Producing Audio Books

Okay, so I’ve just finished the production of my second audio book, and I’ve therescuelearned a few things, but the problem was where and how to share what I’ve learned.  This is too big for a blog post, and most people won’t make it to the bottom.  However, there are some people out there who really want to make an audio book and would benefit from my experience – at least the perspective my experience brings.

Now, I’ve got nothing for you on how to sell or market an audio book.  I’m still totally new at that and struggling, to be honest.  However, I have at least brought two books to market, so that should be something interesting for someone who would like to do the same.  I’ll relate my experience through ACX as it was when I did my audio books (early and mid 2015), and as time goes by, some of the realities herein may change.  Hopefully, enough will stay the same that what you read will be useful.

How I got the idea…

Well, I’ve listened to audio books, Anne McCaffrey’s and others, back when there was cassette tape, so I’m familiar with the medium and have been for a long time.  I enjoy them, honestly.  I actually have two copies of the Bible, one done by Jim Caviezel called “The Word of Promise” which is incredibly well done – music, sound effects, professional actors, and incredible editing that just absolutely make you feel like you’re standing right beside Moses as the Red Sea parts – totally impressive.  So, it’s a very good medium for story-telling, in my mind, because it can be compelling and accessible to lots of people.

Now, I’ve been writing for a long time and working actively on this series since 2007.  I have to be honest, I never even thought about selling one of my books let alone making an audio book of it.  However, as the e-publishing craze began and I found my way into that, I started being exposed to what appeared to be a maturing process for bringing together narrators and authors.  It’s ACX.com, and it is an Amazon.com company.

I think I also learned about ACX.com specifically when I was publishing on Amazon, and they were cross promoting.  I poked around, and it was kind of fun – not exactly intuitive at first, but if you hunt around a bit you can find all of the potential producers’ sample narrations, and those were fun to listen to.  You can sub-select by gender, accent, type of voice, and so on.  It was fun to listen to, and it got me thinking about it.  However, I was still a little daunted by the expense and wondered if it was the kind of thing I could do on my own.

Trying it on my own…

So, yes, I went out and looked at microphones and downloaded recording software which I actually have some knowledge of how to use, thanks to many years running house audio for churches and the like.  I already owned a pair of studio quality headphones, bought a couple of pop filters and stands for my microphones, and then I set about trying to record a sample.

Guess what – normal houses without any kind of acoustic renovation work make truly lousy recording studios.  Everything, and I mean EVERYTHING makes noise that ends up in the recording.  The garage door opening, the air conditioning, the computer fan, the chair you’re sitting in, the floor – you name it, I heard it in my recordings.  Also, ACX has some standards requirements in terms of the decibel ranges they’ll permit, and that was very difficult to get right on a budget.  Can you buy good equipment?  Sure.  One problem – good equipment costs money.

Second, there was the time commitment.  If I tried to work in recording my audio book all on my own, all phases of recording it were going to be on me.  That would eat up an enormous amount of time, and there was a fairly high risk that I could get to the end of this endeavor and find the ACX wouldn’t approve the audio I submit!  Not that they wouldn’t be nice or anything, but I have zero record with them doing this sort of thing.

Now, that’s not to say I can’t read aloud fairly well.  I’ve read every one of my books to my darling wife, and I even do different voices when I read – act things out, so to speak, and she enjoys it.  She really enjoys my reading to her, and that goes back to when I read her The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (I even did the voices to match the Rankin-Bass animated production of The Hobbit.  I actually bought some royalty free music from Royalty Free Kings and tried dubbing it under the introduction.  What I produced wasn’t all that bad, actually – although the effort to get to “not all that bad” was pretty steep.

So, being brutally honest here, I didn’t think that my voice was the one needed to bring life to the characters, especially since Sahni and Van are female, as are many of the other characters.  As well, it was clear that trying to produce an audio book on my own was going to absorb massive amounts of time with little guarantee of even creating a viable end product.  So, doing this on my own was a no go.

What does it cost to have someone else record your book?

By providence, some funds became available to pursue the project, and I decided to move forward.  As with everything else, you should know the cost of what you’re getting into up front.  There are two ways to do it on ACX.com:  pay for production or sharing royalties.   If you pay for production, then you pay a certain rate PFH (per finished hour) of audio book narration that is provided.

I chose to pay for the production up front (option 2).  A pretty average going rate is about $135 to $175.  Any less, and you’re probably not getting someone with much experience or the right equipment.  Determining what rate you feel comfortable with is governed by the length of your book.  ACX has a calculator that converts the number of words into length (for example: 160,000 words is just a little bit over 17 hours’ worth).  This means that a book of that length will run you between $2,300 to just under $3,000.

If you’re a well-known author with a lot of sales, then perhaps royalty sharing (which is 50/50 by the way) might be a choice for you.  That means you don’t pay for the production of the audio book since the two of you are going to split the earnings.  However, this is a less attractive deal for new or self-published authors since your distribution might be very small.  It also makes you and the narrator “partners” in the book, which means you will end up sharing certain legal decisions (like whether or not Audible.com and its friends have the exclusive right to distribute your title or not).

