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Audiobook Pay: Narrator Revenue
Sharing 'A Bad Deal For Everyone'
By James Adams
Chairman & CEO, BeeAudio
& Audiobook Narrator
January 10, 2011

There has been much talk in recent months about audiobook publishers cutting deals with narrators and other talent that involves sharing revenue rather than paying a flat fee for services rendered.
In theory, it can sound attractive.
But I'm writing to discourage both publishers and narrators from going down this road. Here's why ... 
Right now, I get paid a flat fee as a narrator and I generally receive my fee two weeks after finishing a book (a very generous payment schedule by publishers for which I'm grateful).
I get no royalties and the publisher is gambling that the investment that is being made in buying the book rights, producing the audio and marketing the product will pay off in the form of revenue which is shared between the retailer, the audio publisher and the rights holder.
The way rev share works is that the narrator agrees with the publisher to forego a fee in favor of a royalty on sales.
When I was writing books, I always got my agent to fight for the largest possible upfront fee gambling that
  • it was better to have the publisher invested in me, rather than the other way around and
  • the bigger the advance, the more the publisher would be incentivized to market my book and sell more copies.
The same arguments apply here.
It makes no sense for narrators to start carrying the risk for the audiobook publisher - and giving up income on the gamble that the publisher will do a good job selling the finished product.
Here's an example of the market reality.
I agreed on a revshare deal a few months ago because I wanted to see how it would work. I narrated the book and received no income.
Meanwhile the book went through the normal inefficient publishing and marketing process over which I had no control, but on which I was dependent for my income.
A few months later after narration was finished, I received my first royalty check for $15.
At the current rate, it will take me several years to receive the income I would have gotten from a straight fee-paying narration.
And that's assuming the audiobook sells tons of copies, which does not seem likely.
Much more likely is that I never receive my full fee for the job.
And there is another, hidden, reason not to go down this road.
Most audiobook publishers have no idea why they publish this book and not that, why they pay this sum to one narrator and that sum to another, why they pay a huge amount for some rights and pay almost nothing for others.
In other words, it's a whimsical and very unpredictable business that has yet to adopt even a fraction of the efficiencies and processes that are standard in most mature industries.
The longer such inefficiencies are subsidized, the less incentive there is to become truly efficient and profitable.
James Adams is founder and CEO of BeeAudio, an audiobook publisher offering fixed-price digital service and a voice talent pool of 40 narrators. Adams is a former Managing Editor of the London Sunday Times, CEO of United Press International, founder and CEO of iDEFENSE - a cyber intelligence company, board member at the National Security Agency and NCIS, author of 13 bestselling books on warfare and intelligence, and is currently chairman of ADRevolution. This article is reprinted with permission from a recent BeeAudio newsletter.


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Comments (18)
Carlyn Craig
3/12/2012 at 9:40 PM
As an audiobook publisher who is working with narrators on royalty share deals, I have to say that I disagree with two assumptions made in this article. First, I certainly am trying to sell my audiobooks. Why else would I be producing it? I believe in the books I'm producing and want to actually continue publishing, so of course I want to sell the books I produce.

And, I, too, have invested in each book I publish. I've invested time to find the books, obtain the audio rights, and find a narrator, engage a proofer, etc. I've invested money, too, for rights (sometimes), and for proofing and mastering, produced CD and other product, getting it off to distributors, etc.

Also, I do have a very good idea of why I'm publishing the books I'm publishing. Perhaps some publishers just go off willy nilly and publish stuff - I haven't met such a publisher in all my years in book and now audiobook publishing, but I'm sure they exist somewhere - but most of us are drawn to the books we publish. Will every title make a bundle? No. That is the nature of publishing. But it won't be because the publisher just didn't feel like selling that title or felt that it wasn't an important book.

