On Producing My Own Audiobook

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

We all know audiobooks are booming. As reported by Forbes:

The publishing industry’s 2018 year-end results are here, and audiobooks did astoundingly well. According to the Association of American Publishers, which collects and reports on data shared by many publishers across the country, estimated publisher revenue for downloaded audio increased 28.7% over 2017. Downloaded audio was worth an estimate of 13.7% of publishers’ online sales.

Downloaded audio has long seen increases of this magnitude; the 2018 report reiterates this, estimating that publisher’s revenues in the category grew 181.8% from 2014 to 2018.

This growth, too, is continuing into 2019, which has already seen massive increases: in the first three months of this year, downloaded audio revenues increased 35.3% over the same period last year.

While the industry as a whole is seeing much more modest increases (or, in some categories, small decreases), audiobooks have a ways to grow, providing publishers with an exciting market for many months to come.

And an exciting extra income stream for authors. As many of you know, Amazon offers indie authors an audio platform called ACX. It’s like Kindle Direct Publishing for spoken-word books. ACX was developed by Audible, which was purchased by Amazon in 2008.

Thus: audiobooks created on ACX are sold on Amazon.com, Audible.com, and iTunes (which will soon undergo a transition).

ACX is extremely easy to navigate. For the overwhelming majority of indie authors it is a way to hook up with voice talent for audiobook narration. Here’s an overview of the process. There are two types of deals you can make with the narrator/producer: 1) royalty sharing; 2) cost per-finished-hour.

With the former, you share the royalty with the narrator. ACX pays out a 40% royalty (of the retail price), which you then split with the narrator. [NOTE: This 40% is if you are exclusive with ACX and not distributing elsewhere; if you go non-exclusive, the royalty drops to 25%]. You audition narrators via the ACX dashboard and there’s plenty of talent out there. Like a fellow by the name of Basil Sands who drops by TKZ on occasion.

With option #2, you pay the narrator/producer per finished hour (PFH) for their time and effort. In return, you keep all the royalties. This of course involves a hefty up-front cost. Let’s say you have a 10 hour book and the narrator charges $400 PFH. That’s four grand out of your pocket before you start selling. Just remember to think in terms of sales over years, not just months. You can certainly find excellent voice talent out there. One way to do this is to listen to audio samples on Amazon or Audible of books in your genre. When you find a voice you like go to the narrator’s website and make contact.

I opted for a third way—producing and narrating my own books. Why? Because I’m cheap. Also because I spent a good part of my early years developing my voice for stage and television commercials. Why let the pipes that once proclaimed, “What from the cape can you discern at sea?” in an Off-Broadway production of Othello go to waste?

My big hangup was the technical aspect. I didn’t have a recording studio or sound equipment. I could rent a studio and engineer, but once again…cheap!

So I did some research and found I could put together a workable mini-studio right on my desk. The two main pieces of equipment I needed were a good microphone and sound panels—that soft, foamy material that usually covers entire walls. I found a small, adjustable “sound shield” for under a hundred bucks and got a Blue Snowball microphone and a foam mic cover to go with it.

Next I needed recording software. I’m a Mac guy and thus already have GarageBand. But how to set it up with the right parameters for ACX was going to be a challenge. I was not at all sure I understood what the heck that entailed.

Fortunately, a gentleman named Rob Dircks has generously made available, for free download, his pre-set GarageBand settings for an ACX book. Thanks, Rob!

Finally, I started narrating Write Your Novel From the Middle and uploading the finished chapters to ACX. I created a cover image (the parameters are square, like a CD cover), and filled out all the metadata. When I was all done I hit publish and waited two weeks for the quality review. Frankly, I didn’t know what to expect. Maybe some technical issue I wasn’t aware of would require a re-work of the whole thing. Ack!

But I passed the inspection. And now Write Your Novel From the Middle is an honest-to-goodness audiobook.

As I mentioned earlier, I am exclusive with ACX because it hits the largest slice of the audio distribution pie and pays a generous royalty. I know there are indies who have gone “wide” via other companies, but that is beyond the scope of my current experience. (Anyone who has info along these lines, please feel free to share it in the comments.)