What you pick – distribution rights (exclusive or not)

Speaking of that, it’s important to pick (early on) how your book will be distributed.  The contract you “click” with ACX.com, for example, is binding for 7 years, so it’s something you really need to be sure of.  If you choose exclusive rights, then ACX.com, Amazon.com, and the iBook Store will be the only ones who can distribute the book FOR SEVEN YEARS.  They offer you a bigger cut of the profits, sure, but you can’t even offer a sample chapter at your website.  This can really limit your promotion options.

What you don’t pick – YOUR BOOK’S PRICE!!! 

Stunner, here, for anyone who has used Amazon.com’s other tools, such as CreateSpace or the Kindle store to sell your books.  Generally, in those stores, you have complete flexibility how little or how much to charge for your books (minus some production-dictated minimums).  That is not true for your audio book.  Audible, Amazon, and iTunes will basically decide what to charge for your book, and you get no say.

purebredabcWell, that’s true, and it’s not.  If you pick “exclusive” rights, then in order to pay you a bigger cut, Amazon and its partners seem to charge customers more.  If you pick “non-exclusive” rights, then they seem to charge less.  Purebred started as exclusive distribution, and I switched it as soon as I realized what it meant.  They were charging $35ish when I was selling it with “exclusive” rights, but that dropped to $30 or so, when I went with “non-exclusive.”

Selecting a narrator – my experience

The ads and intro videos for ACX suggest you’ll get about 14 or so auditions for your book, and that wasn’t very far off, honestly.  I think I received about 11 or so.  I think what helped generate interest was that this was a “pay-for-production” deal, where the producer would get a paycheck when they finished the project.

ACX does a good job of guiding you through this process, and they ask you to select about a fifteen minute section of your book for potential narrators to audition for you.  First, I tried to pick a section of the book that really forced the narrators to show their emotion and characterization flexibility.  I had a section with male voices, female voices, happy characters, angry characters, and even sick characters.  You’re not trying to sell the narrator on doing your book, other information you provide outside of the sample does that (well, that and the fact you’re paying up front).  You are trying to pick who you think listeners will most connect with, and who truly connects with your characters.

Of the 11 auditions I got, several I discounted immediately.  Either they had too little experience (this was their first audio book), or there was something about their pronunciation of the character names or other audio artifacts that just distracted me straight-away.  I had an English lady audition, as well (even though I specified an American accent).  I was tickled pink by it, honestly, but in the end, she didn’t make the cut because she wasn’t the right fit for the book, and her audio audition lacked polish.

ElizabethI got down to about four finalists, and then shopped the recordings around to my friends and family.  All of them gave me their opinions, and they were all over the map as far as who took first place.  However, that’s when I began to notice Elizabeth Phillips standing out.  She wasn’t my top pick, at first, and – to be honest – she wasn’t everyone else’s top pick either.  However, she was a strong second place for nearly everyone.  That represents a pretty decent achievement given the fact that some of the first place contenders were in last place with someone else in my group of listeners.  Liz had a vocal appeal that everyone seemed to be able to enjoy.  When I asked her to make a slight volume increase in her audition, the reason why became even clearer – she had the range and the audio savvy to carry off a good production.  The more I listened, the more I was convinced.

De-selecting narrators – a telling moment

A great quote from J. Michael Straczynski’s character Jeffrey Sinclair is “The best way to understand someone is to fight him, make him angry.”  I think the best way to learn if your audio book narrator is the right one is to see how they handle criticism.  I gave every one of the finalists feedback on their audition, and not everyone responded well to that.  In some places in my profession, I’ve been taught that “feedback is a gift.”  Well, it wasn’t all that well received by some.  They argued or contested my decision or my observations.

If anything, this is a business arrangement – a contract – and you need to be comfortable with your business partner, especially when it comes to how they take criticism or redirection.  Dealing with Liz on this confirmed my choice, and dealing with others also confirmed that NOT choosing them was the right call.

Getting started – how it begins…

With ACX, once you and the narrator agree to the contract (click “yes” on the appropriate web pages – another smoothly delivered ACX feature), the first fifteen minutes of the book are due by a date that you, as the author, set.  Be reasonable here – not too long or too short.  Recording fifteen minutes shouldn’t take more than a day or two, but give them a little breathing room for emergencies.  I think a week is plenty unless there is an extenuating circumstance (finishing another project is a perfectly valid reason).  Also, you should talk to your narrator, and if they are good (like Liz), then they’ll want to know your characters and some of their story.  If you have a piece of science fiction, there will probably be a few names that they need to know how to pronounce and some emotional story background that will help them pick the voices for your characters.

I actually suggested, for some of the characters, famous actors or other luminaries (poets, etc.) just as reference points.  It’s not that you’re asking them to do a perfect impression of these people, but it just helps “color them in.”  Hopefully, if you’ve done your job as a writer well enough, they should be able to come up with something pretty decent on the first go.

