What a Spring it’s been! While Thanksgiving is the traditional time to stop what you’re doing and be grateful, I’ve found myself in gratitude mode on a more regular basis the past few months. As I assess the first quarter of the year (wait, we’re 25% done with 2013 already?) I’m on track to reach a lot of my business goals for the year and personally, my family has a lot of exciting things going on. One goal I’ve woefully fallen short on was writing one insightful blog post each month. My purpose of this blog was to share some of myself and my experiences in a way to help other voice actors further their own careers. I’ve felt very blessed and fortunate and don’t take what I have cultivated and maintained for granted, and feel I owe it to others to share something and give back but just haven’t sat down to write about it in a while.
Since many of you were happy to receive tax refunds, while many others hopefully planned well to make your timely payments to the IRS, I thought this would be a good time to talk about a few business investments voice artists can make in their businesses and in themselves.
Don’t ever take your main commercial demo for granted. I’d been ‘content’ with an older voice over demo I had produced several years ago, and despite having trained with several renowned teachers and experienced growth as a voice talent, my demo stayed the same this whole time. “Well, I’m still getting a lot of work and people reference X spot or Y spot on there…” so why change it?
Yes, it can be a pain to produce a new demo, which means finding or writing good snippets of scripts, having a modern music selection, or hiring someone else to do all that for you. Let me tell you – you voice over people who say your current demo is fine because it’s “good enough” – it’s really not. Or, are you waiting to get a new one until after you get more work, after you buy new gear, etc? A great demo in enough places will lead to better work and more jobs. Once I received my new commercial voice over demo a few months ago, I updated it with all my agents and everywhere I had my old one online. Within a few weeks I started booking more (and bigger) jobs through those agents and on those websites. This was not a coincidence, and the new demo has already paid for itself several times over.
Your website is a great passive way to meet new clients. I get 3-4 phone calls a month from several of probably thousands of search engine optimization companies. My website has been around for 6 years, it’s been regularly (or kinda regularly) updated with new blogs about audiobooks, bookings and working in our industry in general. There are a lot of SEO things that happen organically that make Google rank my website on the first page in searches, depending on the search terms you use and where you are (in Phoenix or Arizona, especially). I’ve been very happy with my website performance and can tell them “you really can’t do much for me, thanks but no thanks.” If you have a newer website and don’t have the time or opportunities to update a site several times a year, then paying for some SEO may be a good use of money. If you don’t have a website yet, this is your year to get one.
Before saying “yes” to an SEO company, talk with your web designer to make sure your metatags represent content that is found among your website pages. You want your keywords to accurately tell search engines what is on your page, and if you’ve got metatags (keywords) for things you can’t back up with content, you can’t trick the search engine into linking to you for that search phrase. I also highly recommend using Google Analytics. It’s free, you just stick a short code in the header of your site and then you can see traffic (visitors) and where they come from (via search, from links on other sites, etc). If you’re using a WordPress based site, it’s incredibly easy, otherwise it’s a quick fix for your designer to add in. Know what’s going on traffic-wise and determine how you want to improve that, and then you’ll be ready to hire an expert in SEO. Don’t just say yes to the next person to solicite you to “get on the front page of Google.” They can’t guarantee that and don’t believe them if that’s their promise to you.
I’ve studied with a range of coaches – from a few classes with someone who had no business teaching limited or outdated performance techniques to really fantastic modern pros who work with voice actors in the top of our field. Especially if you are coming to voice over from an outside industry and are pursuing this because people tell you that you’ve got a great voice or you’ve always wanted to “do voices” or animation – I urge you to work with a coach. This isn’t so that you can pay someone to knock you down and scare you away from doing VO, but so you can learn how to properly use that instrument of yours. If you inherited a beautiful sounding piano, you wouldn’t assume you deserved to be paid to play it for an audience without proper training and practice, right?
