Audiobooking by Debbie Bennett

Audiobooks have been around for a long time. I remember listening to them myself on cassette as a child. My own daughter adored (and still has) many books on CD and she used to lie in bed at night and let them talk her to sleep. She always complained that she’d heard the start of one book so many times, she knew it by heart – but she still had no idea how the story ended!

More recent developments include audiobook downloads – from Amazon, Apple and doubtless a multitude of other sites. But it’s only in the last month or so that Amazon’s own Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX) programme has been opened up to anybody in the UK.

For UK-based independent authors, there was firstly the option of ebooks. Many of us then went on to produce paperbacks – either because we had a market for them at conventions and book-signings, or simply because when displayed on Amazon, they make the ebook look cheap! After all, as writers we’ve already invested the time, effort and expense or writing and editing; the end format should be an added bonus. Now we have the option of adding an audiobook to the mix too and at potentially minimal cost.

So what’s involved in producing an audiobook? I can’t comment on the technical side or on any other platforms other than Amazon. But ACX seems to be an added string to our bows – it links into the Amazon sales platform in much the same way as CreateSpace does and it appears relatively straightforward so far – at least from an author’s point of view, since we’ve already done all the hard work!

Creating an account on ACX is easy enough. Then the site is split into two: authors seeking narrators and narrators seeking books/authors. As an author, you can post the details of your book up (obviously you must own the audio rights), with Amazon links, a sample of text and anything else you think a potential narrator might want to know (your track record, social platforms – whatever it is that makes you or your book an attractive proposition). You can also specify characteristics of your preferred narrator: gender, voice, style, accent etc, and whether you are prepared to pay a narrator up front on a work-for-hire basis or whether you’d rather pay nothing and split any profits 50/50. Remember that Amazon take a chunk of sales up front, the same way as they do for ebooks and paperbacks.

Once your book is up you have a choice: sit back and see if any narrators approach you, or search for them yourself and offer your project. The narrator database contains voice, gender and style again, plus credentials, samples and anything else a narrator is using to sell him or herself. The narrator will also specify whether they are prepared to work on a 50/50 profit split or want paying up front. Many of the more experienced narrators are also trained actors, have strings of credits to their names and presumably have their pick of work offered, so would rather be paid up-front at a sometimes eye-wateringly high fee per hour!

If you find a narrator (or one finds you), he or she will read your sample and submit it as an audition. You listen to all the auditions submitted, ask for re-reads as necessary and pick the one you like best. ACX then handles the process by which each chapter is read and submitted for approval one at a time. Once complete, I presume the audiobook is loaded and ACX receives sales money and either splits the royalty 50/50, or pays it all to the author. ACX holds the distribution rights to the audiobook for seven years and will sell it on Audible, Amazon and Itunes. If you choose ACX as the sole distributor, the royalty rate is 40%, as opposed to 25% if you wish to also distribute elsewhere.(Note that if you opt for a 50/50 royalty split, you have no option - you must choose sole distribution)

My 85,000 word novel comes out (according to ACX’s system) at 9.1 hours. 9.1 hours?  I was amazed. And apparently each hour of reading time requires considerably more hours of production time. ACX’s help files suggest 6.2 hours of production time for each finished hour! It really isn’t as easy as sitting down and reading into a microphone.

So I uploaded my first crime novel Hamelin's Child as a project. I selected a sample of the novel that I felt covered the best variety of text – dialogue and description. I tend to write internal thought in first-person present-tense italics too, so I wanted to include that to see how/if it translated to audio. Then I decided to sit back and wait for a few weeks before I went actively looking.

I got one audition after five or six days. Which was more than I expected. A narrator is potentially going to invest 56 hours or more – that’s around 7 working days! – in my book with no guarantee of any return for his money. They have to be very sure of what they are getting into.

I listened to a bit. And cringed. It’s unbelievably difficult to listen to somebody read out something you’ve written! And while the passage I submitted as an audition piece isn’t particularly explicit, I do write very dark and graphic material.

I looked up my potential narrator. He’s a singer who’s looking to move into book narration so has no credits or samples. Which is kind of good. He’s as new to this process as I am, but liked the look of the book as it’s the kind of thing he reads. I offered him a free ebook so he could read the entire thing and then come back and tell me if he was still interested. He is.

So what happens next? Well I've chatted with him on email and I'm comfortable we can work together. I'm now making sure we also talk via ACX's own internal message system, so we have an audit trial of what's going on. Having read a bit of the ACX small-print, once I hit that Make Offer button, I am committing myself to finishing this thing – I can’t expect the guy to work for nothing! Indeed there are kill-fees involved if the rights-owner fails to approve the final product without good reason. 

