IV Media: Negotiating the Gig Economy
"¿QUÉ HAY DETRÁS DE TODO?"
“¿Qué hay detrás de todo?”: Opacity, Precarity, and the Unwaged Labor of Latina Audiobook Narrators
Ruth L. Núñez
The world of audiobooks represents a generative site for informing our understanding of how the future of digitally mediated creative work is being structured within the gig economy, by whom, and to what effects and affects. I come to this research as a Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) union member and audiobook narrator;1 someone who brings the text to the audiosphere via her voice, her creativity, and the skill with which to connect with her audience on an emotional level.2 I began narrating audiobooks following my work on a project that received a Grammy nomination for “Best Spoken Word Album” in 2012. At the wrap party for the project, I was approached by audiobook producers. I thought of this job, as many gig workers are encouraged to see their labor, as an occasional source of additional income. Neither the pay rate nor the opportunities to work were significant enough for me to consider it otherwise. Yet, as a book lover, I figured, “Why not get paid to read books from time to time?” After experiencing a series of workplace frictions, however, I paused and took a closer look. Realizing that what I considered to be a ‘side job’ is actually a key component to a growing global multibillion-dollar industry, I understood that the media’s celebratory discourses did not align with what I was experiencing at work.
Audiobook narration is being structured as a form of precarious labor within today’s gig economy, and the audiobook ecosystem is opaque by design. News stories contribute to this obfuscation by keeping our focus on the overall financial strength of this industry. They tell us that US audiobook sales were estimated at S2.1 billion in 2016,3 sales increased to $2.5 billion in 2017,4 and the trend continued in 2018 with another 22.7% increase to over $3 billion.’ Far from being a sideline of the publishing industry, audiobooks have been its “fastest-growing format,’’6 helping to offset declines in frontlist and e-book sales for years.' Yet, it seems that it is the publishers and retailers who benefit from what some refer to as the audiobook revolution, not the performers themselves who bring the books to life.
This disparity is significant given that SAG-AFTKA defines audiobooks as “audio recordings of published texts performed by professional narrators.”8 SAG-AFTKA’s definition identifies three key components to an audiobook and their corresponding labor areas: the text/author, the recording of audio/engineer, and the performance of the text/narra tor. It makes no demands, however, that these narrators’ compensation be commensurate to their contributions, a fact that both the industry members and a mostly laudatory media generally fail to acknowledge.
In order to look beyond the surface of these celebratory market discourses and not be mystified by their neoliberal framings, I interrogate what the audiobook industry’s perspective elides about the labor process, where value is created.9 By recalibrating and expanding the focus to issues of labor, both visible and invisible, I bring workers and their labor conditions to light. In particular, I focus on the experiences of US Latina audiobook narrators because their perspectives offer us the opportunity to detangle the racial and gendered registers of this digital labor environment. And, today, when any analysis of digital media structures necessitates a transnational lens, the views of US Latinas are key because they bring transnational and intersectional lenses to their self-reflexive views as creative workers. Plus, while they are one of the most under- and misrepresented communities in legacy media (relative to their numbers in the US),10 Latinas are an important and growing segment of the audiobook labor force."
To bring their voices to the forefront, I employ a Chicana/Latina feminist methodology' and engage in plàticas (culturally relevant, in-depth, open-ended interviews) because this method allows workers the space to explain in their own words what this growing commercial ecosystem looks—and feels—like from their perspectives. Examining audiobook narration from the intersection of Chicana/Latina feminism and labor demonstrates how opacity and precarity enable abusive labor practices in digital arenas and how this precarity is unevenly distributed. Plàticas with three Latina narrators help illuminate the ways in which gig economy labor structures have been woven into media industry production processes. They also point to a link between the intersectional marginalization of US Latinas in traditional media and their exacerbated exploitation in digital environments.
The insights from this work may help support union organizing efforts by encouraging an expanded understanding of digital era concerns. Ultimately, I argue that we must demand transparency of gig economy labor structures and reimagine more inclusive worker-centered alternatives.
Historical Context and Situating the Current Boom
The contemporary moment has seen audiobooks move firmly into the mainstream commercial market, such that their sale and consumption can even be considered a ‘boom’. The Audio Publishers Association (APA) tracks the audiobook’s US trajectory by primarily highlighting technological developments.12 In 1997, Audible debuted the first digital audio player; in 2003, “Audible’s deal with Apple,” which made audiobooks available on iTunes, increased public awareness and access to digital audiobooks. From 2003 to 2004, CDs replaced cassettes as the preferred format. In 2005, “Preloaded Digital Players . . . were created.” The APA ended their trajectory in 2008 when “digital downloads surpassed CDs as the most popular audiobook format.” It is worth noting that 2008 was also the year that Amazon purchased Audible for $300 million.13
The beginning of today’s digital boom can be traced to 2011 when Amazon’s Audible launched its Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX) digital platform, ushering in fundamental changes in audiobook production.14 ACX is a digital “marketplace” where creatives and rights holders can connect to produce audiobooks. This platform, and others like it, theoretically open up the playing field to a global workforce. The result, the ACX site states, is that “more audiobooks will be made.”1’ Audiobook audiences are concurrently growing. Recent APA studies have found that, in 2019, “50% of Americans have listened to an audiobook,”16 and that “the multiple ways audiobook listeners can digitally access their content are helping them carve out more time to listen.”17 Digital devices such as smart phones, smart speakers, and the ubiquity of Wi-Fi have made these downloadable productions more widely available and accessible than previous formats.
