We hear so much about eBooks these days that it's almost easy to forget that long before the eBook, there was another way to enjoy a title: in audio. And if you talk with audiobook lovers, they are (very) passionate about their books, and many can't recall the last time they actually read a book, as opposed to listening to one. I spoke to some cross-country truck drivers who said they go through as many as five books a month. What do they read? Anything from world history, to self-help, to fiction.
Audible has been around for a long time, we see the deals everywhere via Groupon and others for a free month on Audible to try and coax people into the system. Now, however, with the Audible technology changing and Whispersync becoming a popular way to both read and listen to books, there may be no stopping this form of book delivery.
About three years ago, Amazon launched ACX, which is a means for any author to turn their book into an audio product. I spoke with Jason Ojalvo, who is the Senior VP of Content, and he told me that ACX has been pouring a lot of resources into this new production and delivery system and it's obvious from the buzz around this that they mean business.
Now, if you have the budget anyone can turn their book into an audio product. And it takes, surprisingly, very little effort. You can also get your book production for free by doing a reader royalty share, but it's not the quickest or most efficient way to get your audiobook created. I've spoken to numerous authors who have said that the process of 50-50 is often met with limited results, and again I think this depends on the genre. I'll take you through the process a little later on in this piece but first, let's look at a few tips I gleaned from avid audiobook readers.
If you've ever listened to an audiobook you know that the narrator can make or break a story. I was listening to a book recently and, though I liked the story, I had to stop the audio because the narrator was just not right for the book and read in a way that was too distracting to the story. This is why you want a professional narrator (other than those few instances in which authors narrate their own titles, Audible and ACX use only professional narrators). You should never, ever read your own book (which is likely what happened in this case). Even if you do voiceover, it's just not a good idea. Having taken voiceover classes and done some voiceover work, I can tell you firsthand that having a "voice" and being able to narrate and produce an audiobook are not the same thing.
For audio to work in a book format, the narrator needs to have some acting experience, because you'll want inflection, emphasis, and perhaps also drama. These are things you just can't get if you just have voiceover experience or just "have a good voice" -- you may save some money in the production, but it'll be a waste of time and effort and it could taint your book. Imagine a bunch of reviews on your book page complaining about the narrator. That's not something you want prospective readers to see. So if you're going to do this, spring for some good talent. And talent isn't terribly pricey actually, not when you consider how much work is involved to produce a finished book hour (which often requires several retakes). Typically it takes six hours of work to create one hour of audio, and most highly-experienced readers will want a minimum of $300 per finished hour and books are typically 8-10 finished hours in length (note that 9,300 words equals about one finished hour).
The other thing about the narrator is to make sure you like working with them because if you're doing a series, you'll want the same narrator for all of the books. When I spoke to readers they told me it was a major pet peeve when an author swapped out a narrator. Audiobooks create a very personal environment. The listener is inviting the reader into their car and their world, so it's important to respect that connection the reader gets with the narrator.
According to the folks at ACX, the hottest genres are mystery/thriller, science fiction, fantasy, and romance, and one of their fastest growing categories right now is young adult. But this is all about to change as more and more authors jump on this way of extending their book reach. Additionally, I've spoken to several bloggers about audiobook blog tours and many are very excited to offer this to their readers. Some, in fact, already do this exclusively. We'll cover more on audiobook promotion in the next post.
We hired Lisa Cordileone (http://www.lisacordileone.com) to do The Publicist, Book One, which is a book we've been promoting. She has worked on several audiobooks, and also done acting. Additionally, she's listed on the ACX site as a preferred audiobook reader. I asked her about how to find audio talent, and this is what she had to say:
"For authors new to audiobooks, I think ACX is a great resource to find a narrator. But it is not the only one. To the best of my knowledge there are close to 30 Audiobook production companies nationwide that hold SAG-AFTRA agreements available for their talent. If I were an author new to this type of work, I would find out who those companies are, or spend some time looking at AudioFile Magazine's resource list of companies. The APA (Audio Publishers Association) is also a fantastic resource.
If you want to go outside of ACX, an author should look for audio publishers or recording studios that have been doing this for years. Look at the list of titles they have produced; have a conversation with them about who the talent is on their roster, and start listening to samples. Most of these production companies have a casting director and will be able to help you find a voice that fits your book. "
Creating an Audiobook
The first step to creating an audiobook is to figure out where you're going to list it, but regardless of your preferred studio, you'll need a good character description and a sample of the book to do interviews. Jason with ACX offered this:
"We recommend you keep your audition script to no more than 2-3 pages. You'll typically know right away from the audition if the voice is right for your project. You should choose a dynamic selection from your project, rather than the first 2-3 pages, or select 2-3 passages from different sections of your work to get a sense for the actor's range."
