The State of Indie Audiobooks
A look at the growing market for self-published audiobooks.For the second consecutive year, sales of audiobooks grew around 20% in 2015, totaling about $1.77 billion, according to the Audio Publishers Association (APA). The boom is due to the explosion of digital audio, which has made audiobooks more accessible.
Self-published audio has also taken off, with the maturation of Audible’s Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX) and the rise of institutions catering to authors who want to self-publish their audiobooks. For instance, the Deyan Institute, which opened in 2014, offers training for audiobook performers. And Author’s Republic, owned by Audiobooks.com, launched last November to help self-published audiobook creators distribute their work.
“In five short years, ACX has literally turned the audiobook industry on its ear by making audiobook production available to those who may never have considered it,” said Audible’s EVP and publisher, Beth Anderson. “Thousands of publishers and authors have introduced their works in a new format, and thousands of narrators and producers have accepted gigs to make 58,000 audiobooks.”
And while a lot goes into self-publishing an audiobook—authors must handle everything from hiring narrators and setting up distribution to production and editing—signs point to an increase in the number of self-published audiobook titles, and the audiobook industry is confident that self-publishing is taking off. “Anecdotally, there are definitely more titles produced in audio, and we know more people are doing it by themselves,” says Michele Cobb, executive director of the APA.
Certainly, one can see the growth of self-published audiobooks through their representation in major awards such as the Audies. In 2016, Leah Atwood’s Christian romance Come to Me Alive was an Audie finalist. In 2015, Joe Cipriano’s memoir Living on Air, which he cowrote with his wife, Ann Cipriano, was an Audie finalist, as was Rosalind James’s contemporary romance Just This Once. And 2014 saw Richard Bard’s thriller The Enemy of My Enemy represented, as well as Eric Thomas’s autobiography, The Secret to Success. And, in five years, ACX authors have received 20 Audie nominations and won three times.
And quality has improved as more audiobooks are self-published. “As the ability to get into self-published audio has grown, so has the knowledge of standards within the industry,” says Jessica Kaye, who, in 2006, founded Big Happy Family, an audiobook distributor.
Authors are much more aware of what a clean audiobook should sound like, Kaye says. “It’s not just the content—it’s the quality of production. Those two things must marry to be a good audiobook. One of the saddest things is when someone sends me a sample and says they know it’s great because they recorded it at a professional studio. And they may have, but it’s not a studio that knows how to do audiobooks.”
There’s also more understanding about the importance of effective audiobook distribution, especially given the proliferation of digital portals that traffic in audiobooks. Audiobooks published exclusively with ACX are distributed on Amazon, iTunes, and Audible, but not on other platforms such as Hoopla, OverDrive, and Bibliotheca’s 3M, which serve libraries. ACX also offers a nonexclusive option, which allows authors to distribute their books via any platform. “The library market has always been an important part of the book market,” Cobb says. “It’s where a lot of discovery happens, and a lot of people feel it’s important that their titles are there.”
In addition to publishing for the library market, authors can make their self-published audiobooks available on Barnes & Noble’s Nook, Scribd’s TuneIn, and emerging platforms such as Downpour and Libro.fm. And, according to Meaghan Sansom, COO at Author’s Republic, the international market is burgeoning as well.This variety of audiobook portals has generated a need for the type of distribution services provided by Big Happy Family and Author’s Republic, especially as many portals won’t work with individual authors. Though ACX does, its policies can be limiting. As Sansom points out, it only accepts submissions from U.S. and U.K. residents, is exclusive for seven years, and doesn’t give authors control over list prices.
Despite these issues, Audible’s influence in driving authors toward self-publishing their audiobooks is undeniable. “Audible strongly suggested it,” Rosalind James says about her decision to self-publish. “They’re really pushing audio as more of a first choice rather than as a boutique choice for reading.”
