The Indie Audiobook Process
I’ve loved audiobooks since before it was cool. Before iPhones, before mp3 players. I spent years trying to convert friends to no avail. And now, finally, finally, readers are overcoming their prejudice. They’ve realized they can download straight to their phones, fit in reading while they’re driving, working out, mindlessly playing video games (not guilty). Audiobooks, it seems, are finally getting their due.
What does that mean for authors? More research and learning.
Audiobooks can be a difficult step for one reason: the investment. The truth is, authors need to take a hard look at their titles to decide which merit that investment, and what it means for their publishing plans–especially in the case of long term contracts. Let’s start with the basics.
There are now two major audiobook distribution companies available to self published authors: ACX, owned by the largest distributor of audiobooks (Audible, a subsidiary of Amazon), and Findaway Voices, who distributes to a wider range of vendors. I’ve personally worked with both companies and each has been an excellent experience overall. The single (massive) caveat being that most self publish authors want the ability to adjust and make changes to their titles and ACX locks you in to a 7-year term.
ACX (Audibook Creation Exchange) distributes to iTunes, Audible, and Amazon (though the Amazon link actually refers you to Audible.com). They have an easy to use site that allows you to select your ebook title and submit it for production. Note that you do actually have to have an ebook on the Amazon site to do so. ACX gives you access to high profile production companies and big name narrators, though as a rights holder you can also work with most of them directly. If you’re unfamiliar with audiobooks or narrators, I suggest you listen to a few titles before you start. It will help the approval process to understand what reading (listening) is like, and it will help you during the marketing/promotion phase of publishing as well.
ACX allows you to bring your own narration to the site if you prefer. The production process will walk you through those choices, as well as contract terms. The biggest decisions you’ll be making at ACX are exclusive versus non-exclusive, royalty share versus pay for production, and–at any site you work with–which narrator to choose.
Exclusive versus Non-Exclusive
ACX requires a 7 year contract regardless of exclusivity. This means your title is locked in to be sold at ACX outlets for a full 7 years. Much like KDP Select, ACX rewards exclusivity with a higher royalty rate. However, this means you cannot sell your book at any other retailers, at conventions, or make it available to libraries. With the audiobook market growing, that could be a huge hit to potential income, only made worse by being locked in for 7 years. Currently exclusive rights pay 40% royalty and non-exclusive 25% if you pay for production upfront (see royalty share below). It’s also important to note that ACX does not let you choose your own pricing. Those royalty rates are based on the rate they decide to sell your titles at, which can be Audible member rates, iTunes rates, or special deal prices. For instance, downloading free ebook titles at Amazon allows the reader a further discount on the audiobook at Audible.
Royalty Share versus Pay for Production
ACX gives you the option to pay the entire production cost upfront to receive the highest royalty rate. Because the contract term is so long, this will likely be the best investment. However, it can be a substantial one. Audiobook production is charged at a Per Finished Hour rate (PFH), which runs about 9,300 words for each hour according to ACX. Narrators can charge several hundred dollars per hour, and it is important to understand that a good narrator can make or break your book. They are absolutely worth the investment if you want your book to succeed.* This means production fees can run $1,500 to $2,500 for a single book.
*A side note here: if your book is not succeeding as an ebook or in print, it is likely not ready to go to audio. Make sure your book is the best it can be, because you cannot alter it later without significant costs.
Depending on how many titles you sell and how those titles are priced, return on your investment could take time. The royalty share option allows you to reduce your initial investment by splitting all future royalties (for the term of the contract) with the narrator you choose. This means an exclusive to ACX title that would earn back 40% through pay for production would earn back 20% for royalty share (half for you/half for the narrator). A non-exclusive title at 25% for upfront cost would earn back 12.5% in royalty share.
We’ll skip to choosing a narrator last, because those rules apply to both ACX and Findaway voices.
