The Indie Authors Guide to DIY Audiobooks
So you want to produce an audio edition of your self-published book? Here's what you need to know.So you want to enliven your self-published book with a rousing audio edition? To hear your work performed is an exciting prospect, but, before you get too deep into the weeds, understand that creating, marketing, and distributing an audiobook on your own will require a considerable commitment. In other words: it can get really expensive really quickly, and the return on investment isn’t guaranteed because audio editions can be difficult to sell. If you’re like most authors, you need serious support for every facet—from narration through production, all the way to marketing and distribution.
[Note: this article was originally published in June 2015 and was updated on Nov. 4, 2016 and on March 4, 2021.]
“It’s a big endeavor,” says Tyson Cornell, the founder of the small press Rare Bird Books and the boutique marketing and promotions shop Rare Bird Lit. Cornell’s background in the music and literary industries gives him familiarity with the worlds of publishing and audio production. “It’s more than setting up a mike and doing a podcast,” he says. “People get into their own heads really quickly. They think: I don’t need expertise, and if I have someone helping me, I’m getting scammed.”
Seek Out Services
There are many companies and individuals that offer some or all the services needed to self-publish an audiobook. Whatever you decide to do—whether to let a single company produce and distribute your audiobook or to enlist the talent and expertise à la carte—depends on your needs, your budget, and sometimes even the genre of your book. Certainly the Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX), hosted by Amazon-owned Audible, is the go-to marketplace for finding talent to help narrate, produce, and distribute self-published audiobooks.
“Of course, the ACX site is the prevailing way for a self-published author to hire a narrator,” says Debra Deyan, cofounder of the Deyan Institute, a school to train audiobook narrators, and head of the production company Deyan Audio Services.
ACX connects authors to three tremendous buying platforms: Amazon, Audible, and Apple’s iTunes. And while it’s true that ACX is still the go-to for indie authors interested in creating audiobooks, many e-book publishers have developed audio production services. Here’s a look at some notable providers.
Deyan Audio ServicesThe name Deyan is legendary in audiobook circles. Deyan Audio—which was cofounded by Debra Deyan and her late husband, Bob Deyan—offers complete audiobook production at $500 per finished hour (i.e., an hour of fully produced audio) and offers over 1,800 actors.
For authors who simply need help with editing and mastering, Deyan Audio charges $100 per finished hour for editing and $25 per finished hour for mastering.
Dog Ear Publishing
[Note: as of the March 2021 article update, Dog Ear Publishin's services are no longer available] “Dog Ear is a small business,” says Miles Nelson, cofounder of the Indianapolis-based company. “We take the approach that we’re the high-end boutique guys.”
The same can be said for the company’s audiobook production arm, which Nelson concedes is still a small part of Dog Ear’s overall business. For $1,600, the author can read her own work. Dog Ear provides a recorder and direction over the telephone. It also provides the editing and mastering services in-house as well as the ISBN and distribution services.
It gets a bit pricier if the author wants to use one of the professional narrators Dog Ear sources from the Indianapolis area: the rate can be north of $4,600 depending on the length of the book.
eBookIt’s initial foray into audiobook production simply meant running a book through a text-to-speech offering. Clients—mostly nonfiction authors—liked it. But the company changed its model after founder Bo Bennett had his book professionally narrated. “Once we heard that, we couldn’t listen to the computer-generated ones,” says company president Ryan Levesque. “We scrapped that and went with the human narration.”
The company now maintains a stable of eight voice actors, whose prices range between $150 and $350 per finished hour. For a $149 services fee and 15% of net sales, eBookIt manages the entire project, which includes providing an ISBN, developing the actual audiobook files, and creating an audiobook cover image from the e-book.
Because the final price varies based on options the author chooses, eBookIt has an online calculator to help authors figure out the services they want and the associated costs in advance.
When Arthur Gutch started at Infinity Publishers, its AudioBrite arm did production work for large publishing houses such as Hachette. Gutch, now the chairman, wanted to focus more on indie authors, and Infinity offers two services catering to that smaller group. The first is unabridged audio production through Infinity’s Audio Books Publishing unit, which releases both CDs and digital files via Audible and iTunes.
The basic services include script preparation and contact with the narrator, plus recording, editing, proofing, mastering, publishing, and distribution. Depending on word count, the cost can run $4,000 to $5,000 or more. Additional services include abridgment ($599 per 10,000 words), sending audio copies to reviewers ($25), and hour-long phone consultations ($250). [Note: as of the March 2021 article update, pricing for these services no longer appear on Infinity Publishers' website]
For $779, Infinity’s One-Hour Audio option will abridge a book, distilling it into an hour-long listening experience. “It’s more attuned to nonfiction work, but, for shorter novels, it also applies,” Gutch says.
Finding Your Narrator
These high-touch services naturally aren’t for everybody. Many authors would prefer to handpick their own talent. ACX remains the most comprehensive tool for this, allowing authors to listen to recorded samples of prospective narrators and request auditions.
“Choose the audition selection from your book wisely,” narrator P.J. Ochlan says. For instance, it shouldn’t be longer than five to seven minutes or 1,000 words. “And it may be good to pick something that features dialogue between key characters,” he adds. “And if your book requires special skills such as accents, make certain they’re in the narrator’s wheelhouse.” Additionally, as both Ochlan and award-winning narrator Johnny Heller point out, narrators on ACX double as audiobook producers—which is why authors need to assess production quality as well as performance.
This leads to another important consideration: payment. That is, deciding whether to offer a royalty share or a flat per-finished-hour fee. And it’s up to the narrator to decide whether to accept. “If your book is already out there in an e-book or something, you should be able to tell the narrator what your sales are like,” Heller says. “Not free downloads: sales. Is there profit potential for the narrator?”
If sales aren’t great—or if an e-book hasn’t been released—it might be difficult to convince a professional narrator to agree on a royalty-share model. Narrator Jeffrey Kafer says there is no solid cutoff: “If the author is selling a thousand a month on Kindle, yup, I’ll do a royalty share. But is 500 a month a good number? Probably. Two hundred? It depends how much risk a narrator wants to take.” Other considerations, Kafer says, are an author’s social media presence, promotion efforts, and prolificacy. New releases, after all, can spur sales of the back catalogue.
Of course, paying on a per-finished-hour basis is a different story. “Get a realistic estimate of the total running time,” veteran narrator Robert Fass says. “That’s critical.” Running time should be based on word count because the variability of margins and font sizes makes page count unreliable. “It you’ve got 100,000 words, you can count on a 10-hour finished audio product,” Fass says, adding that it often takes a professional two hours to create one finished hour.
Another thing to keep in mind is that there’s a pricing floor for hiring members of SAG-AFTRA as readers. The minimum rates are negotiable but typically begin at $200 per finished hour, according to a union spokesperson, plus a 13% contribution to the guild’s health and retirement fund. “That said, narrators are free to set their own, higher rates,” the spokesperson says.
Additionally, Kafer urges indie authors to relax and let the professionals do their jobs. “One of the big things that authors do is they feel they need to direct or micromanage,” Kafer says. “I’ve heard horror stories where the narrator submits the book and gets a spreadsheet of a thousand things the author didn’t like. That’s the worst thing an author can do. I understand this is your baby, but you hired the narrator for a reason. You have to let go of your baby and let the professional you hired do their job.”