If You Build it, Will They Listen?
Self-publishing of audiobooks is on the rise, thanks to digital distribution and cheaper recording technologies
Authors unfamiliar with the audiobook creation process often misunderstand its complexity.The improbable idea was this: Jack Reacher in sex therapy. The notion that the towering and tacit ex-MP, the creation of crime writer Lee Child, would submit to such an exhibition is at best completely out of character.
But during the summer of 2011, novelist M.J. Rose wrote a short story in which Reacher sought counsel from Rose’s recurring protagonist, Dr. Morgan Snow.
“Lee said if I could figure out a way to get Jack Reacher into sex therapy, I could do it,” Rose recalls. She wrote two additional short stories of hardened men in sex therapy—Steve Berry’s Cotton Malone and Barry Eisler’s John Rain—to round out the self-published collection, In Session.
But the audiobook version of In Session is where the project got truly audacious. Rose used a service called the Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX), a networking service created by Audible, that connects the rights holders of books—usually but not always the author—with producers, voice talent, and studios who could help the rights holder create and distribute an audiobook independent of the major publishing houses.
Through ACX, Rose and her producing partners assembled the same actors who had previously created the voices of Morgan Stone, Jack Reacher, Cotton Malone, and John Rain, to contribute to a multicast performance. “[Self-publishing] opens up the avenue of things you can do,” Rose says. “If a publisher went to another publisher to use those characters, it would take years. The lawyers would come in and they’d have to decide who would get paid. I started writing in June and [the audiobook] went live in October.”
While four of Rose’s novels have audio versions through the traditional publisher, Brilliance Audio, audio self-publishing—the popularity of which is increasing due to digital distribution and cheaper recording technologies—affords Rose the ability to publish her backlist; audio versions of four of her earlier novels are available through ACX.It’s a trend that Matthew Thornton, senior editor at Audible.com, sees increasing. “Recently, New York Times bestselling author Tucker Max used ACX to distribute two of his audiobooks,” he says.
But known authors such as Max and Rose have advantages many do not. In Rose’s case, she has a large fan following and a powerful agency—Writers House—to alleviate some of the common headaches in production and marketing that less popular writers experience. “They were willing to look at the contract and the [audio] files,” she says of her agency. “If you’re repped, that helps with the business angles.”
Not everyone interested in self-publishing an audiobook—which requires the right holder to bear the production and occasionally the distribution costs—has this backing. Sixty percent of the writers who go through Open Book Audio are entirely self-published, estimates Matt Armstrong, the company’s co-founder and CEO.
And authors unfamiliar with the audiobook creation process often misunderstand its complexity.
Working Well with Others
“Audiobooks are quite a production,” says Ben Matchar, CEO of Spoken Word, a company that, like Open Book Audio, helps authors create and distribute their own audiobooks. “I see a lot of authors who think that they can insert themselves into that process successfully, and end up overstepping their bounds.”
Matchar recalls terminating the contract of one author who kept wanting to redo the audio performance and insisted on speaking with the narrator over the telephone, often for hours at a time. “We budged an inch and they asked for more,” Matchar recalls. “And at a certain point, the narrator didn’t want to put up with it.” Currently, Matchar tries to isolate the author from the voice and production talent; when there is interaction, Matchar chaperones.
“Authors who have written fiction also often have preconceived notions of how their characters should sound, so they may be surprised to hear different actors’ interpretations of their work,” Audible’s Thornton says. Communication is key to alleviate this. Authors should discuss all details of a project prior to production—this includes specifics like a character’s accent as well as the tone and pace of the narration.
Johnny Heller, a professional voice talent who has won two of the five Audies he’s been nominated for, agrees with Thornton. “You need to write some things down so no one is surprising the other,” he says. And this includes contributions that go beyond performance. “Does the author want to bring in an editor for fully produced WAV files? Do they want my help promoting the book? They need to say that and not assume the actor will do it for free,” Heller says.
Adjusting the SoundOpen Book often rejects submissions due to quality issues—generally around sound and narration. Often with audiobooks, the sound is too low, or different sections are recorded at different volumes. Recordings are often rife with background noise: dogs barking or air conditioners growling, and infused with pops, lip smacks, and heavy breathing because the author—inexperienced and doubling as a narrator—is too close to the mic.
