As audiobooks flourish, thanks in part to digital technologies, the industry has given many aspiring actors a steady paycheck. “A fan once said to me that my narration was like ‘a modern version of sitting around a campfire listening to tribal elders’ ”

June 29, 2013

Actors Today Don’t Just Read for the Part. Reading IS the Part.

By LESLIE KAUFMAN

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Gabra Zackman is a new kind of acting star: she is heard, but unheard-of.

Ms. Zackman had classical training through the Shakespeare Theater of Washington, has worked in regional theaters for the last two decades and has had a sprinkling of appearances on television shows like “Law and Order.” Those performances, however, have brought neither fame nor fortune.

Instead, like a growing number of actors, she has found steady employment as a reader in the booming world of audiobooks.In recent years, Ms. Zackman has recorded more than 200 titles, and she says she can now count on steady work of two books a month, earning $1,000 to $3,000 a book. The income helps her make the payments on her one-bedroom Manhattan apartment while giving her the freedom to travel around the country and perform.

Once a small backwater of the publishing industry, in part because of the cumbersome nature of tapes, audiobooks are now flourishing. Sales have been rising by double digits annually in recent years. A recent survey by industry groups showed that audiobook revenue climbed 22 percent in 2012 compared with 2011.

Much of the growth can be attributed to the business’s digital transformation — from how books are recorded (increasingly at studios in the actors’ homes) to how they are sold (through subscription or individually on the Internet) and consumed (downloaded to mobile devices).

That development is good for publishers and authors, of course. But it has also created a burgeoning employment opportunity for actors pursuing stardom on the stage and screen, allowing them to pay their bills doing something other than waiting on tables.

Ms. Zackman says the demand for her work is tied in part to her dedication to her craft, and she does extensive research before each book, with the aim of infusing intonation and emotion into each character’s voice. She also gives credit to Audible.com, a company in Newark that is pushing the digital revolution in audiobooks, and which has become her main employer.

“I get to have a whole flourishing life as an actress because they have given me an opportunity to practice and to be employed,” she said.

Audible, the biggest producer and seller of audiobooks, says it produced some 10,000 recorded works last year — either directly or through a service it provides that allows authors to contract directly with actors. Each book amounts to an average of two or three days in the studio, but can be more, for the person voicing the book.

Donald R. Katz, the founder and chief executive of Audible, which was bought by Amazon.com in 2008, said that his company employed 2,000 actors to read books last year, and he speculated that he was probably the largest single employer of actors in the New York area.

The actors’ guild says there is no way to calculate such a number but it confirms that not only is audio narration work suddenly plentiful, but that it is also lucrative enough to allow many of its members to survive on it.

As with other forms of acting, compensation varies according to fame. An unknown actor might earn a few thousand dollars for a book, while stars like Nicole Kidman, who recently narrated Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse” for Audible, can be paid in the hundreds of thousands.

Still, Michelle Lee Cobb, president of the Audio Publishers Association, said “there are hundreds of actors who make their living reading books and we are seeing more and more people trying.”

The field is so promising that drama schools, including prestigious institutions like Juilliard and Yale, have started offering audio narration workshops.

Courtney Blackwell Burton, director of career services at Juilliard, said: “It is very exciting because it is a new source of income and work that really uses their training. We are really pushing this idea of entrepreneurship, and with narration you can even have your own studio in your home.”

Since the workshops started in 2008, eight Juilliard actors have recorded 62 books for Audible, she said.

Katherine Kellgren has led narration classes at various acting schools. She said she was excited that audio narration, which is different from other forms of acting, is finally getting recognition as a craft.

Ms. Kellgren attended the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art for three years, where she says she trained intensely in dialects. She did radio plays early in her career, which helped prepare her for audio work.

For her first book, she auditioned for the producer over the phone by reading selections from “Out of Africa.” She got the job, which was for a bodice ripper called “Wicked Widow,” just the mention of which still makes her giggle with embarrassment.

Now, Ms. Kellgren, who refers to herself as an audiobook narrator instead of an actress, can command as much as $450 for each finished hour of narration and can be picky about the work. “When books get too spicy for me, I turn them down now because I dissolve into hysterics,” she says.

Ms. Kellgren’s style is to perform demonstrative dramatic readings, giving each character a distinct voice. She even has a dialect coach. She has recorded nearly 200 books and says she even has a fan base.

“It is not exactly people stopping me and saying, ‘didn’t you read “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”?,’ ” she said, “but I have been at various book festivals and people recognize me by my work.”

Another actor, Jonathan Davis, also can command a premium price for his services. He has narrated over 30 Star Wars books for Lucasfilm and Random House, as well as critically acclaimed books like the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” for Audible.

Mr. Davis cautions that narration is not for everyone. “You need endurance, patience, and you need to do a lot of research,” he said. “I am in the booth from 9 to 4 and the average book could be three days to seven days.”

The upside, for him, has been a connection with authors like Bret Easton Ellis and Oliver Sacks and also a tremendous amount of freedom to define the project artistically. “I feel like they have a great respect for what I do,” he said of Audible, his most regular client.

His style is more restrained than Ms. Kellgren’s. “You paint the whole picture but you are very controlled,” he said.

“A fan once said to me that my narration was like ‘a modern version of sitting around a campfire listening to tribal elders,’ ” he added. “That is what makes me feel I am on the right track.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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