Realistically, if I don't do this, will I ever do anything else with the audio rights? Probably not. But I write crime thrillers and I have no idea how comfortable I’m going to be with listening to the some of the scenes read aloud. How do you discuss the audio version of a sex scene with a complete stranger of the opposite sex? How on earth is he going to read it aloud in the first place? I couldn't do it and it's my book!

I will keep you all updated ....


Kathleen Jones said…
Good luck Debbie! I hope it sounds brilliant in the end. Most of my non-fiction books were sold to audio book companies by my agent, but my self-published don't sell well enough for me to pay anyone to record them. Maybe one day!
Dennis Hamley said…
Yes, Debbie, good luck with it. I'd love to do it but, as with Kathleen, my ebooks don't sell anywhere near enough to make it worthwhile. Not yet anyway. But wait a minute. Didn't Bill Kirton years ago in an AE blog tell us how to make a passable do-it-yourself audiobook, even before the advent of the 'How to...' pages? I must search through and find it.
Debbie, this was so timely - thank-you. (It's been a very good week for advice on AE!) I've been thinking about audio books. My previous agent did quite a good audio book deal for The Curiosity Cabinet with Oakhill Publishing and it's still out there - but the length and expense of these whole book downloads made it not very profitable even for the companies doing it until Audible came along - I've seen a rise in sales on there, especially to Prime members. I'd been thinking about doing it on ACX with Ice Dancing which is a first person narration and a readable length. What I'm wondering is, do they make it fairly easy to pair up with an actor you know, if you're both signed up to ACX? I suppose you could 'find' each other. I still have a number of actor friends from working as a playwright, and I have people in mind - people I'd be happy to do a 50/50 split with. I'm certainly going to be giving this a try later on this year. All good luck with your release.
Susan Price said…
Fascinating, Debbie! I don't think this is for me, but still find all these new opportunities so interesting. I think you're very brave - good luck with it all! - I hope it all works out. Report back, please!
Lee said…
I released my two novels as weekly podcasts - one narrated as a student project, one by a professional actor. They still seem to be downloaded a lot more than the ebooks, and it taught me much about the shortcomings of my work - nothing, as you say, like hearing someone else read and interpret your writing!

The sex scenes didn't seem to present a problem, but of course I was working with actors who are used to - or learning to be used to - this type of work. Also, communicating by email removes a lot of the possible embarrassment.

The thing is, I also learned that writing for the spoken word is very possibly a different art form, and a different undertaking. Still, I intend to repeat it with my next novel.

Another benefit of 'free culture': you don't have to worry if the project is commercially viable. Of course, you've got to find someone as dedicated as Welsh actor Ioan Hefin, who spent hours and hours - and hours! - on Corvus.

So go for it, Debbie!
Bill Kirton said…
Good luck with it Debbie. It's obviously worth doing even if only for the experience.
And yes, Dennis, I did write a how to on recording your own material. The only problem is the enormous technical gap between recordings made in a studio with a sound engineer in charge and ones you make at home (however expensive your mic and however carefully you've rigged up your studio). I do occasional podcasts from my rigged-up study but I did a voice-over at Aberdeen BBC recently for an independent documentary maker and listening to the playback just brought home the difference.
Debbie Bennett said…
Catherine, it's fairly easy on ACX to look up narrators by name, so if the person is there that you want, you'd be able to find them.

It's certainly going to be an interesting experience!
Susan Price said…
Just to say that Bill's account of how to make recordings yourself, as well as Debbie's advice above, and advice on much, much more, can all be found on our How-To Page. Just click on the tab at the top of the page.
Lydia Bennet said…
what a brilliant post Debbie, good luck with the audio book! People at readings have often asked if my novels are out as audiobooks and if they are blind or visually impaired it's made me feel a bit rotten that they've heard me read teaser-length chunks but can't now read the book. Very interested to follow this up, as soon as I find a way to slow down the earth's rotation.
madwippitt said…
Sounds fascinating! My mum is a big audio book fan as her sight has now deteriorated so much she can't read books any more. And I love them - perfect for listening to while weeding the allotment, or driving in the car as well as last thing at night. Even if it's a book you've already read, listening to it can give it a whole new dimension and make it feel brand new. The right narrator is vital I've found though - the wrong reader can destroy the book. The right one can actually enhance it. I'm in the middle of Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint at the moment, read by the author and with dramatized scenes and a few sound effects thrown in too. I was a bit apprehensive about all the messing about, but in fact it's been beautifully done and - the best bit - I wasn't that blown away by the book when I read it a few years back, but this audio recording has me absolutely hooked and enjoying it far more.

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