Tags abbreviated audio, ACX, audio, blog, comedy, FOR THE HELL OF IT, Johnny Heller, narration, narrator
ACX and Me – A Journey of Discovery without (One Hopes) Skullduggery and Balderdash
By Johnny Heller
I’ve been asked by various and sundry audio type folks to share my experience with ACX. ACX is an acronym for Audiobook Creation Exchange, an enterprise from mega giant Audible/Amazon. Here’s what the ACX web site says it is: “ACX is a marketplace where professional authors, agents, publishers, and other Rights Holders can post fallow audiobook rights..”
“Fallow” means, for those who don’t know what it means but are too shy to ask – basically – unused.
On May 13, 2011 I went to Audible Headquarters in Newark, NJ to hear a presentation on ACX. I had received an invitation to attend the presentation and I was promised free lunch and free passage on New Jersey Transit. There were about 20 or more of us – agents, actors, producers and others in the business easily lured to New Jersey by promises of a free lunch and free train fare.
Having worked at Audible as a narrator, I passed on the tour of the facilities and instead went to one of their 30,000 coffee machines for some much needed caffeine. The Audible kitchen and dining area was prepared for us with a fine selection of sandwiches and treats, plenty of seating and a nice screen and video projector. We sat down with our sandwiches and were warmly greeted by Jason Ojalvo. After a few introductory words, we saw a short swell film that explains ACX fairly well (the film is available on their site). We also listened to Jason explain ACX fairly well. When you look at the actual site, you’ll see that it explains itself fairly well as well and that’s well and good…and well.
SIDEBAR ON BRITS: It also must be pointed out ACX is supported, both at the initial presentation and on the site by Neil Gaiman. Gaiman is a fine author and narrator and most importantly for us – he speaks with an English accent. The British have long realized that we are suckers for the sound of their impeccable speech. Why, we gave Colin Firth an academy award just for stuttering in English. We’re not sure if Shakespeare wrote all of Shakespeare’s plays but we do know that we only like British actors doing the lines. We are so fond of the sound of the Brits, even our current hit TV shows employ British actors pretending to be Americans (and if a Brit is unavailable, we like the heroes of our American TV shows to be at least Australian actors pretending to be American – Australian being sort of “Britishy”).
We like many audiobook narrators but we LOVE British narrators. Simon Prebble, Simon Vance, Gerard Doyle (who is not named Simon), Anne Flosnick (also not named Simon), Davina Porter and others are everybody’s favorites and why not? Just listen to those dulcet British tones. I once drove my very good friend Simon Prebble from New York City to Booth Bay Harbor, Maine and I don’t think he stopped talking once. It was just a long unending litany of lovely lucidness and laughter all delivered in his impeccable British accent. It was a wonderful trip. (Actually, I left the car to have lunch and buy some booze and he didn’t even notice I was gone – even he was mesmerized by his accent).
As yet another aside – but staying on the British thing (don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about ACX – I’m just not done digressing), I once flew from Seattle to NYC and my seat mate was Patrick Stewart. (I had enough mileage to upgrade to first class and he was in 1st class already – the airline not having a class higher than 1st to accommodate him.) Patrick Stewart and I fell into pleasant conversation after a bit. I of course recognized him as a brilliant star of stage, screen and television and he recognized me as someone who recognized him. He was quite charming and British and when I told him that I was an actor specializing in audiobook narration (unlike him – an actor specializing in making money as an actor) he was quite interested.
Patrick: Audio books? That’s fascinating! Er, umm, I wonder….
Patrick: Well do you think I could do an audiobook?
Johnny: Gee Patrick, I dunno. What have you done? Do you have your resume? I guess I could call Claudia Howard at Recorded Books…would you like me to put a word in for you?
Patrick: Would you?
Johnny: Patrick! I’m kidding you! I don’t need to put a “word in”. Just call your agent and tell them to get you an audiobook! You’re Patrick F-ing Stewart!
