UK Audiobooks - Competition, Cost & Quality?
According to US figures provided in 2016 by The Audio Publishers' Association over 55 million Americans listened to audiobooks and more than 35,000 audiobooks were published in the States - and those numbers continue to increase. Figures recently released for 2017 indicate that total net sales of audiobooks were worth $757 million US, a rise of 22.7% on the previous year - and I read another report estimating that $900 million US would be spent on audiobook downloads and CD purchases this year (2018). In the US at least it's a growing and profitable industry. Why are things in the UK so different?
Speaking at Frankfurt’s half-day Audiobook Conference, Michele Cobb, executive director of the Audio Publishers Association (APA), highlighted growth in audiobook output and sales in the US (46,000 titles published in 2017 with sales up 23%) and the UK (3,700 titles produced with sales up 16% in 2017). As a percentage of all sales, Cobb said audiobooks were averaging out at around 4% in the major markets, including Germany. In the UK, 36% of audiobook consumers were new to the market in 2017.
So - though we're lagging a long way behind - with just 3,700 UK productions as opposed to an amazing 46,000 in the US. But sales are increasing even in the UK and I can't help feeling that we should be feeling more of this audiobook related golden glow should surely be reflected on this side of the pond? UK sales are a long way off the figures in the US, but although there is certainly not anywhere like as much work available for narrators, many UK studios seem to keep pretty busy, but rates for narrators in the UK appear to be static - I am being offered exactly the same rate (or in some cases rather less) as I was being paid four years ago.
It seems to me, that the Audiobook industry in the UK has become obsessed by bringing down the costs - but at what cost to the listener?
Audiobook production in the US effectively operates within an agreement by the American Entertainment Unions, The Screen Actors Guild - American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, (SAG - AFTRA) which represents around 160,000 film and television actors, journalists, radio personalities , voice actors, and other media professionals worldwide. SAG - AFTRA rates for audiobook narration are significantly higher than UK rates - at today's exchange rate, almost three times higher than the average rate paid to bread and butter narrators in the UK recording in a professional studio. UK competition law means that the British Actors' Union, Equity is not allowed to set a minimum rate for Audiobook narration - nor even to set a recommended rate as a guideline, so narrators are left with the choice of rejecting job offers in the hope that publishers will come back with a higher rate - or of accepting lowball rates that undervalue our contribution to this growing industry, let alone failing to acknowledge the amount of work involved in narration.
Thankfully there are some UK production houses and publishers who recognise our value and who are more generous, and naturally, some narrators are able to command a higher rate than others. Well known actors and recognisable voices may be paid significantly higher rates than those offered to an inexperienced narrator, we all understand that. But the majority of audiobooks are not voiced by stars or celebrities, but by jobbing actors and narrators who don't command high fees. Many of us, as well as many producers, proofers, audio engineers and editors - not to mention authors, who, unless they're A-listers, are also pretty poorly compensated for their work, are deeply concerned that the trend is heading in the wrong direction.
British producers and production houses are competing against each other for titles - and cost and rates seem to be what they are using as a bargaining chip. As Neil Gardner, the Managing Director of renowned Audiobook production house Ladbroke Audio Ltd wrote in a recent article on LinkedIn . . .
"We are all fighting for the titles, and we all use the un-British topic of fees as one way to differentiate ourselves. Whilst quality of end product is important, money is always a key issue."
Studios are competing for titles in the US too of course. but I wonder whether the fact that there is a broad agreement regarding the minimum rate, means that producers in the US are using some different bargaining chips when they're negotiating - perhaps they highlight their production values, the talent and range of their narrators, the technical skills of their proofers and editors, their turnaround time, their collective skills - or perhaps they shave costs in other areas. In the US, remote recording is totally acceptable, and I understand why. There are just not enough studios available to produce 46,000 titles in a year. Remote recording narrators working with US publishers (including many UK based narrators who regularly record for US publishers and production houses) have to compete on quality rather than on cost, so we invest an enormous amount in ensuring that we can deliver audio with the highest possible production values.
Remote recording is largely frowned upon in the UK - and remote recording is often blamed for bringing down rates and reducing quality. Actually neither is truel Remote narration is normally paid at a higher rate that studio recording, and as I said earlier, quality both technical and artistic, is paramount.
When winning an Audiobook title boils down to how far you're prepared to discount, how low you're prepared to go, then everyone loses out - the producers, the narrators, the engineers and editors ... and more than anyone else, the listener - because when corners are cut, then inevitably quality suffers.
It seems that view is widely shared. Richard Woodhouse of Electric Breeze Audio Productions commented on Neil's original article:
"I struggle to see the 'Boom' that everybody speaks and writes of, when we are indeed almost controlled in what we can offer for bulk production here in the UK. I've been recently informed by one potential client that my rates could be bettered elsewhere. Therefore to be competitive I have to drive my rates down. This goes against all good business practice in my view and in the long run will lower standards and quality expectations across the industry."
I know that rates is one of the many topics that The Audio Creative Alliance is going to be looking into - and that can't happen quickly enough. Judging by a recent thread on a Facebook Forum for professional narrators, some publishers are trawling for new narrators and are not only offering lower rates, but are asking them to do more for their money on top of the narration, so intervention and some kind of consensus can't come soon enough.
It is an overcrowded profession - it has always been; there is a seemingly endless flow of new readers wanting to join what is seen as a 'boom' industry who are prepared to work for very little or even potentially for nothing at all. There are lots of would-be narrators joining ACX in the UK (largely encouraged by the huge success of ACX in the US) who are prepared to record on a Royalty Share deal, for which they're paid only when a book sells. RS deals can make savvy narrators and authors a good deal of money as witnessed by the sales figures published regularly by successful US narrators. However, sales are significantly lower in the UK - and we're traditionally not nearly as good at marketing ourselves and our products as our US counterparts. When an RS Audiobook isn't well marketed, or is actually just not very good, then the narrator's 20% share of sales can struggle to get above double figures. Against that background, a rate of £60 or £70 per finished hour sound attractive to someone who is dipping their toe into the water, who is desperate to build a portfolio and to gain experience. Many will jump at the chance - an Audiobook contract, for a mainstream publisher? Wow!
At the end of the day - I can't tell anyone to turn down work. It is up to the individual to decide on what fees they find acceptable. All I will say is that many colleagues who have held out and rejected low rates were subsequently contacted with a better offer. Think carefully before jumping at the chance to narrate for a low rate. Know your value and your worth - and also be aware of the amount of work involved.
It's a thorny issue for sure ... but one that needs to be addressed. And soon!
I've gleaned quite a lot of knowledge over the years, knowledge that might be of interest to others, especially authors, actors and voice actors. Because I read so much, for pleasure and professionally, I also occasionally write reviews of what I read - so they're here too.
My opinions are mine and my views are my own!