Audio Books for Fun and Profit! (Wednesday 10/3/17)

I had the absolute pleasure of spending a couple days doing an extended “AMA” with a mid-Atlantic-ish area writer’s guild last week, and it became swiftly clear that there is a thirst for information of a more nitty-gritty level about audiobooks. Creating them, what the economics of it is like, what the artistic concern is… so much.

I thought I’d take a second to talk here about some of that, for authors who may be pondering, small publishers thinking, and readers wondering. So here goes!!

(PS – If you want to read the OTHER half of this discussion, the one about narrating these… see my earlier blog post: “OMG You have the most amazing job, how do I do that?!

I’m going to go over some of the common questions I get asked about things, and if you’ve more detailed questions to ask, post them in the comments!


Q: Where do you record these? What do you do about studio space? Did you build one, or do you use someone’s? 

Yes, I built a personal studio at my house… it’s a large closet area that was torn down to studs and rebuilt for a recording booth, attached to a spare room which is now the studio and office space. The vast majority of audio books now produced are done at personal studios, as the reduction in overhead for publishers is massive. Most of the big publishers still maintain their own production space, usually for author records and celebrity voicing, but in a lot of ways the meat and potatoes are recorded on our own.
Of 120-odd books… I have done slightly less than… 1 in someone else’s studio.
About 1 less than 1.
Ok, none. 🙂

Q: How do you prepare to record a book?

I read each book to myself as a reader, and note anywhere there is an obstacle I need to be prepared for. Accents, place names to look up, etc. Then I’m ready to record. I work in 2 blocks of 3.5 hours on mic, aiming for 2 hours of finished audio from each.

Q: What do you have in the booth? What goes on there?

In the booth, I have my microphone, the audio interface (connects mic to computer), a screen with the script and my recording software, a keyboard to control things, water and lip balm. (loooots of lip balm)
I use a system called “punch and roll” where each time I make a mistake, I quickly stop the recording, use the mouse to choose a point before the mistake, then start the recording again. The system plays back 2 seconds of the point before the record marker, then begins recording there. I resume speaking from before the mistake and carry on.
This has the advantage of making a single “correct” (to my knowledge) file at the end of the session… it also means that outtakes don’t really make it into the world to hear, which is good and bad. Some are really funny!
Once the files are recorded, they go for editing and proofing. My proofer listens to the entire book while reading along, and notes anywhere I deviated from the script. She then sends these back as a list of changes or “pickups” with clips of the error passage so I can match the tone of my voice, and a highlighted PDF of the script where the errors were. I re-record these, and send them back for inclusion.
The final files are compiled, and then “mastered” so the overall loudness and tone is adjusted to make a clean, bright, easy-to-listen-to final version which is then packaged for retail sale, and submitted to Audible.

Q: How long do books turn out to be? How many minutes per page etc?

Fiction text translates into audio at the rate of about 9600 words per hour, give or take. It’s difficult to really parse by page because it can vary based on typesetting … and of course the MS word count is problematic because “2018” counts as a single word… but isn’t when spoken. Likewise “/” or even “i.e.” and the like. Non-Fiction is usually a bit longer, as the words frequently have more syllables.
The total production time for an hour of audio comes in around 8-10 hours of effort per finished hour of recording… of which somewhere around 6 hours is my own. That includes the time required to prep-read the book, do any necessary research, actually record the book (at a ratio of about 2:1 time on mic to finished audio) coordinate editing, record corrections, and wrangle file submission. The other 2-4 hours are involved in editing and mastering the audio (tweaking things to make the best sound) file encoding, packaging for sale, and marketing.

Q: SO, what about the artistic aspect? The acting, etc?

Artistically, most books translate well into Single Voice audio because they are inherently a story being told by a storyteller. Exceptions exist, and are often when the author has incorporated significant visual elements into the book, like text layout shape influencing the story (the justification forms a fish or something) or when there are many visual references (maps, tables, charts) that are required to understand the content.
Multiple POV books can be successfully converted to audio in several ways… either with the work of the actor creating mild audible differences, with a second actor performing the contrasting viewpoints, or even with 2 actors performing together doing alternate characters. These have become more popular lately, and are known in the industry as “Dual Narration” where actor A records the chapters from character A’s point of view, and Actor B does character B’s… or “Duet Narration” where both actors record together, voicing the appropriate characters at the appropriate time.
Duet Narration is at least twice as expensive as any other, as both actors need to be present for the entire recording session, and the editing and mastering can be more onerous.
Actors are typically paid for audiobook work at what is called a “PFH” or “Per Finished Hour” rate… as the final length of the book is a value no party can dispute. Most of us use a value to the nearest hundredth… but some publishers will round to the quarter or half hour.
For a professional working voice actor, you can expect to pay $250-400pfh, and can usually anticipate that the production costs are above and beyond that, usually $75-150pfh. That entails the editing, proofing, mastering, and integration of changes from proofing, and preparation of the files for market.