And then he smiled at me. He was, of course, kidding with me. And when I ordered my dinner and he had the same thing as I did and I teased him that he didn’t need to copy me just to emulate my audio book success, he took it well. We laughed and smiled and returned to our various books and gadgets and I thought for a bit how easily he could have me killed if he wanted to. And just to show me what a funny guy he is, he “got” me at the end of the flight. The pretty flight attendant said: “Mr. Stewart, we’re going to be landing soon and I’ll need you to bring your seat forward and fasten your seatbelt. And I just want to say what a great honor it’s been having you today.” And then she looked at me, sitting next to Mr. Stewart, sort of frowned and walked away. After an uncomfortable moment, Patrick Stewart looked at me, smiled and said: “I guess it wasn’t much of an honor having you!”
Oh those Brits!
Ok. Back to ACX…
So Jason Ojalvo presented the ACX model to us and we also got a few words from Donald Katz and when it was over I was pretty sure that the agents and producers hated it and the actors were curious about it.
Agents didn’t like it because they already make too little on Audiobooks because audiobook narrators are woefully underpaid as it is, as all the available money for audio projects is sucked up long before casting, and because ACX would require a great deal of work on their behalf to get their clients work and it could take some time before they saw their 10%. Producers weren’t excited because it seemed that the narrator would essentially become the producer in the ACX model. Which would mean, of course, that they – the producers – wouldn’t be needed and that wasn’t good news to them.
SIDEBAR ON NOT BEING NEEDED: No one likes to be told they aren’t needed or wanted. I remember in 7th grade when Kathy Sullivan broke up with me by passing my I.D. bracelet –that’s what guys gave girls back then – herpes being unavailable — back to me hand-by-strange hand in the school gymnasium during a basketball game. I wasn’t needed and everyone knew it before I did and it was very sad. My growth was immediately stunted and I remain short to this day. Isn’t that the saddest story?
Back to ACX…
At least, that’s how I read their reactions. In fact, both agents and producers can use ACX and make money with it if they are willing to A) become the producers themselves and give the gig to their clients or B) buy book rights and become the rights owner and farm out the production using ACX. (Actually I’m fairly certain that some audio producers do get the ACX rights and farm them out to narrators. The producers pay the narrator to do the narration and the producer does the producing and the rights holder gets the book done. I am also fairly certain that when this happens, the producer pays the narrator a rate lower than the one the producer contracted with the rights holder on ACX and keeps the difference. That, at least, is the scuttlebutt I’ve heard. I’m not sure that there’s anything wrong with it – if a narrator says “yes” to a job at a given rate, then that’s the deal.)
After the presentation, I went home and thought about ACX. If I understood the presentation, and to be honest I missed some of it due to my penchant for daydreaming, in any given year a boatload of books are written. Only about 5% of a given year’s boatload ever gets done in audio form. This is due to the costs involved, the time involved, the fact that some books are crammed with charts, graphs and pictures and don’t translate well into audio and, finally, because many books really suck and don’t make anyone any money in any format.
However, after that 5% that gets produced comes the next 10%-15% that aren’t too bad and maybe some of those should get produced on audio. This is where ACX comes in. At its simplest, it’s an open market for the rights holders of the aforementioned 10%-15% of books not currently produced in audio format and for would-be producers of those audio books. In other words – say I own the rights to a book called: “Kim Kardashian’s 10 Steps to a Lasting Relationship.” I am looking for someone to produce it. Somehow or other, I get it on the ACX site and narrators looking to do the job send me auditions.
Before I go on with my fictitious book story I should point out that I have zero idea how I get my book onto the site. I am not at all sure how ACX finds the titles or the rights holders or how the rights holders find ACX. I also don’t know how ACX keeps books that aren’t in the defined 10% – 15% from getting into the mix. It’s not clear to me that if my title – Kim Kardashian’s 10 Steps to a Lasting Relationship” – isn’t even in the 25% range or 50% range (no business being produced as an audio and likely no business ever being written in the first place) – it can be barred from the ACX site. How does ACX keep the ne’er-do-wells (like Kim Kardashian) out of the mix?
I posed this question to Charles Clerke at ACX. Now here’s where something wonderful happens. Charles is a fine human being and has been extremely helpful to me. It seems that not only is the site chockfull of answers to most questions, but answers are also available via email and telephone. The ACX staff is interested in helping you out. While it seems like there is almost too much information on the site to take in, it is easier than assembling most Christmas toys for your kids and if you seek out answers they are available. Regarding the issue of a book “making” the list, Charles told me that I should check to see if the title is an Amazon title. This particular issue is not in his bailiwick, he confided, and suggested I contact email@example.com with my queries about such issues. (Since I didn’t really write a book called “Kim Kardashian’s 10 Steps to a Lasting Relationship”, I’m not going to do it but if I had…!)
