As an author, there's something magical about hearing your words come alive through narration. Working with talented narrators on Audiobook Creation Exchange has been a transformative experience that added a new dimension to my perception of storytelling.
In my last short read, I discussed some of the how-to aspects of creating audiobooks, with a bias toward my experience with ACX. Here, I’ll discuss my journey through the creation of three audiobooks.
I was a late reader because of eye control issues, which I still blunder through today even after a solid amount of vision therapy. Reading and writing require a lot of focus and strain on the eyes, which tires mine out faster than average. So, when audiobook apps ramped up, I quickly switched over to absorbing stories that way. After years of perfecting my novel, I desperately wanted to hear and share my story with other reading challenged people. It fulfilled my desire to hear it and a need to help others.
REQUEST FOR AUDITIONS
Having written a bunch of proposals in my science professor days, I knew how important it was to give my auditioning narrators a thorough and compelling description of what I was looking for. It was hard to distill my books into short snippets to hook the best voice actors, yet provide enough detail that they’d know what they would be getting into.
As an avid gobbler of audiobooks, I knew all too well that a narrator might be great for one voice and butcher another. For me, bad accents or approximations of the opposite gender ruined many great stories. This is why I had them audition with 4-5 minutes of dialogue involving three important characters. To help them nail the voices, I provided brief descriptions of the characters and their voices, including actors with similar voices.
SPLITTING COSTS OR NOT
Understanding the importance that a voice actor has on an audiobook, I knew the odds of finding a great narrator at a bargain was slim to none. So, cost was a challenge for me. ACX provides two options for pay structure. I already struggled with the fact that ACX and Audible take sixty percent of the revenue, so keeping the remaining forty percent was important to me. On the other hand, cutting my share in half would come with the benefit of heavily discounted rates or even a free narration. The less expensive round would mean I'd only get twenty percent.
I decided to take the full forty percent because I knew myself. The most experienced narrators rarely give discounts for the twenty percent, and I wanted an excellent product to sell. In my experience, selling crap is harder than selling gold, and I'm not the best salesman. With my dream narrator, I was confident that I would recoup my costs even though it would take some challenges in financing the whole thing.
When putting together my proposal, I wasn’t prepare to tell them what I’d pay for the gig. Voice actors get paid in Per Finished Hours, which means I’d have to fork over a lot because my books were fairly long, coming in at 92,000 to 131,000 worlds. Thirteen hours at $100PFH meant I’d spend $1300, a sickeningly large sum for a beginning author. I was sick. My stomach turned in knots as I realized $100PFH is a bargain. So, I estimated I’d spend $200PFH for a great narrator. There was no way I could afford $400PFH or more for established narrators. Thoroughly discouraged, I continued.
TONS OF AUDITIONS
I wasn’t ready for the number of auditions for my first book. I don’t remember the exact numbers, but within a day and a half I had over sixty auditions. The tables had turned. I was in demand. Most narrators love authors who don’t ask for profit sharing, so there was no risk for them. Many of them said they connected with the audition script right away. I didn’t believe all of them.
The game became a process of whittling down the numbers. Some were easy to throw out and almost insultingly so. If I wanted an AI to read my novel, I wouldn’t have auditioned flesh and blood authors. Two of them made me want to pat their back and gently coach them into another career path. I felt bad for the ones who recorded their auditions on their phone in a noisy apartment where you could hear muffled people and horns in the background. Even though they offered clearance-sale prices, I tossed them out in seconds. I couldn’t bear listening to them butcher what I worked on for years.
For the first twenty-ish auditions, I decided about half of them were great, bringing my vision to life, even if they sounded different or spun unintended intonations into the weave. Then I hit a voice actor who was spectacular. It felt like having Michelangelo paint my words on the Sistine Chapel. Then I looked at his prices. More than double the max I could afford. Michelangelo’s angels cracked, fell, and shattered on the tile floors.
After another twenty or so, another one caught my ear and tugged at my love of storytelling. It must have felt that way when Keanu Reeves auditioned for Neo in The Matrix. I forced myself to look at the per finished hour rate, sure I would never be able to afford him. My wife freaked out in the next room when I hollered in joy. It would be tight, but my budget could barely cover it. After that, it was a matter of barreling through the rest so I could get back to this guy.
Several auditions before the end, I found another master of voice acting. Again, he was at the limit of my budget. He had a voice that was uniquely his own, kind of like Tom Hanks. This guy had a fresh take on my story that I wasn’t sure if I hated or loved. It wasn’t how I imagined my main character’s voice, but it might have been better.
Long story short, I went with the safe Keanu Reeves equivalent, not the Tom Hanks version.