The routine – a chapter by chapter release of your book…

When the first fifteen minutes of the book was done, Liz started to deliver chapters (sometimes at a rather alarming rate).  What I realized, early on, is that this process is how the narrator pays their bills and makes their livelihood.  Therefore, I felt it was incumbent on me to be very responsive when she delivered a chapter.  Usually, she would e-mail me to let me know that she had just uploaded a chapter.  I would acknowledge the e-mail, and that evening when I got home from work, I’d listen to it.

Now, if you’re expecting everything to be perfect on the first go, then drop that blatantly unrealistic expectation.  There will be editing flaws, hiccups (well, not literal ones), or places where the pronunciation of a name wasn’t quite right or a word was missing.  The best way to communicate that back to your narrator is to give them a time index and a snippet of the text where the problem was.

Here is an example excerpt of an e-mail that I would send after a chapter was done.

Chapter 5

21:50 – “Anything we need you for?”  The word order is different, sounded like – “Anything we need for you?”

24:30 – “evacuation to the athletic field” sounded like “evacuation in the athletic field”

38:40 – “That, actually … that wasn’t my question.”  “actually” is missing.

If there was a pronunciation problem with a specific word, there are two ways to handle it.  If it’s an English word, then you can use Google’s “define” function (i.e. search Google with the terms “define askew”) to produce a sample audio snippet of that word.  Also, you can search YouTube for the same kind of help by using “pronounce” in front of the word you’re trying to find an example of.  In the second case, however, if the word is one of your character or place names, then a phone call is the quickest and best way to resolve the issue.  Liz was very good about seeing these issues coming, and she e-mailed me seeking help before she recorded something.

Once your narrator uploads the corrections, listen to them and verify that they were made properly and that the updated section doesn’t vary in volume or performance from the stuff around it.  Then, when you’re satisfied, send them an e-mail indicating that the changes were successful.

For me, it worked best to send her an e-mail where the subject was the chapter’s name (i.e. “Chapter 12”).  That way, the changes and the feedback and the response to the same were kept in the same thread, and they were pretty easy to track.

Finishing up – bittersweet but important

When you’ve reached the end of the last chapter, and the book is essentially done, I hope you have the same emotions that I had at the end.  There’s a part of you that is satisfied and pleased that the work is done, but there is a part of you that is very sad to the point of being heartbroken that someone who has been such an awesome creative partner and has really worked hard to bring your characters to life has to move on to another assignment.   However, my dad (and others) have always told me “Finish like a pro.”  It’s important you do this especially since this is where the narrator gets paid for their work.

Beyond the book, itself, you have to have your beginning credits, your ending credits, and a five minute audio sample – that much ACX warns you about in advance.  However, they don’t warn you that the cover art also must be done at this point.  If you have someone working on cover art, it needs to be done before the audio is finally approved.  Don’t make your narrator wait to be paid.  Thankfully, my artist is awesome, and she finished up about the same day the recording did (thanks Kat!).

When the narrator is done, they’ll select a button on their web page that says the audio is ready for approval.  As you should have been listening and approving all along, you should be able to click this button almost immediately.  Then, it will be time to pay.

Now, ACX doesn’t act as a middleman on payment.  I would suggest using a service like “PayPal.”  It’s safe; it’s immediate; it does a good job recording your payment for tax purposes, later.  Just a warning, though – if the payment is over a certain amount, then these services might take a slice out of what your narrator actually receives.  That’s on you to make up, even if you have to send them a supplementary payment.

I’d also say that this is an excellent time to leave a little more in the payment box than was required, especially if your narrator went out of her way to accommodate your crazy pronunciations or strange characters.

After you say goodbye, then what?

When the narrator clicks that he or she has received payment, their part is essentially over unless ACX’s automated analysis picks up on a problem with the recording.  If you’ve selected a narrator with some experience, this probably won’t be a problem for you.  The book will then stay in “limbo” for about 10 to 14 days until it starts showing up in the various stores ACX distributes to – at this time, this is iTunes, Audible, and Amazon.

Finally, realize that your narrator now has another client to take care of, and as close as you might have gotten over the life of the project, both of you need to move on to other things.  I think occasional touch-bases are okay, especially if you get a great review or something neat like that, but otherwise, this person is running their own business – respect that.  They are not in charge of the success or failure of your book as a marketable product.  They were responsible for delivering good audio.  If they’ve done that, then they’ve done their bit.  The rest is on you.

Would I do it again?

With Liz as the narrator, heck yeah I’d do another book, and in point of fact, we did!  We only planned on doing Purebred this year, but there were funds available, so we also did The Rescue.  Now, I’m going to stop for awhile and try to figure out how to market these things (and when I do I’ll write another article).  Advertising the books, in general, has been an uphill battle, but you have to do this because you love it, and the audio book is a wonderful way to share that with others in your life who might not want to read a book.

I hope this helps you, and I wish you all success!

See you in the future,

JTL

 

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