From the industry’s perspective, new technologies have simply been meeting evolving consumer needs. As the Wall Street Journal reported in 2016, “Smartphones and multitasking have stoked an explosion in audiobooks. . . . Downloadable audiobooks are about half the price of the CD version and can be even cheaper through a subscription service.”18 These facts translate to strong sales figures. Chris Lynch, co-chair of the APA’s Research Committee and president and publisher of Simon & Schuster Audio, summarizes, “More audiobooks are being produced and more people are listening than ever.”19
However, a narrow market perspective gives us an incomplete understanding of the audiobook boom. We must expand our focus to consider the humans who are doing the labor and their labor conditions. Engaging with Marx’s labor theory of value, it is important to examine to what degree today’s increased production and lower prices are possible because of an imbalanced pay structure, in which the total amount of labor and labor time that narrators contribute to the final audiobook remains out of view and unwaged. We must interrogate who benefits and who loses when our attention is kept away from labor concerns.
As stated, this study looks into labor issues by engaging with Latinidad, because Latina talent is a growing segment of this labor force and because of its deeply rooted transnational registers. As Arlene Dâvila tells us, US Latinx media has
historically been the product of transnational processes. . . [this] means analyzing at least two industries: one with roots in Latin America and the other with roots in Hollywood . . . linked to at least three distinct language media worlds in Spanish, in English, and in Portuguese (translated into Spanish).20
Such is the case in this context. According to a SAG-AFTKA “Taller de Audiolibros” 2019 workshop, 2018 marked the fourth year in a row with a 20% global increase in audiobook production. Production in the Spanish language market has been particularly rapid, at 33% in 2018. This increase speaks to both a production gap and (foreseeable) demand given that, in 2019, Spanish was second in number of native speakers and third in total language speakers worldwide.21 The Cervantes Institute 2019 report states that, in the world of books, Spanish is a “language of translation.”22 Globally, it is the sixth language from and the third to which translations are made. Latina audiobook narrators’ potential audiences, therefore, are substantial, given that they contribute their creative work and cultural knowledge to both English- and Spanish-language markets (if not more).
The potential US Latinx market alone is significant: The Latino Media Gap found that “If US Latinos constituted a nation, it would be the 14th largest economy in the world.”23 Today, 18.3% of the US population are Latinx with 13.5% (about 41.5 million) who speak Spanish at home, which does not mean we speak Spanish exclusively.24 As Jillian Báez finds, “Overall Latina/о audiences appear to oscillate between English-language and Spanish-language media, albeit to different degrees depending on language competency, generation, and class.”25 In other words, Latinx media consumption is dynamic and hybrid.
Nonetheless, when it comes to legacy media targeted at US Latinx audiences, producers continue to marginalize us via problematic portrayals, which include essentializing ideas about race, ethnicity, culture, and linguistic practices. The impacts of these representational decisions are significant. As Báez additionally tells us, “media become the gauge for Latina audiences to measure their status in the United States.”26 It is via media as cultural artifacts that Latinas assess their cultural citizenship; a conceptualizing of citizenship as belonging that extends beyond legal status to include both material and symbolic forms of citizenship.27 Similarly, Latina media professionals gauge where we stand in our industry’s (and the national) imaginary via the quantity and types of characters we are asked to portray. As traditional media fails us, US Latinas turn to digital arenas, like the audiobook industry, to look for additional and more creatively fulfilling labor opportunities. Unsurprisingly, labor protections are not keeping pace in the digital sphere, which increases Latinas’, and other marginalized communities’, exposure to precarious labor conditions.
