Indie behind-the-scenes: don’t take advantage

So, a few weeks ago I talked about not being taken advantage of when hiring freelancers for publishing your book. You shouldn’t need to run a Kickstarter in order to finance your book, and I stand by that. But there’s a flip side to that, too: don’t be so obsessed with getting a deal that you rip off another independent artist in the process.

Publishing is a weird business. There are some aspects of it that have a relatively low bar for entry. If you want to be a cover designer, for example, sites like TheBookCoverDesigner make it easy for new designers to get a foot in the door, charge what they want to charge, and make a good profit from it.

But there are some areas of the business that are incredibly difficult to break into, and out of desperation, a number of freelancers are working for a pittance just to try to build their résumé. This makes me very sad. No one should have to work as hard as these contractors are working for such a low rate. So in this article, I want to highlight a few of these just to raise awareness about them. I don’t have any real concrete solutions right now (apart from suggestions at the bottom of this post), but I would love to see this get a dialogue started about ways we can make these industries a bit more fair.

Audiobook Narration

If you’re planning on indie publishing your book or have already done so, the odds are good that you’ve heard ACX recommended as a great venue for authors on a budget to make your book available in audio form without having to pay the narrators up front. This is done through a royalty share setup: you get 50% of the royalties, the narrator gets 50% of the royalties, you’re not out any upfront money and everyone goes home happy.

The problem with this is that ACX changed its setup a few years ago to take a substantially higher cut for themselves. Authors and narrators now get 40%, which, when split between the author and the narrator, means you actually get 20% royalties.

To put this in perspective: on ebook sales over $2.99 on Amazon and Draft2Digital, you get a 70% royalty rate. For books that are priced at less than $2.99, you get a 35% rate. 20% is barely more than half of the smallest royalty rate you can make on an ebook.

But wait, it gets worse. Because you might say, “Hey, well, I’ve seen these audiobooks, they’re expensive! It’s like $25 for one book, so I’ll still be making $5 per sale.” But you actually won’t, because I have never seen an audiobook sell for retail price. ACX distributes its audiobooks primarily through Audible and Amazon.

  • Audible is a subscription model website like Kindle Unlimited. You pay $15.99 a month and that gives you credit for one book. So you might look at that and say, “Oh, well, that’s still $3 a sale,” but again you would be wrong, because that is not what ACX pays you. From looking at the breakdown on royalty reports, it looks like ACX/Audible pays you out of a pot the way Kindle Unlimited does. “The fund for this month will be however much,” and they give you a percentage of that. In my experience, this has never been more than a few cents per book.
  • But wait, there’s more—because Amazon now has Whispersync, where you can buy the audiobook version of a book you own the ebook of for $1.99. Want to guess how much you get paid for that sale?

You think that sounds like a bad deal for authors? It’s even worse for narrators. Narrating an audiobook is a full-time job. Because of how low royalty share pays, these narrators have to not only have to take the time it takes to read your book out loud, they have to record it themselves, edit the audio themselves, and master the files themselves because they can’t afford to have a studio do it for them. The amount of time it took you to write that book? The odds are extremely high that these audiobook narrators are spending at least that long producing the audio version. But while you are pulling in the royalties from the ebook and paperback sales to make up for the fact that the audio version is selling like dirt, the narrators have nothing. Zilcho apart from the 20% of $1.99 or whatever ACX is paying them out of the pot this month.

If this is such a bad deal, why are these narrators doing it? Because they’re desperate. It’s hard to find a job or break into an industry these days, particularly if you’re young, particularly if you’re looking for jobs in the arts, particularly with the incredibly stiff competition of out-of-work Hollywood actors who already have union memberships and a beefier résumé.

Want to know how stiff this competition is? ACX tells you right on the front page of their website: they currently have 2500 titles available for narrators to audition for… and 37,500 narrators looking for jobs.

So, what are you supposed to do about this? I really don’t know. But I think authors need to be aware of it. Because right now, ACX is being touted as this great win-win for indie authors, but it’s really a lose-lose for both the authors and the narrators, with the narrators getting it the hardest.

This goes for all royalty-split freelance arrangements

The other biggest market that I’m aware of for this is foreign-language translations, though this is still a bit more fair for the translators because there’s not a single, centralized Big Player controlling this entire market the way ACX does for audiobooks. At least with translations, you can contract with the translator independently, and you can publish the books the same way you do already. The odds of both of you making a profit are much higher. But, as Italian-language translator Ernesto Pavan points out,

Royalty-sharing agreements put all the risk on the translator’s shoulders, because if the books doesn’t sell, you lose nothing, while I wasted weeks or months working for no pay.

There are translators, narrators, photographers, marketers, freelancers of all stripes who might be willing to make this arrangement out of desperation. And you are by all means free to take them up on it. But I wanted to point out the flip side of the coin that no one seems to be talking about, so you as an author and a businessperson can make an informed decision.

My suggestion?

The best solution I can come up with for these scenarios would be to pay your freelancers up front, depending on your budget. A number of narrators on ACX request payment per finished hours, but these can often be exorbitant for indie authors who are not top sellers. But what if you could pay them something, even if it’s a small amount? Maybe you can’t afford the $3000 that one narrator might charge for your ten-hour book (a common rate is $300 per finished hour), but you could afford $500, or even $250. You could find a narrator that takes a lower per-finished-hour rate, or even an author who’s willing to take a royalty share, and offer them a stipend.1)ACX actually offers stipends for certain productions that they estimate will sell well based on the ebook’s performance. In those cases, ACX itself will pay your narrator a few hundred dollars in addition to the royalty share. If we could make this standard universal for all narrators, that would make the business much more fair. If you can pay them even a little, it will be a better deal for them than expecting them to work for free, which is what most indie audiobooks boil down to.

I think most everyone, especially in the author community, is in agreement that artists deserve to be paid for their work. That doesn’t just go for authors! It goes for the freelancers we contract with. You shouldn’t be taken advantage of, nor should you take advantage of others. If we all look out for each other and do what we can to boost every indie contractor and small business we work with, we can help everyone get ahead and continue to reshape this industry in a positive way for everyone.

NOTES   [ + ]

1. ACX actually offers stipends for certain productions that they estimate will sell well based on the ebook’s performance. In those cases, ACX itself will pay your narrator a few hundred dollars in addition to the royalty share. If we could make this standard universal for all narrators, that would make the business much more fair.

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