I appreciate, too, what Hugh McGuire at Iambic and others here have had to say. Hugh noted the issue of audible/ITunes. I'm a long time customer of, and I also distribute through them, but I do feel that they demand too high a share of net sales. Way back in the day, when there were lots of independent books stores, print distributors took what they still take today, around 40% to 60%. The rationale was that these distributors did quite a bit to earn that money: they had to store the books, process sales orders, ship the books, etc., and they took on quite a bit of selling/marketing, even employing sales people who developed relationships with books stores, etc. There were tangible tasks, in other words, that the book publisher was paying for when they shared up to 60% of the sale with the distributor.

Obviously, provides a service, too. But it strikes me that it takes too large a share of net sales for the service it provides. When it started out, way back in 1999, this was still a pretty specialized area and the volume of sales through downloads was relatively low, audiocassettes and CDs were still the order of the day. Now, however, the volume of downloads has increased dramatically compared to CD sales, and audiocassettes are a thing of the past. Yet audible has not lowered it's royalty share to reflect this.

We all feel we need to be on audible, and to a certain degree, we do. Yet, I can set-up a shopping cart on my web site and sell digital downloads world wide, and I have customers telling me that they are glad to be able to purchase directly from me, rather than through audible.

As an industry, I'd like to see us open up a dialogue with audible regarding this issue of royalties. Even with audible's plans to dominate the entire market and replace all other publishers, it will be a long time before they will have enough content that they could afford to go without the content provided by all the other publishers. Perhaps this would be a good time to band together to encourage audible to offer a fairer portion of net sales back to publishers. Just saying. : )

Carlyn Craig
Post Hypnotic Press
Jeffrey Kafer
1/14/2011 at 5:23 PM
What's missing from this discussion is the mention of Bee Audio's narrator rate of $100 per finished hour, fairly low in the industry (especially considering they're being paid upwards of $300 per finished hour to produce it).

Knowing this, the math becomes easier. Assuming the book is being distributed to all of the various places and the publisher is being fair, you can expect a 40% rev share, say $10 per copy sold. For a 10 hour audiobook, that book only needs to sell 100 copies to match Bee's $1000 narrator rate.

If I had a my choice between Bee's low narration rate and rev share, I'd choose the rev share.
John Florian
1/13/2011 at 1:16 PM
Brian, Great questions! Here's some help ...

At the VoiceOverXtra home page, go to the ARTICLES INDEX (blue tab on left side of page) and click the BUSINESS category. There, look for articles on audiobooks and/or income/pay. You'll find lots of advice.

Also, on Feb. 8, Bettye Zoller teaches a VoiceOverXtra webinar on audiobooks, which will bring you up to speed on that industry and what publishers are seeking now. For details, here's the link:

Good luck and stay in touch,
Brian Mills
1/13/2011 at 10:28 AM
This is a quite informative and quite perplexing. As a newcomer to both voice over and this genre in particular, I have absolutely no idea what the market rate is for narration. I can see how a celebrity might garner more than someone with less name recognition. Is there some industry standard using criteria such as the length of the book, for example? If rates are all over the place, how does one know what is a reasonable rate ?
Hugh McGuire
1/12/2011 at 12:11 PM
I'm the founder of a new audiobook company - - that is working thus far completely on a revshare basis. I thought I'd share some of my thoughts on this.

First, I think you are right that given the choice between getting paid $X thousand dollars up front, and getting Y% of an uncertain sales figure, you're probably better off taking the money up front.

Probably the ideal situation for a narrator is an X + Y - upfront + revshare.

But I think, as some narrators have mentioned above, the industry is going to be changing drastically in the coming years. It's going to face the same pressure that all content businesses face with the shift to digital, with two fundamental changes:

- growing supply (that is: more media on the market)
- declining prices

Now the hope is that it comes with increasing demand, but that remains to be seen. What is certain is that sales of digital audiobooks are growing at 25%, while hard copies are declining.

So there is no reason to expect that the audiobook market isn't going to face all the hand-wringing and uncertainty that other industries - built on analog/bricks&mortar supply-chains - have faced with the move to digital, namely: price worries, and the realization that the traditional customer of publishers (bookstores), will be replaced by a new customer: listeners.