DON’T USE AI
At the time of this short read, the hiring an AI company to narrate a manuscript was a bad idea. The problem was that AI hasn’t improved enough to give half of what I needed/wanted. They ended up bland with little emotional connection to the story. Even I could have done o a better job, and that is setting the bar pretty damn low. The repercussions of AI narration are two fold. First, a lot of people I know will listen to the sample before purchasing, so you’ll lose their sales. It would take longer to recoup the lower costs than if I plunked down the hefty load of cash I did. Second, listeners would end up rating my book, which would bring down my star ratings into the do-not-read range. Scathing reviews would decimate sales. Note that on Amazon, those ratings and reviews are mixed in with your kindle and paperback versions, so your AI recording will tank your written formats too.
The last and most important factor to consider is the voice actors themselves. They’re artists. If we get rid of all our artists, what are we as a society? If you want a low-cost recording of your book, choose a novice author who will charge you the same rate. They'll get the experience they need, and you'll get what you need.
ACX made it easy. We both electronically agreed to the arrangement. He was going to start in two weeks. I sent him all sorts of details about the characters. He would narrate fifteen minutes and then we’d decide to move forward or not.
Two weeks later, before his start date, he sent me the first fifteen minutes of my novel. I was thrilled. Not as amazed as I was with his audition, but still very impressed. I loved having my words transformed with such skill. I had a few notes, which he said he would incorporate. So, I signed off on continuing.
I expected to have more back and forth. I reached out and asked if there was anything he needed. He guaranteed that it was going great. I didn’t want to interfere with his creative process like a micro-managing first-time director. Then, near the end of our contract, he asked for a week's extension with a valid explanation. I wasn’t on a strict timeline, so it wasn’t a problem.
When he was done, he had it professionally sound-checked and cleaned, then sent it to me in chapters. It was like opening a small box at Christmas and instead of the watch I wanted, there were keys to a brand-new car. So, I tore through my hot-off-the-microphone audiobook. There were only minor errors which he quickly fixed as I brought them to his attention. I loved it. It was a dream come true.
Once he made all the changes, we agreed that he had fulfilled his contract beautifully and I signed off on it. He uploaded all the files and I submitted them to ACX. Along the way, I forgot that ACX takes up to ten days to review the audiobook. Then, they immediately release it without warning. It hit Audible and Amazon at the same time I heard about it. I later found out that authors can request a launch date if they give several weeks of lead time. On books two and three, I prepared a launch date a month in advance.
THE DAY CAME
I shouted my happiness from the rooftops. I actually climbed onto the roof and shouted. No joke. I couldn’t have been happier. I shared free copies with various people, including my narrator so he could send them to friends.
THE DAY WENT
It didn’t sell like as well as the Kindle and paperback versions. Reviews didn’t stream in. I didn’t realize that ACX doesn’t report sales until two days later, so none showed up. So I spent a day gnashing my teeth before I figured out what was going on.
TWO DAYS WENT
The sales were abysmal. Nobody reviewed it on audible. I didn’t understand why the audible wasn’t selling like the book had. First, my audible launched months after the written formats, so my easily accessed readers had already consumed it. They weren't going to read it again. All that money I put into it was a waste. All that effort and all those dreams were for not.
Pre-Game: Marketing doesn’t do itself. I’d been experiencing better-than-expected sales on Kindle, so I thought that would translate. It didn’t. The ratings on Amazon don't show up on Audible, and vise versa. So, I had to start over on Audible. Feeling the pain of this, I started well ahead of time on my second and third books. I'll discuss marketing side of it next time.
Collaboration: He was a professional. Me? Not so much. He knew how to do his job much better than I did, so I let him conduct the train. Yet, I knew the story better. I feel like we should have chatted early and often to avoid a few issues that spanned the novel from beginning to end, which he wasn't willing change.
Plain vs. Unique: You can’t please everyone with one voice. My narrator had turned out more like Superman than Deadpool. In my book, Superman is perhaps the best superhero of all time but has a meh personality performed quite successfully by many actors. On the other hand, Deadpool is a disaster of a superhero but has a masterfully crafted personality that few could nail because the actor has to fit the unique character. The fact that people wanted more and less uniqueness meant one of two things. Either I didn’t write my story as well as I’d hoped. Or, I chose the safer of the two best voice actors.
Be patient: It takes months for a great production and for preparing the marketing of your launch.
WOULD I DO IT AGAIN?
Well, the answer is yes. I already did, twice more. Armed with experience, I turned my next two books into Audibles. My gut sat much easier through the making of books two and three. I went with better narrators. I marketed them sooner and better. I did more research into my target audience. If I could go back and make different choices on the first one? Absolutely. Given my inability to market it cost effectively, I shouldn't have made that first audio at all. However, with lessons learned, my second and third book will make up for my losses in time.
PAY IT FORWARD
As an author who has traversed the audiobook process three times now, I understand some of the challenges faced by self-published and indie authors. It is important for me to help my community (not sell to them). I am eager to answer questions and offer what little guidance I can. So, reach out on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and other forms of social media. Let's support authors and celebrate the power of the story in all of its forms.
In my next short read, I’ll discuss Audiobooks: Lessons & Marketing.