Tuesday, July 2, 2013

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

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.

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