This article by Nicole Evelina is from the December 2020 edition of Nink, the monthly newsletter of Novelists, Inc.  (NINC). Nink, which is packed each month with informative articles for career novelists, is a benefit of NINC membership. 

Audio books are the fastest growing type of book in the publishing industry in the United States—and the rest of the world isn’t far behind. According to American Library Magazine, in 2019 audiobook sales increased by 16% and accounted for more than $1.2 billion in revenue, outselling ebooks for the first time by several million dollars. This means strong potential revenue for authors, so if you’ve been considering getting in on the trend, now is the time.

Before we get into the steps involved in making an audio book by working with a professional narrator (voicing your own audio books was covered in the October 2020 issue of Nink), a few caveats:

  • This article will focus on how indie and hybrid authors can create audio books. If you are traditionally published, your publisher will have a process for the sale of audio rights and will handle the creation of the audio book.
  • Getting audio books made is extremely expensive, so bear that in mind when you make your decision. The cost is based on the rate your narrator charges (which varies from person to person and is higher for Screen Actors’ Guild members) and the length of your book. This means if you write long books, you’re looking at an investment of several thousand dollars, so it’s a good idea to consider whether or not you’re going to make that money back.

Where to begin: pick a distributor
It may seem odd to begin with the distribution process, but you have to know who you are working with before you create your audio book. Authors have more choices than ever before, some of whom still make physical CDs. Here we’ll discuss the three most popular digital-only options:

1. ACX –ACX used to be the only game in town, but they have since been surpassed by Findaway Voices. Using ACX usually means granting it exclusive distribution rights (which means your book will only be available on Audible, Amazon and iTunes) for which you get full royalties (40%) If you want to go wide, ACX pays 20% royalties. It also offers a Bounty Program for referrals of first-time Audible customers, which is where you will make the most money.

ACX offers an option to pay your narrator through royalty share, in which you pay nothing upfront and instead your narrator gets a percentage of your profits. (Most professional narrators will not take this option and require a flat fee.)

ACX requires a seven-year contract, you can’t distribute to Overdrive and other library programs through ACX, and you have no control over your book’s price, nor can you put it on sale. (A friend tells me that if you’re stuck in an ACX contract like I am, you can get out of it by emailing them. I’m going to try it.)

For more information on audio rights, and how some authors have approached Audible directly, see the September 2019 issue of Nink.

2. Findaway Voices –Developed as an alternative to ACX, the two biggest selling points are more distribution points than ACX (around 45 at last count, including Overdrive, Walmart, Nook Audio and international channels) and full price control. This means you can put your book on sale anytime you want. Findaway Voices reserves the right to change your price later if it chooses but you still get royalties based on your original list price (just like what happens when Amazon decides to put your book on sale.) Speaking of sales, the company also partnered with Bookbub’s Chirp program, which is not only free, but regarded by many as the best audio book promotion tool currently available. To use Findaway Voices, you must be non-exclusive with ACX. While you’ll make 20% less on sales there, Findaway has more venues to help make up for it and you make 80% on those. Findaway allows for full audio book production paid up front (Audioworks) and Voices Share, where the author pays 50% of production up front, shares 20% of earned royalties with the narrator and offers exclusivity with a buyout option. More information on the later can be found here.

They also don’t offer a bounty program and their giveaway codes only work through Author’s Direct, not Audible.

3. Working directly with a studio – I did this with the audio book for my romantic comedy Been Searching for You because I wanted to work with a specific narrator and she only worked with Deyan Studios in Los Angeles. If you choose this option, you can still use ACX/Findaway for distribution or go with another company like Author’s Republic.

Auditioning narrators
Once distribution is determined, your next step is to audition voice talent. Most companies offer a database with samples you can listen to for free (you have to begin a project with Findaway before you can access its database). You can also search by gender, voice age, accent, and other criteria that may be important to you. When you set up your audition sample (a passage from your book that all narrators will read for you), note which accents are needed for your book and if you can, choose a sample that includes those so you can hear how they will voice them.

When you’ve settled on your first choice, you will make an offer. You may negotiate or come to an agreement immediately. Be sure to write back to each person you auditioned, even if you don’t choose them, so they aren’t left in limbo. Plus, it’s good business and polite.

In the case of Been Searching for You, since I had Ashley Clements in mind, knew she’d narrated before, and I was familiar with her work, I contacted her directly. She said yes, but because she doesn’t have her own studio, she works with Deyan Studios in LA. So I talked with them about their services and fees. Once we had a signed agreement, they contacted Ashley and extended an offer and she agreed. In this case, no audition was necessary, but they have a casting service and large pool of talent if that’s something you choose to pay for.

Prepping for recording
The next step after you and your narrator(s) sign on the dotted line is for you to provide them with information that will help them get into character. The most obvious part of this is the script they will read from. This includes any author’s notes or previews of future books you’d like them to read.

You should also provide your narrator with a document containing any words that might have an unusual pronunciation. This can include character names/places/foreign language phrases/unusual words. If you think it might be questioned, tell them how you want it pronounced—better safe than sorry.

You also will provide direction about each character (at least the main ones; how much you care what the secondaries sound like is up to you). There’s no right or wrong way to do this. I give a bit of insight into their minds, motivations and relationships with other characters, then talk about any vocal requirements I have (accents, certain tones/moods). I also give the actor or actress that inspired the character. And in case the narrators want additional insight, I give them the links to my Pinterest board and the playlist for the book.

Many studios offer research services like this for a fee, but I like to do it myself because no one knows the book or its characters better than the author.

The recording process
This will vary depending on which company you use. For ACX, your narrator will submit the first 15 minutes for your approval. At that point, you’ll listen and offer any notes you have, both on general performance and on changes that need to be made (lines read wrong, things that are hard to understand, etc.) Once you both agree the first 15 minutes are fine, your narrator will record the rest of the book.

How you handle edits will depend on the person/company you’re working with. Some narrators upload files in batches so you can listen and give notes as they go, but others give you the whole book at once. Either way, remember that you are the client and you have the right to request any needed changes from places where a line doesn’t match the book to accents/pronunciation, to the speed of the read or swallowing or breathing noises. It’s important that you are happy with the final product.

Distribution and payment
When you chose your distribution/recording parameters (upfront/royalty share), the company (or narrator) should have explained the payment process. It should also have explained how long the contract is for, and how much to buy the work when any royalty share ends.

After payment is confirmed by both parties, companies perform one final quality check and then handle distribution. In October, ACX had a wait of 40-60 days due to the pandemic. Normally it takes about a week for the quality check and another few days for the books to appear on Audible and Amazon. iTunes usually takes significantly longer. Findaway also has a quality check, and it is usually complete in a few days.

Both companies pay you based on sales on a regular schedule.

Passive income
It may take time to earn back the money you spent, but audio book growth and revenue show little sign of slowing down. And the good news is they sit next to your print and ebooks on Amazon (and other retailers if you use Findaway) and you can promote those as well. Remember Chirp and it is also worth noting that Netgalley now offers audio as an option. For a while I made more money on my audio books than I did on print and ebooks combined. I hope you find much success and find that audio is a worthwhile investment for you.