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Indie Publishing: My Audiobook Experience

As an author, there's something magical about hearing your words come alive through narration. Working with talented narrators has been a humbling experience that added a new dimension to the stories I wrote. Here, I’ll discuss my bumbling journey through the creation of three audiobooks.

Self-Publishing: My Audiobook Experience

‍MOTIVATION I nearly flunked the fourth grade because I couldn't read. It turned out that I had undiagnosed eye movement/tracking issues, which I still struggle with today. Even after years of vision therapy and word-heavy careers, I still have difficulties in with visual reading. It requires a lot of focus and strains my muscles. So, when audiobook apps ramped up, I quickly adopted them. This is to say that I highly value the narrated word.

After years of writing my first novels, I finally tapped the publish button on one, then four months later did it again. I knew I wanted create audiobooks, and had saved money for years to do it. I wanted–no, needed–to hear and share my stories through spoken word, in part because I love the format and in part for the benefit of readers like me.

Research shows that audiobooks increase learning, comfort with reading, and motivation in dyslexic readers.


N‍OT A NARRATOR

I wish I had the ability to narrate books. I don't. I put as much emotion into reading out loud as my semi-functional toaster. I stutter over words. I pause on words that my head jumbles up. My brain just isn't wired for it, and even after years of reading to my kids, I still can't do it.

This is a huge bummer because good narrators demand good pay, as they should. I considered asking an actor friend of mine, but that's what he gets paid to do and he works hard to bring in a living wage.


REQUEST FOR AUDITIONS Having written a bunch of proposals in my days as a geophysics professor, I knew how important it was to give my auditioning narrators a detailed and complete description of what I was looking for. It was hard to distill my books into short snippets to hook the best voice actors, yet provide enough detail that they’d know what they would be getting into.

As an avid consumer of audiobooks, I knew all too well that a narrator might be great for one voice and butcher another. Bad accents or failed attempts at voicing the opposite gender have ruined plenty of books for me. This is why I had them audition with 4-5 minutes of dialogue involving three important characters. To help them nail the voices, I provided brief descriptions of the characters and their voices, including actors with similar voices.

I received dozens of applications within the first hour and dozens more within a day.


SPLITTING COSTS OR NOT Understanding the importance that a voice actor has on an audiobook, I knew the odds of finding a great narrator at a bargain price was slim to none. So, the cost was a challenge for me. ACX provides two options for pay structure.

Full Pay: In this option, the author pays the narrator the full amount and receives all of the proceeds from the audiobook.

Split Pay: Here, the author pays for half of the narrator's fees and they split the proceeds fifty-fifty.

I already struggled with the fact that AXC/Audible takes sixty percent of the revenue, leaving forty percent in royalties. Cutting my share in half to twenty percent might come with a heavy up-front discount, but I wasn't sure if it was worth it. I decided to take the full forty percent because I knew myself.

The most experienced narrators rarely give discounts for twenty percent, and I wanted an excellent audiobook to sell. In my experience, selling crap is harder than selling gold, and I'm not the best salesman. With my dream narrator, I was confident that I would recoup my costs even though it would challenge my personal finances.

Typically, you get more auditions and more experienced narrators if you take on the full risk rather than splitting the cost with the narrator.


NARRATORS’ RATES When putting together my proposal, I wasn’t prepared to tell them what I’d pay for the gig. Voice actors get paid in Per Finished Hours, which means I’d have to fork over a lot because my books were fairly long, coming in at 92,000 to 131,000 words. Thirteen hours at $100PFH meant I’d spend $1300, a sickeningly large sum for a beginning author. I was sick. My stomach turned in knots as I realized $100PFH was a bargain. My sweet spot was about $200PFH for a compromise between a great narrator and the max I could afford. There was no way I could pay $400PFH or more for well-established narrators. Thoroughly discouraged, I continued.

Experienced voice actors often belong to the Screen Actors Guild, and charge a minimum of $250 per finished hour. (Rates may change.)


