Friday, September 27, 2013

Producing An Audio Book: Lessons Learned and Tips for Success (Updated)

Audio books area major investment for the companies that produce them. They have to pay the author for the rights to the book, which may be a one time payment or a share of the royalties.  Sometimes the book’s narrator is a well known actor, which can be expensive—worth the expense, of course.

Until fairly recently, audio books were produced on a cassette tape or compact disk.  I bought all of the Harry Potter books on tape, and they were bulky (and wonderful, of course). The seventh book has seventeen tapes. Imagine shipping those to stores or mailing them directly to buyers. CDs, with their greater storage capacity, reduced the size of a book’s packaging. Still there was a physical product.

Enter the world of digital music, MP3 players,itunes, Blue Tooth, and guess what?  You can load a digital book on the players or a home computer. You can also listen to them on e-readers, such as the Kindle or iPad. Suddenly, the packaging element was out of the equation.  A reader could simply download a book from the seller.

Audio book publishers still pay for the story and the actor who reads the book, but the per-unit costs do not include a physical product. Or, they do not have to.  CD audio books are still widely available.

With the potential for reduced costs and the relative ease of producing digital products (can you say U-tube?) digital audio books met self-published authors.  A good audio book is much more than the author reading their book on recording software on a laptop.  Self-published authors met professional narrators who owned high-quality recording equipment.

The way I and many other self-published authors have books made into what used to be called talking books is through Audio Creation Exchange (ACX). created ACX, and Audible is an Amazon subsidiary. (Check out for basic information.)

What is ACX?  Authors can post information on their books to see if a narrator will read (produce) them. Narrators (called producers) can post samples of themselves doing all kinds of work – straight narration, comedy, men’s voices, women’s voices, and more.  A narrator can find an author’s work and provide an audition, or an author can listen to a narrator’s samples and ask the narrator to audition. The author provides a sample of the book for the narrator to read.

There is no up-front cost for authors if they choose to split royalties with the narrator.  That option makes audio book production possible for any writer. On the other hand, if the author thinks a book will sell well, it may be worth paying the narrator up front and collecting all royalties.  Rates are set in terms of produced hour of reading, not how long it takes the narrator to do the work.

Considerations for Narrator Auditions
  • Recognize that writing and narrating are separate skills. The odds of an author having the skills and equipment to produce a good audio book are pretty slim.
  • Decide if the book should simply be read or if it should be acted, with the narrator making each voice distinct.
  • Provide guidance about individual characters (the hero has a deep voice) or accents (though the action takes place in the south, the author does/does not want the narrator to use southern accents). This helps the narrator know what the author wants and provides a better audition.
  • Create audition text with varied voices within the book. The audition sample can do this by providing sections from different parts of the book.  A lot of books open with narration; if the opening is all that is in the audition text, the audition won’t be very representative of the book.
  • Ask for a second or third audition if there is any doubt as to whether a narrator can do the work as the author believes it should be done. There is no obligation to pick a person who auditions, but a revised audition can be more of what the author wants, so why reject a narrator after just one sample of their work?
The Creation Process

Once selected, the narrator loads the first fifteen minutes of the book for the author’s review. It’s really important to listen carefully and suggest changes if something should be done differently.

After the author approves the first fifteen minutes, the narrator will load the book to the ACX web site in individual chapters. If they want to wait until the end, make sure to ask the narrator to load a few chapters at a time. Though the audition and first fifteen minutes are meant to be the chance to come to agreement on how a book will be done, hearing the chapters individually lets the author spot unanticipated issues. A narrator cannot be expected to redo hundreds of lines of text after they have completed a book.

Ask the narrator to record the book at a consistent volume. A listener does not want to have to turn the volume control up and down to accommodate changing narrator volume. It’s not live theater. If the narrator whispers and shouts, the reader will get very frustrated.

When the narrator has finished the ‘first draft,’ listen to every word of every chapter. Ask for important changes (especially if it is hard to hear something), but don’t be a nit-picker.

Try to pick an experienced narrator.  True, some book has to be the narrator’s first. However, if it’s their first and your first, it may not be a good combination. I did not grasp how hard it was to hear the male voices that my first narrator did, and we ended up redoing parts of the book after it was issued. (ACX allows this – once.)  Clearly the narrator was very professional; she wanted it right as much as I did. We’ve worked together again and will in the future, but we both wished we had been more experienced to start!

