BookWorks' Book of the Week and Featured Author, Steven Ramirez, is one of our active followers on Twitter so we happened to catch the recent announcement of his new audiobook release. Though our blog Team has covered this exploding medium previously, we were keen to hear about a member's direct experience with audiobook production. Steven agreed, so here is his "from the field" report...author-to-author.
Last year, I decided to take the plunge and create an audiobook of my romantic comedy, Chainsaw Honeymoon. Like many of you reading this article, I was new to this market and quickly realized I had a lot to learn about audiobook production. In thinking about the novel, I felt there were two main challenges. First, the story is told mostly by a precocious thirteen-year-old named Ruby. From a narration perspective, this creates a problem because, as far as I know, there are not a lot of teenage narrators out there. Secondly, the tone of the book is satirical. That meant the narrator had to be very good at smart comedy. Fortunately, I found someone who fit the bill nicely—Valerie Mirarchi (www.valerievoiceover.com).
If you checked out my featured titles above, you’re probably wondering why I chose a romantic comedy, considering I’ve published a horror trilogy. Simple. It was because the idea of jumping into the production of a trilogy seemed daunting for two reasons. First, I had never done this before. Second, if I were to do it, I would have to ensure the same narrator was available for all three books since I wrote them in the first person. What I needed was a one-off novel, and Chainsaw Honeymoon seemed like a good choice.
Here are some things I learned along the way. If you’ve decided you want to create an audiobook, feel free to use these notes as research. There are many ways to get the job done, and you might very well discover a better way. Also, keep in mind that I chose to go with ACX and cannot speak to other audiobook marketplaces.
Choosing Your Platform
There are several audiobook companies out there, the two most popular being ACX (which is owned by Amazon) and Findaway Voices. In choosing one, you should make your decision based on several criteria, the first being how much you can afford. Narrators set their prices, and they vary. I’ve seen rates of $300 per finished hour (PFH) and up.
Both ACX and Findaway Voices offer a PFH model. Also, ACX offers a royalty share option, which means you and your narrator share the royalties each time someone purchases a copy or listens using their Audible subscription. And here’s a bonus. With ACX, you can request Audible claim codes, which allows you to give away copies of your audiobook to reviewers (more on that at the end).
Another thing you should consider is audience reach. When signing with ACX, you have access to Audible and iTunes only. Audible distributes to the US, UK, France, and Germany. On their website, Findaway Voices claims they make your work available to “more than 30 audiobook retailers” in several regions around the world. If you feel your book has international appeal, you might want to consider going that route instead. Whichever way you decide to go, you must have an audiobook cover, which is square.
Chainsaw Honeymoon is around 54,000 words, which translated to six hours, fifty-six minutes of recorded audio. Let’s say that, conservatively, I was able to find a narrator for $300 PFH. That works out to around $2,100, which unfortunately was beyond my budget. As a result, I decided to go with ACX and use their royalty share model. Not all narrators adhere to this arrangement, though.
Why Not Record Your Book Yourself?
So right about now, you’re probably thinking, “Hey, why don’t I save my money and record my book myself? I mean, after all, I wrote the damn thing.” I originally thought the same thing. But beware! Recording your book is not for the faint-hearted. Here are three questions you should ask yourself before merrily prancing down the path that leads directly to quicksand.
—Can I act? Okay, being the official class clown in middle school won’t help you. A good narrator is an accomplished actor who can deliver a performance. On top of that, they can also provide several nuanced, slightly different readings per your direction. And finally, they can easily adapt to male and female voices.
—Am I willing to invest in a recording studio? This point is huge. Although you don’t need to spend thousands, you’re going to be into this thing for upwards of five hundred to a thousand bucks, which includes an excellent microphone and headphones, sound-dampening foam, and possibly a teleprompter. And guess what. A professional narrator has already made this investment for you. Of course, you could always rent a studio. Here in LA, you can find one for $100 per hour, which includes a sound engineer. I do not recommend this approach since you could find yourself burning through cash.
—Do I feel competent to edit audio files? No one delivers a perfect reading the first time. In producing an audiobook, you find yourself recording multiple takes and cutting everything together to make an outstanding recording. Sound editing is a skill. Are you willing to take the time to learn it well?
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Choosing Your Narrator
One thing I’ve learned as an indie author is that it’s critical to control the process of producing a book by ensuring the quality is consistent throughout. That means hiring a competent editor and cover designer. The challenge with audiobook production is, you are introducing additional “talent” to the process. And, because these artists are acting out your book, they automatically bring their interpretation to the performance.
ACX allows you to sample narrators’ performances. First, you filter the list by qualities such as “Gender,” “Compensation,” “Vocal Style,” and “Audible Approved.” At this point, I had already decided I wanted a female narrator for reasons previously discussed. After listening to perhaps two dozen samples, I narrowed the list down to fewer than ten people. Then, I sent each of them a message letting them know I was interested in having them audition. Note that you don’t need to do this. Once you post your project on ACX, narrators—producers, actually—can find it.