Q: OK, What about things like books that aren’t? Podcasts and drama productions and stuff?

Another aspect artistically available are dramatic full-cast productions and podcasts of original work. These are an exciting new form of media, and can be very rewarding, but have several important aspects to ponder.
Firstly: Dramatic Productions (like radio plays) are more complex, involve sound effects (rarely if ever found in a traditional audiobook) and involve multiple actors. Accordingly, they are more expensive to produce, and the full production costs are higher.
Secondly: A novel cannot simply be done as a dramatic performance on the fly… it must be adapted in a way similar to the adaptation for a screenplay. Attempts have been to just “dramatize” a novel without forethought, and they are in my experience universally failures.

Q: Not to be gauche, but… can I make any money at this?

Financially speaking, audio-books CAN be an enormous income stream; and can also be a horrid revenue drain. Determining where your book fits into that spectrum is an inexact science, but there are some things you can use to ponder the return on investment.
It is worth it to note that audio-book sales have experienced double digit growth for the last 7 years, and are the single fastest-growing portion of the industry. There is, sadly, no solid metric comparing sales velocity of eBook, Paperback and audio. We’ve tried, can’t come up with one. I’m sure Amazon has some, but for some reason they won’t answer my emails. Strange.
Possible paths for the independent author:
1) Publish your book, watch the sales trend, decide on the audio.
This is a method that involves using ebook sales as a general gauge of the popularity of a title. If you put the book up for sale and you get a couple thousand sales in that first month or two, and you’re getting a couple hundred reviews of 3-3.5 and better? IMO, make that sucker an audiobook post-haste. If you see 200-500 sales, and the reviews number in the tens, you are either not going to break even, or it will be a long path to it.
2) Plan to publish the book and audio at the same time, or as close as possible.
As an indy author, you will not be able to have a completely simultaneous release in the same way that Penguin does… the way the system flows just won’t allow it. *IF* however you have a production person or company you are working with, and can put together a contract, you can be darn close.
This method uses your time, effort and money on promotion to the best effect to generate some lift for the book. If you have previous successful forays into audio, or are continuing a successful series, or are interested in taking a risk to maximize possible return, this is your best option.
Audio is somewhat breathtaking when you look at the overall cost initially. An average novel of 92,000 words translates to a 9.6 hour audiobook. At my full production rate of $400pfh (which includes narration, editing, mastering, proofing, and ready audio) that would cost $3800.
(If it makes you feel any better… that same amount of text as an eLearning or corporate training video would cost you $14.5 grand… we narrators are considered “bat-crap-crazy” by our peers)

Q: OK… I’m working the calculator now… how long will it take to earn that back?

It depends, and it’ll drive you insane trying to figure it out… but here’s the best approximation I can give you.
Let’s say you use ACX or SpokenRealms or Author’s Republic to get your book to market, and you do an exclusive contract with Amazon, which means your book goes to,, and iTunes.
You make 40% of each actual retail sale… in my experience, for novels 8-12 hours long, that translates to about $4.25 a sale. It may be lower some months if Audible runs a special, but that’s a reasonable number to go with.
A bit of math (3800/4.25) and you get 894 sales to break even.
There’s a sweet spot in all this… Novellas will take more sales per hour of audio to break even, and epics will take less sales per hour, but are enough longer that it often takes longer to earn back.
My general take, is that the 7.5-9.5 hour novel (72k-92k) are the best length-to-earning ratio… but obviously don’t force  your art into a box just for the sake of hitting that!
Series are usually great for sales in audio… every new book boosts the other ones, and you tend to pull MOST of the readers through the whole thing. Remember to promote book 1 at least as often as you promote each new book.

Q: Do you work at all on that ACX thing where you share the royalties?

