Releasing an audiobook edition of your novel or other book is one way to earn more income from a manuscript you've already written. Those of you who know the story of how The Martian sold know that's a big part of its success.
One question I get a lot is how much it costs to have an audiobook edition of your book produced.
Just as there are traditional publishers for print and ebooks, there are companies who will produce your audiobook. Podium is the one that produced The Martian. Just as with traditional print publishing, the publisher, not the author, pays the up front cost.
You can also create and release your novel as an audiobook yourself, in partnership with a narrator/producer. That what I did.
Doing It Yourself
So far, I’ve used ACX for my audiobooks. ACX is an Amazon company. It operates as an exchange where authors and audiobook narrators/producers connect with one another. The author supplies the manuscript and the narrator/producer records and produces the audio and uploads it to ACX.
Shiromi Arserio produced the second and third books in my Awakening series, and is currently working on the fourth. Here is her recording studio modeled after the Tardis on Dr. Who:
Different narrators have different sounds and styles. For a good example of two different professional narrators in the same genre, you can listen to Shiromi in the sample for The Unbelievers and to Jewel Greenberg, who narrated The Awakening.
Your audiobook, once finished, will be available through Amazon and iTunes. (And any other platform ACX publishes on. As with other terms, this can change, so you need to check the terms on ACX when you’re ready.)
ACX pays a percentage of the sale price as a royalty. This, too, can change, and it has gone down since ACX began. This is part of why some authors are now using Author Republic. I haven't tried that platform, so for now I can only tell you my experience with ACX.
Paying Your Narrator/Producer
There are three ways to pay your narrator. The first is to pay per finished hour (PFH) of audio. The second is a royalty-share deal. The third is a hybrid option.
Paying up front means that once you as the author pay the narrator/producer PFH, the royalties you get through ACX are all yours.
To give you an idea what the cost might be, my second novel (a supernatural thriller), The Unbelievers, was 84,400 words, which resulted in 9.1 finished hours of audiobook. If a narrator charged $300 PFH, that would be $2,730. Some narrators charge less than that, and some more.
With the royalty-share deal, you pay nothing up front as the author. But when the audiobook sells, ACX pays you half the royalty and the narrator half the royalty.
A hybrid deal is where the author pays less–usually around $100 PFH–toward editing, proofing and mastering costs, but royalties are still shared. It's a great way to attract good narrators if you can't afford their usual PFH rate.
Which Way Is Best?
Deciding which to do depends on your budget, your long-terms goals, and on what terms the narrator you want is willing to work.
Pluses to paying full price up front include:
- Long-term, if your book sells well, you will earn more because you won’t need to split the royalties.
- It may be easier to find a good producer/narrator because you won’t be asking that person to bet a lot of time and expertise on your novel, you’ll be paying up front. For royalty-share, you need to sell the potential narrator on the value of your work, usually by showing a track record of good print or ebook sales, or best seller rankings.
The minuses are what you’d expect:
- Not everyone has the funds to pay up front for an audiobook, and even if you do, you might want to invest those dollars some other way.
- You don’t know how long it will take to earn that money back.
The positives for authors of royalty-share deals:
- No up front money to invest.
- The narrator/producer has a lot of incentive to help promote the audiobook so she or he gets paid.
- You may be more motivated to promote knowing someone else has taken a chance on your work.
Minuses of royalty-share for authors:
- If the book really takes off, you will be splitting the royalties with your narrator for a long time, so you may spend much more than you would have had you paid up front.
- The narrator you most want to work with may not be willing to do a royalty-share deal.
- To do royalty-share, you’ll need to agree to keep the book with ACX and that narrator for a number of years (check ACX for exact terms).
The hybrid deal threads the needle. You'll still need to pay some up front costs, but it's a lower investment. For my 9.1-hour book, that would be $910 instead of $2,730. While you'll still be sharing royalties, a good narrator/producer makes a tremendous difference. Poor sound quality or an unprofessional narrator can mean that no one buys your book at all, as most people listen to the sample before buying. In my view, better to have a good narrator with whom you share royalties than no royalties at all.
In addition to the dollars you spend, whether up front or through splitting royalties, you’ll also need to invest time. Your narrator will spend the most time producing each hour of audio, but you’ll need to listen to it and check to see if it is accurate and sounds good.
Though I didn’t track the hours, my best guess is I spent at least 15 hours listening, taking notes, and corresponding with the narrator on the 9.1-hour Unbelievers recording. And I had a fantastic, super-competent narrator who rarely made errors and whose production quality was excellent. In the long run, that is not a lot of time, but I mention it so you know it's not as simple as just handing over your manuscript and watching royalties roll in.
You'll also need an audiobook cover. You can start with your ebook or paperback images, but the covers on Audible are square, so at the very least, you'll need to resize your current book cover. It's best to pay a designer to do this, because she or he can make sure the quality of the image remains and rearrange the elements so they are balanced for the square size.
Not only will you have another edition of your book to sell, you’ll learn a lot by hearing your book read aloud by a professional. With my first supernatural thriller, The Awakening, I discovered there were words I overused in my writing. Despite that I’d read much of it aloud to myself when proofreading, I simply didn’t hear that until I heard a narrator read it. Other people tell me they don't notice, but it jumped out at me.
With The Unbelievers, the second in my Awakening Series, I discovered nuances in the characters that helped me as I was writing the third.
The Tough Question — Profits
How much you’ll earn on an audiobook through ACX is hard to say. First, while you are paid a percentage of the sale price, the sale price varies, and it’s set by Audible, not you.
For example, right now, the regular price of The Unbelievers on Audible is $19.95. But an Audible member can buy the book using a credit, and typically members pay $14.95 a month to belong and get 1 credit per month (though sometimes Audible gives you extra credits).
A member also can buy the book for the purchase price, which might be $19.95, but other times is less. People who already own the Kindle version of the book can buy the audiobook on Amazon for $1.99. Also, sometimes the book is just priced at a sale price of $1.99.
You do get a bonus if a person signs up to Audible for the first time and chooses your book as a free download. That’s only happened three times with The Awakening.
As the author, you have limited ways of promoting the audiobook beyond telling your own email list about it and including it on your website and social media. Because you don’t set the sale price or know when it’ll be on sale, you can’t purchase listings anywhere featuring a sale.
Sometimes Audible includes your book in its own sales email. Once I saw The Unbelievers for $1.99 in an email with five other books. I was happy about that, but I had no control over it.
Sales of the ebook edition can help sell the audiobook, because of the low price for people who own the Kindle version. Lately, I’ve had a lot of audiobook sales of The Awakening because I’ve made the ebook version free to generate sales for the rest of the series. That means the buyers are likely getting the audiobook for $1.99.
That’s a worthwhile strategy when you have a series, as it usually prompts sales of the later books. But if you are selling only one audiobook, it will take a lot of those sales to generate much income.
The Bottom Line
An audiobook edition can definitely be a nice added source of income for a book you've already written. On a royalty-share deal, you’re investing only your time up front, but there are caveats, including that you are tied to the narrator. If you like working with that person, as I do, that’s fantastic. If not, you will be less happy.
On the other hand, if you are paying up front, it might be quite a while before you recover the cost of your audiobook edition, so you’ll need to weigh whether you believe your book will sell well enough and for long enough to justify that.
I’ve been happy so far with my audiobooks and I think it's been worthwhile. If you decide to do one, or if you have experiences to share or other questions, please post in the comments.
P.S. 9/15/17 Update: KOBO is now offering audiobooks. If you're interested, check out Listening To Jim and Bryan Talk About KOBO And Audiobooks.