “Pygmalion” at the Oak Park Festival Theatre, playing Henry Higgins and pulling down a modest, but desperately required Equity salary all the while.
But…though I’ve supplemented my income wherever possible and while the family and I have cut our household budget to the shiny, white bone … we just can’t do it. We fall further and further behind every week. And now, we’ve hit the wall.
The numbers don’t add up. We cannot keep going at this rate. The experiment has been tried and it has not, despite the effort that went into it, panned out as we had hoped.
So I’ve come to a decision. There is, really, only one choice. And I’m sure you can see this coming, dear reader.
I’m going to double down.
The current plan? Go back.
Pack up all my things from my March trip, jump in the car and head back to California at the end of the month.
Not for three months this time. Oh, no. This time, the plan is to stay through the end of the year. Five solid months in L.A.
My extended family, those who know of my plan, think I’m nuts. And they have good reason to be skeptical. As pie-in-the-sky as my first trip was, this trip verges on completely and totally reckless.
But that’s what’s going to happen. I’m going to do something unspeakably radical. I’m going to max out my home equity line of credit, dip into my IRA savings account and try to fund another months-long journey into the great abyss that is Southern California. I’m going to get there, sign a lease, spruce up my website and my acting reel and…
…yeah, that’s right…
….hope for the best.
And what’s more: I’m taking Milo with me.
See, my son Milo has spent his entire life living and going to school out here in Oak Park and I’m here to tell you: When you’re a sixteen year old, savvy, intelligent Emo kid with a taste for city life, the suburbs get really old, really fast.
So my trip to Los Angeles is going to include my sixteen year old son.
Is that a great idea or what?
This is it, though. This is the last gasp of this soon-to-be yearlong adventure. If things don’t work out this Fall, you will see me, tail between my legs and lesson learned, come slinking back to Chicago in December (if not sooner) with my hat in my hand, head bowed low, ready to slip quietly back into the nine-t0-five grind.
Because if this doesn’t work? Believe me, I’ll have an even bigger, nastier financial hole to dig myself out of than I could possibly have imagined before.
So…let’s assess this plan, shall we?
Unwise? Perhaps. Throwing good money after bad? Maybe. Totally f*cking crazy? Could be.
I mean, you could, without question, make that argument and, in response, I’d have little ammunition to rebut your assertion. Is it totally f*cking crazy? Very, very possibly.
But guess what? That’s what’s next on the menu, folks.
Hope you enjoy the ride.