Methodology and Method
I engage with Chicana/Latina feminism as my epistemological, methodological, and theoretical framework because this approach centralizes the lives of Latinas and prevents them from being hidden and folded into traditional patriarchal | Latino] and liberal feminist | White female] scholarship.28 Such an approach to understanding digital labor builds on Sarah T. Roberts’s groundbreaking work on commercial content moderation, where she identifies a legion of unseen laborers and brings their working conditions out of the shadows. These perspectives are informed by the ways in which labor—and particularly labor in the information and communications technologies industries (ICT)—is racialized and gendered. Roberts points to Mar Hicks’ work as an example of research that reveals how “the histories of technological developments have been subject to structural exclusion of women,” and to Venus Green and Melissa Villa-Nicholas, whose works look into the “systemic racial and gender discrimination. . . [that] adversely impacted the burgeoning Black and Latina workforce from meaningful long-term careers” in ICT.29 Safiya Noble’s Black feminist approach to studying Google search further demonstrates how analytical frameworks that center intersections between race and gender offer fruitful ways of understanding digital economies and processes.30
Building on this trajectory, I ask what new insights we might gain by analyzing the audiobook ecosystem from the intersection of Chicana/Latina feminism and labor. A Chicana/Latina feminist framework is a critical lens that shifts the focus to people by listening to and honoring their voices and challenging dominant market discourses. It is an intersectional approach that affords the opportunity to interrogate what might seem ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ from a dominant lens. It provides us with a toolkit for understanding how precarity might be distributed along racial, gendered, and linguistic lines. As Dolores Delgado Bernal tells us, “a Chicana feminist epistemology . . . becomes a means to resist epistemological racism . . . and to recover untold histories.”31 This approach helps us to unpack the experiences of Latinas in this context and to explain the disparities in labor opportunities and conditions. I also engage in Latinidad as a political move to participate in inscribing Latinas into this history;
The method that I employ is pláticas, a culturally relevant interview approach that “aligns with the strong feminist tradition of theorizing from the brown body.”32 Pláticas push back against “politics of exclusion”33 by foregrounding the experiences of US Latinas. They support a Latina feminist commitment to reciprocity. Pláticas are not clinical and extractive, but instead ensure that the conversations be a space for open dialog and mutual sharing between researcher and research collaborators, thus contributing to a decolonization of the research process.34
I used convenience sampling to identify my collaborators. My inclusion criteria were that they be self-identified Latinas who have worked as audiobook narrators whether under SAG-AFTRA contracts and/or on non-union audiobook projects. My aim was to gain an understanding of their experiences across union statuses. I chose women with differing degrees of narration experience and proximity to me: I had not met all of the women before this study. All three are bilingual (English-Spanish) seasoned professional actresses. The jobs discussed were produced via independent producers. This means that the work locations and conditions varied: from self-recorded sessions at home studios to recording with an engineer at a production house. Our pláticas took place between December 2018 and January 2019. Two of the pláticas took place in the women’s homes and one was via Skype. With their permission, all of the sessions were audio-recorded. My goal was to not miss any nuance that could be lost during the fluidity of our conversations. Having these recordings for future reference and analysis also allowed me to be fully present as we conversed. I later transcribed the recordings and coded them for themes.
Pláticas: Audiobook Narration From Narrators' Points of View
The job of an audiobook narrator is to bring the authors work to the audiosphere via her voice while connecting with the audience on an emotional level. During our pláticas, Carmen, Jenny, Graciela, and I discussed the material and affective dimensions of our work and how we understand our labor and this ecosystem to be structured.3’ I have organized the insights from our pláticas into four overlapping themes: (1) employer immunity via opacity, (2) invisible, unrecognized, and uncompensated labor, (3) exacerbated exploitation, and (4) the affective impacts of precarious labor.
Employer Immunity via Opacity
During our pláticas, it became clear that audiobook employers engage with a series of strategies that infuse opacity into the system. This serves to obfuscate where the labor is taking place, who is laboring, and under what conditions. Three of the key intertwining strategies deployed are information asymmetry, imprecise contracts, and diminished talent representation. I will discuss each individually, but, collectively, these tactics help employers build immunity by yielding them uneven power and at times allowing abusive practices and the accumulation of capital without accountability for (and to) the humans doing the work.36
Instances of information asymmetry emerged from the moment Carmen and I began our conversation. Though she is a seasoned actress, Carmen is new to audiobook narration. She recently recorded her first long-form work of nonfiction from her home studio. Her setup consists of a laptop, a mic, editing software, and an internet connection. We began by discussing how this job came about:
C: I had an audition process first. He [the producer] said he had a couple projects lined up. ... He said that the client had selected my voice ... so, I still didn’t know . . . how long the project was or what the project was ... I said, “What is the time commitment?” . . . “What are you looking for and I can tell you what my availability is?” ... I remember him saying something like, “Oh, probably like four hours,” like per weekend. ... At the time that he told me that, I didn’t know how long the chapters were or how many chapters there were or how long the textbook was. So, that’s why I was, okay great: My weekends are free, and I can even do two full days on the weekend. . . . But, that was woefully underestimated because it doesn’t take into account the research, the recording, the post, and the pickups.37
Lack of clarity permeated her experience. The producer gave Carmen a lot of different and contradictory time estimates, hindering her ability to assess the actual labor and labor time to which she was committing. He was also unclear about the length of the final audiobook. This is significant because audiobook narrators typically are paid per finished hour (pfh). This means that they are only paid for each hour of the final audiobook. So, absent this information, Carmen does not know how much she will be paid. She also worries that she will not be paid at all because there was no contract. The lack of a contract represented an additional form of information asymmetry; a tactic that further obfuscated the terms of their agreement. Instead, the gig was negotiated via email.
I would like to offer my own experience as another example of how information asymmetry has been deployed by an employer. I booked a job, but when I questioned the pay rate a series of events were activated. First, the producer did not respond to my query. Instead, I received an email from the company’s casting department with an ‘official’ work offer, which was an even lower rate than the original offer. I responded by pointing out that the union’s rate sheet supported my argument. At this point, the producer came back into the loop and told me that I was to be paid a lower rate because they have a “tier structure” and some of my previous jobs did not count as audiobooks.3i! I contacted my union and was advised that the producer’s definition of audiobooks would likely prevail, so I could either take the job or decline the work. I refused the job. The company came back with a higher offer. However, it seems that this shift only happened because the author had a say on this project, and she had chosen my voice.