Is narrating your own books an option for you? Many “experts” warn that authors who are not voice trained shouldn’t make the attempt. I say, “Bosh.” (I don’t say “bosh” often, but when I do, I mean it.) ACX has a helpful video and other info for authors as narrators. It does get easier after you’ve done it once. I’m now prepping How to Write Dazzling Dialogue and it’s like an assembly line of audio chapters. I plan to press on and produce all my books in audio.

In traditional publishing contracts, the audio rights are always defaulted to the publisher, with a clause like: Publisher, at its sole discretion, shall have the right to publish a recorded audio version of the Work, for which the author receives 10-15% of net. I’m no math whiz, but 40% of retail sounds a tad more favorable. If you are going to sign with a publisher, you ought to try to reserve the audio rights and create the audiobook yourself. Especially since hard copies (CDs) of audio are rapidly becoming obsolete. In other words, you don’t need Barnes & Noble shelf space to get the most out of your audio rights.

Of course, retaining these rights is going to be tougher going forward because all publishers know audio is the growth area. Discuss this with your agent. Go for the rights; in the alternative, negotiate a higher royalty.

Just don’t put your head in the sand, because audio is a major part of the future.

So what’s been your experience with audio versions of your books? Have you ever thought about doing it yourself? Have you ever said “Bosh” in mixed company?

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41 thoughts on “On Producing My Own Audiobook

  1. Hi Jim
    I think there is also a special appeal for an audiobook narrated by the author! Not only would you hear it the way the author intended, but if it’s a favourite author, that would be a draw card for me.
    Great idea!
    Cheers.
    Linda

    • Linda, that’s a good point. I have purchased audio in the past because it’s the author doing the narration. It certainly can be a draw. Thanks.

  2. Jim,
    Thanks so much for this how-to. Although my Boston accent is too strong to narrate my own books, I have a friend (formerly a professional jazz singer with a beautiful speaking voice), who recently asked me how to go about recording a series of children’s music lesson books. She will love your instructions.

  3. I have 14 audiobooks now. Not having a trained voice, I hired out. I started when ACX was young and offering stipends to narrators so getting a royalty share deal was easy. Not so much now, and paying outright ain’t cheap.
    My experience. All that “audiobooks are the new big thing” hype didn’t pan out for me. It’s an income stream, but not significant, and the ROI is years in the coming (and this is a sample size of one-ymmv). However, I do like to have the books available.
    For the most recent title, I decided to go wide based on a modicum of research, and used Findaway Voices because they have a much wider distribution, so I went non-exclusive with ACX which lowers my royalties there. You also have some price control at Findaway.
    I listened to a recent podcast from Draft2Digital on marketing, and their caveat was to think long and hard about the 7-year commitment to going exclusive with ACX given the way the audiomarket is changing.
    For a more details, I did my own blog post about my early experiences with Findaway. It’s here: https://terryodell.com/producing-audiobooks-comparing-acx-and-findaway-voices/

    • Thanks, Terry, for all that info. I’ve heard of Findaway Voices, so it’s good to get your perspective.

      Yes, as far as audio being the next “big thing,” we have to remember that this is just another iteration of book platforming. All the usual challenges–discoverability, marketing, etc.–remain in place.

      Re: 7 years. If you produce your own book, as I did, or pay to have it done and keep the rights, you can opt out of ACX exclusive after one year.

      • If you’re your own narrator, it’s a lot easier to do the one-year opt out. Narrators have their own preferences–some do hybrid deals, with a lower PFH rate, but they don’t want to take the chance that they’ll miss out on the Next Big Book. There are a lot of things to look at. When I started, with the ACX stipend program and royalty sharing, my total investment was $25/per book which is what my cover artist charged me to add an audio cover. It’s a LOT more now.

  4. Great post. Thanks for the links. Doing my OWN audio books appeals to the ham in me but a trained voice of a talented actor/talent is much better. But who wouldn’t want to hear a writing craft book in audio from the author? Good idea.

    I’ve been listening to audio books lately, taking advantage of Amazon’s discounted price on audio books for books I’ve already purchased in another format. I have no doubt this price break has influenced the rise in audio.

