My Experience With Creating Audiobooks
2020 was a wild year, but it was also the year I fell in love with audiobooks as a reader and decided I wanted to release my own books in that format. I now have two audiobooks under my belt with another scheduled for production in the next couple of months, so today I wanted to share a little about my experiences. Hopefully this will give other authors looking into the process a better idea of what it's like and some important things to consider before diving in.
First off, what's the point of even creating an audiobook? The reasons are going to vary from author to author, but for me, it was about making my books more accessible, reaching a wider audience, and just loving audiobooks as a reader myself. I'd always vaguely considered audiobooks as something I wanted to do eventually, but becoming an avid audiobook listener is what really sealed the deal for me last year.
I love that I can multitask when I'm listening to an audiobook, whether I'm working on an art project, doing chores, or just driving in my car. When you don't have a lot of time to sit down and read, audiobooks can come in super handy, which makes them more accessible not only to people who can't read for other reasons, but for anyone with a busy schedule. Having my own books out in this format means they might reach readers who otherwise wouldn't have picked them up, and that's pretty exciting.
Time and Money Considerations
This was one of the biggest things that kept me away from making audiobooks for so long, and I think that's probably true for a lot of authors, so let's talk about it. Producing an audiobook can get very expensive very quickly. You pay your narrator per finished hour (PFH), and rates can be anywhere from $100 to $500 PFH. If you have a longer book, obviously you're looking at a higher cost. Another option (if you use Audible's ACX platform) is to do a royalty split with your narrator. You can also do a hybrid option where you pay a lower PFH rate and split royalties with your narrator. It's worth noting that when you do the royalty split option, it can be more difficult to attract quality, experienced narrators who are a good fit for your book, but that doesn't mean they're not out there.
There are also some important time considerations to account for. In order to put out a high quality product, you're going to have to listen to each chapter (sometimes more than once) and make sure everything sounds right and is being read accurately. It's a big time commitment. Secrets of PEACE and CTRA are both relatively short but still close to 7 hours long as audiobooks, so that's 14+ hours I spent listening to chapters, marking up changes that needed to be made, sending requests for edits back to my narrator, and then listening to certain sections again to make sure they were just right. You have to ask yourself if that time commitment is worth it or if your time could be better used elsewhere.
I'll be perfectly honest here and say that from a purely business mindset, I'm not currently in a position where I'm making enough money from book sales to justify the expense of creating an audiobook. If this had been a couple years ago when I was still in school and my family's financial situation was different, no way would I have been able to throw time and money at audiobooks. But things have changed drastically for us in the last two years. My husband has a higher paying job, I have a good paying job (rather than an unpaid practicum that sucks a bunch of my time), and we are more financially secure than we have ever been before. That means I have more disposable income to invest in this writing thing, and to me, this was a worthwhile investment, even if I won't see it pay off for a while. But you have to do what works best for you, and if you're not in a position where audiobooks are feasible, it's okay to be honest and realistic with yourself about that.
Choosing a Narrator
Once auditions start rolling in, you'll want to listen to each one and consider who would be the best fit for your book. Hopefully you'll have lots of great narrators to choose from, but making that decision can be tricky. CTRA was my first audiobook, and at the time, I was still pretty new to the format as a consumer and didn't have a clear idea of what to look for in a narrator. I solicited help from one of my brothers, who has been an avid audiobook listener for years. After narrowing down auditions to my top 3 or 4, I sent them to him. He was able to give me some good insight about what was working and not working with each of them.
By the time Secrets of PEACE went into production, I had listened to many more audiobooks and had a much better idea of what makes a good narrator, so I was able to choose one on my own. If you're an audiobook listener already, you probably have a good sense for what you like and don't like in a narrator, what works and what doesn't. If you haven't listened to many audiobooks, it might be a good idea to find a trusted friend, critique partner, or fellow author who can help you narrow down your auditions and find the best fit for your book.
Producing the Book
After you've selected your narrator and hammered out the details of your contract, your book goes into the longest stage of production. This is where the narrator is reading, editing, and uploading chapters for you to review. ACX won't officially put your book into the "review" stage until after all the chapters are uploaded by the narrator, but I recommend that you review them as you go along, otherwise you're going to be swamped with an entire book to listen to at the end.