TONS OF AUDITIONS I wasn’t ready for the number of auditions I'd get for my first book. I don’t remember the exact numbers, but within a day and a half I had over sixty narrated auditions. The tables had turned. I was in demand. Most narrators love authors who don’t ask for profit sharing, so there was no risk for them. Many of them said they connected with the audition script right away. I'd like to believe them, but suspect plenty say that because they want the gig.

The process became a game of whittling down the number of candidates. Some auditions were easy to throw out and almost insultingly so. If I wanted a monotone AI to read my novel, I wouldn’t have auditioned flesh and blood authors. Two of them made me want to pat their backs and gently coach them into another career path. I felt bad for the ones who recorded their auditions on their phone in a noisy apartment where you could hear muffled people and horns in the background. Even though they offered clearance-sale prices, I tossed them out in seconds. I couldn’t bear listening to them butcher the words I worked on for years.

For the first twenty-ish auditions, I decided about half of them were great at, bringing my vision to life, even if they sounded different or spun unintended intonations into the weave. Then I hit a voice actor who was spectacular. It felt like having Michelangelo paint my words on the Sistine Chapel. Then I looked at his rate. More than double the max I could afford. Michelangelo’s angels cracked, fell, and shattered on the tile floors.

After another twenty or so, another one caught my ear and tugged at my love of storytelling. It must have felt that way when Keanu Reeves auditioned for Neo in The Matrix. I forced myself to look at the per finished hour rate, sure I would never be able to afford him. My wife freaked out in the next room when I hollered in joy. It would be tight, but my budget could barely cover it. After that, it was a matter of barreling through the rest so I could get back to this guy.

Several auditions before the end, I found another master of voice acting. Again, he was at the limit of my budget. He had a voice that was uniquely his own, kind of like Tom Hanks. This guy had a fresh take on my story that I wasn’t sure if I hated or loved. It wasn’t how I imagined my main character’s voice, but it might have been better.

Long story short, I went with the safe Keanu Reeves equivalent, not the Tom Hanks version. In retrospect, I should have gone with the more unique voice. The guy I chose was great, and the narration turned out wonderful, but the other guy would have added a uniqueness-factor that would have bumped the book to the next level. Live and learn, right?

PLEASE DON’T USE AI At the time of this short read, hiring an AI company to narrate a manuscript was a bad idea. The problem was that AI hadn’t improved enough to give half of what I needed/wanted. They ended up bland with little emotional connection to the story. Even I could have done a better job, and that is setting the bar pretty damn low

The repercussions of AI narration are twofold. First, a lot of people listen to the sample narration before purchasing an audiobook, so you’ll lose their sales with an emotionless read. Even with the lower cost of AI, it would be really hard to earn enough pay for the lesser version.

Note: Sales don't just help me financially, they give me a sense of accomplishment in knowing someone will hear my words.

The other repercussion is that listeners rate AI-narrated books negatively. Bad ratings and worse reviews are the fastest way to stop anyone from reading/listening to your book again. It's like a giant neon sign saying, "DO NOT READ!" On Amazon, your audiobook ratings and reviews are mixed in with your Kindle and paperback versions, so an AI recording can tank sales of your written formats as well.

The last and most important factor to consider is the voice actors themselves. They’re artists. If we get rid of all our artists, what are we as a society? If you want a low-cost recording of your book, choose a novice author who will charge you the same rate. They'll get the experience they need, and you'll get what you need.

THE AGREEMENT ACX made it easy. We both electronically agreed to the arrangement. He was going to start in two weeks. I'm not a lawyer, so I can't tell you about the contract other than to say, it looked reasonable to me.



COMMUNICATION

We went back and forth over ACX's clunky messaging system several times before switching over to email, at which point things went smoother. I provided the full manuscript, more details about more of the characters, and key aspects that I wanted him to get right. All was set and ready to go.


ANTICIPATION Two weeks later, before his start date, he sent me the first fifteen minutes of my novel, which is a point built into the contract where you can back away with no harm, no foul or continue for the remainder.

I was thrilled with the first fifteen. Perhaps I wasn't as amazed as I was by his audition, but I was still very impressed. It was so cool to have my words transformed with such skill. I had a few notes, which he said he would incorporate. So, I signed up for the rest of the book.



