From the Written Word to the Spoken Word:
Our Audiobook Journey
by Bill Boik
As I started to write this article, we were preparing to release our first audiobook through Audible.com. We had not planned to release an audiobook this year, but then Lorraine Lotzof Abramson, the author of our bestseller—My Race: A Jewish Girl Growing Up Under Apartheid in South Africa—mentioned that several people at her recent book signings were asking if one was available.
So we began to look into possibilities. The more we looked, the more expensive producing an audiobook seemed. More important, it became increasingly clear that we would have to find a producer willing to take the project on. We just didn’t have the time, equipment, or experience to produce a quality audiobook ourselves.
Then one day I was checking our titles on Amazon and I noticed a link under one of our books that said “Publishers turn your book into an audiobook.” I clicked on the link, and it took me to acx.com, an Amazon/Audible platform designed to let anyone create an audiobook.
The site essentially matches authors, rights holders, producers, and narrators with titles available for creation as audiobooks. Overall, it’s pretty user-friendly. I simply set up a company profile and a profile for the titles that we wanted produced as audiobooks. I was able to specify characteristics I wanted in a narrator, including the ones shown below.
Requires a narrator who can perform:
Genre: Bios & Memoirs
Character Age: Middle-Aged
Accent: South African/Afrikaans
Vocal Style: Engaging
The Options We Were Offered
ACX offers a number of production options. If you have the proper equipment, you can narrate and produce your own audiobook. You can look only for a narrator and do your own production, or you can look only for a producer and handle narration yourself. I specified that we were looking for both a producer and a narrator to create our audiobook and that the narrator should be a South African woman.
ACX provides what you need for uploading the recordings and gives you two primary contract options. They are a pay-for-production or a royalty split.
A pay-for-production deal involves a flat payment to the producer and/or narrator. Fees are generally $200–$300 per hour; the average audiobook takes two to three hours of work per finished hour (pfh), and since I estimated that our audiobook would run for nine or ten hours, we decided that this option could get too expensive, with charges possibly mounting to $10,000 or more.
Instead, we chose the option that involves splitting royalties 50-50 with the producer and narrator. While this potentially meant less money for us in the long run, it had the benefit of not requiring any upfront capital from us. And it had the added attraction of giving the producer and narrator a financial interest in generating sales.
ACX also gives you two distribution options, both of which affect the royalties you will receive. They are an exclusive or a nonexclusive distribution.
An exclusive distribution agreement with Amazon (ACX) means that your audiobook will be distributed only via iTunes, Audible.com, and Amazon. Under this exclusive agreement, royalties will initially be split 50-50 between Amazon (Audible) and you (which, since we chose the shared royalty option, meant 50 percent for Amazon (Audible), 25 percent for the producer and narrator, and 25 percent for us and the author). The royalty percentage goes up 1 percent for every 500 copies sold and would top out at 90 percent for us and 10 percent for Amazon.
A nonexclusive distribution agreement means the audiobook can be sold anywhere, but the tradeoff is that iTunes, Audible, and Amazon sales will initially pay royalties of 25 percent (half the rate on the exclusive deal), and the rate will go up 1 percent for every 500 copies sold but top out at 70 percent instead of 90 percent.
In both cases, royalties are based on retail price. This can vary with distribution outlet, but it is generally determined by the audiobook’s size or hours. Audible sets the retail price, and the ACX rough guide states that audiobooks in the 5–10 hour range are generally priced at $15–$25. Our book, which runs for 8 hours and 9 minutes, retails for $19.95.
Author Lorraine Lotzof Abramson (left) and narrator Nathalie Boltt.
After choosing exclusive distribution, we loaded a script for prospective narrators to read as their five-minute audition tape, which they would then upload to our file in ACX, and we would have the option of selecting one of them or continuing to look for the “right” one.
An Added Attraction
We got very lucky early on because ACX applies an algorithm to titles listed for audiobook deals. If the sales of a published book reach a certain level, Audible will pay a stipend of $100 per finished hour (pfh) to the producer of the audiobook, which does not affect any other arrangement with the producer or any royalty payments.