Of course, not everyone comes to voice over that way, but everyone can benefit from good coaching. Get references from voice actors you respect who are where you’d like to be, and make sure you’re working with someone who is active in the industry in one way or another. If you’re going to be coached by another actor, listen to their demo and find out what they’ve booked recently, and know that not every successful actor can be a good teacher. If it’s someone who has a background in casting or studio direction, personal references from current and past students are very important. Do your homework before paying for coaching and you’ll be sure to find a better match for what you need or want to learn. Be familiar with industry trends and popular ad campaigns, pop culture/TV references and be able to identify a script that sounds outdated. You should be working with current copy, not reading from promos and spots from the 80′s or 90′s. Many VO people think getting a coach or attending focused workshops is an optional expense, but that’s true only if you want to take the long way to get to a better performance and a more successful career.
These are investments that will increase your bottom line and help you grow your business in different ways. With your 2012 tax numbers fresh in your mind and 3/4 of 2013 to go, you’ve got time to decide which of these is most important to you, and to make a plan to reach your goals for the year.
A month ago, I added some new equipment to my studio that will assist me in serving my clients all over the country and around the globe. I now offer phone patch services for clients who want to listen-in, direct, or just participate in the recording process, live. This expedites any script revisions that may happen after the recorded piece is received and allows for precise direction in complicated scripts. My rate for a 1-hour phone patch session is included in any large buyouts, and is a nominal fee for blocking out the time on smaller projects. My regular studio hours are Monday-Friday 9-5p MDT (until we “fall back,” consider this PT, afterwards Arizona aligns with MT.) Before or afterhours sessions are limited but available.
You may wonder, why not offer ISDN? After all, I live down the street from a building that had been wired for several ISDN lines, and would be in a better position than most to have it run to my house. ISDN is difficult to get setup because the phone companies simply hate setting it up, and VO blogs for the past decade are full of complaints about their inconsistent service, unknowledgeable techs, delays and added expenses. If ISDN is ever-so-slowly going away, I’m happy to skip it entirely and start with a phone patch, for both cell/landline calls and Skype. I’m also considering SourceConnect in the future, but at the moment I’m only answering to the demand of my clients.
As artists, we often seek out metrics to find out how well we’re doing, whether it’s finding out where our website ranks when searching for voice over talent, how our books on Audible are being rated, or just throwing your name in to Google to see what comes up. Is this concern with what the online world connects with your name a healthy awareness, like checking yourself in the mirror before you leave the house, or is it feeding an unhealthy obsession with what others think of us? Here’s a few tips about how to best use the information you can find about yourself as a voice actor to improve your business, and what you should try to avoid.
We all know how easy it is to lose time on various social sites and potentially sites with reviews of your work. If you’re an audiobook narrator, it can be exciting or frustrating to check out reviews and rankings of books you’ve recorded (on Audible, GoodReads, or professional review blogs.) If you can’t break the habit of checking your consumer reviews, then you can learn to dismiss both the good with the bad when it’s coming from these (mostly) non-professionals. But wait, don’t ignore reviews completely! It may also be a good idea to give some thought to professional reviews that offer constructive criticism or if you notice a pattern of negative comments referring to part of your narrative style. We can take the professional critiques and try to learn from them.
Another helpful tool I use for my VO business is Google Alerts. When the phrases or names you submit are freshly indexed by the search engine, you’ll get an email with the websites they appear on. I have Google Alerts for my name and business name. I see this as a healthy way to keep tabs on anytime I’m being mentioned or linked to from another site, and as a courtesy you can thank others for the mention or link. This is the cure to frequently Googling yourself (go ahead and giggle like a teenager…) but if you keep the navel-gazing down to a minimum, Google will do all the work and let you know when you need to see something relevant.