    Happy Sunday.

    PS – Basil Sands would be a great narrator. Glad you mentioned him.

  5. Great post and I’m glad both authors and readers have increasing options on books.

    For me personally, I hate listening to books on audio. I have tried numerous times and it just doesn’t work for me. I get nothing out of the books when “listening” to them rather than reading them. But I have never talked to another person who had the same problem. Go figure.

    • Ha, I’m sure there are others, BK. Personally, I prefer audio only when I’m on a long drive or go for a long walk. IOW, as an adjunct to another, not so intense activity. But if I’m in a chair, I want the book. .

    • Add me to the “can’t listen to audio” team. A word or phrase triggers a thought that sends me down another path entirely. I thought I’d get into them when we moved to the boonies with much longer drives, but I can’t do it. It’s a struggle to “Proof-Listen” to my own books, and only by following the manuscript can I stay focused.

  6. Great post, Jim. This is definitely one that I’ve bookmarked. Thanks for all the links.

    I especially liked your sentence, “Because I’m cheap.” And I would add, as an Indie Publisher, you’re probably a do-it-yourselfer. There’s nothing like doing it yourself, if you want attention to detail, if you want it done right.

    As I read your post, I realized that an audio book written and produced by you – on the subject of “building” an audio book – would be a great addition to your many books.

    Thanks for a wonderful post!

    • Yes, Steve, there is something in DIY that appeals to me–control. And it’s so amazing to think that someone can do all this themselves…a scant 10 years ago they couldn’t.

  7. I find audiobooks extremely valuable. I can enjoy so many more books by listening to them in addition to laying my eyes on the print. James, I have your audiobook “Write Your Novel From the Middle”. It’s excellent! I also have your Great Courses audio book, “How to Write Best-selling Fiction”, and “Fiction Attack”, narrated by Basil Sands. Basil did an excellent job on your book, as he has on many others that I’ve listened to. But there is just something about hearing a work in the authors own voice! But, just like the writing, it has to be delivered well.

    • Kimberly, thanks so much for the kind words. Doing the Great Courses program was one of the things that nudged me to get on the stick and produce my audiobooks.

  8. Jim-
    Congrats on your audio adventure. Your writing craft books are a natural for you to execute.
    I believe fiction, and especially rotating 3rd person POV with male and female characters, would be a much greater performance challenge. Any thoughts?
    Also would love any TKZ recommendations on performer who has demonstrated ability to handle the above mentioned challenge.
    Great post and best of luck!
    Audio for your fictional works planned?

    • Good question, Tom. Personally, I prefer a narrator who doesn’t try too hard “be” another voice, esp. a man trying to “sound” like a woman, or vice versa. Just a subtle change is preferred, which makes it less of a challenge, IMO.

    • I’ve wondered about adding ascription tags for an audio version: We often leave them out when the new paragraph and quotation marks indicate a change in speaker. But, with a single narrator, even given the subtle changes Jim mentions, it would be harder to recognize changing speakers.

      Do writers ever add ascription tags for the audio version?

      • Eric, I think a subtle change of tone, along with the dialogue itself (which should indicate a new speaker anyway) is enough.

        But this brought up another challenge I haven’t fully thought through, and that is italicized thoughts. Tricky, that. I wonder if adding “he thought” would solve it.

        • When I auditioned my narrators, their sample script included dialogue, interior monologue, and narration. I chose based on how well they could convey each. One auditioner used a filtering type technique for thoughts, but I found it very off-putting. To me, it should be like my dad reading me a bedtime story. One narrator able to convey everything. Which might be why the good ones are expensive!

  9. Thanks for sharing this, Jim. I have thought about doing this for a long time. Now, I know it is doable.

  10. As always, Jim, you take a complicated concept and break it down into easy-to-understand parts. Thanks!

    Like Tom, I’ve always wondered about one narrator handling both male and female voices. Are there stats on what readers prefer? For a novel with a female protagonist, I would guess it’s preferable to have a female narrator?

    Also the male lead in my series has a James Earl Jones voice. I’m wondering how a female narrator would handle that. Does that characteristic translate from page to audio?

