Let Your Books Be Heard: A Guide to Creating Audiobooks

Written by Wendy Ledger

A year ago, I took the plunge and began to convert my books into audiobooks. For me, it was a mission of  love. I am an auditory person. I prefer to listen to books rather than read words, and I’m not alone in that experience. In the publishing industry today, audiobooks are the future—the one format that is steadily growing in popularity. Since 2012, audiobook revenues have increased by double digits, totaling $940 million in revenue in 2018. Perhaps, if you haven’t already, it’s time to consider audiobooks.

When I first ventured into this world, I began by researching the two major audiobook companies: ACX and Findaway Voices. ACX is affiliated with Audible, an Amazon company. Findaway Voices is a small, independent company located in Ohio. Spoiler alert: I chose Findaway Voices, but there are things to be said for both options, which I’ll explain in a moment.

Hiring a Professional Narrator

When I started this process, I knew I wanted to hire a professional audiobook narrator. I’m currently writing talking-cat fantasies. There are an incredible number of cats in my books, and emotions run high in these stories. I knew I didn’t have the vocal chops to pull any of that off. I am also not a technical wizard. ACX and Findaway both have production specifications for narrations that you need to meet with your audio files before they can be approved. That is not a job for me—or almost any other author of fiction or nonfiction. So I went on a search. 

To find a narrator at ACX, you submit your script for an open-call audition. As the author, you set the rates and the terms. Then narrators respond to your posting. At Findaway Voices, you pay a fee to work through a casting director. She will present you with a select group of  narrators who she believes would be right for your book. You can see narrators’ rates, listen to samples of their work, and choose however many narrators you’d like to audition. For both ACX and Findaway Voices, the audition script is generally 750 words or about 3 to 5 minutes. 

After you select your narrator, you can give them notes.  Through ACX, you would communicate with your narrator directly. At Findaway, you send your feedback  through the casting director. So, for example, my narrator, Kae Denino, had originally given Marmalade a nerdy voice. I saw this cat character as more of an eccentric old lady, reminiscent of the character of Aunt Clara on Bewitched. In order to make sure that Kae would understand my suggestion, I sent my casting director a YouTube clip of Aunt Clara, and Kae promptly gave Marmalade a marvelous voice inspired by this performance.

Next, the narrator will submit the “first 15.”  That can be the first 15 minutes of your book or a 15-minute excerpt from any part of your book that you would like to hear. My narrator Kae is currently working on my book, Kate and the Horses. In this middle-grade fantasy, a young girl learns how to make friends though the horses she meets at a summer horse camp. She can hear them talk to her—yes, I am into talking animals—and the scene I wanted to hear was when Kate first met these horses. I wanted to make sure we were on the same page about the horses’ voices before Kae officially began narrating the book. This is of utmost importance. If your imaginings vary from what you hear when listening to your narrator’s work in the audition and in the first 15 minutes, you need to speak up. Once you’ve approved the first 15, you sign a contract for the audiobook. Then the narrator will begin the work based on the feedback you give her. 

A Pristine Manuscript

Here’s another humbling lesson I’ve learned on the road to creating audiobooks. Make sure that your manuscript is as pristine as you can make it before your narrator starts recording your book. Before I publish a book, I hire a great proofreader to go over the text. Regardless, a certain number of gremlins often find a way to survive in the manuscript. Even if you think your book is perfect, please have someone look at it again before the start of the audiobook process. The narrator is not contractually obligated to fix any of your textual errors. In the past, Kae has always corrected my mistakes without complaint, but I still made the decision to change our process and hire her as a proofer to go over the manuscript before narration. It felt like the fair thing to do. Proofing is not part of a narrator’s job description. So try to have your manuscript in tip-top shape when it’s time to record.