Seemingly helpful for small business owners is the social rating site, Klout. It’s where having a bigger network full of followers and people who are connected and influenced by you gives you a higher score. A good Klout score has little or nothing to do with the overall relationships you have with clients and leads, it’s an incomplete picture of your business. I see many voice over talents asking for +K’s to improve their score or clarify their areas of influence but I don’t see the point in our industry. First of all, as VO talent, we’re usually hired by new clients based on our demos, auditions, a referral or a recommendation, and by repeat clients based on our deliverables, dependability and relationships. Secondly, what may be intended as finding out some stats on yourself can morph into unhealthy behavior for your business. You can get caught up in doing activities that boost your score but may not benefit your business. The changes to your behavior that happen just because you know you’re monitoring the results are called the “observer effect.” While you may eat better when you keep a food journal, in this instance are your behaviors online actually changing to benefit your business, or just your Klout score? I don’t see a Klout score being a worthwhile metric for voice talent to monitor. However, I definitely see its potential for sucking up massive amounts of time and causing worry where none is needed, so I’d say keep more of your sanity and skip this tool.
Here’s one last tip to help keep your sanity when you’re online and find a discussion relevant to you or your work: don’t feed the trolls. This may happen on an Audible review, within a blog post or in a forum. Online bullies (who generally would never have the guts to say any of these things to your face) are cruel on these websites just to amuse themselves when they make people upset and defensive. Much of this happens anonymously, but I’ve seen recent business discussions devolve into personal attacks on LinkedIn and was surprised by the nastiness as it’s connected to your actual name! Trolls are an ever-present but thankfully small population online and they should be ignored. It’s not a good use of your time or energy to be involved in a discussion that turns into an argument with a troll and the only way to win those arguments is really to not get involved.
As a VO talent, it can be hard to work alone, talk to your clients mostly over email, send your work out into the world and not want some kind of feedback when it’s available. When looking outward for critiques and feedback you have to walk that line of finding out enough to be encouraged to continue and to help improve your work, but not soak up too much negativity or discouragement in the process. I’ll end with something from the always succinct blogger, Seth Godin. He had a fantastic blog post about online critiques and criticism. From all the places and ways you can gather feedback about your work online, he says, “Yes, change what you make to enhance delight. No, don’t punish yourself by listening to the mob.”
ACX and I have spent some quality time together lately. In my wild run of recording 12 books this Spring, 3 of them were completed using Amazon/Audible’s “Audiobook Creation Exchange” and I’ve just agreed to produce a 4th. They’ve come to me through several channels – a direct invitation to audition, an existing publisher relationship with a suggestion to check out their titles, and then browsing through titles in need of a narrator/producer. Only one of the three I’ve completed is a royalty share title, the others were pay for production books.
Using ACX is not hard, and all of the requirements are spelled out on their Audiobook Production Rules page. I realize many of you hate reading the directions for things, but much like your IKEA furniture, it’ll all go together more smoothly if you just take a look at the pictures and cross your fingers that they included enough wooden dowels. Actually, scratch that, this is much simpler and very straightforward.
We start with the basics: do you know what you’re doing? Training and a proper studio setup must be your solid foundation. Next, if you don’t know how to get a clean, quiet sound in your studio, hire an engineer for a consultation. Learn how to self-direct and troubleshoot audio. I know this is all an inconvenience for the long-time narrators who’ve been accustomed to what has now become a luxury of recording in a studio with a director in LA or NYC, but it also is what’s created the opportunity for people living anywhere to become an audiobook narrator. As the saying goes, “don’t hate the playa, hate the game.”
Here’s the basic stuff you need to know specifically about narrating books through ACX: they have a standard audio format; they have a file delivery requirement; someone will check to make sure your audio is up to their standards; they make sure you get paid.