And here’s a good point to make. Love ACX or hate it or just fear it because you don’t know what it is and it is therefore a scary thing (like Republican political platforms) they strive to help you. They are available to answer questions and provide guidance.
Okay. Back to the audition process.
I get my book on ACX and I list myself as the rights holder and I am seeking auditions for the producer/narrator. When you register at ACX as a narrator you can start auditioning. ACX breaks down the available titles by Genre, Nonfiction or Fiction, Gender, Language, Accent, Voice Style, Voice Age, Project Rate and Stipend so you can hone your search and seek only projects you’re actually right for or actually want to do.
Under the project rate heading you’ll see Royalty, $0-$50 per finished hour, $50 – $100 pfh, $100- $200 pfh, $200-$400 pfh, $400 – $1000 pfh. If you click on $400 – $1000 pfh, which I just did, you’ll see that there are no titles and you’ll laugh and remember that Jim Dale and Simon Vance and probably Patrick Stewart have already done all the jobs paying that much.
So you go to the next highest paying gigs and you’ll note that there’s quite a few and those are the ones you’ll likely want to audition for. To audition, click on the title you want to audition for. Click on the audition tab. Usually there will be a url there that you need to put in your computer and it will take you to a pdf that you print out and read from. Could this be easier? Yes. But it is what it is and you are who you are and you take it like an actor and pretend it’s not annoying at all.
So. You take your copy and you record it in your home studio and – what? You have no home studio? Where did you plan on producing the audiobook you’re auditioning for? This is something to consider and it’s a whole different blog and I’m not ready to do it yet, so suffice it to say that you need a place to record. I suppose you can do the audition anywhere but you must have a studio somewhere to record the project in if you get the job. And if you have to rent a studio, remember that that cost will come out of your hourly rate. So aim high!
I suppose that you could choose to audition for the lowest paying gigs but I won’t. The Royalty Share gigs are another way to go and it’s what I am doing now. If you want the gig to be a union job, you must get at least $225 pfh or, on a royalty share, you must get at least a $100 stipend and in all cases you must select the AFTRA option when accepting the gig.
A royalty share means just what it sounds like – you and the rights holder split commissions 50-50 (minus the chunk Audible takes) on downloads. If the book is going to be hot – like Vincent Zndri’s Scream Catcher! – then it could be a good deal.
ACX is offering stipends on certain projects. The stipends start at $100 pfh and it’s a guarantee that you’ll make something on the project or, at the least, be able to pay for your engineer. I also think the stipends are a nice way for ACX to say “For the Love of God! Will you narrators please give this damn thing a try?” Either way, $100 pfh is like….lemme see….carry the 3….add the hypotenuse of the right triangle….about $100 pfh more than $0 pfh! So it’s okay.
(And don’t worry too much. Not only are you not necessarily going to get the job but you will certainly never receive a word of thanks for your audition or your time. Rights Holders, like other aristocrats simply haven’t the time for good manners it seems. Your audition will remain active or it will suddenly become inactive and you’ll never know why. Interestingly your audition may become inactive and the book itself may still be listed as seeking producers. It can be harsh. Can this be made more palatable? Of course! A simple note from the rights holder or ACX to the auditioner saying” “thanks for your audition!” would go a long way to making this a better experience but it is what it is and you take it like an actor and pretend it’s not annoying at all.)
I put 9 auditions on the site – books that I wanted to do and thought I’d be good at it. I heard from no one. 5 of the auditions are still “active” and the book I agreed to do was at the invitation of the rights holder and not from an audition I did on the site. If you are accepted to do the job you will be informed with a congratulatory note from ACX in your email and on the site. You don’t have to accept the offer. You can say “no.” If you “yes”, then you are a producer and you have some work to do.
Actually then you have a lot of work to do.
STAY TUNED FOR NEXT WEEK’s INSTALLMENT – PART 2: SO, MR. HOITY-TOITY PRODUCER! WHADDA YOU KNOW FROM PRODUCING?
(No idea how many parts this will take. I’ll let you know when I’m done. )
Photo Credit: © Jo Anna Perrin