Carmen’s and my experiences exemplify how information asymmetry or fuzzy information can be deployed as a tactic to control laborers while yielding uneven power in favor of employers. Fortunately, these experiences also provide a glimpse into the potential strength in solidarity building between two of the three key contributors to an audiobook: authors and narrators.39 In my case, since the author had a say, my fungibility was decreased and my negotiating power increased. This insight matters because it can inform reimaginings of more worker-centered labor structures.
Current audiobook contracts tend to be imprecise, with the discretion unevenly yielded to the employer. Their main function, it seems, is to protect employers from liabilities; in my experience, except for pension and health contributions, these contracts offer no identifiable worker protections—no work time limits, overtime, late payment penalties, itemized fees for work beyond narration (e.g., engineering, editing, directing), pickup fees, residuals, or explicit protections against future uses of the narrators’ work (e.g., for machine learning). Importantly, contracts typically clarify narrators’ pfh pay rate as the “only and final amount” that they will be paid, which leaves their actual total labor contributed ‘off the books.’40 These moves bring Marx’s concept of exploited surplus value, the concept via which he “intends to show that capitalism is a class society,” into the conversation.41 As Christian Fuchs explains, “Surplus labour time is all labour time that exceeds necessary labour time, remains unpaid, is appropriated for free by capitalists and is transformed into money profit. Surplus value is in substance the materialization of unpaid labour-time.”42
Regardless of union status, audiobook contracts generally fail to include residuals, which serves to alienate narrators from their work.43 This is an egregious move, since a platform’s design puts it in a privileged position to easily and exact-ingly record the interactions between sellers and buyers. This means that tracking downloads should facilitate, rather than make more difficult, the establishment of a residual structure as common practice.44 Contracts also neglect to include penalties to employers for late payments. All of this motivates the question: Who is looking out for narrators’ best interests?
Diminished Talent Representation
Typically, one entity in the entertainment industry whose job is to look out for those best interests is a talent agent. Because agents represent several to hundreds of people (“talent,” in industry parlance), they have a broader view of the playing field and can thus advise their clients on best practices and negotiate optimal contracts on their behalf. When this relationship is strong and healthy, artists can focus on their work with the assurance that their agent(s) (manager and/or entertainment attorney) will ensure they are treated and compensated fairly on each job. This is why it gave me pause when their notable absence came into focus during our pláticas. Carmen mentioned:
C: Years ago, I asked one of my voiceover agents about audiobooks ... I think I asked her for any recommendations on training or workshops and/ or about doing an audiobook . . . she gave me recommendations and she also said, “It’s a lot of work.”
Her agent does not represent her in this arena. Jenny, an experienced narrator, also mentioned her agent’s warnings:
J: ... and let me tell you [my agent] I mean, anytime I bring up audiobooks is like, “. . . really? Are you ... I mean it’s an abuse. It’s crazy. Why are you going to do it?”
Absent their agents’ protections, talent shoulders the responsibility of selfrepresentation. This can effectively weaken narrators’ position as we attempt to navigate a sea of information asymmetries within an opaque ecosystem and, in many cases, without negotiating experience, business acumen, or a legal background.
Union representation is also crucial. A key characteristic of precarious labor is that unionizing, if not prohibited, is highly challenging. Admittedly, this is not exactly our case: When workplace frictions arise, union narrators have the option of turning to SAG-AFTKA. Our union represents approximately 160,000 actors, recording artists, singers, dancers, stunt performers, and other media professionals.45 However, not all audiobook work is unionized. And, for underrepresented communities, like US Latinas, the lack of unionized and creatively substantial work opportunities in traditional media may affect their consenting to abusive labor conditions. Audiobook narration may not be precarious because of the lack of a union, but traditional media’s exclusionary practices have an impact on the exploitation of marginalized talent in digital labor arenas.
Invisible, Unrecognized, and Uncompensated Labor
One of the reasons why talent agents may be disincentivized to support clients in audiobook production is due to its notoriously low pay rates.46 Our pldticas revealed the myriad ways in which laborers are being overworked and underpaid. This is in line with Marx’s understanding of capitalism. As Fuchs summarizes, “For Marx, capitalism is based on capitalists’ permanent theft of unpaid labour from workers.”47
Jenny is an audiobook veteran. She has worked in this arena since the mid-1990s and has transitioned with it across formats. Jenny shared that one of the ways in which the industry has changed is in the consolidation of labor without commensurate compensation. In the 1990s, for example, directors were included in the audiobook production process. Those roles have increasingly been eliminated and, today, it is either the engineer or the narrator herself who performs this role:
R: Did you have a director for this [most recent job] too?
J: Now, they’re getting very . . . because the director is now the engineer.
They figure that we, as actors are precious with our work, so [they know you] want to do it the best that you can. So, in a sense, they figure, “we don’t need a director, director.”
Another example came into focus as Jenny described an experience with self-recording at a production studio:
R: IVhy were you in there by yourself?
J: ... they make deals with authors that don’t have that much money to get it done ... so, it’s . . . okay, so if we have it self-recorded . . . the actor will be the engineer . . . it’s basically getting you to do double work, (pause) How about that? But, it sounds . . . you know, that’s what happened with freelance, right? It sounds fantastic. But, it’s like: Ok, you’re your own boss and you can work 24 hours a day. And, you better. Because, otherwise, there will be somebody else who will do it and will probably get the job and we will never call you again.
