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6 things indie authors should know about audiobooks

by JD Lasica

If you’re an indie author, you may be deliberating whether to take the plunge into publishing an audiobook. The reasons to forge ahead are many. Audiobooks are the fastest growing segment in the publishing industry, showing a 37.1% increase in sales last year, while ebook sales have largely plateaued the past couple of years.

But there are drawbacks — chiefly, the amount of time, effort and sometimes money it takes to produce a solid recording.

The last time I checked, only about one in ten indie authors bothers to go through the trouble of producing an audiobook to accompany a new book release. That’s bound to change. More than 67 million Americans now listen to audiobooks each year. Given current trends — particularly consumers’ lifestyle habits, with books consumed on the go and in bits and snatches — some experts predict audiobook sales will overtake ebook sales in a few years.

With that in mind, here are some things I’ve learned along the way now that I have two audiobooks under my belt. We can boil down the audiobook publishing process into these six steps.

Step 1: Get an audiobook version of your cover made

When I started out, I was befuddled by ACX’s requirement that I upload a square cover for my audiobook. What? Book covers aren’t square! It took a bit of reverse-engineering to turn a traditional book cover into a 2,400 by 2,400-pixel image.

With book two, I paid the design house a little extra for an additional file for the audiobook version. So it pays to work this out with your designer in advance, since you don’t want to be fooling about with cover dimensions at the last minute.

Step 2: Choose a platform to create your audiobook

For ease of creating your audiobook, ACX rules the roost. ACX, Amazon’s Audiobook Creation Exchange, is the easiest way to go for most indie authors. By using it, your book will be for sale on Amazon, Audible and iTunes. That said, ACX is not as drop-dead simple as it should be.

ACX is a sort of marketplace where authors and rights holders can collaborate with narrators and producers to, in effect, self-publish audiobooks. Chances are, this is where you’ll find your narrator if you decide to go that route.

During the production process, you’ll be creating separate audio files for each chapter in your book, as well as front and back matter such as opening and closing credits, any dedication, epigraph and so on. ACX is picky about how each chapter sounds (including things like sound levels and ambient noise), so this should ideally be done in a production studio environment — or a quiet home office.

The author typically acts as a sort of producer-in-chief, so once you’ve completed Step 2 below and have the finished files in hand, you upload them one .mp3 file at a time to the ACX site via a Web interface. Once the staff at ACX reviews the quality, they either greenlight the title or kick it back to you for some tweaks. That’s what happened to us with my first audiobook, and narrator Denise Howell happily made the fixes. The review process took two weeks for my first audiobook and one week for book two, which is why you shouldn’t expect to have your audiobook ready for your book’s launch day.

I wrote about the ACX production process and showed off some screenshots in this post last year. The article also covers Whispersync, Amazon’s coolio technology that lets you read on your phone or device at breakfast, then get in your car and continue listening where you left off, and when you get home, cook dinner while listening on your Echo, all without losing your place.

Step 3: Choose a narrator

After you’ve written your masterwork, your most important decision comes down to who’s going to narrate the script. To save on costs, many authors choose to do it themselves, and if you have honey-coated pipes, time to spare and the right recording equipment (including a good desktop microphone), then go for it!

I went in a different direction. After all, in fiction a voice actor can lend extra depth to a manuscript through a range of voice ages, accents, dialects and genders — something that few authors can pull off.

If you hire a professional, your costs will depend on the length of your book and the hourly rate of your narrator. In my case, for book one I prevailed upon an old friend, Denise Howell, who knows a lot about audio production, given that she’s been hosting the This Week in Law podcast for years. Denise and I came to a financial arrangement where I paid her a lump sum for her narration work, so I’m out of pocket that sum but retain the rights to all royalties going forward (see Step 3), less ACX’s take.

