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February 13, 2020
By Tim Slee
An author navigates the indie audiobook publishing world

I love audiobooks with a passion, both as a consumer and as an author. Our family grew up listening to them on road trips across three continents. Back then books were on cassette and production values were a bit rough-and-ready, but production quality has improved, and these days audiobooks are my go-to entertainment on my daily commute.


As a consumer I love the subscription model, which lets me fill my ears and mind with unlimited stories. It is also an incredibly valuable revenue stream for authors, and subscriptions are very popular around gift-giving seasons. I’ve learned a lot after having two audiobooks published in different capacities.


"It used to be that indie authors had two channels to pitch their work to: traditional publishers and film or TV producers. But dedicated audiobook houses have emerged as a third. "
Many how-to articles have approached the topic of how indie authors can produce and market their own audiobooks, but my perspective is from the “oh my gosh, I got offered an audiobook deal—now what?!” point of view.


The nitty-gritty


It used to be that indie authors had two channels to pitch their work to: traditional publishers and film or TV producers. But dedicated audiobook houses have emerged as a third.


These are standalone specialist publishers who produce audiobooks for mainstream publishers or sublicense content to sales channels such as Audible. They are only interested in the audiobook rights, not print or e-book or other media. So the first thing is to ensure that you have your commercial and contracting house in order and know what to ask for and expect, much as you would if approached by any publisher. The second question to ask yourself is, how much creative control would you like to have over the audiobook production? You need to be ready if publishers come calling.


Here are some of the standard audiobook commercial and contractual questions you must consider: Are the rights global or restricted geography? Physical production or digital only? What are the royalties per physical sale, per digital sale, and per streamed copy on lending services? Which languages are included? What’s the length of rights grant? Are there rights to sublicense to other publishers or distributors? How many author copies and promotional copies are included?


But there are others. An audiobook publisher may want to make edits to the manuscript or abridge it. If you don’t want to give the publisher that right without consultation, that may need to be clearly stated in the contract.


The audiobook publisher will usually reserve the right to choose the narrator. If you feel strongly about things like the gender of your narrator or narrators, the accents they have, and whether they should attempt regional or international accents, those details may need to be agreed upon in the contract.


Some audiobook producers do not encourage or even allow interaction between the author and the narrator. If you would like to speak with the person or people narrating your book, you may also need to insist on this in the contract.


The same goes for whether you have influence over the finished product. Just as you would have language in a book contract about your role in influencing the choice of the book cover or final edit, you may want to insist on the right to give input on, or even veto, the finished narration.


A tale of two audiobooks


In 2019, I had two very different audiobook production experiences. I had a novel, Taking Tom Murray Home, published by a leading traditional publisher, and the deal included the purchase of geographically limited audiobook rights. The publisher outsourced the audiobook production to a third-party audiobook production house, and I had literally zero influence on the process—no input on the choice of narrator or the style of narration, no interaction with the narrator at all to give guidance on the plot or characters.


I didn’t even know production was underway until I got an email from a house publicist announcing its completion. I have since learned that it isn’t unusual for an audiobook production house to take a “we know best” approach rather than permitting authors’ involvement in their audiobooks.


My second experience was informed by this. After several months on Amazon’s techno-thriller bestseller lists in the U.K., Canada, the U.S., and Australia, a book I independently published (Bering Strait) got the attention of a major audiobook publisher in Europe. This time, I wanted influence over the production. Luckily for me, this publisher had a completely different approach from the previous.


It was standard operating procedure for this house, W.F. Howes, to have the author closely involved in the process. I was sent the audition files of two actors reading my manuscript and was asked to give my opinion.


This producer had a template for author guidance to the narrator, which I was asked to fill in, giving my thoughts on the book, the characters, and how they should be read. When the narrator started working on the book, she filled out a character and terminology and pronunciation sheet and contacted me with her questions. I didn’t ask for or insist on veto power over the final production, but, with the level of involvement I have had along the way, this wasn’t a concern.


These were two completely different experiences. The reason I share them is to make other indie authors aware that there are different creative processes depending on the publishing house. It is possible to have a great deal of input as an author when the publisher encourages it—as well as if you, the author, insist on it.


Tim Slee won the 2016 BookLife Prize Fiction Contest for his sci-fi crime thriller The Vanirim (Midgaard Cycle #1). He also writes under the pen name FX Holden.