Job consolidation without compensation is one of the ways in which precarity is built into this labor structure. Jenny’s labor as engineer and director were not added to her contract. Rather than be compensated for her ability to manage so many aspects of the production process herself, her combination of skill sets was devalued, remaining contractually invisible. Jenny’s comment points to key characteristics of precarious labor: Narrators ‘get to freelance,’ they are ‘on call,’ and the threat of‘fungibility’ looms over their heads.
At the same time that jobs have been consolidated, pay rates have been decreased:
R: So, let’s talk about the compensation.
R: IVhat is that like for you?
J: Okay, so going back; books on tape was like the wild, wild: I have six thousand dollars you take it, you don’t. . . . Then, all of a sudden CDs come out . . . when your Walkman CD went to the MP3: total silence in the audiobook world. Because it was, “What technology are we going to use? Who is listening where?”. . . . Then, it was, “Hey, we have struck a deal with the union.” Oh, wow, you’re back, what’s going on?
This deal included the aforementioned ‘pfh’ pay rates.
J: ... which, of course, was like, okay, so it takes many times three hours per finished hour, right? So, you’re like, “this doesn’t sound exactly right.” Cause, it’s. . . I’m not a partner in this. I’m just working per hour to get this done. So, it was kind of awkward, but, as I say, you’re like, “I kind of like this book. I’ll read it anyway” . . . The thing is, [a union job] pays pension and health, so I thought it was a better deal to do it through the union, you know? It’s always a better deal, in the long run, for the actor. But, I was surprised.
I said, “so what happened to the six thousand dollars? The flat deal?”
R: That’s a huge change. Because it’s perfinished hour and you can prep for however long it takes you to prep.
J: Yeah, I mean, forget the work that you do, the prep. I’m talking ... I was talking even in the studio it’s taking you so much longer to record an hour . . . it’s at least two hours per hour . . . depending on the difficulty of the thing, you know?
Jenny alludes to the general lack of transparency about budgets and budget allocation that permeates this ecosystem: What happened to the directors? “What happened to the six thousand dollars?” She also points out that the pfh rates do not account for the “difficulty of the thing.”
For Carmen, the ‘two hours of recording-to-one finished hour’ average ratio that is accepted as industry-standard was an extreme underestimation. In addition to providing her home studio, she was expected to be researcher, editor, engineer, proofer, and director without commensurate guidance or compensation. During the production process, she had many questions, from how to approach research in this context, to what equipment to use, to how to label files, and how much post-production she was expected to do. The company provided no answers, which added to her labor time.
R: How much work do you think, que le calculas mas 6 menosf that it actually took, if you take all of it into consideration?
C: Yes, so I was blindly working, and I wasn’t tracking it. I started to track it, so I would see how long it really was taking and each chapter was different, but . . . you end up averaging 20 to 30 hours per chapter. . . . Yeah ... I don’t understand how the other readers were working.
This is an example of the type of abusive labor practices that are hidden when labor conditions are obfuscated. It also points to how narrators can be isolated and made invisible to each other, which impedes their ability to build solidarity, or to even do basic information sharing that might ease the way of getting the job done well and efficiently.
My pldtica with Graciela brought to light additional examples. Graciela recently entered the audiobook world. She works primarily in Spanish and, unlike Carmen and Jenny, she has never self-recorded; all of her jobs have been in studios with an engineer/director. She initially shared that she found that the lower pay rate was balanced out by a good working environment and flexible schedules, but returned to it later in the conversation:
G: Volviendo a lo de ‘leerlos antes’, aunque no lo estoy leyendo cien por-ciento, si invierto una buena cantidad de horas marcando el libro. Que no me pagan, obviamente ... lo único que te pagan en el audiolibro es la hora producida . . . sería ideal que de alguna forma, lo que pagan, compensara un poco, esas horas que estás invirtiendo. // Returning to how much you read them beforehand. While I don’t read them one hundred percent, I do invest a good number of hours marking up the script. That is, obviously, not paid. The only thing they pay in audiobooks is per finished hour. ... It would be ideal, if somehow folded into the pay, they would compensate some of that work that you are investing.
While narrators approach their prep work as it best fits their needs, Gracielas approach is rather typical. Narrators do a skim-through read of the book. Then, they go through it again and invest a significant amount of time marking up the text. These include mark-ups to differentiate between characters, emotions, settings, tone, pronunciation, rhythm, and so on. Their effort is a combination of both technical skills and creative/acting labor.49 As an audiobook producer stated at a Spanish-language SAG-AFTKA audiobook workshop:
El trabajo del narrador es el trabajo más importante y más difícil... el candidato ideal para narrar, es un actor. // The job of narrator is the most important and difficult job . . . the ideal candidate to narrate is an actor.50
He went on to say that all good narrators are great actors, but not all great actors make good narrators. This underscores the combination of specialized skill sets needed to do this work well, far from the kind of haphazard gig economy labor that audiobook narration is increasingly treated as. Unfortunately, even while discursively celebrating narrators, employers find creative ways to not compensate them for the actual value they contribute to the final audiobook.