ACX did that with My Race, and once it identified our audiobook as eligible for the stipend with a green band in the top corner of the cover, all prospective producers and narrators knew they would get $900–$1,000 from Audible on completing the project, in addition to the shared royalties. This instantly made our offer more attractive to producers, and four or five candidates uploaded audition tapes soon after the stipend offer was posted. We listened to each tape, and when we got to the last one we received we realized that this candidate would be the perfect narrator.
That person was Nathalie Boltt, a South African actress who currently lives in New Zealand. I contacted Nathalie immediately and told her that we thought she was the perfect person to narrate My Race, but I also said we really needed a producer. Then I learned that she was also a producer and that she was willing to do our audiobook for the ACX stipend and the royalty share. I sent her a contract, using the basic shell on the ACX Website, and she accepted it the next day.
Of course, it will generally be harder to find a producer/narrator for titles not showing the stipend, which seems to be most of them. In that case, though, you can still use ACX to proactively look for producers/narrators with titles already released through ACX. Once you define the characteristics you are looking for, ACX will identify people who meet your criteria. You can then listen to clips from audiobooks they have already released and, if you like, you can make contact and offer a contract through ACX.
Once a contract is signed, the producer records the audiobook’s first 15 minutes and uploads that for approval. I shared the tape with the author, and both of us were very pleased. Then the producer gets the go-ahead to record the entire book and upload chapters for approval. We were able to do one round of corrections after the book was completed and marked for approval.
After we approved it, ACX did its own quality control and review, and then the final audiobook was released by Audible and posted for sale on Amazon, iTunes, and Audible within a week. The overall process from contract signing to completed audiobook took approximately two months.
There are some downsides to working through ACX, such as the lower initial royalty share, the exclusive distribution requirement for a higher royalty share, and the fact that most of its audiobooks are sent to purchasers electronically rather than on discs, which makes things a little more complicated for customers who just want to listen to a book on a CD player, for example.
But for a small publisher just starting out with audiobooks, ACX provides a good way to learn the process and make contacts. The company gives you the option of developing your own contract arrangement with a producer and narrator, and it will even pay the producer’s share of the royalties directly, so you won’t have to worry about sending separate payments or tracking the sales for them. Overall, working with ACX on our first audiobook has been an excellent experience.
Both we and our author couldn’t be happier with the producer/narrator we found through ACX. Nathalie has done an outstanding job of bringing Lorraine’s book to life, capturing not only the different accents, but also the moods of the individuals in the story. She was a pleasure to work with, and even though she lives halfway around the world, it was easy to contact her.
Our royalty share agreement with Nathalie should work to our benefit, since she has her own large following. After completing the narration, Nathalie was in Pennsylvania filming another movie in August, and she was able to make a short trip to New York to meet Lorraine, and a trip to DC to meet me and my wife.
Some final thoughts for publishers contemplating an audiobook journey: Be sure your contract with the author gives you audiobook rights and specifies an appropriate royalty split. Discuss your plans for the audiobook with the author; ask for input (we asked Lorraine to make a short tape pronouncing unusual words and names in her book and email it to Nathalie before she began taping). And share both the audition tape and completed tapes with your author.
After everything is done and your audiobook is released, market it heavily and enjoy that part of the journey. We released the audiobook version of My Race: A Jewish Girl Growing Up Under Apartheid in South Africa on August 6, 2013 (you can listen to a short clip at nonfictionpress.com/mraudiobk.html). As I finish this article, it looks as though it has sold 20 copies during the first two months on Audible and Amazon (no report on iTunes sales yet).
And we got some other very good news. Our journey has only started, and our first audiobook has already been nominated for a Grammy award in the Best Spoken Word Album category. Although sales seem to be fair these first two months, I don’t have anything to compare them to. Much will depend on our marketing efforts and whether our audiobook becomes a finalist or winner of the Grammy award next February. It has certainly been well worth the effort and promises to continue to be an interesting journey as we see where it leads us over the next year.
Bill Boik is the founder and publisher/CEO of DBM Press, LC, an independent publishing house in Springfield, VA, specializing in quality nonfiction and scholarly works. He also owns and manages DBookmahn’s Used and Rare Military Books (UsedMilitaryBooks.com), which he established in 1996 and which he reports is highly successful. A member of both IBPA and MBPA since 2008, he retired from the U.S. Army as a colonel after 30 years of active and reserve service and is a senior civilian employee at the Department of Defense.