A Primer on Audio Books for Indies

Image purchased through Adobe Stock
Image purchased through Adobe Stock

I’m very excited that for my third audio book, Been Searching for You, I just signed an amazingly talented narrator in Ashley Clements. We start production late next week. Meanwhile, the audio book of Camelot’s Queen (Guinevere’s Tale Book 2) is about halfway through production, with Serena Scott Thomas as narrator, and the one for Daughter of Destiny (Guinevere’s  Tale Book 1), also with Serena Scott Thomas, is on sale now.

With all this activity, one of my fellow Spellbound Scribes asked me what goes into the making of an audio book. The following is based on my experience, and is only meant for indie authors, as traditionally published authors would work with their agents to sell audio rights and likely would have a different process. It also covers only digital files, as CDs are only produced for big-name authors nowadays (according to the studio I’m working with) and are usually cost-prohibitive for indies.

Which Distributor?
One of the first choices you’ll have to make if you decide you want to make an audio book is what company you want to partner with. Indies have several choices:

  1. Blackstone Audio accepts submissions.I’m not sure if they handle distribution or if that’s on you.
  2. You can work directly with a studio and then use a company like Author’s Republic to get your book out there. (There are other companies that do audio distribution, but this is the only company I’ve researched that I would be comfortable using.)
  3. ACX (Audiobook Creation Exchange), the indie arm of Audible, which is owned by Amazon. I’m going to focus most of my post on their process because they are the ones I use. With them you have to decide if you want to grant them exclusive distribution rights (which means your book will only be available on Audible, Amazon and iTunes) for which you get 40% royalties or if you want non-exclusive (which means you can sell it wherever you want), in which case ACX pays 20% royalties. I went with exclusive because that covers the three main places people download books from. The down side is that you can’t get into Overdrive and other library programs that way.

I will say up front that producing and audio book isn’t cheap. With ACX, you have the option to either do a royalty share with your talent, where you get 20% of royalties from sales and your narrator gets 20%, or you can pay an up-front fee based on your talent’s cost per finished hour. This could range from $50 per finished hour to several hundred, depending on who you choose. ACX has a handy tool that lets you input your word count and then gives you an estimate of the number of finished hours so you can estimate your cost. It could be in the hundreds or several thousand depending on the length of your book and your narrator’s fee.

Here’s a hint: if you have a series and want a consistent narrator, put that in your job description. Some narrators offer discounts for multi-book deals. You’ll still have put each one into ACX’s system, but the subsequent times you wouldn’t need to do the audition process.

Auditioning Narrators

The audio book cover of Daughter of Destiny. You will need a separate cover, so you can either do it yourself or have your cover designer make one, as I did.
The audio book cover of Daughter of Destiny. You will need a separate cover (they are a different size & you should credit your narrator), so you can either do it yourself or have your cover designer make one, as I did.

Once you’ve listed your project on ACX (a fairly straightforward process that involves “claiming” your book from Amazon’s listings and following on-screen directions for things like what your project is about, how you will market it, what your deadline is, etc.), your next step is to audition voice talent. Many authors choose to narrate their own books, but I wouldn’t do this unless you’re a trained actor. The difficulty of controlling and changing your voice to the extent needed for a quality audio book should not be underestimated. These people are called talent for a reason. Some authors choose to wait for people find their audition listing and come to them, but I would advise against this. ACX gives you access to its full listing of talent, complete with samples you can listen to, for free.

You can even filter the thousands of actors/actresses by gender, voice age, accent, and other criteria that may be important to you. For Guinevere’s Tale (all three books in the trilogy), I chose a general British accent because my POV character is a British Celt, then noted in the job the other accents I thought I may need (Irish, Welsh, Scottish, Breton French).

To me, listening to the auditions is the most fun part of the process. I knew pretty much immediately if someone was a no or was in contention for the part. Make a list of the people you like and contact them, asking them to audition (an audition script, a short snippet from your book, is part of what you upload when you set up your project). They will be more than happy to audition for you, I promise! Be sure to write back to each person, even if you don’t choose them, so they aren’t left in limbo. (Plus, it’s good business and polite.)

When you’ve settled on your first choice, you will make an offer through ACX’s system. Your talent has 48 hours to respond. You may negotiate or come to an agreement immediately.