When I listen to my audiobook chapters, I have my internet browser open on one side of my screen and a Word document for notetaking on the other side. I also have a physical copy of the book open on my desk that I'm following along with as I listen. I will typically listen to 2-4 chapters in one sitting (1-2 hours, depending on chapter length). I find that's about all my brain can handle before my mind starts to wander. If there are inconsistencies between the text and the narration, I'll pause the audio and type a quick note in my Word document marking either the timestamp where the error occurs or the page number (for errors I need to correct in the text). And I did catch a few of my own errors, pesky typos that slipped through the cracks even after multiple copyediting passes. You can send your audio edit requests to your narrator as you're going along or at the end of production after all the chapters are uploaded. You might want to ask your narrator what works best for them.
Let's Talk About COVID
Okay, I know we're all sick of hearing about the pandemic. But this is more about "sometimes crap happens" and less about the pandemic specifically. See, I ran into a rather unique situation with the CTRA audiobook, and I think it's worth talking about because there were definitely some things I learned from it. Some of you may remember that I announced CTRA would be getting an audiobook way back in March or April of 2020. We're now nearing the end of February 2021 and it just barely got sent off to ACX for final review, which can take 30+ days. That means by the time the book actually comes out, it will have been an entire year in the making. By contrast, Secrets of PEACE took about 6 weeks, excluding the beginning and end stages of picking/scheduling a narrator and ACX's review process.
So what happened?
I think you can guess where this is going. A global pandemic happened, and my narrator's job was significantly impacted as a result. I think we got about 7 chapters into production before things took a turn, and suddenly the dates and deadlines we had agreed to in our contract were meaningless. Fortunately, my narrator maintained good communication with me and was honest about how the pandemic was impacting his ability to finish the audiobook. Was it frustrating? Absolutely. At the time, CTRA was involved in two ongoing competitions and doing pretty well in both. I'd been hoping to get the audiobook out ASAP in order to capitalize on that visibility and possibly get some sales and reviews. But life happens, and I was left with the decision to cut my losses and look at what other options might be available to me with my contract having not been fulfilled, or to stick with my narrator and just wait it out.
Ultimately, it was an easy decision. Yes I was frustrated, and yes I wanted to get the audiobook out as soon as possible. But more importantly, I wanted it to sound great, and I felt like my narrator really was the best person for the job. I still feel that way, now that it's finally finished. It sounds fantastic and was well worth the wait. I really appreciate his willingness to stick it out with me, too. He put in a lot of time and effort the last couple of months getting it finished in the midst of his own hectic work schedule. Things turned out fine in the end, but man, was that an experience neither of us anticipated.
Here are a few lessons I learned from the whole ordeal:
Maybe don't announce that you're making an audiobook until you're closer to the end of the process. Because sometimes things happen that are out of your control. With Secrets of PEACE, I didn't announce that the audiobook was coming until all the chapters had been uploaded and the book was sent off to ACX for review. That alleviated a lot of the anxiety and pressure I felt after the delays with CTRA.
Good narrators are worth waiting for. Sure, there has to come a point where you need to be assertive, stick to whatever your agreement was, and not let yourself be taken advantage of. But if you maintain good communication with your narrator and bear in mind how much of a situation is within or outside of their control, you can make that decision with a clearer perspective.
Manage your expectations. Part of the reason the CTRA delays were so frustrating to me was because I had this expectation of getting the audiobook out while it was still in those two competitions. But the thing is, I already knew there was a pandemic going on when I started the production process. I never should have expected everything to be smooth sailing, especially since it was my first ever audiobook and I was learning a lot myself along the way.
Doubts About Older Writing
This is something that came up with Secrets of PEACE especially, and if you're making an audiobook out of something in your backlist, it may come up for you, too. Hearing your story read out loud by a skilled narrator is a really cool experience. But in some ways, it's a perfect recipe for self-doubt and squeamishness about all the flaws that are suddenly glaringly obvious in your older writing. I came across a lot of things that I wished I had written differently in Secrets of PEACE, areas where the story could have been a lot stronger if I'd been a more experienced writer when I published the book. If I'd had the experience and knowledge back then that I have now.
But here's the thing: at the time I published it, Secrets of PEACE was the best story I could tell. Is it perfect? Heck no. Is it still a decent book? I think so. Some readers have thought so, too. Hopefully future readers (and listeners) will agree, but if not, that's okay. There are parts of it I'm still very proud of and parts I'm not so proud of, but I can't waste all my time worrying about that. Instead, I can take what I learned from writing that book - the good and the bad - and use that knowledge to make my future stories even better.
I'm going to leave it at that for now. There's a lot of other stuff that comes after, and I do eventually want to talk about releasing, marketing, and getting reviews for audiobooks once they're available for purchase. But I'm still stumbling my way through that part, and I'm sure I still have a lot to learn along the way. In the meantime, if you have any questions or comments about audiobooks or my experiences with them, feel free to leave a comment or contact me on social media.