I have done some projects with ACX’s royalty share payment, and I still do a few every quarter. I have a set of assessment criteria I put them through to determine if I think they’re something that I am likely to a) enjoy working on and b) take the risk for. (I do ask my authors to pay for the post production costs on those books so that I can put the sweat equity in, but we can still get my editors paid and happy.)
I judge a given book first by looking at the cover and blurb and asking myself:
“If I were standing at Barnes and Nobles… would I go drop $9.95 for this?”
…and if the answer is YES, then I read a chapter of it. I look at the writing style and quality, the degree to which I want to keep reading it. If those are good, I will put together an audition, and then if offered the book will see how the author seems to work with.
For books that are a paid production, my rate is complete, and I contract the proofing and editing team on my own. I also produce for books that require dual voice, usually I will offer the author a couple of voices to choose from, and then I will subcontract and pay that person so that the author only has one concise bill to pay.

Splitting the royalties does, of course, reduce the per-book earning, and shifts the “sales to break-even” as they are 2 different values for each of us.

The answer becomes essentially whether you, as the author, want to reduce initial outlay, and potentially make less over the life of the book. If your book has good traction, or the first of a series sold very well (made the equivalent of your full production cost in under a year) you should consider doing a payout to keep more of your money.

Q: OK, let’t get back to the performance. What about voices and accents? Do you do those? (HOW do you do those?!) and what about women’s voices and stuff?

I wish I had a better answer other than “Uhh, I just … do them…?” I don’t honestly have a good answer for how I’m able to pick up accents. I suspect an ancestor got up to mischief with a parrot.

Some accents are tricky, they are usually the ones that are similar to a more dominant feeling accent for me. Afrikans is tricky, but I’ve worked on that… (sounds a lot like Aussie, but not) The nice thing, honestly, is that people don’t have perfect accents. For character work, an accent that is 95% is perfectly acceptable.
The trick is when you are trying to sustain an accent for an entire narrative… making sure to keep it fully consistent is hard. I GENERALLY don’t do books with a full narrative accent that isn’t my own… but I’ve done a bit here and there.
Women’s voices are easy, because women are humans, and I’m a human too. No, seriously, people go WAY TOO FAR trying to make a “woman’s voice” or a “Man’s voice” … my 13yo female has a lower voice than a number of guys I know. If you want a single rule-of-thumb it’s that women TEND to have just slightly breathier voices. Beyond that, it’s about where they’re from, who they are as characters, etc.

Q: Do I pick a male or female voice for narrating my book?

Male versus Female voice for a book has a couple of considerations. The primary being whose story it is… if there’s a clear POV, I think it’s nuts to use the other gender.
(Tho honestly? I’d rather hear a female voice read a close POV of a male’s story than the other way around; I think that’s because we so often hear women’s narrative as filtered through a man’s judgement in every day life.)
If the book is 1st person, unless you are working with a trans character and/or have a darned good reason… I say stick with the matching gender.
For a 3rd person, it’s much more open, and you can decide how you want to play things. Much of this will depend on the actors you are considering, but maybe you want to play more on the emotional development and showcase that either by having a woman do the narration because she seems to connect and readers expect women to be more sensitive… OR by having a man who can really engage with the emotions do it to bring a nice reversal of expectations. If you’re doing an action oriented book, you can use a man for the bigger voice feel… OR use a woman with strong presence to again reverse expectations.
There’s lots to play with there.

Q: Are there other things I should know?

The one thing which IS counter-intuitive, but vitally important is this:
Be prepared to let go of directing the art.
This is HARD, I know. You wrote the book, you know how it sounds in your head… and now you’re going to give it to someone else? Authors instinctively want to direct the performance, get it to fit their vision.
The process the way it happens can’t work like that. Unless you’re watching and listening to the entire thing, you need to trust based on audition and interaction with your actor that they are readers, they know what they’re doing, and they will honor your art. (even if you are there the whole time, it tends to flatten the emotion to work to someone else’s vision, and you wind up with an impoverished work)
Whether you realize it or not…  you’ve already directed the performance by writing your book. You’ve written the stage direction, the nuances, the character notes and the emotion already.
The best results come when you make yourself available to answer questions, to give the narrator the guidance they’re after, and to market and interact. The narrator will go away and do the alchemy we do alone in little padded rooms… and bring you back the best art they can make.

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