While frictions are not always present and not all employers seek unfair advantages, a systemic lack of transparency keeps narrators from effectively addressing abusive labor practices if and where they occur. As Graciela interrogates:
G; Qué hay detrás de todo antes de que me llama [el productor] y me dice ven a grabarlo? // What is behind everything before [the producer] calls and says come and record?'
Graciela’s question illustrates how opaque this ecosystem can be from a narrator’s perspective.
Making a living as an audiobook narrator sounds very attractive. Among other incentives are the ability to work remotely and on flexible schedules. As Carmen stated:
C: ... it totally makes sense to me, as a woman in this industry, why there’s that interest to do audiobooks ... to be independent.
Graciela mentioned that audiobooks are a great, creatively fulfilling acting exercise:
G: A mí me gusta mucho hacer los audiolibros. Es muy pesado, te digo, pero me gusta hacerlos. Es un ejercicio actoral muy bueno. ... Es tu voz y ya. Y la actuación que tú le das . . . por eso lo encuentro más retante . . . cuando regreso de un audiolibro llego con esa sensación de satisfacción y de que hice algo bueno. // I really enjoy doing audiobooks. It’s hard work, but I like doing them. It’s a great acting exercise .... it’s just your voice, and your acting. That’s why I find it more challenging . . . when I do an audiobook I return with a sense of fulfillment and that I did something good.
While Jenny also finds audiobooks creatively fulfilling, she concurrently points to this as a reason why Latinas may endure problematic labor conditions:
J: One of the reasons we go back to the audiobook, under the discrepancies and unfairness in terms of labor, is because it’s a space where the content that we are asked to work with has the depth and complexity that we would like to see ourselves doing on screen . . . and we don’t. [There], we get one-liners and, here, we get to tell the whole story.
Her comment surfaces a connection between the exclusionary structures of legacy media and the exploitation of labor in digital environments and how these may be distributed across racial and gender registers.
While the promise of creative fulfillment as a reason for entering this labor area may not be exclusive to Latinas, what these women’s experiences bring to light is that exploitative practices are sustained and exacerbated when narrators enter this ecosystem from an already precarious condition. For example, regarding pay schedules, Jenny shared:
J: The actual pay of it comes, I think, it’s thirty days or sixty? Yeah, thirty days after the book is . . . out. . . approved, done, no changes. Thirty days after a date you can’t control.
Q: So, you have no idea really [when you will get paid].
J: You kind of don’t. You have to just relax.
Q: You have to relax. Viene cuando viene, no es gran cantidad de dinero.52
J: Yeah, it’s not. But, ya sabes como es with actors;’31 mean, one residual check can save your life that month.
Actors might thus enter this arena from an already financially precarious situation, deeming them easier targets for exploitation. For Latinas, our intersectional axis of marginalization in Hollywood across race, gender, and linguistic lines may indeed exacerbate our exploitation in this space.
One way in which this is operationalized is by limiting Latina access to narration jobs via casting categories that include linguistic assumptions and conceptual hierarchies. In US media, whiteness and the English language are equated with Americanness and positioned as the aspirational norms; a problematic move that reifies a narrow, racially charged understanding of what it means to look and sound ‘American.’’4 Within this context, Latinx communities are often equated with Spanish language (exclusively) or with an accent intended to mark them as ‘other’ than American. This limits the jobs for which Latinas are considered.
The Affective Impacts of Precarious Labor
What does exploitation feel like? The words Carmen, Jenny, and Graciela used to describe the negative affective impacts of their experiences include frustration, torture, horror, disrespect, heavy, and abuse. In describing her experience with self-recording, Jenny said:
J: Qué horror de experiencia. // What a horror of an experience.
C: |This project| it was like eight months of my life. . . . I’m not expecting anything. I just want to close this chapter and move on. ... It was such a frustrating experience . . . the time I spent on this compared to payment. . . I’ve come to terms with myself that I basically worked for free.
R: Did this turn you off'from doing narration or is this still something that you mould want to do ‘under different circumstances’, cómo tú dices?””
C: It turns me off a little bit, but it turns me off because of the ongoing abuse that is happening . . . and what I mean by ‘abuse,’ I mean taking advantage of voice actors and not paying them for the amount of work that they are doing . . . it’s, it’s horrible. . . . And, there’s more and more opportunity for people to work from home and to either supplement their income or do this full time, and that’s great. But, people are taking advantage.
C: Not only not getting respect financially, I’d be interested to see the male/ female ratio. I mention that because I felt disrespected. He [a proofreader! mansplained to me. . . . That kind of environment. . . . Not being treated like an equal. There’s no way he would have talked to a male this way.
Carmen offers us a glimpse into gendered dimensions present within this ecosystem that necessitate further scrutiny. Finally, Graciela describes a “torturous” experience when a non-creative executive directed her over the phone for the first few days of a project:
G: Me paraba cada tercer palabra . . . filé una tortura verdadera el comienzo de ese libro. // She’d stop me every third word. . . . The start of that hook was truly torturous.
Graciela shared that the executive slowed down the process and stunted creativity. It was not until after she left that Graciela and the engineer were able to really get to work.
