Pen to Pen: Audiobook Creation for Indie Authors with Isobel Starling

This week in Pen to Pen, romance author Isobel Starling stops by to advise independent authors on publishing and marketing audiobooks using ACX (Audiobook Creation Exchange), a platform developed by Amazon and She’s got a lot of information, so she’ll have two columns this week. Today’s, “Using ACX: Audiobook Creation for Indie Authors” is on creating your audiobook and paying for a narrator. On Thursday, she’ll be back with some great promotional tips in “Marketing Your Audiobook.” —Dale

Using ACX: Audiobook Creation for Indie Authors

by Isobel Starling

“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.” Beth Anderson, Audible’s executive vice president and publisher

Audiobook revenue continues to grow, so for self-publishers who have a back catalog of titles, it seems like the sensible thing to get a few titles into audio. A well-produced, polished audiobook can bring new life and new readers/listeners to your work and increase sales of e-books and paperbacks. Producing an audiobook is a long term investment and can add another welcome stream of income for authors.

I am a huge fan of listening to audiobooks and so am well-versed in what I like in a narrator/production and what I don’t like. Therefore, when I put my request for a narrator for my novel As You Wish on Audible’s narration site, I had very specific requirements. The book is a gay romantic comedy set in Scotland, so I wanted a British principal narrator who could do accents and deliver the funnies. I needed a narrator who could do a believable Scottish accent for my main character, as well as a range of other Scots accents for minor characters. I also needed someone who was comfortable with narrating sex scenes.

What is ACX?

ACX (Audiobook Creation Exchange) is a free service for authors and narrators, kind of like a dating site to match you with your perfect narrator. It’s part of the Amazon/Audible family. The way ACX is set up makes it easy for narrators to search for new book projects and for authors who own the audio rights for their work to share their book project and seek a narrator. The site is easy to use and allows authors to stay in control of auditions, costs, and have the final say on the quality of the work.

Can you afford to make an audiobook?

When an author first looks into producing audio they can easily be put off by the expense of production. As with all big business expenses, audiobooks are an investment, and it makes sense to ask some questions, do the math, and work out:

  • How long will your book be? (The general rule of thumb is 10k words narrated per hour)
  • What is the cost of narration?
  • What is the Audible set price for books of your book length?
  • How many copies will you have to sell to break even?

In ACX, there are two options to pay for production costs: Per Finished Hour or Royalty Share. Paying per finished hour costs more up front, but can lead to more income long-term because you get a higher share of income from each audiobook sale. With royalty share, you earn less from each audiobook you sell, but you pay nothing out of pocket for narration.

Per finished hour (PFH)

Per finished hour (PFH) is when authors choose to pay up front. Amazon takes 60%, and the author gets 40% of the royalties. The minimum PFH charge for an experienced narrator is around $200. Therefore, if your book is five hours long, this would mean you would pay $1000 when the recording has been delivered to ACX and signed off by you. Authors should be aware that this is a custom-made product and to create even 1 hour of audio, your narrator has put in 6-10 hours of work. However, your narrator cannot charge you for booking a recording studio or other expenses incurred because the PFH charge is all-inclusive.

PFH audiobooks can be distributed one of two ways:

  • exclusively with Audible (which includes Amazon and iTunes) for seven years
  • authors have the option of choosing non-exclusive rights, which allow you to upload and sell on other outlets

Some narrators charge less, some charge more than $200 per finished hour, depending on their experience and profile within the world of audio narration. If you are seeking a superstar narrator, be prepared to pay $350+ per finished hour. With a tight budget, it’s more than likely you will have to search for a while to be matched with a narrator who can perform your book the way you want, within your budget.

Remember, your book will only be recorded once, so make it count! A poor narration will bring bad reviews, and it’s unlikely this will help either the author or narrators career.

In my opinion, the big pluses of paying PFH are that authors get 40% profit from each sale of your audiobook. This is the best royalty I have found. There are other sites that will help you produce audiobooks, but Audible dominates the audio market, offers a great royalty, and will give your book the best chance of discoverability. Also, with the $50 Bounty program ACX runs, every time someone opens a new account and chooses your book as their first listen you will be paid $50 extra.