In the case of Been Searching for You, since I had Ashley Clements in mind, knew she’d done audio books before, and I was familiar with her work, I contacted her directly. She said yes, but because she doesn’t have her own studio, she works with Deyan Studios in LA. So I talked with them about their services and fees. Once we had a signed agreement, they contacted Ashley and extended an offer and she agreed. In this case, no audition was necessary, but they have a casting service and large pool of talent if that’s something you choose to pay for.

The next step after you and your narrator(s) sign on the dotted line is for you to provide them with information that will help them get into character. The most obvious part of this is the script they will read from. This includes any author’s notes or previews of future books you’d like them to read. Some authors re-write their books for audio, adding in extra “he/she said” tags to help the reader follow along, but I don’t think this is necessary. As an avid audio book consumer, I can tell you that a good narrator will be able to change his/her voice so that you can easily tell what’s dialogue, thought and narration.

This is also where you put together a sheet with any words that might have an unusual pronunciation. This can include character names/places/foreign language phrases/unusual words. My historical fiction books had significantly more words on their list than my contemporary did. My mindset is if you think it might be questioned, tell them how you want it pronounced; better safe than sorry.

You also will give your narrator direction about each of the characters (at least the main ones; how much you care what the secondaries sound like is up to you). I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to do this. I give a bit of insight into their minds, motivations and relationships with other characters, then talk about any vocal requirements I have (accents, certain tones – haughty, meek, etc. – moods). Because I cast my characters in my head, I also give the actor or actress that inspired the role. And in case they want additional insight into my brain, I give them the links to my Pinterest board and playlist for the book. (My theory is that you never know what will inspire people and you want your talent to give the best performance possible.)

Many studios offer research services for a fee, but I like to do it myself because no one knows the book or its characters better than the author.

Recording Process
This will vary a bit depending on who you use. For ACX, your narrator will have to submit the first 15 minutes for your approval. At that point, you’ll listen and offer any notes you have, both on general performance and on changes that need to be made (lines read wrong, things that are hard to understand, etc.) Once you both agree the first 15 mins are fine, your narrator will record the rest of the book.

How you do edits will vary. Serena and her producer upload files in batches so I can listen to them and get notes back to them on both performance and script variation. Deyan Studios is going to have me listen to dailies, which are the recordings done each day. They prefer that I give artistic feedback on the performance first, then once the whole thing is done, listen to it one last time to make sure it matches the script. Either way is fine with me.

There’s not a set time frame on how long this takes. You’ll need to negotiate with your talent up front if you’re on a firm deadline. (Personally, I find it best to work around their schedule.) My first book took three months from start to finish, but part of that was due to my narrator getting sick, both of us going on vacation, the holidays and then issues we had with the Screen Actors Guild paying Serena (they were slow). Ashley plans to record Been Searching for You in three days. So as you can see, it may be really quick or not.

In ACX, once you agree you have finished product, you pay your narrator if you are doing an up-front fee. I don’t know how it works if you’re doing royalty share. My guess is that you reaffirm your agreement and move on to the next step. With Deyan Studios, I paid half the fee up front and will pay the rest when it’s done.

Congratulations, you have an audio book! After payment is confirmed by both parties, ACX does one final quality check and then handles getting it on Amazon, Audible and iTunes for you. It usually takes about a week for the quality check and another few days for the books to appear on Audible and Amazon. (My book still isn’t on iTunes, even though it came out at the end of January, but I hear they can take up to 60 days.) If you use ACX, they pay you on a regular schedule.

Whew! That should cover the process. I love it. Despite the cost and length of time it’s going to take me to make it back, I firmly believe that audio books are a sound investment in your career. They are the fastest-growing type of book and have been heralded by many industry experts as the wave of the future. It’s easy to see why: we’re all so busy, audio books let you read on the go, whether you’re in your car, on the train, cleaning house, working out, or whatever.

Someday I may do a follow-up post on marketing audio books, but I haven’t had time to put much effort into marketing mine yet, so that’s a subject for another day.

What questions do you have for me about the audio book creation process? I know I missed stuff. Shout at me in the comments and I’ll tell you what I know. Emmie has audio books out as well, so she may be able to talk about her experiences; I’m not sure what her process was. 

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