By taking a glimpse into the complex commercial audiobook ecosystem from the intersection of Chicana/Latina feminism and labor, I illuminate intersectional spaces that may not have otherwise been considered via dominant lenses. In the process of our pldticas, the ways in which precarity and opacity are built into this system came into focus, as did the effects and affective impacts of this design. The insights from this research have broad implications beyond audiobooks. By pointing to instances in which gig economy logics are shaping labor structures and the future of creative labor beyond platforms and into sectors perhaps considered largely immune to such logics, I demonstrate how this ecosystem’s obfuscation hinders our ability to interrogate the overall imbalance—or inversion—of the structure. This obfuscation serves to hide abusive labor practices and how these abuses might be distributed and further exacerbated along racial and gender lines. This research exemplifies why it is critical that we demand transparency in gig economy labor structures wherever they are found.
By centering the voices of US Latina audiobook narrators, this study highlights some of the ways in which race, ethnicity, gender, and language impact media professionals’experiences in digital environments. While the views of US Latina talent have historically been marginalized in legacy media, I argue that they are key to understanding the transnational and intersectional dimensions of creative digital labor structures. Latina insights are also crucial to supporting SAG-AFTRA’s organizing efforts in this new digital era by helping to expand and reframe what labor issues are addressed, how they are understood, and what potential solutions are considered. This research listens to the voices of traditionally overlooked creative labor because without these women’s perspectives our understandings of digital labor structures are skewed and incomplete.
A huge thank you to my academic advisor, Dr. Sarah T. Roberts, for your mentorship and constant support, the editors of this volume for your invaluable notes, and to you Latina audiobook narrators for collaborating on this work by sharing your knowledge.
- 1. “SAG-AFTRA represents approximately 160,000 performers and media professionals,” www.sagaftra.org/membership-benefits.
- 2. SAG-AFTRA Audiobook workshop. February 13, 2019; Paul Alan Ruben, “Upping Your Performance Game While Recording Home Alone (now that you’re really alone),” Audiofile presents Audiobook Narration webinar with Paul Alan Ruben, April 18, 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?v=IRYOvqYgrkc.
- 3. Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg, “Amazon Already Disrupted the Sale of Print Titles. Up Next: Audiobooks,” Wall Street Journal, February 5, 2018, sec. Business, www.wsj. com/articles/readers-listen-up-amazon-wants-to-extend-its-dominance-in-audio books-1517832000.
- 4. John Maher, “Audiobook Revenue Jumped 22.7% in 2018,” PublishersWeekly.com, accessed December 18, 2018, www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/audio-books/article/77303-audiobook-revenue-jumped-22-7-in-2018.html.
- 5. Maher.
- 6. Jennifer Maloney, “The Fastest-Growing Format in Publishing: Audiobooks,” Wall Street Journal, July 21, 2016, sec. Arts, www.wsj.com/articles/the-fastest-growing-format-in-publishing-audiobooks-1469139910.
- 7. Jim Millot, “For Publishers, 2018 Is Off to a Decent Start,” PublishersWeekly.com, accessed December 18, 2018, www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publisher-news/article/76924-for-publishers-2018-is-off-to-a-decent-start.html.
- 8. SAG-AFTRA, “SAG-AFTRA: Audiobooks,” 2018, www.sagaftra.org/audiobooks.
- 9. Christian Fuchs, Digital Labour and Karl Marx (New York: Routledge, 2014).45.
- 10. Frances Negron-Muntaner, The Latino Media Cap: A Report on the State of Latino in U.S. Media (Columbia University, 2014, Online).
- 11. According to a SAG-AFTRA, “Taller de Audiolibros” workshop on February 13,
- 2019, 2018 marked the fourth year in a row that there was a 20% global increase in audiobook production and a 33% increase in the Spanish language arena.
- 12. APA, “A History of Audiobooks” (Audio Publishers Association), accessed March 9, 2018, www.audiopub.org/uploads/images/backgrounds/A-HISTORY-OF-AUDIO BOOKS.pdf.
- 13. Paul Franklin, “Amazon to Buy Audible for $300 Million,” Reuters, January 31, 2008; Brad Stone, “Amazon to Buy Audiobook Seller for $300 Million,” New York Times, February 1, 2008.
- 14. PT Editors, “Keeping Up With the New Demand for Audiobooks—Publishing
Trends,” Publishing Trends, August 1, 2011, www.publishingtrends.com/2011/08/ keeping-up-with-the-new-demand-for-audiobooks-2/; “Audiobook Creation
Exchange,” in Wikipedia, May 29, 2019, https://en.wikipedia.Org/w/index.php? title=Audiobook_Creation_Exchange&oldid=899386904.
- 15. ACX website: www.acx.com/help/about-acx/200484860.
- 16. It is not clear how they define ‘Americans.’
- 17. APA, “New Survey Shows 50% of Americans Have Listened to an Audiobook” (New York, NY, April 24, 2019).
- 18. Maloney.
- 19. APA, “U.S. Publishers Report Nearly $1 Billion in Sales as Strong Industry Growth Continues” (New York, NY, July 17, 2019).