    • Great question, Debbie. I’ve done several books with female protagonists. Perhaps in the romance genre, it would be preferable to have a female narrator. I don’t think it’s as essential for thrillers. Food for thought, though.

  11. Great information. Thank you, Jim.

    My husband and I decided we would have my novel produced in audio, and we’ve been looking at exactly the two options you described. We’re also cheap, but my voice is no good for recording and, besides, the book is fiction and so requires an actor to narrate multiple voices, both male and female. We’re so new in the publishing world that we feel we need professionals to lead the way. So we’re looking at a couple of things:

    We’re considering a marketing firm which charges a flat fee to find a narrator (approved by me). We would then do a 50/50 royalty split with the narrator and they would arrange to have the book produced and provided to audible, amazon, and itunes.

    I’m traditionally published, and our other option is to have my publisher find a narrator (again, approved by me) and we would pay an upfront fee. My royalty would be 80% of net income (amount the publisher receives from the distributor for the sale of each book.) I believe they may provide more services and have more platform options, but we haven’t gotten all the details yet.

    We’re in the process of gleaning and comparing all the data.

    Btw, I’ve mentioned before that I have your Great Courses course on audio. It’s excellent, and I understand why you would narrate your own works.

    • Kay, your publisher’s terms are better than most, so that may indeed be a good option for you.

      And thanks for the good word on The Great Courses. It was a grueling week where I recorded 24 half-hour lectures. Whew! At least with DIY I can take a break if I need to.

      Good luck on your pursuit.

  12. James, I’ve done seven of my books for the Talking Book Services and the BARD library under the National Library System. Audio for the blind is except of copyright laws, so I told my publisher I’d like to do that, and she said go right ahead. I’m the most downloaded author in South Carolina now, and every Wednesday, I show up at the soundproof booth at the state library and record. Luckily there’s a producer there cleaning it up as we go. It takes us about 30-40 hours to do an 11-hour novel, but I’m so dang proud of them. BUT…I’ve learned a lot about being a narrator. My current books are so much better than the first. But my producer has told me that I could do it from home. I have a walk-in closet that can be muffled with moving blankets. Give me the right microphone and headset and I’m off!

  13. Jim, thanks for this. I have two audiobooks on ACX—both of which I did with other narrators on a royalty share basis. I have been toying with the idea of doing my own for my horror thriller series. I already have a good mic and am proficient with Audacity, which is open source and works well. Reading about your experience is very helpful.

    Now, here’s a question for you: What are your thoughts on Audible introducing their new Captions program? Are you okay with listeners “reading” your book as they listen without purchasing the Kindle edition?

    • Hi, Steve. I’ve heard good things about Audacity, so good on you.

      As for the Captions deal, I know the big pubs are aghast. I’m wondering what the big deal is, though. Does it really represent a “lost sale” of an ebook? I doubt that. And from what I understand, it doesn’t replicate a book experience. You can’t flip the pages, etc. It only transcribes what’s presently being stated…and why would someone who likes audio books want to be looking at words anyway?

  14. I’d thought about narrating my own books, and promptly dismissed it, even though I enjoy public readings, and have more than a decade of storytimes as practice reading to children. Okay, maybe not the toughest room in the house, but you do have to hold their attention.

    I really appreciate you sharing your experience, the links and tips. I’m also a Mac guy, but hadn’t thought about Garageband. This is a great low cost approach. Plus, like a previous comment, having the author read it might have special appeal.

  15. Catching up from the weekend …

    Good for you, Jim! I had a bad experience with my first and only venture into audio. The publisher at the time (I’ve since switched) didn’t give me a choice of narrators, and this chick sounded like a New Yorker instead of a Bostonian. In the sample chapter, she sounds British! After I brought the series to my original fiction publisher, they tried to reissue the book with a different narrator, but Amazon wouldn’t allow it. Now we’re stuck with a New Yorker/British narrator trying to imitate a Boston accent for another few years (the contract was for 7 years!). If given the choice, I would have much preferred to record the story myself.

    Are you only recording your craft books or thrillers, too?

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