COMMUNICATION

I expected to have more back and forth. I reached out and asked if there was anything he needed. He guaranteed that it was going great. I didn’t want to interfere with his creative process like a micro-managing first-time director. Then, near the end of our contract, he asked for a week's extension with a valid explanation. I wasn’t on a strict timeline, so it wasn’t a problem.

Then he asked for more time. I asked to hear what he had so far. He explained that I should wait for the files to be professionally sound-checked and cleaned, so I waited some more.

Pet Peeve: I hate it when people don't deliver on time multiple times in a row.



THE RESULT

When he was done, he had it professionally sound-checked and cleaned, then sent it to me in chapters. It was like opening a small box at Christmas and instead of the watch I wanted, there were keys to a brand-new car. So, I tore through my hot-off-the-microphone audiobook.

It was fantastic. There were only a few minor errors which he quickly fixed when I brought them to his attention. A word with the wrong emphasis on the wrong syllable. A skipped word here or there. All small stuff. I loved it. It was a dream come true.

HOME STRETCH Once he made all the changes, we agreed that he had fulfilled his contract beautifully and I signed off on it. He uploaded all the files and I approved each on ACX. Along the way, I forgot that ACX takes up to ten days to review an audiobook. Then, they immediately release it without warning. It hit Audible and Amazon while I was asleep and only found out about it via email later that morning.

I later found out that authors can request a launch date if they give several weeks of lead time. On books two and three, I prepared a launch date a month in advance.

Advice: Give yourself plenty of time in case the narration takes longer than anticipated, there are complications, the narrator gets sick so his voice isn't good, or any number of things that can go wrong.

THE DAY CAME I shouted my happiness from the rooftops. Seriously, I actually climbed onto the roof and shouted. No joke. The view from up there is fantastic. I couldn’t have been happier. I shared free copies with friends, family, and a few bookish people I'd met online. I gave my narrator a few free copies so he could send them to friends.

THE DAY WENT I didn’t sell any. Not a single purchase. My launch efforts produced exactly zero. If Kindle and paperback were indicators, I should have sold at least a handful. Reviews didn’t stream in. I just forked over an insane amount of money and was getting nothing from it.

I didn’t realize that ACX reports sales a day or two late, so none showed up. I felt a ton better when I learned this from a forum. Crisis mode dialed down.

TWO DAYS WENT Still no sales. Nobody rated or reviewed it on Audible. I closed the ACX webpage and walked away for another day.



UGH!

Still nothing. I didn’t understand why the Audible wasn’t selling like the kindle and paperback had. My sales weren't stellar on those two fronts, but the written-word books did sell.

This lack of success continues for the audiobook of I NANO to this day. I'll never recoup the costs. Even worse, almost nobody will get the benefit of hearing it.


LESSONS LEARNED

So, I made a bunch of mistakes and got knocked around financially and emotionally because I jumped in with too little info and too much excitement. Here are a few pieces of info that might help you.

Pre-Game: Marketing doesn’t do itself. I’d been experiencing better-than-expected sales on Kindle, so I thought that would translate. It didn’t. The ratings on Amazon don't show up on Audible, and vice versa. It was like starting over. After learning my lesson, I started marketing ahead of time on my second and third books.

Collaboration: My narrator was a professional. Me? Not so much. He knew how to do his job much better than I did, so I let him conduct the train. Yet, I knew the story better. I feel like we should have chatted early and often to avoid a few issues that spanned the novel from beginning to end, which he wasn't willing to change after the fact. Communication and collaboration became two prominent requirements when finding a narrator for my next books.

Plain vs. Unique: Don't try to please everyone with one voice. My narrator had turned out more like Superman than Deadpool. In my opinion, Superman is perhaps the best superhero of all time but has a meh personality performed quite successfully by many actors. On the other hand, Deadpool is a disaster of a superhero but has a masterfully crafted personality that only a handful of actors could nail. The reviews that eventually came through didn't like or dislike the narrator. It was like he was just there, not detracting or adding to the story. In retrospect, a voice actor should add. Otherwise, you might as well have Kindle read it to you.