Findaway Voices offers audiobook production with full control and rights. You decide which vendors to distribute to (currently more than thirty platforms), how much you want to charge, and when you want to remove the title from sale. Findaway allows you to distribute to Audible (through ACX), but if you chose to have your titles on Audible you will still be locked in contract via ACX.
*Note you can distribute through both Findaway and ACX by using the non-exclusive option at ACX for titles to Amazon/Audible/iTunes and opting out of Audible distribution at Findaway. This allows you the maximum royalty at each vendor.
Findaway’s royalties are based on your author-set list price for most vendors. Findaway Voices notes: As the author, you keep 80% of all royalties Findaway Voices receives, which vary by distribution partner, channel, and business model.
The royalties Findaway Voices receives from its partners are within the following ranges:
- A la carte: 40% to 50% of list price
- Subscription: 30% to 40% of list price
- Revenue Share: 25% to 45% of revenue receipts
Findaway’s title set up differs from ACX, and the process will walk you through choosing the type of narrator you want, as well as the cost range you’re interested in. As with ACX, you can bring your own narration to the site.
Findaway Voices is relatively new and in my experience the best customer service in the entire industry. If you have questions or concerns, I recommend dropping them an email.
Choosing a Narrator
The single most important thing you will do is finding the right narrator. Audiobook listeners are particular, because the person you choose will be speaking in their ear for hours on end. Below is a list of what to look for and what to avoid.
When choosing a narrator:
- Find a narrator that is the correct age, gender, and dialect for your title. If the book is told first person by a teen girl, you won’t want a mature British man to read it, even if you like the way he sounds. Remember that just like in print, any wrongness in the reading will pull the listener out of the story. Try finding popular titles similar to your own at an audiobook retail site and listen to their samples.
- Find a narrator who has the correct tone for you book. You don’t want an upbeat teen reading your title about an elderly couple dealing with grief. Bear in mind that narrators are voice actors, so their tones can be shifted, but only so much. Listen to how they carry the story. You want to feel like you’re hearing a performance, not being read at.
- Listen to more than one retail sample of the narrators you like, and be sure to let them know which tone or style is your preference should you decide to go with them. Don’t wait until after they’ve performed the entire book to voice your concerns.
- Avoid poor quality audio like pops and cracks, whistling when the narrator speaks, or if it sounds like the narrator is in a tunnel. Any of these things will make for a miserable experience for the listener.
- Remember that voice actors are people and treat them accordingly.
Working with ACX and Findaway
Both ACX and Findaway offer a variety of narrator options. ACX has a dashboard that allows you to filter and search for narrator types and rates. Many, many narrators and production companies are on ACX, and most have several audio samples on their profiles. Once you narrow down your choices, you can request an audition from a few narrators and they will submit a reading from an excerpt of your book. Alternately, you can post which attributes you’re looking for in a narrator, and let the auditions and offers come in while you wait.
Findaway’s process differs from ACX in that you’re offered a curated set of narrators, which is wonderful if you feel overwhelmed by too many choices, but limiting if you have a specific narrator in mind. Again, this can be corrected by working directly with the narrator of your choosing and uploading the files yourself. Probably because I’m excessively particular and terrible at describing the tone and style I’m after, I was unhappy with the first set of narrators Findaway offered. They asked for a bit more information, then posted a new set of narrators for a second round. From those, I found an option that was the right fit for my title, and the entire process went forward with ease.
Currently, I work with both Findaway Voices and ACX independently. This is the best course for my books and for my publishing plan, but each author will have their own decisions to make. Both distributors have special programs you may be eligible for, like the romance package at Audible, and free discount codes if you’re exclusive to ACX or through the Authors Direct app at Findaway if you’re not.
A final note on audiobook production is that it does take time. You should allow for several months from submission before the title appears at retailers. If you plan to do a simultaneous release, know that some retailers cannot stick to your set release date.
If you’re considering publishing to audio, I recommend you familiarize yourself with audiobooks in general, know that production is a large investment that will take time to see returns, and understand that by not doing so you might be writing off a entire segment of readers who want your books.