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Part 1:
Recording Audiobooks Efficiently:
'Finished Hour' Vs. 'Labor Hour'
By John Pruden
Audiobook Narrator & Voice Actor
When recording audiobooks at home, it is extremely important to do it as efficiently as possible, since this will maximize your profit as a narrator.
In Part 1 of this two-part series, we’ll discuss how audiobook narrators are paid and the difference between "finished hours” versus "labor hours.”
In Part 2, we’ll discuss two very important things you can employ with your recording setup to record more efficiently, and thereby increase your hourly profit for labor.
There are a lot of variables involved in audiobook production. Managing the variables that are under your control can go a long way to helping you be more successful as an audiobook narrator.
Here, we’ll be focusing primarily on audiobook production at home, rates per finished hour, and how actual labor hours figure into the equation.
This last part will help illustrate just how important working efficiently is to your success as an audiobook narrator.
Basically, a narrator can record in one of two places:
  • in a publisher’s or producer’s studio, or
  • at home in your own studio.
If you’re recording in a publisher’s or producer’s studio, it’s very important to the producer/director that you do a good job and do it quickly.
This is because everyone wants to make their money as quickly as possible so they can move on to the next job and make more money – the same as any other voice-over job.
But if you’re recording alone at home you have all the time in the world, right?
Right, but also Wrong!
It’s not in your best interest to take a lot of time – unless, of course, you’re independently wealthy and are only doing this for a hobby. In which case, you can tune me out and I hate you.
If you’re recording alone at home and are given nothing more than a book and a deadline, do you think it’s important to the publisher or producer exactly how long it takes you to complete it?
No. They just want you to do a good job and submit it before your deadline.
So it becomes very important to the narrator to do it quickly and efficiently.
This is because there are "finished hours” and "labor hours,” and the labor hours are paid from the finished hour rate!
Typically, audiobook narrators are paid an hourly rate based upon the "finished hour” of the book being narrated.
Hourly rates for new narrators paid by medium- to large-sized publishers range from about $100 to $350 per finished hour - both in studio and at home.
For simplicity sake, we’ll use $100 per finished hour and the average book length of 10 hours.
Therefore, a finished book that is 10.0 hours long will get the narrator paid $1,000.
Pretty simple. Or is it?
Let’s ask some questions:
Q1: If you are paid $100 per finished hour to record a 10-hour book, can you say you’re making $100 per hour?
Q2: What if it takes you 100 hours to complete the 10-hour book?
Q3: Does taking 100 hours to complete a 10-hour book seem excessive to you?
Let’s do the math to find out.
How long it will take you to complete a book will depend on how much or how little of the work you and the producer/publisher/author have agreed you will do.
There are a number of variations. Let’s look at two: the minimum and the maximum. Note that the following examples do not include adding any other performers or music in any form.
At the very minimum, you will read and research the book, then record your narration and any corrections you must make. This is a typical arrangement with a publisher and can be recorded in their studio or your own at home.
It looks like this:
  • Reading and researching, 10-15 hours
  • Recording the narration, 20-30 hours
  • Recording corrections, 1-2 hours
TOTAL: 31-47 hours
On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that you may find yourself performing every aspect of an audiobook’s production: reading/researching, recording the narration, proofing, recording corrections, editing, and mastering.
So let’s break down the complete production of a 10-hour book for all aspects of production:
  • Reading and researching, 10-15 hours
  • Recording the narration, 20-30 hours
  • Proofing, 10-15 hours
  • Recording corrections, 1-2 hours
  • Editing, 20-30
  • Mastering, 1-2 hours
TOTAL: 62-94 hours
However long it took you to actually complete your portion of this book is your hours of labor.
Therefore, if you are getting paid $1,000 for this 10-hour book, labor-wise, you could be making the following:
  • 31-47 hours of labor will earn from $21.28 to $32.26 per labor hour
  • 62-94 hours of labor will earn from $10.64 to $16.13 per labor hour
So, to answer our questions:
Q1: If you are paid $100 per finished hour to record a 10-hour book, can you say you’re making $100 per hour?
Answer: Yes, per "finished” hour. No, per "labor” hour
Q2: What if it takes you 100 hours to complete the book?
Answer: Then you’ll be making $100 per finished hour and $10 per labor hour.
Q3: Does taking 100 hours to complete a 10-hour book seem excessive to you?
Answer: Only if you’re responsible for minimal production, but not when you’re responsible for the entire production of the audiobook.
You can easily see that if a low per-finished hourly rate is combined with a lot of production hours, it’s possible for a narrator to get paid less than minimum wage per hour of labor!
This simple example quickly shows the importance of proper negotiations to ensure that you are getting paid for all of the labor you are performing.
You can also see how important it is to take all of this into consideration by doing that math – before negotiating.
But most importantly, you can see that the more efficient you are in your production, the more you will make per hour of labor!
As your efficiency decreases, your labor hours increase - and your resulting rate per hour of labor will decrease, as a result.
Therefore, our goal as narrators should be to increase efficiency to achieve an increased, reasonable rate per labor hour.
So, how do we become more efficient in our production, you ask? See Part 2 of this series, Recording Studio Setup & Using "Quick Punch."
Note about the numbers: The hours and rates shown here are meant to be as accurate as possible. Everyone may not agree with these numbers because everyone’s personal experience and level of expertise is different.
But everyone with experience in this area should be able to agree that these numbers are possible. Only your time and experience will help you develop your own numbers.
John Pruden is a full-time audiobook narrator who also performs in corporate narrations, as animation and video game characters, and in radio and TV commercials through his company, Voice Acting With Character. In just under three years, he went from being a part-time voice actor with a day job to becoming a full-time, home-based audiobook narrator. He will be writing more VoiceOverXtra articles chronicling how he got to where he is today, and what he has learned along the way.