To date, James has about 10 books produced through ACX and six books published through Audible Studios and Brilliance Audio. And James isn’t the only author who was persuaded by Audible. ACX offered Leah Atwood a stipend to entice her to do an audiobook version of Come to Me Alive. ACX provides stipends for select titles to encourage audiobook creators to try its royalty-share option, which allows them to produce their audiobooks with no out-of-pocket costs and compensates narrators with a 50% share of the royalties, with payments coming once the title is completed.
The stipend gave Atwood wider berth to choose from various narrators, especially as the going rate for a professional narrator can be about $300 per finished hour of audio. “I don’t think you’ll find a high-quality narrator below $150 per finished hour,” Atwood says, “but I don’t think I’ve ever paid $300 for one.”
Big Happy Family’s Kaye says there are many factors that can influence the price of narration. A narrator might simply be interested in the project and offer to take less, for example.
While a narrator can make or break an audiobook, there are other expenses as well, including hiring a director, a sound engineer, and a producer. Costs can run well into the thousands of dollars, yet, for many authors, it’s worth it to be able to oversee the final product.
“Because I was self-published and funding it myself, I hired all the people who worked on it,” says voice-over actor Joe Cipriano about Living On Air. “It didn’t matter if it took three or four or eight weeks. I was going to take my time and do what needed to be done so the finished product was something I could be proud of.”
Cipriano wanted to stage his audiobook like a radio play. “Besides telling the story, I wanted to entertain,” he adds.
James prefers the process of self-publishing audiobooks to that of releasing them via convention audio publishers. “I got to give detailed character notes to my narrator, chapter by chapter,” James says. “If a teenage girl sounds too snotty, I can say, ‘Hey, back off on her.’”
Dollars and Cents
Though creating an audiobook is easier today than it had been in the past, it still takes quite a bit of time and money—even for authors who write copiously and sell well. James says her audiobook production costs range from $4,000 to $6,000 per title.
Atwood says audiobook sales are about 5% of her monthly income. “It sounds small, but it’s still a nice chunk of change,” she says. “I’ve made back everything I’ve invested in them, even though I’m not making a fortune.”
Thriller writer Richard Bard, author of the popular Brainrush series, says: “What ultimately drives the sale of the audiobook is getting the digital and print book at the top of the bestseller lists.” But this can be more difficult in some genres than others. For instance, James says some authors can land in the top 10 for a given genre by selling 100 books per day. Authors writing contemporary romance, however, have to sell about 1,000 books a day to hit that list.
Another factor authors must consider when self-publishing audiobooks with ACX is that the company changed its payout terms two years ago. Under the old contract, ACX had a 50% royalty rate and escalator clauses stating that for every 500 books sold, the royalty rate goes up a percentage point. That put James at a 62% royalty rate. “Under the new contract,” James says, “it’s a flat 40%.”
Still, Anderson notes that Audible’s rates can be very lucrative for authors. “Many ACX authors have revealed that they actually make more money from their audiobooks than they do from their print or e-books because of the attractive royalty and bounty rates that the service provides. Many of them earn just as much through ACX’s generous customer bounties as they do through royalties.” (An author receives a bounty payment when his or her book is an Audible customer’s first download, if that customer remains an Audible member for two billing cycles.)
Despite the many challenges, James—and many narrators—sees audiobooks as a profitable investment. In addition to the payout, having audiobooks gives her a degree of credibility. “If your books are offered as e-books, paperbacks, and audiobooks, you look like a real author,” she says.
“ACX works great if Audible promotes you,” James says. Last month, a buy-one-get-one-free special drove about 900 unit sales of her books. “That’s huge for audio, and it trickles down, since people go on to read the series,” she says.
Digital channels and social media may increase authors’ options, but many have found that they need to be creative in promoting their audiobooks. ACX, for instance, gives out free promo codes that authors can give away to reviewers, and Bard hopes to incorporate the giveaway feature into Facebook ads targeted at audiobook listeners with the aim of driving free downloads of his first book, Brainrush.
Anderson says that this is just part of ACX’s commitment to helping authors promote audiobooks: “ACX’s blog offers constantly updated marketing and promotional tips for authors, as well as success stories that other rights holders can learn from.”