The book I have been happiest with was done by a male narrator. I had not initially considered this, since my protagonist is a woman. Finally, I listened to several males voices and asked Michael Spence to audition. When the book (When the Carny Camy to Town) was issued I described his voice to friends as being smooth as melted butter, but with inflections. It was also the first of the Jolie Gentil series to be read rather than acted, and I liked it this way. Michael did Behind the Walls (for which ACX paid a bonus).

With Ground to a Halt, eighth book in the series, I decided to pay the narrator up front rather than do a royalty split. This means I keep all royalties. Since the audio books are selling better all the time, this seemed like a smart investment.

I had more auditions and they came in faster. The idea of an upfront payment is popular among narrators. Dan Gallagher, the selected narrator, also did the work faster than any other narrator I've worked with.

Audio book production takes a lot of time for the author and narrator, and the author might be tempted to think that if they like the first few chapters that’s all they need to listen to.  Not!  The royalties per book are higher than with other formats, and the author and narrator’s work should be commensurate with the income. That is an incentive to not just do an audio book, but to do it right.

If your friends are not familiar with digital audiobooks, make sure to let them know they can join Audible for free, and get one free download. They can later quit, commit to a monthly purchase, or just keep a $10-per-year  membership so they can buy books at lower prices.

You will also get twenty-five free downloads of each book, to be used for publicity--or whatever you want them for. This can encourage a potential reviewer to listen on an ereader. The email giving you the free link comes a couple of weeks after the book is published.
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Finally, what kind of an author would I be if I didn't tell you about my audiobooks?
Jolie Gentil Cozy Mysteries, unless noted
Appraisal for Murder, Read by Paula Faye Leinweber
Rekindling Motives, Read by Paula Faye Leinweber
When the Carny Comes to Town, Read by Michael Spence
Trouble on the Doorstep, Read by Christy Lynn
Behind the Walls, Read by Michael Spence
Vague Images, Read by Paula Faye Leinweber
Ground to a Halt, Read by Dan Gallagher
Holidays in Ocean Alley, Read by Christopher Bateson
The Unexpected Resolution, Read by Pamela Hershey
Jolie and Scoobie High School Misadventures, Read by  Pamela Hershey
Biding Time (a coming-of-age novella), Read by James J. Fouhey, Jr.
In the Shadow of Light (passion and hope at the border) Read by  Andre G. Chapoy
Demise of a Devious Neighbor, (2nd River's Edge cozy mystery), Read by Brad C. Wilcox
Tip a Hat to Murder (1st Logland mystery) Read by Kevin Iggans
All audios recorded by ACX narrators are on Audible, itunes, and Amazon. Mine are either listed as Elaine Orr or Elaine L. Orr.


  1. Thanks for letting us know what it was like for you and for your suggestions. I'm thinking of having my books put on audio. Your ideas will help.

  2. When you get your full recording back to edit or look over before you publish it, how do you recommend listening? Do you use headphones? Through the computer speakers? My reader has suggested headphones, but the ones she suggested are very expensive.

    1. I have to apologize. I don't think I answered your question. I use headphones, but modestly priced ones. They are not cheap like the ones with earbuds, but they are also not what a recording artist would use. I listen to words and tone, but am not listening to see if the audio itself is high quality. I figure that's up to the narrator, and they want audio quality to be good, since it reflects on them.

  3. Good post, Elaine. I'm in the process now and realize how important it is to start getting chapters early so any serious changes can be made before it's too late.

  4. My thanks as well, Elaine. I am in the midst of listening to every word of the acted narration for my first audio book. The narrator is a Yankee but I think he has enjoyed becoming southern for "Points of Origin." I hope others will see your post at the onset.

  5. Thanks, Darden. I loved your comment about the Yankee turning southern. Some of these narrators are extraordinary. Good luck!

  6. Very interesting blog! I've bookmarked i and I'm sure I will read it again. I plan to use ACX in the fall.

    1. It's kind of like book formatting. You go through many hours of study, and then use about ten percent of it. It's figuring out that ten percent...Glad you found it useful.

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  8. They uesed to send the free codes automatically, but now, you have to request them. We have seven completed audiobooks and are working on two more. We did a 50/50 split on ours with no upfront cost to us. We have been exremely fortunate to have found exceptional voice talent. For Larry's sci-fi series, we are using the same producer for all volumes for consistency.

    1. I'm so happy that you found a good narrator. I mostly do 50/50. I did three or four (mostly short ones) where I paid up front, but I don't find I make money faster. Best wishes for continued success.