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Navigating the Next Frontier in Digital Publishing: Audiobooks

audiobooks [1]
Photo by Jeff Golden

When Audible launched its Audiobook Creation Exchange [2] (ACX) back in 2011, my initial reaction was to ignore it. I wish I could tell you that this decision was rooted in sound logic, but if I’m being totally honest, the very idea of producing an audiobook just seemed overwhelming. This was at a time when I’d finally gotten the whole MOBI vs. EPUB thing straight and the thought of learning a new vernacular threatened to make my head explode. After all, how many times have we writers been promised that something is going to be easy only to learn the hard truth?

I can’t pinpoint exactly when the shift occurred, but it seems like the digital publishing conversation changed from e-books to audiobooks overnight. Suddenly people were calling it “the next frontier in digital publishing” and it quickly became impossible to ignore this rapidly growing market segment, which, according to IBISWorld [3], currently represents about $1.6 billion (up from $480 million in 1997). I spent a lot of time thinking about my goals as a writer, one of which is reaching more readers, and I finally decided to take a serious look at audio.

Even though “talking books” have been available since the 1930s (they were originally intended for people with visual impairments), the confluence of digital audio formats, mobile devices, and our “on the go” lifestyle has made audiobooks more affordable, portable, and accessible to a wider audience than ever before, an audience who is embracing the format as a way to multitask. Last year The New York Times [4] cited a Bowker survey that revealed that “among people who have recently bought audiobooks, 47% listen while commuting in a car, 25% while working around the house and 23% while exercising.” Though the audiobook market is smaller than that of print and e-books, if you consider that only a fraction of books make the transition to audio, you could argue that the audiobook market might be an easier place to get discovered. Add to that the fact that audiobook listeners have the most diverse reading habits—”84% of audiobook listeners also read a print book in the past year, and 56% also read an e-book,” according to Pew Research Internet Project [5]—and you can see how offering your work as an audiobook could translate to e-book and print sales of other titles.

With all of this in mind, I decided that I couldn’t ignore audio anymore; it was time to embrace digital publishing’s newest technology, vernacular [6] and all. At the beginning of this year, rather than setting my usual resolutions about losing weight and saving money, I set just one: to turn my novel, Empty Arms [7], into an audiobook. It was a long road and it wasn’t always easy, but my head didn’t explode and I find myself here, in the beginning of July, with a newly approved audiobook to launch and a number of lessons to share with anyone who’s thinking of making a similar journey.

Lesson #1: Listen Before You Jump

I’m one of the audiobook multitaskers mentioned above. You’ll never find me cleaning the bathroom, ironing, weeding, or even running to the grocery store without being tuned in to a story. If you’re thinking about producing an audiobook but you’ve never “read with your ears”, now is the time to do so. Jumping in without experience in this format will likely leave you feeling lost. You won’t know how the opening or closing credits are supposed to sound, how character voices are handled, what makes for a good sample excerpt, or how fast the pacing should be. With that said, be sure to listen to titles in your genre because there are a host of stylistic differences between categories.

Lesson #2: There’s No One Right Way

There are a few different options [8] for financing and distributing your audiobook. When it comes to financing your project, you will either “Pay for Production”, which means that you will pay the producer up front and keep all of the royalties (less ACX’s split) or you’ll enter into a “Royalty Share” deal in which you don’t pay anything up front but you split your royalties with the producer when your audiobook starts selling. Both options can be costly. Production quotes for my project started at $4,000. However, with a royalty share deal there’s no limit to how much you could pay in the long run. If your work is already selling well, paying for production up front might make financial sense because the project will likely end up costing you less in the long run. However, if you’re a new author, or an author with a limited budget, a royalty share deal could mean the difference between producing an audiobook and not.

The other issue to consider is distribution. If you pay for production, you can choose to distribute your audiobook exclusively through ACX—which will make your title available on Audible, Amazon, and iTunes, and earn you a higher royalty rate—or you can choose non-exclusive distribution, which decreases your royalty but allows you to sell your audiobook wherever you want. As for the royalty share deals, they are automatically locked into exclusive distribution with ACX.

Deciding how to finance and distribute your audiobook is a highly personal decision that should be based on your budget and goals. There’s no one right way to do it, only the way that works best for you. For my project, I decided to do a royalty share deal. Avoiding a substantial out-of-pocket investment was appealing as was the prospect of working with a Producer who would have a vested interest in the success of our audiobook. As far as distribution is concerned, I felt confident that Empty Arms would find its audience through Audible, Amazon, and iTunes, since they are such large players in the audiobook marketplace.

