In this column, we usually begin by quoting the specific contract language for a particular type of job. In the case of audio books, however, contracts have little to say about them specifically. Audio books are covered by the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists' 2002-06 National Code of Fair Practice for Sound Recordings, the terms of which have been extended while the union negotiates a new pact with employers.
"AFTRA is trying to develop a contract that is specific to audio books," says Ralph Braun of the union's New York local. "We are mainly educating performers that this is an area we cover and that when they do the work they can get health and retirement [benefits] by working under the AFTRA contract."
Despite the absence of a specific agreement, however, there is quite a bit of union work in audio books. Most of it is in New York, some is in Los Angeles, but there are "not a lot of signatory companies, people signed directly to the AFTRA contract," Braun says. "There are a few companies that are signed directly. In New York it's Recorded Books, Gizmo Studios, American Foundation for the Blindâ€Ś. There's also HighBridge Audio in the Twin Cities area, and perhaps one or two other companies signed directly around the country." In Los Angeles there is only one company that signs directly, Living Voices.
According to Braun, the big commercial publishers in New York work through signatory paymasters -- industry payroll companies such as Complete Casting and Spotlight Payroll that sign an AFTRA agreement and serve as the talent's employer of record. They take care of paperwork for the publisher and receive a fee, usually 10 percent, for their services. This allows a company like Random House to refrain from signing a union agreement. "Publishers have always been very averse to signing directly," Braun says. "It's almost a religious issue with them."
Performers Generate the Work
In New York, much of the work in audio books is generated by the talent. Agents consider it low-income employment -- unless it's a star like Jim Dale commanding a huge wage to voice the Harry Potter books. In most cases, however, agents will negotiate for their clients once the job has been booked.
If you're new to the field and have an agent, find out if your rep wants to seek this sort of work for you. If not, you can get started by taking the following steps:
- Listen to audio books to determine the kind you might like to read.
- Make a demo of three or four selections; the total length should not exceed 10 minutes.
- Submit it to companies that produce audio books.
- Call AFTRA to learn the rates. For a library release, you're paid by the finished (or edited) hour; for a commercial release, you're paid by the studio hour. The extension to the current contract sets the hourly rate at $167.50, Braun says.
A valuable tip: The Audio Publishers Association Conference is held each year in late May or early June. It was in New York this year and will be in L.A. in 2008. There you can make contacts and pass out your demo to find work.
Beware, however, if you're a member of any performers' union and you're offered a nonunion job: Don't take it unless it goes through a signatory paymaster. You could be sanctioned by or kicked out of the union, even if the union doesn't have jurisdiction over the work. (See the Fine Print column on the Associated Actors and Artistes of America agreement in Back Stage's Sept. 14, 2006, issue.) Another option would be to contact a paymaster yourself and set up a payroll arrangement for the company that wants to hire you. Call your local AFTRA office to find out how to do it. "We're in our educational campaign now," Braun says. "We're out there letting people know that we're available and that we have a contract that covers this."
AFTRA's New York local also offers seminars on the topic of audio books, with casting directors, producers, and talent providing information on how to get and do this kind of work. Just ask to be put on the email list for the AFTRA@Work program. For more info, go to www.aftra.org/audiobooks.
Mitchell McGuire can be reached at mitch1226 (at) gmail.com.