There are some good titles available on ACX in need of narrators. Many of them are willing to pay fair rates that allow you the budget to hire a director, editor and proofer, if you choose (and you should have them sign contracts available on ACX.com as well to CYA.) With Audible’s new author program, encouraging authors to bring their audiobooks to their marketplace, you can expect to see more titles arriving at ACX this year. I see this as a great incentive for more self-published authors to get audiobooks produced of their material. While I’m a bit wary of the editing quality (read: no editor at all), there are also many authors who value a good editor, and would value a narrator enough to pay a fair pfh rate, or be savvy enough to have a solid online network to promote it like crazy to ease your worry about accepting a royalty-share deal.
I know most narrators would prefer to just focus on the story and not worry about the studio, proofing, editing, QC and mastering, but for those who can multitask while recording or who are comfortable paying outside contractors for those other parts of the job, I hope you picked up some helpful info here and encouragement to give ACX a chance.
What’s your experience been? Have you been working on any projects through ACX lately, or what’s been holding you back from using the site? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.
Important sidenotes: I had a few questions about ACX (id3 tagging, multiple-file uploading – which actually had gone into effect a few days after I’d uploaded my latest production) so I contacted the email address listed for support. I was encouraged to call to speak directly to Scott Jacobi (production coordinator) and we went over everything and had a great chat for close to half an hour. When was the last time you got that level of customer service on any of the voiceover websites you belong to, that you likely have a paid membership to? That’s awesome customer service and support for narrators. Also, just to be clear, I was not compensated in any way for my post or any outbound links in this blog. These are my opinions and experiences and I wanted to share them with you.
I had a commercial voiceover session through my local agent last week and met another one of her talent at the session. We got into a conversation about work and what’s keeping us busy. He was doing lots of video games and audiobooks, and I similarly had several audiobooks on my plate and lots of eLearning. For the most part, none of our day-to-day clients are in the same city or even state we live in.
I live in Phoenix, and beyond the local spots and campaigns for the bigger agencies in town, we’re not a huge local voiceover market. Twenty years ago, a voiceover talent wouldn’t pick to live and work in Arizona – Los Angeles or New York would be the most sensible places to stay busy in the industry. Now, voiceovers are part of the global market, you can have clients (and agents) all over the world. You could live in Clovis, New Mexico (which I did, for 10 months) and have a lucrative voice over career and rarely have to leave your house to work – never, if you had ISDN or SourceConnect.
Most of the US entered into Daylight Saving Time this weekend. Arizona, as well as a few other resistant pockets around the country, did not. I dread this time of year. It’s not due to the impending summer heat – thankfully we have a few more beautiful months before that hits. Right now, we shift from 2 hours behind EST to 3 hours behind EDT, which shifts my day and work hours by an hour as a lot of my clients are on the East Coast. It means that to keep my prompt responses and availability my clients expect from me the rest of the year, I have to “get to work” an hour earlier so I don’t fall behind at the start of the day. If they send an email when they get in the office at 8, and I’m not on email until 8 then suddenly it’s approaching lunch before they get my reply. I understand my West Coast friends deal with this 3 hour difference all the time, but there’s much to appreciate about the consistency of the same time difference all year round. As the twitter hashtag goes, #firstworldproblems
Where are your clients? The benefit of a global market is that you can work from anywhere. Outsiders think that as independent professionals we can work “whenever we want” and it turns out, that’s really not the case. Agents and producers want the accessibility of someone who’s going to quickly respond to emails and get audio back the same day or within the hour sometimes. If you find the majority of your work coming from a timezone different from your own, it may make sense to shift your working hours to align with theirs. If you’re in Arizona, one of the 12 counties in Indiana that doesn’t change their clocks, or any other place on this list, you may need to think about how you set your working hours during Daylight Saving Time and how available you’d like to be for your clients around the world. If your area participates in DST, it’s still worth considering whose workday hours are the best fit for your business.
With just a few days left in the year, everyone’s looking forward to 2012 and making goals for the new year. Don’t forget that there are a few business days left in 2011, and now’s a great time to double-check that you’ve made the most of this year. Here’s a checklist of things to do so your business is prepared to take on 2012.