This is partially a technical issue. “We get a lot of samples of folks that have taken a USB headset and microphone and plugged it into the computer to record,” says Andrew Parker, Open Book’s co-founder and president. Thornton acknowledges that some authors have gotten away with using inexpensive mics, ranging from $75 to $100 compared to the $2,000 setups used by professionals, but in general, he says, “You need a great [recording] room to deliver a great product.”
Performance issues abound as well. Often, authors that narrate their own books simply lack the talents and abilities of a professional actor. “They make inflection mistakes, or they’re very monotone. They may stumble over words or pronounce things strangely,” Armstrong says.
Novice narrators often take certain words such as “integral” for granted, Heller adds. Misspoken in conversation, these words go unnoticed. But in an audiobook, they stand out. To Heller’s dismay, he often hears people insist they can do his job. “I’m confident if I were a neurosurgeon I wouldn’t hear that,” he says. “I think everybody that wants to do this should take some acting classes.”
This includes learning technical fundamentals like phrasing, says Lee Anne McClymont, a radio show producer and host, and the founder of Radiocentrix, which provides radio talent, production, and marketing services.
Authors familiar with their own work don’t read for first-time listeners. McClymont says authors need to remember their performance is for people who haven’t read the text and are consuming it for the first time audibly.
Narrating is a game of endurance. On average, two hours of reading begets one finished hour—thus a 10-hour book requires 20 hours of recording. “That doesn’t include prepping the book or retakes,” Heller says. “That’s just doing the job.”
Ultimately when it comes to performance and production, the best decision is often hiring professional talent, says Sherrie Wilkolaski, founder of publishing consultancy Author’s Boutique.
For those insistent on reading their own audiobook, Heller recommends this: Hire a producer to record the author reading a section of the text, then audition two actors to read as well. “Let the author listen to all three people and decide who really did a better job,” Heller says.
Creating audiobooks requires so many moving parts that authors need to be selective deciding where they want to devote their energy. “There were a lot of little pieces I didn’t want to be involved in,” Rose says, discussing her self-publishing process through ACX.
Simply getting an audiobook into a position where it might be noticed by listeners is difficult. Libraries and hard media notwithstanding, when it comes to digital distribution, Audible is still king. iTunes is also a significant distribution channel, though its catalogue is supplied by Audible. In other words, audiobooks not available on Audible aren’t represented on iTunes either.
In Matchar’s experience, Audible doesn’t even bother with contracts for individual books. Spoken Word needed five books before Audible offered a non-exclusive contract—one that entitled the distributor to an 80% cut (an exclusive contract gave Audible a 30% cut). Companies like Spoken Word and Open Book, which send their author’s self-published audiobooks to other digital distribution outlets like Overdrive and Audiobooks.com, prioritize Audible because of the company’s reach.
Because the percentage taken by Audible is so high, pricing has to be strategic and is based on length, which listeners often correlate with quality. Open Book’s Parker recalls one author asking to charge $40 for a three-hour long audio book. “I had to talk him down and say, ‘Listen, you won’t sell the book at all at that price,’ ” Parker says. Eventually, the author settled for a price between $8 and $10, the going rate for a book of that length.
Listeners Gathering ‘round
Ultimately, just because an audiobook is available on Audible doesn’t mean listeners will be interested, or even be aware of it.
“Nobody will buy a book they’ve never heard of,” Rose says. “So the real issue is: How are they going to find it? How will you do the marketing? And there has to be some realistic expectations.”
This entails knowing the target audience and getting them excited about the title. Wilkolaski recommends audio sneak peeks, releasing an hour of free audio, for instance, so commuters with 30-minute travel times can listen to the first half on the way to work, the second half during the return journey, and pay to download the remainder back at home.
“You need that discovery piece,” Wilkolaski says, adding that authors should reach out to customers across all communication channels—from a Web site download to podcasts to social media notices to linking the purchase page in an email signature.
Despite its importance, the final task of marketing the audiobook is often overlooked by authors, Rose says. “It’s hard to accept the fact that after you’ve done the hard work of writing the book and recording it, you still have to think up ways of getting it out there.”