Lesson #3: Change is Inevitable

If you use Facebook—or any service, for that matter—you’re well aware that your service terms can change at any time, and not necessarily in your favor. Working with ACX is no different. When I first started my audiobook project, ACX promised to match me with a Producer and facilitate the entire process—from legal contracts to royalty pay-outs to distribution—and give us a 50% cut, which could increase to as high as 90%, depending on the number of units sold. Based on the value ACX was bringing to the table, that arrangement felt fair. Then, about two months into my project, ACX changed the rules. In a highly criticized move [9], ACX increased its own cut to a flat 60%, leaving Rights Holders and Producers to split the remaining 40%, and it eliminated the sliding scale altogether. I was relieved to learn that my project was grandfathered in under the old royalty structure, but it left many people, including myself, feeling disenchanted and uncertain about their future in this format.

Lesson #4: Your Voice Is Not Necessarily the Right Voice for Your Audiobook

While the success of your print and e-books might rely on your literary voice, your audiobook relies on the narrator’s physical voice. Even the best story in the world can be destroyed by the wrong voice. The decision to work with a professional narrator or do it yourself trips up many authors. It’s one of the most important decisions you’ll make, but it really boils down to two key factors: genre and skill. The general rule of thumb is that works of non-fiction are read by the author because it’s thought to add authenticity (think of David and Goliath [10] written and read by Malcolm Gladwell or Bossypants [11], which is narrated by its author, Tina Fey), while fiction is generally left to professional voice artists who are trained to convey a variety of emotions and character voices (look at The Hunger Games [12] series, which was written by Suzanne Collins but narrated by Carolyn McCormick or the A Game of Thrones [13] series, which was written by George R.R. Martin but narrated by Roy Dotrice).

With that being said, the author’s skill level should also be considered. Not all non-fiction authors have voices that make for pleasant listening. Similarly, if you’re a fiction writer who has had some success with public speaking or podcasting, listeners might prefer to hear the story told in your voice (think The Ocean at the End of the Lane [14] by Neil Gaiman or A Mercy [15] by Toni Morrison).

In my case, the decision was easy. Fiction project + no recording experience = go pro.

Lesson #5: Act Like a Casting Agent

If you decide to work with a narrator, ACX will connect with you an entire community of professionals and allow you to filter the talent pool by certain criteria, like gender, age, language, dialect, and vocal qualities (e.g. raspy, nasal, shy). Since Empty Arms is told from the perspective of an infertile woman in her late thirties who is haunted by the baby girl she surrendered for adoption when she was sixteen, I searched for a female narrator in her 30s or 40s with a “wistful” voice.

Voice artists matching your criteria will audition for your project, using a script that you will provide. Don’t just use Chapter 1 as your audition script because it’s the easy choice; pick a section that contains several characters and some heated drama to really get a feel for how each narrator handles different voices and the level of their acting skills. And make sure your audition script is long enough to give you an accurate sense of what it will be like to listen to that voice for an extended period of time. I recommend a 10-15 minute read.

I ended up using Chapter 1 for my audition script because it featured multiple characters, an emotionally-charged scene in which my protagonist and her husband find out that they can’t have children, and it came in at just over 2,300 words, which translated into a 15-minute read. Whether you decide to use your first chapter or a scene later in the book, it’s always helpful to give the narrator some context, so they understand the tone and aren’t jumping in blind.

Once your project is open for auditions, don’t just sit back and wait for people to take notice. Be proactive by searching ACX’s database for narrators who would be a good fit and then send them a message describing the project and inviting them to audition.

As the auditions roll in and you narrow down your favorites, visit Audible [16] to look up other books they’ve narrated and read the reviews. Audible has ratings and reviews specific to performance, as well as the story itself, so you can see how readers have responded to the narrator’s past work.

Lesson #6: Your Narrator will also be Your Business Partner

Brooke Boertzel [17]
Voice artist Brooke Boertzel

When choosing a Narrator, don’t just evaluate the person’s vocal qualities and production experience, but also their ability to help you market your final product, especially if you’re doing a royalty share deal. When I chose my narrator, Brooke Boertzel [18], it wasn’t just because she had the right voice, an MFA in Acting from the Actors Studio Drama School, an in-home production studio, and 25 years of experience in the business, it was because I felt that she would be committed to the project’s success, both during production and beyond.

