Audio Book Reality

On occasion, someone will ask me how they can get into the field of voice over work. Usually it’s somebody who has a decent voice, a voice that could reasonably be expected to delight a listener. Other times, it’s an actor (usually amateur) who thinks it would be a great way to increase their revenue stream. Most unusual, and most uncomfortable of the lot, is the person who has no distinction to their voice, can’t act, and who thinks that any gravy-train that a moron like Joe Courtemanche can ride should have a seat for them as well.

Microphone time!

Microphone time!

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I usually explain to people that in the past 10 years of professionally doing voice work I’ve managed to earn less than $20,000. That’s probably about $6,000 too high, but I’m going to be an optimist. I’ve worked a lot of small projects that paid a few hundred dollars, and they do add up. My agents have found me work that is very lucrative, but infrequent. Even if I go with the big number, it’s less than $2,000 a year.

For that $2,000 I’ve paid $200 a year in dues to a voice over service. I’ve invested about $1,500 in cabling, computer software, amplifiers, microphones, and quieting material. I’ve auditioned hundreds of times for fewer than 100 paying gigs – probably about one paying job for every 40 auditions. Those auditions cost me time setting up, rehearsal, and not doing something else in my life that I probably would have enjoyed a lot more.

Recently I completed an audio book for another author. I did it as a speculative project with another voice over talent through my entity. (Yeah, the website is pretty lame, but it’s low on the priority list at the moment.) We agreed to do it for 50% of the profits from the audio book so that we could point to the finished work as a sales reference. Why? Because while we make magic on the microphone, if you have nothing to prove it (and nobody wants to listen to my Norwegian hog semen sample for some reason) it didn’t happen. So we figured we’d just blow away one segment of the market with the best darned audio book they’d ever heard and hope it led to more work. The paid in advance kind.

That book, which was 74,000 words, took over 100 hours of time to record, edit, and produce. You not only have to have all the equipment noted above, but you have to rehearse and be ready for a day with no thunderstorms. No sirens. No industrial lawn mowers in the park. No C-130’s practicing touch-and-go landings at the nearby airport. No nada. That means that even in a very quiet room (we don’t have a studio) you still have to wait for those moments when the ambient noise, beyond the baffling you set up, will not crop up on your recording.

You need to record it at that point. It’s not just sitting on the stool in front of the microphone and reading aloud. It’s acting. You have to really feel the story to make it work. To prove the point, pick up any book you have at hand (hopefully it will be Assault on Saint Agnes!) and read it out loud while recording it on your smart phone. Now play it back. Sounds stilted? Lifeless? Yeah, it will the first few times you do it. I did over a dozen audio books for the blind before I ever did one that might be commercially viable. It’s hard work. And it’s time consuming.

It usually takes at least 4 takes of some parts to get it right. That means that the finished 7 minutes of audio really was about 18 minutes of recording before you’re sure you got it right and can move on to editing. Once it’s “in the can,” you need to listen to it again, make sure you didn’t click the mouse, have the wrong words tumble out, and take out the noises you make when you cough, swallow, or shift your feet. That part usually takes about 30 minutes for the finished 7 minutes of audio, because you have to be sure.

Now, after you’ve got the files with all the words, you have to balance them. That means tamping down on the microphone pops that some letters make – called “plosives” – and level the sound. That, for a 7 minute recording, takes anywhere from an additional 0 minutes (yeah, that was a great chapter – I had two of forty-seven like that) to around 20 minutes.

Now, everything is good and balanced, you upload it to the net servers for the audio book company and wait for them to approve the files. Then the rights holder gets it to play with and approve. Then it goes on sale.

So after 100 hours of work you might, maybe, make four dollars per copy sold. Do the math and tell me how many copies you have to sell before you have earned minimum wage on the book you just poured your guts into!

Mind you, there’s an art to doing it well. I think we have done just that – we brought the book to life!

But it’s no get-rich-quick scheme. Yes, some artists do very well. But they hustle every day until they are discovered. And if there’s a “big talent” in your market who catches all the gravy, or union guys who are in demand, you’re not going to work very often.

So, to my friends who ask how to get into the voice over world, I’d discourage you for all of the reasons above. But if you really want to try it, go take that voice over class at the community ed program or your local theater. That’s where I started.

I’ll keep you posted on how it goes, sales-wise.

But don’t try to sell me that Mercedes quite yet, the final files are still pending approval.

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Assault on Saint Agnes is now available. Just click this link to find all the options! (I recommend the autographed copy. It’s cheaper than from the big stores, I scribble in it, and you get it mailed within 5 days. We all win.

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