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March 4, 2021
By Allison Schiff
Audiobooks can open up new markets and revenue streams for self-published authors.

Audiobooks can open up new markets and revenue streams for self-published authors -- but, as with all things indie, you have to put in plenty of time, effort, and money.

“We’re not just standing there reading a book into a mic,” says Jeffrey Kafer, a professional voiceover artist who has recorded audiobooks for the likes of Clive Barker and Maya Banks. “So much else goes into it.”

Indie authors looking to create audiobooks have several options, some more labor intensive and pricier than others.

[Note: this article was originally published in March 2015 and was updated on March 4, 2021.]

The ACX Option

If you’re looking for turnkey, Audiobook Creation Exchange is certainly one of the more popular platforms. Hosted by Amazon’s Audible, ACX is an online marketplace that connects authors, narrators, and producers.

The first step is at ACX is for indie authors to confirm they own the audio rights to their material. Next, authors need to create a profile describing what they’re looking for in a narrator and upload excerpts from their books. What follows is a casting call of sorts -- authors can contact narrators, and narrators can contact authors with sample recordings.

While there are a wide variety of performers available via ACX, it’s best to select a trained actor for the job, says Michele Cobb, president of the Audio Publishers Association. “You want someone with experience, especially on ACX where there are thousands of narrators,” she says. “Look for someone with vocal training who also has a theatrical background.”

Once a narrator is selected, there are two ways to go about striking a deal. Indie authors can offer narrators a set fee per finished hour of recorded audio or a royalty share -- a revenue split in which the narrator will get 20% of future sales revenue. Indie authors who choose a royalty share deal on ACX will get 40% of sales revenue. A deeper breakdown of ACX royalty rates is available here.

“Typically, it could take two hours or more of recording time to produce one finished hour of audio -- not including the time a narrator spends pre-reading the book and preparing pronunciations,” says Robert Fass, a veteran narrator who has recorded audiobooks for the likes of Random House and Penguin. “It’s a time commitment.”

Having come to an agreement about remuneration, the narrator will record the first 15 minutes of the book and send an audio file to the author. At this point, it’s still possible for one side or the other to pull out. If the sample is given the green light, the narrator then records the rest of the book, handles production and mastering, and sends the finished product for author approval. ACX takes care of the distribution via Audible, Amazon, and iTunes, and then pays out the royalties via check or direct deposit.

Other DIY Options

"You want a narrator with experience. Look for someone with vocal training who also has a theatrical background."
While ACX is a popular and comprehensive offering, it’s certainly not the only audiobook show in town. There are numerous other platforms worth considering, including the following.

Infinity Publishing
Rather than charging by the finished hour, Infinity offers a $599 audiobook package (per 10,000 words) that includes professional narration, editing, and distribution of both physical CDs and digital files.

Dog Ear Publishing
[Note: as of the March 2021 article update, Dog Ear Publishing's services are no longer available] Dog Ear provides a similar service to Infinity, although it also gives authors the option to record their own work–a less expensive option than hiring a professional narrator ($1,600 versus $4,600). With either package, Dog Ear will edit and master the final product, as well as handle distribution through all major online bookstores. 

Although BookBaby’s sister company CDBaby is best known as a platform for independent music, self-published authors can pay a one-time setup fee to upload completed audio files and cover art, with CDBaby taking care of manufacturing compact discs and distribution for both physical and digital editions.

eBookIt: While this platform’s bread and butter is converting books into e-book-ready file formats, it also helps authors connect with voice artists and prepare audiobooks for upload to all the major digital distribution players. Narrators for eBookIt will supply authors with edited audio files, and rates are set by finished hour of recorded audio.

The Studio Option

Some indie authors choose to go through a studio when creating audio editions of their work. Cobb suggests checking out the free industry guidelines at AudioFile to research studios, narrators, and publishers. Studios will generally help authors cast narrators and handle production for a fee.

However, indie authors going the studio route are responsible for arranging distribution deals for their audiobooks. Online outlets like OverDrive, Downpour, or Big Happy Family can help with digital distribution -- or authors can try to work out a distribution deal with an independent audio publisher.

How Much Will It Cost?

Unless indie authors chose a fixed-cost audiobook package from the likes of Infinity or Dog Ear, the price of producing a finished audiobook can vary greatly depending on book length, whether indie authors contract with a studio, and how much narrators and sound engineers charge per finished hour of audio.

The Screen Actors Guild stipulates that the fee per finished hour for union members needs to be $225, although many narrators will charge more. A 90,000-word book (roughly 350 pages) will come out to be somewhere around 10 hours of finished audio. Once the recording is complete, production costs run about $75 per hour.

All told, a 10-hour audiobook could take about 60 hours or more to produce with recording, proofing, and mastering, meaning authors should expect to shell out a minimum of $3,000 to $4,000 for the completed product.