My instinct about Brooke was proven when we hit a stumbling block in the middle of production. I wanted to add music to the opening and closing credits and dream sequences, but working with royalty-free stock music was proving to be complicated from a rights perspective. Rather than giving up and proceeding without music, Brooke circumvented the entire issue by composing custom tracks that we were able to use without limitation. And now that the audiobook is for sale, she’s tapping into her resources and contacts to help spread the word.

Lesson #7: Get on the Same Page Before You Start Recording

Your readers don’t necessarily imagine your characters the same way you do, so why would your Narrator? Avoid being surprised by your Narrator’s interpretation of what your characters sound like by sharing your vision up front. For Empty Arms, I told Brooke that I wanted the evil nurse to have a rough, smoker’s voice, while one of the doctors needed to sound elderly and hard of hearing. I thought my protagonist’s best friend should sound cheerful with sadness brewing right beneath the surface, and I envisioned the detective that my protagonist hires to find her long lost daughter sounding like an arrogant used car salesman. By knowing these things up front, Brooke was able to bring my characters to life in a way that sounded authentic to me.

Lesson #8: Develop a Clear-Cut Process for Reviews

Edits can get messy. There’s pacing, inflection, pronunciation, and a whole of host of other issues that will need changing. And since this is a digital audio recording, not a manuscript that can be marked up with a red pen, communicating these changes can be a nightmare. To ensure it goes smoothly, work with your Narrator to develop a clear-cut process for identifying, communicating, and implementing changes.

For us, it was all about workflow. When Brooke was in “narrator mode”, she didn’t want to disrupt her flow by switching to “producer mode” to make edits. So we agreed that Brooke would record the entire first draft and then go back and work on my edits. We also decided that she would send me the chapters as she recorded them, rather than in one big batch. I knew that I wouldn’t have the stamina to review the entire recording in one sitting, so I tackled it 3-4 chapters at a time.

To capture my feedback, we developed a form that identified the time stamp in the recording, the word or phrase that posed a problem, and my direction about the editing that needed to take place. Here’s what it looked like:

Time stamp Word or Phrase Edit
0:58 But she is forever out of reach. Could you make your voice trail off at the end of this sentence? I think that will help set this apart as a dream and make for a nice transition.


In addition to reducing confusion on Brooke’s end, capturing my feedback in this format made it easy for me to listen to the updated recording and verify that all of the changes had been made to my satisfaction.

Lesson #9: It Takes Longer Than You Probably Expect

When you begin producing an audiobook, ACX requires you to set timelines and milestones to keep everyone on track. Knowing that I tend to underestimate these sorts of things, I decided to set my project completion date three months out. To me, that seemed like ample time to produce an audiobook.

It wasn’t.

From a production perspective, if you’re working with an experienced Narrator/Producer, you can expect one “finished hour” of audio to take about four hours of editing. This means that an audiobook that takes ten hours to listen to took forty hours to produce. Less experienced producers can take much longer. You also need to account for all of the time you’re going to spend listening to the recording, identifying changes, and re-reviewing. On top of that, you’ve got to factor in time for ACX to perform its quality check, which is upwards of 10-14 business days. If they come back with changes—which they did a couple of times for our project—you’ve got to add in more editing time and another 10-14 business days every time it goes back to ACX.

What seemed like a reasonable timeline in the beginning is humorous to me now. Despite Brooke’s experience and the fact that we worked together like a well-oiled machine, the project that I thought would take three months ended up taking six.

Lesson #10: It’s More Rewarding Than You Imagine

Empty Arms Audiobook [19]Not only did it make good business sense for me to release Empty Arms as an audiobook, I also thought it would be pretty cool. I never imagined how moved I’d be to hear my characters and their journeys brought to life in this way. Though the process had its ups and downs, nothing surprised me as much as the immense pride I’ve felt about the product we produced.


Are you thinking about producing an audiobook? If so, what’s stopping you?



About Erika Liodice [20]

Erika Liodice is an indie author and founder of Dreamspire Press, where she is dedicated to teaching curious minds about unknown worlds through story. She is the author of Empty Arms: A Novel [21] and the children’s chapter book series High Flyers [22]. She is also a contributor to Author In Progress [23], the Writer Unboxed team’s first anthology. To learn more about Erika and her work, visit erikaliodice.com [24].