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Comments (10)
ellie Weingardt
6/14/2016 at 9:39 AM
How many pages per hour?
David Stevens
5/31/2016 at 12:01 PM
Thanks for the info. I have just been offered the narration of two audiobooks, and am unaware of typical payment scenarios in the field. This has been very helpful.
Chris gill
1/5/2016 at 5:20 PM
Thank you for your informative article. I am starting in this field shortly, I have only done one book but I'm finding out I really enjoy it. I appreciate your breakdowns.
9/17/2011 at 10:52 PM
I listen to audiobooks about eight hours a day, and was curious about how the work is done. Thanks for a great overview!
John Pruden
3/22/2010 at 12:26 PM
Thanks for the comments, everyone. This is info that I learned on my own as I haven't come across anyone who teaches it in any detail in books, classrooms, or workshops, and thought others would find it helpful.

Paul, answering your question is easy - People who argue that we don't know the realities of the marketplace apparently don't know the realities of production. Those people are usually producing just one book and have to maximize their profit by minimizing their overhead. Whereas, those who produce many more than one book at a time can absorb the production costs more easily. It's for these reasons that I pass by all of those small, one-time jobs and stick to the medium and larger publishers who know the realities of the business.

On the rare occasion when I do feel compelled to educate the uninformed/clueless/careless potential client - as so many people think performing voice over is "just talking," or they only consider their own financial aspects and fail to take ours into consideration - I'll give them a very quick overview of the time involved, and include some analogy that most people can identify with.

Something like, "So, basically you're saying that you would like me to paint your house, but you think you should only have to pay for the paint. Would you do that for me if I asked you?" or "Would you take your car in for a tune-up and insist that you think you should only have to pay for the spark plugs?"

Adam makes an excellent point, which is reason enough to defend yourself for having real hourly rates. That AND the fact that you probably have to pay 15% self-employment tax ON TOP OF regular taxes, as well as having to pay for our own health insurance.

Alan, right as always, sir! You do have to love it, and I do. Where else can you act out 50-75 parts, make all your own character choices, direct, and produce all from the comfort of your own home? The creative freedom is tremendous. You just have to "make bold moves!"
Sean Crisden
3/21/2010 at 7:25 PM
An excellent peek into the world of audiobooks. I just completed my 3rd complete "maximum hour" book yesterday and those calculations are very much correct. Research and prep are critical in maintaining efficiency, as is knowing your gear and software when it comes down to post.

Alan's words above could not be any truer when it comes to loving the work. For pay scale vs. time investment, audiobook narration is on the low end of the pay scale. However, its still a blast and I find the work to be steady.

Paul, I share your horror when I see some of the Internet casting sites with posts for 350+ page books priced at $500 or less. Even more ghoulish is the fact that many hungry but ill informed hopefuls are bidding on those jobs. The cycle must come to an end!
Paul Strikwerda
3/19/2010 at 10:40 AM
Thanks for this excellent article John! I sincerely hope that it will silence those who still believe that doing voice-overs is a "get rich quick" scheme," but I doubt it.

Some voice-over casting sites will continue to post jobs, offering $250 for narrating a 350-page book on "Making it Big in Business". Don't be surprised to see more than 100 people bidding for the project.

I was recently contacted by a rep from an audio book publisher. This was his response to the $100-$350 hourly rates you quoted:

"I just want you to understand the realities of the marketplace. If we paid everyone the rates you are suggesting, the productions would not be made. At this point, no one is getting rich over here. So the choice is no production or a discounted hourly rate. That's the reality."

Criticism has also come from colleagues. When arguing in favor of rates that - in my opinion - are fair and reasonable, I was more or less accused of being a proponent of price-fixing.

I was told that I had to accept the fact that we're living in a capitalist economy, and that prices are driven by the market. "Socialism doesn't work," said my critic. People have a right to work for next to nothing...

Of course, all of this is nothing new. I just wonder how you deal with these objections, and how you handle negotiations that lead to an hourly rate you can survive and thrive on.

Alan Sklar
3/19/2010 at 10:30 AM
John is right on! Audiobook narration is probably the lowest paid type of voice work. Tons of homework looking up pronunciations, etc. So what it comes down to is: "You've gotta love the work"
Marcus Weems
3/19/2010 at 9:14 AM
I don't recall ever having it broken down that succinctly before. It causes one pause. Look forward to the second half with anticipation.
Adam Verner
3/19/2010 at 8:58 AM
Good stuff, John! This is stuff people wanting to get into the industry need to know. Every time I explain this to voice over talent interested in audio books they are unpleasantly surprised.

One thing you didn't mention in calculating your profit - the difference between gross and net. Since most audio book income is 1099 (self employment income), let's assume an average tax rate of 15%. So your calculation of minimum time/money of:

"31-47 hours of labor will earn from $21.28 to $32.26 per labor hour"

is actually:

"31-47 hours of labor will earn from $18.09 to $27.42 per labor hour"

...and of course, even worse for the "maximum" hours. Not to depress everyone - but it's important to note! And if you're paying 15% commission to an agent, you're even more screwed!
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