Royalty Share

If you cannot afford to pay up front, another way ACX arranges payment is through Royalty Share. This means that the author pays nothing up front, which in principal is a wonderful thing. However, narrators need to pay bills too, so not many well-known performers are willing to wait for the possibility of payment further down the line. With Royalty Share, Audible take their 60 percent share of sales, and the remaining 40 percent is split between the author and the narrator. Any proceeds from the $50 Bounty program would be split too.

This photo by Alsterkoralle on Pixabay. Photo at top of page by Marcion Media on Pixabay.

Auditions: Finding a Narrator

The audition process is vital in helping you find your perfect narrator. Again, ACX offers several ways for you to be matched with narrators. You can search for narrators on the site and listen to samples with specific ranges of accents—young, old, male, female, etc., and contact any narrator you like via the site’s messaging system. Also, narrator’s email details/websites are listed, so if there is anyone you particularly like you can contact them directly off site, via email, and ask if they would like to audition.

It’s important to know what the production setup is for your narrator. Are they working from a home studio, or do they have to pay for recording and mastering at an independent studio? Narrators who have home studios are in a better position to work swiftly, because they don’t have to book/pay for studio time to do the audition sample. Personally, I feel uneasy about expecting any creative to spend money to try and get a gig. Therefore, I am much more comfortable with narrators who use home studios than those who have to pay for recording time, especially when they might not be suitable at all and end up out of pocket.

The ACX posting system encourages all authors to add information about their book: blurb, sales information, links to reviews, etc. The site also expects you to add a script sample that interested narrators can use for recording an audio sample.

Tell them what you want

I found that authors have to be strict and specific when explaining their needs for the project. The narrator needs to know specifically what you want. If you want a narrator who can do a Russian accent or sound female, tell them. It also helps both the author and narrator if the sample script is taken from a part of the book where several accents are required, so that the narrator can display their range, and the author gets a good idea of what they will do with the manuscript. Post no more than four pages. It is easy to get carried away and want to hear a chapter, but you will know within the first thirty seconds if the narrator is right for you, so don’t expect audition samples to cover anything more than a page or two of your story. When you listen to narrator samples, pay attention to the production quality – is the sound clear? Can you hear any background noise when you listen with ear buds? Does the narrator have good pronunciation, pacing, accents?

Reviewing auditions

Auditions are uploaded to the site and much like in The X Factor, the author can listen and decide if the sample is yes, no or maybe. Many narrators who were clearly unsuitable for my project sent me auditions without even contacting me first to say hello. Honestly, I felt bad for the ones who went to all the effort to record a sample that I only listened to for a few seconds. But, I’d made it perfectly clear that I needed a narrator in his thirties or forties with theatrical training and a British accent, but what I got were primarily ’mature’ American men who could not do Scots accents and frankly, the thought of any of them reading one of my sex scenes creeped me out. Many talented American narrators who are well known within my book genre contacted me, and there were several of whom I would want to work with if I had any books that were based in the States. But sadly, I had to give them all a pass because, although some of them had great British accents, they could not get their tongues around the difficulties of the Scottish accent.

Royalty share projects get few auditions, but I found by the time I’d received my twentieth audition, it got to the stage where I cringed every time I checked my email and saw I had a new one from a narrator who was clearly unsuitable. In the end, I had to revise my post and state in capitals: PLEASE CONTACT ME BEFORE YOU AUDITION. This turned out to be the best way to move forward because narrators then emailed me with samples of past work and their CV’s. I listened to samples, and if I liked the sample, I would ask them to audition.

Within a couple of days of changing my post, I found the perfect narrator for my book. We agreed on the PFH cost, contract, and completion dates.

My first audiobook As You Wish was released in May 2017, and subsequently, I have produced three more audiobooks with the same narrator and one with an alternative narrator.

Read Part 2 of this series: Marketing Your Audiobook.

Born in Germany, Isobel Starling spent most of her twenty-year professional career making art in Ireland.  She relocated to the UK and, faced with the dreaded artist’s creative block, Isobel started to write and found she loved writing more than making art. The Shatterproof Bond series is an Amazon gay romance bestseller and is being translated into French, German, and Italian. The series is also available as audiobooks, narrated by Gary Furlong. Isobel’s BDSM/cross-dressing romance Silken is also in audio, narrated by Gomez Pugh.

Catch up with Isobel at:

An earlier version of the above post originally appeared at Indie Authors: Using ACX to Find a Narrator.

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