Justine: A Bit About Audiobooks, for Authors

Microphone in recording studioWell, another RWA conference down and lots of great stuff learned. It seemed that this year, many folks were focused on audio books (myself included). The platform has seen double-digit growth over the last seven years and some authors, like my critique partner Jenn Windrow, say that they’re seeing higher royalties with audiobooks than with their KDP page reads/book sales.

Many people may wonder whether they need to hire a professional narrator/sound company to do an audiobook, and my answer (based on my active listening experience…I’m an audiophile) is HECK YES. All reputable actors have specialized recording equipment, a sound-proof room/booth for recording, are well-versed in dialects, intonation, pronunciation, inflection, and most importantly, adding emotion to your words. And that’s not even mentioning what happens on the back end after the raw material is recorded! It still needs to be proofed, edited, mastered, and spliced. That takes time and experience. On average, a narrator and post-production crew will spend about 6 hours per finished hour (PFH) of audiobook. So a 10-hour book probably took upwards of 60 hours to narrate and produce!

Here’s a handful of takeaways I picked up from the lovely folks at Romance Narrators, a group of vetted voice actors who specialize in the romance genre. Some of these I knew, but others (like what to submit for an audition) I did not.

Models for Production

There are three basic models for audiobook production:

  • PFH (Per Finished Hour) – In this model, you pay a certain amount per finished (recorded) hour of book. To estimate how long your book would be, assume 9,300 words/PFH, so an 80k book is about 8.6 finished hours. Depending on the voice actor you choose, there may be an industry minimum you must pay (SAG-AFTRA union members charge $350/PFH min, which is usually broken down as $250/PFH for the narrator and $75/PFH for post-production…I’m using their numbers and I’m not sure where the other $25 goes), and naturally, more experienced/in demand narrators can charge more (up to $1,000 PFH). You pay upfront, but in this model, you keep ALL the royalties from the sales of your audiobook.
  • Royalty Share – In this model, you do not pay the narrator upfront. Instead, you share the royalties 50/50 with the narrator on the back end, when the book is sold. The benefit for the author is they don’t have to lay out a lot of money, but on the flip side, it’s hard to find experienced, popular narrators who will agree to this model (unless they’re sure they’ll make it up in sales of your book). Depending on how your book sells, your narrator could make a lot of money…or not so much, so it’s risky for them. You will still likely need to pay for post-production (the sound engineering part of bringing your book to audio life), but sometimes narrators will split that cost with you, as well.
  • Hybrid – This is a relatively new option (particularly for ACX). In this model, the author pays for all post-production/sound mixing, but the narrator is willing to do a traditional royalty share with the author on the back end.

Whatever you decide to do, make sure it’s clearly spelled out between you and your narrator who is covering what costs.

Auditioning Narrators

There’s more to auditioning narrators than you think. You have to be mindful of what your audition piece is, the type of voice you’re looking for, and who you want to do your production.