When I talked with Lisa about this she agreed. Longer scripts can take a ton of studio time, and keep in mind that the sample will need to be produced which will add to the time it takes to create a sample. Also, when doing auditions, consider using a sample that's more challenging. Likely this will be further into your book. You want to find a section that will give you a good sense of the narrator's voice and their ability to do other voices, accents, or characters. "Pick the strongest, not the longest. You'll know in two minutes whether that person is right for your book." To that end, Jason brought up a good point when he said:
Do disclose all the different accents you expect in the book up front. Don't expect your producer to read your mind; if you don't provide direction on the type of performance you're listening for, your actor will give his or her own interpretation of the work. Our philosophy is the more guidance you provide to your producer - especially up front -- the more satisfied you'll be with the auditions, samples, and finished audiobook production. At minimum, provide a few descriptors of each of the characters included in your audition script, as well as a pronunciation guide for any words that are medical, technical, or conlang (constructed languages).
Finding the Right Narrator for Your Book
In terms of narration and finding the right person, here are a few suggestions:
When we were doing The Publicist, Book One, I sent her a blog post the author did on this book around the casting call, you can see it here: (http://www.thepublicistnovel.com/and-the-oscar-goes-to-casting-the-publicist). The blog played on the fact that every author wants their fiction book to be a movie, so we went with that. Lisa told me that something like this, showing the actors assigned to the roles, actually helped her dig deeper into the characters. But what happens before you ever hire someone? Well, when you sign up on ACX and put the book out for bid, you'll need to include a description of the main character and, as Jason mentioned earlier, be sure to mention dialects, etc. so the narrator knows if it's something they can do.
Lisa also added:
Brief descriptions for character breakdowns help guide me in the right direction. I think the blog article you posted was a great way to describe the characters in your book. It gave a visual, a brief description, and a quick comparison to celebrities who we have a sense of based on their work.
For example, what happens with a word like 'snarky' is an actor is going to see that word, and make a strong choice to be 'snarky' and that's what the audition will most likely sound like. An alternate way is to think outside of just using adjectives. Who is this person, what is her relationship to the other major characters in the story, what is her driving force or obstacle being dealt with, how would she deal with the situation at hand? A well rounded description will always serve better than adjectives alone, so we can identify who this character is and personalize it to give the best audition possible.
Once we listed the book and started to get auditions, I took the extra step by looking at their background to see and hear the range of books they'd done. You can find most of them on Audible and get a real sense of how they sound doing different characters. This is also important because you aren't just going to be featuring one person in your book and the audition sample likely won't have every character in it, either, so do your due diligence and really listen to some of the other samples you can find.
Most of the narrators do other work, though some are exclusively audio. Most, if not all, will have websites that show previous work, acting background, and other things they are involved in. I think that since the narrator is going to be tethered to your book series (if that's what you're doing) it's a good idea to know who you are hiring. The other piece of this is that you may want to bring the same narrator in for all of your books, regardless of whether it's a series or not. If you find someone you work well with, why not continue the relationship?
Jason at ACX recommended communicating with the folks who've auditioned and letting them know you appreciate that they've taken the time to do so. There's a place on the ACX page where you can dialog with them and, he said, "A quick thank you goes a long way." I would agree. In fact, I actually had a few folks who were auditioning offer to do additional samples if it would help my decision-making, which I thought was above and beyond.
Male, Female, or Both?
If you've listened to bestselling books on audio, you may notice that some have female and male narrators. This is done, but it's not common. If you're struggling with this idea consider that it could add a big cost to your bottom line to do both when really you don't need to.
Lisa offers this from a narrator's perspective:
I was always taught that a narrator should be able to perform all parts, male and female. Most, if not all, audiobook production companies are going to want to hear that on a narrator's demo, ie. Sample of fiction with a narrator, and 1 female and 1 male character exchanging dialogue. It is a specific skill set that audiobook narrators should have.
Making the Decision to Hire
The process from start to finish moves along pretty quickly. Once you confirm who you want to hire, you'll make them an offer and then give them a chance to respond and accept it. From there the experience is now between you and the narrator.
They'll record a 15-minute session and upload it to ACX for your approval, and though I don't know if this is the norm, Lisa really went several steps further to narrate the best book she could.
First, she asked for the entire book right off the bat so she could read it, then she took the time to highlight difficult names to be sure she wasn't messing up the pronunciation. I think those two things are important and will, in the long-term, speak to the integrity of the book.
Once you approve the 15-minute sample, the actual recording process will begin. Keep in mind that you'll define the dates for production, meaning you need to tell the narrator how much time they have. We gave Lisa well over a month and she finished it in a couple of weeks. Most narrators when taking on a project will tell you when they can start so there are no misunderstandings around timing.
For Whispersync, ACX offered the following comments: "As you probably know, Whispersync for Voice is a program where matched Kindle eBooks and Audible audiobooks allow you to alternate between listening and reading. All audiobooks that are produced through ACX are scanned for Whispersync for Voice-eligibility. If a ebook meets the criteria (and the audiobook is almost 100% accurate to the eBook), it is Whispersync for Voice-eligible. We cannot guarantee that all ACX Titles will be added to the Whispersync for Voice program."
So in other words, if you modify the audio book too much, it won't be included in this additional service. I don't know what the percentage is that's included in Whispersync, but I have to imagine given the benefits to the readers that as long as the books meet the criteria outlined above, that it's a pretty high ratio.
In my next piece, we're going to look at marketing your audiobook.