Debbie Levitt

voice actor, singer, producer

A Finished Hour of an Audiobook

Posted on Oct 11, 2016 in Opinions

Some audiobooks will pay a narrator $X PFH. For example, a 10 hour book might offer $250 PFH. This means that if the finished audiobook is 10 hours long, the narrator gets $2,500.

Some authors or publishers don’t want to pay that much. If the audiobook version sells for $15 and other people get cuts of things, maybe the author or publisher images 200-300 would have to sell just to break even on the narration.

It’s a math game.

So some rights holders (RH for short) offer lower rates like $50 PFH. Is that a good rate?

Let’s break down the math.

PFH is per finished hour. That means if it takes you 4,000 hours to record, edit, and finish one hour of an audiobook, you get paid for one finished hour. Unlike typical creative work like graphic design, you’re not paid by the hours you spend working. You’re paid by the length of the content you end up with.

How long does it take to finish an hour?

This is Google-able but the current ratio is 6 hours of work go into 1 hour of finished audio. That normally breaks down as:

  • 2 hours of reading (and re-reading) the content.
  • 4 hours of editing, production, mastering, and finalizing the files.

Can’t a professional work faster than that?

Possibly, but let’s look at a typical scenario. A pro is narrating your book. She sneezes. She doesn’t like how that paragraph sounded; she wants to read it again. A plane flew over. The neighbor’s dog barked. She started the sentence again with better emotion.

It could take 2 hours to read 1 hour’s worth of finished content.

4 hours of editing?

I’ll walk you through my process to tell you why that figure is possible.

  • First, I edit out mistakes and move anything around that needs to be moved. Maybe at the end of the chapter, I decided to read an earlier section over. I have to slice things, remove them, or move them. I do this while listening to the whole thing through, which means I can follow along with the script and see if I messed up any words, which would require re-recording. So if I recorded 2 hours of material, I’m listening to 2 hours AND stopping to work on it.
  • I then move into dealing with the nitty gritty. I am currently breathing a little louder than I’d like to, so I prefer to turns all of my breaths into silence. I do this manually, one by one. I don’t listen to it while I do this. I just look at the spectral display, highlight breaths, and replace them with silence. This goes relatively quickly but does take time.
  • I then run a few processes on the file from removing mouth clicks to evening out volume to shortening long silences (like waiting for that airplane to pass over the house). This takes a few minutes.
  • I then listen to it again as a QA adventure. I check how it’s sounding and listen for missed breaths. It should now be 1 hour long.

Even without the time I am spending editing, I have listened to 3 hours of material. So imagining that this takes 4 hours is quite fair. Some people are probably faster. Some are surely slower. I might be average. And I’ll be faster if I ever find I can do quieter breaths.

And that’s 6 hours assuming the author or publisher doesn’t come back to me with changes. If there are changes, I have to re-record, edit again, master, etc… So it’s 4:1 if all goes fairly smoothly.

This means for the real hourly rate, divide by 6.

If you offer someone $50 PFH, you are offering to pay $8.33 per hour. That’s probably 1099’ed as a consultant, so taxes will be owed on that.

Narrating and editing are highly skilled and specialized jobs. I’d suggest being prepared to pay more for it. If anybody could do it, the author would be reading her own book. Some do! And some shouldn’t. 🙂

What should I pay?

You can start by knowing the current rate for people who are part of the union. While many narrators are not union members, it’s good to see what the union is charging as a minimum for these people.

$210 PFH. Divide by 6 and that’s about $35/hour (without taxes withheld).

That’s assuming the narrator works alone.

Some narrators work with partners.

Some narrators work with partners who take some of the work off the narrator’s plate. The narrator might employ an editor or proofer, someone who does a QA pass and makes sure all the words were said correctly (so that the RH doesn’t have to discover every mistake).

Many narrators are paying editors an average of $60 PFH. This means your narrator is working for around $75/hr ($150 PFH divided by 2 hours of narration per PFH). His or her editor is working for around $15/hr (4 hours of editing for $60 PFH). It’s a smart way to go for many narrators, especially if they are not as handy with audio software, don’t have the time to spend on editing, or want another set of ears.

More math.

At $50 PFH, your narrator can’t employ his editor partner, so your book might be off the table for that narrator.

At $100 PFH, your narrator might get $20/hr and his editor gets $15/hr, if all goes smoothly. A narrator working alone makes $16.67/hr. That may be too low for what your narrator wants to accept.

The math is easy for you to do. Just take the PFH, divide by 6, turn on your empathy, and imagine if that’s an attractive rate for the narrator, whether or not she has a partner.

You could even pay more than $210 PFH.

Does your book have a lot of characters? Your narrator has to bring each of these to life and make them distinct without anybody having visual cues of who is speaking. This is extremely specialized, takes fantastic talent, and isn’t for everybody. I deeply respect those people and would suggest paying them more.

On ACX, the website that matches narrators with audiobooks looking for them, you can search by Project Rate. There is an option for “$400 – $1000 PFH.” Let’s put more books in that category. 🙂

And there’s always Royalty Share.

You could offer to pay your narrator a split of the audiobook sales. Some narrators go for that. Some don’t want to take what might be perceived as a risk. If the book sells poorly, then they have put in a mountain of work — and possibly paid someone for editing or proofing — with little or no return.

Like any project, the more you offer to pay, the higher talent you are likely to attract. Will a seasoned, veteran audiobook narrator or award-winner narrator do your book for $50 PFH? Probably not. For a royalty share? Depends who you are, what you’ve written, how it’s selling so far, and probably some other factors.

Consider budgeting for the quality you wish to get. This isn’t like a $5 logo. Anybody can make a $5 logo by slamming clip art together. [related blog post: What Kind Of Logo Do You Get For $5?]

Audiobook narrators can’t slap pre-recorded things together and handle your book in a flash. Consider budgeting more for your narrator’s talent and time.