The result will be more uncertainty about the value of any given audiobook, and hence a growing hesitancy to pay our large advances, at least for everything that isn't a sure hit.

On top of this, Audible/iTunes now has a near-monopoly on digital audiobooks - and their terms with publishers are ... not particularly favorable. So as the digital market grows, the squeeze happens everywhere. So: whither the audiobook business of the future?

My experience is as founder of LibriVox - where we built a big community of passionate amateur audiobook makers, and we've attracted a huge number of listeners - our site get 650,000 visits a month, and our most popular audiobooks have been downloaded more than a million times. These are free titles of course, but there's something to the model, one we're trying to adapt for commercial markets with iambik.

And in the case of iambik - we very much want to work with narrators and print publishers to market things together. We want to be efficient. And we want to be a great company to work with.

The big question is: will narrators make lots of money with us? Our bet is that if we focus on making it easy for narrators to do their work, and on paying close attention to the desires of audiobook listeners, we'll be nimble enough to take advantage of the shift to digital, while finding new audiences. And that means a better chance of money for everyone.

Will we succeed? We shall see ... I sure hope so, because one way or another, I think that revenueshare will be a big part of the future of audiobooks.

Hugh McGuire
Paul J. Warwick
1/12/2011 at 8:25 AM
Thanks for the info! I've never seen that side of the coin. Putting your income in the hands of someone else...nah...not so much.
Tim Lundeen
1/11/2011 at 6:01 PM
A friend shared a link to this article by James Adams, with his opinion about publishers cutting deals with narrators for "royalty" payments instead of up-front flat-rate fees. It's a common topic these days, so it wasn't surprising to read. However, as an opinion article from one man's perspective, I found myself more interested in his perspective rather than his topic.

He makes an interesting point about "incentive," if a publisher hasn't invested up-front on the talent and production costs, then they will not try as hard to sell the product. There is no need to recoup a non-investment. The assumption being that if a book doesn't sell well, the publisher doesn't really care, and consequently doesn't care about the narrator either. That's a heavy accusation. Does his perspective require that a publisher would not work hard to market/sell a book, if they were not investing in the narrator up-front? Is that how he runs his publishing company?

And yet, how many people hear one book and are drawn to hear other books, because of the performance of the narrator? Maybe my laziness doesn't like to admit it, but as a narrator I play a very powerful role in attracting people to the audio book format. I have the opportunity to market the audio book as much as the publisher, if not more so. I don't expect a publisher to heavily market a narration that was mediocre. So that "incentive" to deliver goes both ways.

In the article, James admits he narrated a single audio book under a "revshare" arrangement, and has received a $15 check so far for his work. Was he writing the article out of bitterness? Has he researched and interviewed publishers that have been paying sizable royalty checks to very happy narrators? Or does he presume they don't exist?

His article raises some interesting and excellent points. He's correct in saying that RevShare sounds good "in theory", but many of the assumptions against it are equally theoretical, when they're not backed by factual market information and data.

Anyways, regardless of the intricacies of the RevShare option, I'm glad he shared his perspective. Anyone of us might have written the same article if our first check was 15 bucks. Thank you James Adams for having the guts to post it online.
Looking Ahead
1/11/2011 at 2:18 PM
James, I believe your premise is based on an industry as it was - not as it must evolve to be to stay relevant. With the purchase of Audible by Amazon, Jeff Bezos is in a position to offer a much better royalty to an author.

Amazon/Audible have no print expense, no freight costs, no shelf space spiffs, and marketing to billions of eyeballs is free. For the customer, it's vastly easier to shop, get recommendations and buy than a bricks and mortar model. But most telling is the fact digital is outselling paper and plastic. The consumer has already voted and they're rapidly rendering print publishers irrelevant.

Once old fashioned publishers are out of the picture totally (within a decade), who do you see about getting paid? The author? My guess is the best they will offer is a percentage of sales. Amazon/Audible? Here again, a piece of the pie is all that will be on the table.