Do you know what your tax liability is going to be for 2011? First of all, if you’re brand new to voiceover and had a very modest year, here’s a little help to see if your business is still technically a hobby for this year. For everyone else, we’ve been turning a profit and it’s just a matter of how much taxes we owe the IRS. If you don’t pay quarterly or set aside a percentage of your monthly income, this can be a painful number to hear from your accountant in the spring.
Disclaimer: I’m not giving professional tax advice, this is just from one voice talent to another. Check with your tax professional before proceeding with any of my suggestions. Do your own research, there’s a lot you can learn on the IRS website about business taxes and deductions.
Before the end of 2011, you’ll want to double check to see what your tax situation will be, because there are a few things you can do for your business right now to help offset what you owe. To get a ballpark estimate, add up what you’ve been paid or expect to receive by 12/31 and find that total in the corresponding chart of tax brackets – tax percentage “x”. When people talk about freely spending money because “it’s a business expense” they may not realize that it’s not a dollar-for-dollar tax credit. It’s actually that “x” percentage that roughly will be the percentage of your legitimate business expenses that comes back as a tax write-off from your total taxes owed. Do you know you need a new computer, upgrades, or other gear in the near future? Consider buying it now and your 2011 tax liability will be decreased by approximately “x” percent of the cost of your gear. If you need a new computer but it hasn’t been released yet (Apple products are perfect examples) but you know about what it’ll cost, buy your business a gift card towards that purchase in this calendar year, even though you’ll buy the computer next year. Use these last few days of 2011 to dig around for donations – send money to your local non-profit food bank, drop off what you can to Goodwill, and request paperwork for all your donations. Some charities work with the state to provide a tax credit, as in a dollar-for-dollar write-down of your tax liability (for federal taxes you’re still working with “x” percentage of that donation amount). Again, check with your accountant now if you’re unsure of what you can or can’t do, this is just my personal experience and not professional advice.
It’s a great time to do a major re-org of your data. If you’re using a backup system (RAID, external harddrives, etc) this will be easier for you. Are there projects you don’t need sitting on your main harddrive anymore? Pop these folders and files on another harddrive (if you don’t have one, buy one this week and do it!) Don’t delete your data because 1) storage is so cheap, 2) you could be surprised that your client lost their original files or 3) the client needs you to reference and match an old read for an update to the project.
Review who you’ve worked with this year and make sure you have their updated contact info in your computer’s address book, your billing software and/or accessible in the ‘cloud’ or on a backup drive in case something happens to your computer.
Do you have previous clients that you didn’t work with at all this year? Make a list and look into contacting them, remind them that you’re around and possibly send updated demo information to refresh their memories.
Is there anyone you don’t want to work with again? Slow payers and no-payers could easily be on the client-cut list. If you still have any outstanding invoices, send another reminder. The only good news I have for you is that if a client never pays, your accountant may include that as a tax write-off for you.
Grab your smartphone, sit at your computer, and find a pen and whatever 2012 calendars you received during the holidays and make sure you write down important dates for 2012. Things to note:
– contract renewals – with clients, voiceover pay-to-play sites, etc
– website domain renewals – hosting, domain names, etc
– seasonal clients – any time-specific events that prompt certain clients to call on you
– conferences and workshops – look online and see if there’s anything you’re planning to attend, and mark dates payment is due for registration, if it’s posted
– planned vacations – unless you’re thinking “what is that?” in which case maybe you should start planning a little time off
– automatic payments – advertising, paying off gear, anything that you don’t want to be a surprise to your business account
Now that you’ve gotten all that done, spend some free time (ha!) editing your Facebook timeline. It’s good to do a little maintenance on your social media accounts, make sure your descriptions and details are up to date and update any new skills you have on LinkedIn.
My next blog will likely be the first of 2012, and once we’ve cleared off all these last to-do projects from 2011, it’ll be time for goal setting. Until then, I hope you have a productive last few days of 2011!