- 20. Arlene Davila, “Contemporary Latina/o Media: Introduction,”2, accessed August 27,
- 2020, www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/j.ctt9qfn6s.3.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3Ade3932c 151426448ffd7b27501b6c5ff; Davila points to Yeidy M. Rivero, “Havana as a 1940s-1950s Latin American Media Capital,” Critical Studies in Media Communication 26, no. 3 (August 2009): 289, https://doi.org/10.1080/15295030903015070.
- 21. David Fernández Vítores, “El Español Una Lengua Viva: Informe 2019” (Spain: Instituto Cervantes), 5, accessed August 26, 2020, www.cervantes.es/imagenes/File/ espanol_lengua_viva_2019.pdf.
- 22. Ibid., 80.
- 23. Frances Negrón-Muntaner, The Latino Media Cap, 7.
- 24. US Census Bureau, “ACS Demographic and Housing Estimates,” 2018, https:// data.census.gov/cedsci/table?q=hispanics%20in%20US&tid=ACSDP1 Y2018. DP05&hidePreview=false; US Census Bureau, “Languages Spoken at Home,” Table ID: S1601, 2018, https://data.census.gov/cedsci/table?q=languages%20spoken%20 at%20home&tid=ACSST1Y2018.S1601 &hidePreview=false.
- 25. Jillian M. Báez, In Search of Belonging: Latinas, Media, and Citizenship (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2018), 10, https://doi.Org/10.5406/j.ctt21h4z2j.
- 26. Ibid., 3.
- 27. Ibid., 33; Renato Rosaldo, “Cultural Citizenship in San Jose, California,” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 17, no. 2 (1994): 57.
- 28. Dolores Delgado Bernal, “Using a Chicana Feminist Epistemology in Educational Research,” Harvard Educational Review 68, no. 4 (December 1998): 4, https://doi. org/10.17763/haer.68.4.5wvl034973g22q48.
- 29. Sarah T. Roberts, Behind the Screen: Content Moderation in the Shadows of Social Media (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019), 31; Marie Hicks, Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge in Computing, ed. William Aspray, 1st ed. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017); Venus Green, Race on the Line: Gender, Labor, and Technology in the Bell System, 1880-1980 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press Books, 2001); Melissa Villa-Nicholas, “Ruptures in Telecommunications: Latina and Latino Information Workers in Southern California,” Aztlan: A Journal of Chicano Studies 42, no. 1 (2017): 73—97.
- 30. Safiya Umoja Noble, Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism (New York: New York University Press, 2018).
- 31. Bernal, “Using a Chicana Feminist Epistemology in Educational Research,” 2; James Joseph Scheurich and Michelle D. Young, “Coloring Epistemologies: Are Our Research Epistemologies Racially Biased?” Educational Researcher 26, no. 4 (May 1997): 4, https://doi.org/10.2307/1176879.
- 32. Cindy O. Fierro and Dolores Delgado Bernal, “Vamos a Platicar: The Contours of Pláticas as Chicana/Latina Feminist Methodology,” Chicana /Latina Studies 15, no. 2 (2016): 116.
- 33. Alvina E. Quintana, “Book Review The Decolonial Imaginary: Writing Chicanas Into History. By Emma Pérez. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1999. Speaking Chicana: Voice, Power, and Identity, ed. D. Letticia Galindo and Maria Dolores Gonzales. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1999. Feminism on the Border: Chicana Gender Politics and Literature. By Sonia Saldivar-Hull. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 28, no. 2 (January 2003): 724, https://doi.org/10.1086/342586.
- 34. Fierro and Delgado Bernal, “Vamos a Platicar: The Contours of Pláticas as Chicana/ Latina Feminist Methodology.”
- 35. All names are pseudonyms.
- 36. Sarah T. Roberts, “Digital Labor” (Doctoral seminar, UCLA, 2018).
- 37. Post means post-production or the stage that happens after the recording. This includes editing, labeling, etc. Pickups are any words, phrases, or sections that will need to be rerecorded.
- 38. This means that narrators who have worked on more than x number of audiobooks are paid a higher rate.
- 39. According to SAG-AFTRA’s definition.
- 40. From contracts under which I have worked.
- 41. Fuchs, Digital Labour and Karl Marx, 54.
- 42. Ibid., 55.
- 43. Residuals are royalties that are typically paid to individuals involved in the making of a film, television show, or radio/voice project. For more information on residuals in the entertainment industry, see https://en.in.wikipedia.org/wiki/Residual_ (entertainment_industry).
- 44. ACX offers an either/or choice for narrators: pfh or a share in royalties.
- 45. www.sagaftra.org/about.
- 46. Compared to other unionized areas.
- 47. Fuchs, Digital Labour and Karl Marx, 34.
- 48. Translation: “that you calculate, more or less.”
- 49. Lucy Bednar, “Audiobooks and the Reassertion of Orality: Walter J. Ong and Others Revisited,” CEA Critic 73, no. 1 (2010): 78; SAG-AFTRA audiobook workshop. February 13, 2019.
- 50. SAG-AFTRA audiobook workshop. February 13, 2019. Translation is mine.
- 51. Translation is mine.
- 52. It will come when it comes, it’s not that much money.
- 53. You know how it is with actors.
- 54. Also problematic is the US being equated with ‘America.’
- 55. As you say?