Be patient: It takes months to produce a audiobook. The selection and setup can be done in days, but then you have to wait for a free spot in the narrator's schedule. They can only narrate for so many hours a day because their voice will give out. They spend a lot more time on narrating than the finished hours. Give yourself plenty of lead time to prepare and market of your launch.

Remember: This is your book. Make sure you get what you want. It's too expensive to leave it up to fate.



WOULD I DO IT AGAIN? Yes. I would do it again. I already did, twice more. Armed with experience, I turned my next two books into Audibles. My gut sat much easier through the making of books two and three (different series). I went with more unique narrators. I marketed them sooner and better. I did more research into my target audience.

If I could go back and make different choices on the first one, would I? Absolutely. Given my inability to market my first book cost-effectively, I shouldn't have known better than to have my first book professionally narrated. However, with lessons learned, my second and third books will make up for my losses. Slowly, I'm moving into the positive financial territory as a whole, so I'll take the first book as a learning experience and move on from there.

I did not have the second book in the series narrated. Only some of the people who read the first book would want to read the second book. That audience is not even close to large enough to make book two financially responsible.


PAY IT FORWARD As an author who went through the gauntlet of commissioning three audiobooks, I understand some of the challenges indie authors face. It is important for me to help my community (not sell to them). I am eager to answer questions and offer what little guidance I can. So, reach out on X, Facebook, Reddit, and other forms of social media. Let's support authors and celebrate the power of the story in all of its forms.



FAQ

Q. Why did you choose to create audiobooks for your novels?

A. I chose to create audiobooks due to personal experiences with reading challenges and a desire to reach a wider audience, including those who prefer audiobooks for various reasons.


Q. How did you go about selecting narrators for your audiobooks?

A. I requested auditions from narrators through platforms like Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX) and carefully reviewed their submissions to find the best fit for each book.


Q. Did you consider splitting the costs of audiobook production with narrators?

A. While I weighed the option of splitting costs with narrators, I ultimately decided to bear the full financial burden to ensure access to experienced and talented voice actors. I feel very fortunate to be in a place where I could afford to follow this path. You need to decide whether this fits within your budget.


Q. What factors influenced your decision regarding narrators' rates?

A. Factors such as the length of the book, industry standards for payment (Per Finished Hour), and my budget influenced my decision on what to pay narrators for their work.


Q. How did you handle the overwhelming number of auditions received for your books?

A. I took my time to carefully listen to each audition, narrowed down the selection based on suitability and quality, and made decisions based on which narrators best brought my characters and story to life.


Q. What challenges did you encounter during the audiobook production process?

A. My challenges included finding the right balance between creative vision and narrator interpretation, managing expectations regarding budget and timeline, and ensuring effective communication throughout the process.


Q. Can I commission an audiobook narrated entirely by animals?

A. While it might be a fun concept, audiobook narration typically involves human narrators to effectively convey the nuances of storytelling and character development.


Q. How did you navigate potential pitfalls such as considering AI narration or underestimating marketing efforts?

A. I opted against AI narration due to concerns about the morality, quality, and connection with the story. Using AI ruins the experience and nuances that help an audiobook be successful.


Q. What was the process like working with narrators from audition to final production?

A. At first, it was stressful. When the narrations came back, it was a flurry. Release time was nerve-racking.


Q. What lessons did you learn from your experience creating audiobooks?

A. Lessons learned included the importance of thorough research and preparation, effective collaboration with narrators, and patience throughout the production and marketing phases.


Q. Will listening to my audiobook while skydiving enhance the reading experience?

A. While the adrenaline rush might add excitement to the experience, I recommend enjoying audiobooks in a safe and comfortable environment where you won't go splat like Wile E. Coyote.


Q. Would you create audiobooks again in the future?

A. Yes, despite challenges and lessons learned, I see value in offering audio versions of my novels and would approach future projects with greater knowledge and experience. Because of the lack of interest in I NANO's audiobook, I won't make an audiobook for its sequel.


Q. Can I hire a narrator who can imitate celebrity voices for my audiobook?

A. While it might be entertaining, it could potentially infringe on copyright laws and distract from the originality of the story.


 

As always, I appreciate your support of indie authors. In the name of putting myself out there, here are a few of my works.



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