You can argue all day for the status quo but the one lesson everyone should learn is the Internet changes everything. Clinging to the past is grabbing the anchor as the Titanic goes under.
Curt Palmer
1/11/2011 at 1:06 PM
I agree with James completely. I am fortunate to work with an audiobook company that values my narration and trusts that they will cover my fees with sales. And, as James points out, the company is motivated to sell the books I've done because of this.

If I was a marketing person and could control how the book is promoted, then there might be some benefit. But, that's not what I do best (though I certainly market my services). My preference is to be paid for my talent, which is narration.
Morgan Barnhart
1/11/2011 at 12:40 PM
I was going to do an audiobook based on revenue share but after examining it further, realized it wasn't the best option. That isn't to say that others won't prove to bring wealth, but the one I was going to do didn't seem fair. It's definitely something to consider, though!
Diane Havens
1/11/2011 at 9:48 AM
It's indicative of what's happening in VO in general -- and in theater, too. As home studios become more prevalent, as more independent and self-publishers emerge, and more part-time voice actors come on the scene who do not depend upon it ...for their primary income, some of whom are quite good, in fact, this will continue and grow.

I am reminded of the tremendous talent out there that goes unrewarded (monetarily) every time I attend a community theatre production. Some of my professional (union) actor friends, successful long time actors who have done it all, even do freebie theater now and then when they are between bookings.
Terry Daniel
1/11/2011 at 9:45 AM
Well said, James! I could not agree more. It's like investing in stocks. Sometimes they pay off and sometimes they don't.
Steve Webb
1/11/2011 at 12:41 AM
I completely agree with you, James, having learned this lesson the hard way. Last year I spent two weeks on a book for a very popular musician, including full production with music and sound effects. Amount earned thus far: zip.
James Clamp
1/11/2011 at 12:03 AM
Great article. Thanks for sharing this, James.

I've been asked several times if I would consider narrating an audiobook under this kind of 'revenue sharing' deal and I've always turned it down. As I tell the publisher's, I simply don't have the time nor can I afford to take 20 or more hours out of my schedule and away from my current clients without pay in the hope of some potentially tiny future income stream.

James Clamp
Heather Farrar
1/10/2011 at 7:58 PM
Thanks for sharing! I am hoping to gain a book to narrate aside from my own soon. Information is power!
Colby Elliott
1/10/2011 at 7:38 PM
James, I wish I could agree with you or be in a position to agree.

I typically do audiobooks of books from smaller publishing houses or authors of older books that don't have the budget to do an audio version. It enables me to work the indie-movie-house circuit of the audiobook world, doing the projects I want on my timeline. Also, I don't have the phone ringing off the hook for flat-fee gigs, either. It would be nice, though.

When I first started six months ago, I had no published audiobooks and no agent looking for audiobook gigs for me. Now, I have two audiobooks published on Audible and iTunes and realize that I really don't need an agent.

I've also scheduled out my next two books down the road. I can service a niche that needs me.
I have a small body of work, growing quarterly and a brand that is my own.
Diane Havens
1/10/2011 at 3:30 PM
I have not yet narrated a book under this arrangement, and I must agree it is far from ideal. Small publishers and independent authors are more comfortable with doing it this way, since their budgets are very small. Most likely, they would not produce the audio book at all if they had to pay the buyout rate.

I might very well be persuaded to do it if I thought the book was going to be pure pleasure to record, would be very likely to sell well, and there was no pressing deadline for its completion so I could work on my paying projects at the same time.
Rick Lance
1/10/2011 at 1:40 PM
Some good points made here!

In my mind I've asked the question, why in the world would I want to accept revshare when I had no say in the marketing and promotions of the project I narrated? The publishers, authors, etc. sign on to the risks or rewards of their own projects before they even begin production. As a narrator I'm an independent contractor.

I'll settle on a flat rate ... or maybe a flat rate plus points. But to agree to revshare as my total compensation. NO way! I'm just not that stupid!
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