Those who responded positively produced a short audition recording based on pages I had provided. I listened to each and ultimately made my decision purely on their performance. It’s important to create an audition script that reflects a wide range of scenes and characters to get a sense of how the producer handles them. As an example, my book features accents that include Mexican, German, Yiddish, and Romanian. What can I say? I live in LA.
Earlier, I said that it’s nearly impossible to find a teenage narrator. The best I could hope for was a producer who could sound young. Of course, they also had to perform men’s and other adult women’s voices. Fortunately, I found Valerie.
The Recording Process
Once you’ve settled on your producer, you can assume they have a studio and can deliver finished audio tracks. Though I would have liked working with Valerie in person, she’s based in New York. Everything turned out fine, though. We were able to collaborate effectively over email. In the future, though, I’m planning to try Skype for production meetings, since I like seeing who I am working with.
I used to write screenplays and have worked with lots of actors over the years. A good actor brings the words on the page to life, but not necessarily in the way you expect. When I wrote Chainsaw Honeymoon, I could hear the words in my head down to the inflections the characters used. Unless everything in your book is spelled out phonetically, there could be differences in how a producer delivers a line. And that’s a good thing. Often, actors bring out things in your work you never knew were there. That said, if you feel a particular inflection is essential, make sure to italicize the word in the script.
Keeping this in mind, I decided to give Valerie free reign in interpreting the book and only jumped in with specific notes when either the character’s accent felt off, or the wrong word was emphasized, thereby changing the line’s meaning. Because she was going chapter by chapter, I could review as we went along. If there was a change, she could record a “pickup” and insert it into the sentence, rather than re-recording the entire line. I made a conscious effort not to get caught up in minutia if the essence of the line was intact. There were several times when Valerie either inserted a word, left one out, or changed a word. Because the line still sounded fine, I didn’t worry about it.
Here’s something else—and this turns out to be a blessing in disguise. Even when books are copyedited and proofed, pesky little errors can still sneak in there. Valerie recorded a line that sounded dead wrong. When I went back to my manuscript, I discovered—to my horror—that she had read it perfectly. It was the book that was wrong. So, instead of leaving in the bad line, I corrected it and asked her to rerecord it.
Recently, I listened to an audiobook narrated by a well-known actor. This thing was beautifully produced and included lush incidental music. I thought about adding music to my project, but again, this was my first one, and I felt I already had plenty to worry about. If you think music will help tell your story, I encourage you to consider it, though it does add the extra complication of clearing the rights.
Here is the process Valerie and I followed to create the audiobook. Valerie would record several chapters over a few days and post them to ACX. Using headphones, I would then carefully listen and make notes in a PDF version of the manuscript. Valerie would make the changes, and I would review and approve them. Keep in mind that the recording and editing overlapped. In other words, Valerie didn’t wait for my comments before recording new chapters. And here’s a tip: make sure to listen for background noise. As good as a producer is, every once in a while, you can hear the squeak of a chair or some other random sound. Hey, it happens.
My Audiobook Production: Final Thoughts
Valerie submitted her audition in late July. We began working on the audiobook in August, and by the time ACX approved the project, Chainsaw Honeymoon went on sale in late October. I would advise you not to be concerned about the timing. I’ve learned that audiobook production is nearly as time-intensive as publishing the actual novel. Take all the time you need to ensure the best quality, and you’ll be happier with the result.
One last thing to remember about ACX—they require you to sign an exclusive contract that spans seven years. That means if you’re not happy halfway through the contract term and feel you could do better somewhere else, you'll end up fighting Amazon. To my knowledge, Findaway Voices offers no such exclusivity language in their contract, but ALWAYS check before signing anything.
I hope you find this helpful for your own audiobook production. Good luck and, most importantly, have fun!
Special Bonus! If you’d like to hear the final product for yourself, you’re in luck. I’m giving away free Audible coupon codes for Chainsaw Honeymoon to the first 25 BookWorks members in both US & UK. Contact me via https://stevenramirez.com/contact-me/ and include the word BWauthor in your message. If I don’t respond, that means the codes have all been given out. Good luck!
Steven Ramirez is the author of the acclaimed horror thriller series Tell Me When I’m Dead and a new paranormal mystery series, Sarah Greene Mysteries, debuting this summer. A former screenwriter responsible for the funny, bloody, and action-packed movie Killers, he has also published Chainsaw Honeymoon, a satirical romantic comedy, and Come As You Are, a horror collection. Both are available as audiobooks at Audible and iTunes. Steven lives in Los Angeles. He enjoys Mike and Ikes with his Iced Caffè Americano, doesn’t sleep on planes, and wishes Europe were closer.