The Audio Proofing Process

When the narrator has finished your book, she will turn the audio files over to you, and you will start your audio proofing process. At this point, you pick up your text and read along while you listen to your narrator’s work. What are you listening for? Weird mouth noises or any external sounds. Strange pauses. Missing words or sentences. Mispronunciations. Dialogue in the wrong character voice. Whenever you find something amiss, you add it to a list of each item that needs to be fixed, designated by chapter number and accompanying time code. Upon completion, you hand over these notes to the narrator, and she fixes the mistakes. After that, go back over the text with the audio and confirm that these errors have been corrected. Then the audiobook is ready to be submitted to your company for publication and distribution. Yes!

How Much Does It Cost?

So how much does all of this cost? There are different pricing options available for audiobooks. The first option is PFH or per finished hour, i.e., the length of your audiobook. When you submit a manuscript to Findaway Voices, they have a tool on their website that will estimate the length of your book. A professional narrator can also give you an upfront, reasonable assessment of how long your book will be. On average, a narrator will charge between $150-$300 PFH. Both companies provide this pricing option. On ACX, if you pay PFH, you will have a nonexclusive arrangement with the company, meaning you can also distribute your audiobooks elsewhere.

Royalty Share Options

You can also look at royalty share options. At ACX, you can enter into an RS (royalty share) with a narrator, and each of you will receive a certain split of the royalties over a designated number of years. For royalty share arrangements, it is often important for the writer to have a certain track record. Before entering into this agreement, narrators will most likely want to know how your book has performed, how you market books, and what sort of a following you have. They need to know this in order to assess whether this could be a profitable venture for them. 

In addition to RS, ACX offers  RS+, where the narrator will receive a smaller cut of the royalty shares in exchange for a one-time payment (generally half their PFH rate). Findaway Voices does not have RS, but they do have Voices Share, which is similar to RS+, a reduced royalty rate for a number of years, where the narrator is paid half her PFH rate. With all these royalty-share arrangements, the writer would sign an exclusivity distribution agreement with ACX or Findaway for a designated number of years.

Distribution Networks

Now let’s talk about what these companies offer in terms of distribution networks. ACX distributes to Audible and Apple Books. Findaway has a larger distribution network—your audiobooks will be available at Audible, Apple Books, Walmart, Nook, Chirp (Book Bub’s new audiobook outlet) Bibliotheca and Overdrive (library services), and international outlets like Scrib’d and Storytel. With ACX, you are signing on with a big-name company. Findaway gives you the opportunity to go wide.

In that last paragraph, you might have thought, “Wow, advantage, Findaway.” So let me counter with something ACX offers that you can’t get from Findaway. Both companies provide review codes that you can hand out to people who would listen to your books for free and would hopefully write you an honest review in return. (However, the listener is not obligated to write the review. Amazon specifically states in its terms and services that it has to be something that listeners choose to do on their own.) Anyway, with ACX codes, a listener can write reviews on the Audible site, the most influential audiobook site around. With Findaway codes, you write reviews on Amazon and other distribution sites, but not on Audible.

Has It Been Profitable?

Whew. That’s a lot of information to digest. Still you probably have one more question for me. Has it been profitable? In monetary terms, not yet. I still have a lot to learn about marketing. Selling my books and myself doesn’t come easily to me, and I have to regularly give myself strong pep talks to venture out, experiment, and learn. However, I believe in the tortoise and the hare. I think audiobook selling is a long-distance run, and I want to have my books in this competition in a field that I love so much. In emotional terms, having audiobook versions of my books has been a dream come true. When I began writing, I really wanted to see my book on a shelf. Later, I realized my bigger dream was to hear my work voiced by an amazing narrator. My audiobooks are my favorite way to experience my stories, and I’m really proud of them. 

I hope this information is helpful to you, and I wish you the very best of luck with your own audiobook creation. 

Wendy has been a transcriptionist since 1989 and is certified as an editor through the UC Berkeley Extension Professional Sequence in Editing program. Since 2017, she has edited over 25 books for Peacock Proud Press and is also the author of seven books of fiction and counting!

Written by Wendy Ledger