  • Decide how you want to do your project…Audible? Third-party (so it can be released wide)? You can submit your MS to audiobook publishers, like Tantor, Recorded Books, and Podium Publishing, or go with a production house or hybrid. Depending on the path you choose, you will have different resources for finding a narrator.
  • Your audition piece should only be about 3-4 pages of manuscript.
    • Pick a scene (or scenes — the content doesn’t need to be consecutive) that has LOTS of characters in it so you can hear the full range of their vocal ability
    • Notify your narrator of recurring characters (such as those in a series)
  • When searching for narrators, there are a couple places to look
    • Curated groups, such as Romance Narrators, and full production companies, like Spoken Realms, Blunderwoman Productions, and ACX. If you want to search for more, try Googling “audiobook narrator.” If these results are too broad, you can also search “pre-production audiobooks,” because most of the voice auditioning is done in the pre-production phase.
    • FB group “Aural Fixation” – these are folks who like listening to audiobooks. You can ask for recommendations for voice actors, but just be aware that they may recommend their own personal favorites, so keep that in mind
    • Other narrators in your genre. Look around and see who your competition is using for a narrator. There are several narrators that I hear again and again in the Regency/Victorian romance genre. And the benefit of choosing an established voice in your genre is you may pick up new listeners who follow the narrator, not necessarily the author. Splendid!
  • Identify in advance whether you want to do single, dual, duet, or full cast narration
    • Single is one narrator
    • Dual is two narrators, but only one per chapter/POV
    • Duet is two narrators who go back and forth narrating the entire book (anything that “belongs” to one character, like dialogue or thoughts, is narrated by one actor and vice versa). This is time-consuming to produce because of the post-production involved (and sometimes the narrators must do the recording simultaneously)
    • Full cast is like old-time radio — one actor per character and possibly a narrator. As you can imagine, this can get very expensive if you have a large cast of characters.
  • You can either listen to samples and reach out to actors or put your audition piece out there for voice actors to contact you
    • You can search by male/female, native tongue (British, Kiwi, Italian, etc.), and more. Be specific (particularly with gender and dialect).
    • Don’t pick the first voice that comes along
    • Ask your friends who have read your book and like audiobooks and/or critique partners to listen to samples if you’re unsure.
    • Make sure your narrator can do the full range of genders/accents required in your book
    • If you have two narrators, make sure they work well together
    • If you plan on publishing multiple books and/or have a series, be sure you’re REALLY happy with your choice, because you’re probably going to be working with them for awhile!

Once you’ve selected the narrator you want to work with (and worked out all the financial details/dates), make sure you get a voice sample of the different characters in your novel so you’re in agreement on how they sound.

When your narrator starts your project, he or she will probably send you a sample of the first few pages of your book to make sure it sounds how you expect. Do give it a listen and be honest with your narrator if you think there’s something that needs to change.

Post-Production and Release

We didn’t learn much about what happens AFTER your book is done, except that you the author will need to review it before it goes to your chosen audiobook platform. My critique partner Jenn Windrow has done two audiobooks now and her biggest piece of advice is to set aside at least 1.5x the length of your recorded book to listen to it. So if your book is 8 hours long, give yourself 12 hours to review it, because you’re not just passively listening…you’re reading along and when you hear a mistake, you’re marking the chapter, time, mistake, and correction.

Once the files are complete, your narrator uploads them to Audible (it may be different with other production companies/platforms…Jenn is on Audible exclusively). Once that happens, you have no control (in Audible). It can take up to 14 days for the audiobook to be approved and at this time, there is no way for you to schedule a release date. (This is something that many authors have complained about and I was told by someone with ACX that they’re looking into changing this.) Audible sets the price and puts it out there when they’ve approved it, and they send you notification that it’s up.

Because Jenn doesn’t have a finished version of her audio files, she can’t give them away, but Audible does make it easy for her to give out download codes, which she uses in exchange for reviews.

One strategy for release that I picked up in another workshop was to time your audiobook release (to the best of your ability) to be about 90 days after ebook release…the purpose being to keep your name front and center in Amazon’s algorithms. So if you release your new ebook on Jan 1st, plan for your audiobook release about 90 days later.

Just remember that good narrators can be booked up for months, so plan ahead!

Whew!

Well, that was a lot. I hope you find the information useful. What experiences have you had with audiobook production? How do other production companies differ? Any lessons learned?

2 thoughts on “Justine: A Bit About Audiobooks, for Authors

  1. Doing an audio book always seems like so much work to me, and I never listen to audiobooks myself, so I have a hard time finding the value in putting any effort into that format. However, a lot of people like to listen to audiobooks, so it’s something to pay attention to. I’ve read that some authors earn very good royalties from their audiobooks, and others never recoup their costs. I’m wondering if anyone discussed what kinds of books do well—,maybe by genre or length, standalones versus serials, or anything along those lines?

    • You know, I don’t think anybody asked that question about which genre does best, but it is definitely a good one to ask. I doubt that Amazon releases any numbers about audiobooks, just like they don’t for regular books, so getting a “real” answer is probably impossible. But I’m sure other platforms have reported that kind of information. I might do some digging to see what I can find.

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