For book two, I decided, like a good startup founder, to do some A-B testing. So I chose a male narrator after reviewing several narrators’ short audio auditions on ACX. You can request sample narrations of one of your chapters, and a half dozen people applied. You get to hear how your work sounds when read by somebody else. In my case, I thought the Audible narrations by Tom Taverna were a good fit for a thriller. We collaborated through ACX and over email exchanges. We agreed to split the royalties, so I paid no production costs. Audible gets 60% share of sales, while Tom and I each get 20% of the royalties. Audible sets its own prices, and you’ll get more from the sale of an audiobook than an ebook.

I’ll know in a year or two which approach — flat payment vs. royalty split — was the better option.

Step 4: Give your book a ‘proof-listen’

You know how valuable beta readers and/or proofreaders are before publishing your manuscript? The same principle applies to your audiobook. Alas, even though you’re offloading the work of narrating the book, you’ll still need to listen to every spoken word of it. As your narrator records chapters, or perhaps all at once, she’ll send you the completed chapters in the ACX dashboard for you to approve. You’ll want to listen and make detailed notes. Did she mispronounce the name of a character or city? Did she skip over a sentence? This is your chance to “proof-listen” to your audio samples. Both of my books were 11 hours in length, plus it took time to run through two rounds of fixes, so you’ll need to set aside a full day or two.

Step 5: Choose a distribution platform/retail store

When self-publishing for the first time, every indie author needs to decide whether to go wide or choose Kindle Direct Publishing as well as its KDP Select option, which scores you access to Amazon’s millions of subscribers to Kindle Unlimited. I published both my thrillers, Biohack and Catch and Kill, in Kindle Unlimited (which costs subscribers $9.99 a month).

And now we see the same bifurcation occur in the audiobook world. Audible, owned by Amazon, is the big kahuna, with tons of subscribers paying $14.95 a month for access to its catalog of audiobooks. Unlike the all-you-can-eat buffet of Kindle Unlimited, Audible subscribers are given a credit for one audiobook a month, and you own all Audible audiobooks in your library even if you cancel your subscription, plus you get access to two of six Audible Originals on the first Friday of every month for no additional cost. For authors, if you choose to go with ACX in Step 2, then Audible in Step 5 is part of the bargain.

For those who choose another route, you can opt for a service such as Findaway Voices (in partnership with Draft2Digital, Author’s Republic or other small platforms, which generally let authors set their own prices and distribute their audiobooks across multiple retail channels. One additional downside of using the ACX-Audible duopoly: Your audiobook won’t be available to library listeners.

Step 6: Spread the word

Once you’re live on retail sites like Audible and iTunes, it’s time to spread the word! If you’re already past your book launch, do you need to create another marketing campaign all over again? Probably not. But you should try to get the audiobook into the hands of audiobook lovers in your genre. Start by claiming the 50 free promo codes that ACX provides you — 25 for U.S. Audible listeners and 25 for U.K. residents.

Next, you’ll need some initial reviews, so go ahead and pony up $12 to take advantage of the mailing list built up by Audiobook Boom!. They’ll circulate your title in their weekly newsletter, and within a couple of days you’ll likely have more than 50 names and email addresses in your Audiobook Boom spreadsheet waiting for you to contact them. For instance, they have 2,600 subscribers signed up for mysteries, 2,500 for thrillers and 1,500 for romance. In return for listening to your audiobook for free, they agree to post a review. (Note that none of your Amazon reviews carry over to your Audible book page.) Importantly, these folks are not just freebie-seekers; you get to check out the audiobook reviews they’ve left for other titles on Audible.

Ready to enter the audiobook world?

No doubt about it, audiobooks are here to stay. And here’s one final interesting trend: Thirty percent of frequent audiobook listeners report using their voice-enabled personal digital assistant, such as Amazon Echo or Google Home, to read an audiobook out loud.

So should you take the plunge or not? Written Word Media advises: “Producing an audiobook runs into the thousands of dollars or requires giving up significant royalties and is still a significant investment for authors. New authors who find the price tag too steep are best off focusing on building their catalog of ebooks first. Authors who are looking to invest in their publishing business should definitely have audiobook expansion on their list.”

Smart advice.

J.D. Lasica

J.D. Lasica

JD Lasica is the author of the high-tech thrillers “Biohack” and “Catch and Kill.” His author site is at