Audiobook Options for Indie Authors (and when it’s worth paying for production yourself)

| Posted in New Author Series, Tips and Tricks |


I’m gradually getting my library of books out in audiobook form. Some of these books are being published through Podium Publishing, some I’m doing through ACX, and some of the older ones were done through an independent production company, Darkfire Productions. For those indie authors who are interested in increasing their income by getting their books out in audiobook format, I’m going to talk about the pros and cons of each of these methods and when it makes sense to pursue them.

1. Getting Picked up by an Audiobook Publisher

star-nomad-audiobookIn the last couple years, I’ve seen more audiobook publishers contacting indie authors who have a series selling well. That’s the catch, of course. Unless you have an agent to shop things around for you, you’ll probably have to wait for these publishers to contact you.

But what if they contact you, and you were planning to do your audiobooks on your own? You have to decide whether the deal sounds like a good one and what the value add is.

Some of the main names out there are Tantor, Podium Publishing (for science fiction and fantasy), and Audible itself. Anywhere from a 10%-35% royalty (this is 10-35% of what they earn, not of the sale price of the audiobook) seems typical with advances from the low hundreds to the low thousands (I’m basing these numbers on what I’ve seen for myself and what a handful of other authors, mostly science fiction and fantasy, have told me). Some publishers won’t offer an advance but will do a higher royalty. They will cover all the production costs, which can be substantial (more on that below).

In addition to covering production costs, what do publishers add?

Publishers usually have some methods of promoting ebooks beyond just hoping for the best. As indies, it’s tough to promo audiobooks the way we can with ebooks, because there aren’t many sites that plug them and we can’t price pulse for sales (we can’t control the price at all). For running sales, the best we can hope for is for Amazon to enable Whispersync and let a listener who already has the ebook buy the audiobook for a significantly lower price. (Right now, I’ve got Star Nomad at 99 cents for the ebook, and people who buy it can pick up the audiobook for $2.99 when it’s usually 1 credit at Audible or $30 without that deal.)

That said, publishers don’t always seem to do much for audiobook promotion. It’s probably going to depend how much they have invested in you and how much potential upside they see in the title.

Publisher usually submit the audiobooks to the various industry places where they might be eligible for awards, which may help create a little buzz. It’s possible that we can submit books as indies, but it’s not something I’ve looked into, so I don’t know (feel free to comment if you know more). It’s nice having someone else handle that, though, in addition to the production.

Are there downsides to going with an audiobook publisher?

As with the print world, you’ll have less control. With my books, Podium Publishing has always asked for the original artwork and based their audiobook covers on that. They’ve done some tweaking, and I’ve been happy with the results, but depending on the publisher, you might not have much say when it comes to cover. Or you may not care for the tweaks they make.

It’s also likely that you’ll have limited input when it comes to the narrator, and finding a good narrator is huge with audiobooks. The publishers work with professionals, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll pick someone who has a voice that you imagine working well with the voice of your book. On the flip side, if you produce your audiobook through ACX (currently only available to U.S. authors), you’ll be able to put a few pages out for auditions and may get as many as a hundred people submitting samples. You should be able to find the perfect person for your work.

dragon-blood-omnibus-audiobookWhether you go with a publisher or go on your own, you probably won’t get rich off audiobook sales, even with an audiobook that sticks for a while and sells well. Not everybody gets a big promo push from their publisher, and I’ve heard from a lot of people that they didn’t even make back their (relatively low) advances. But if you have a few audiobooks out in a series that’s selling moderately well, getting an extra thousand or two a month isn’t out of the question. Typically, your ebook sales will dwarf your audiobook sales and still be your main bread winner since you’re getting a much higher cut of each sale, but there’s nothing wrong with adding some income on the side and being available and discoverable in more places.

Producing an Audiobook on your Own through ACX

As I said, Podium Publishing has done several of my books now, including the first five Dragon Blood books (more coming), my Forgotten Ages omnibus, the first Fallen Empire book (more coming), and they’re also working on an omnibus for my pen name. There’s enough work and time that goes into selecting a narrator, having them produce the chapters, and proofing the chapters that I’ve been happy to give them the rights to books they’ve asked for. Since I’m a prolific author, I know it would take me ages to get all these novels out there.

Publishers, however, are usually going to be more interested in recent releases that are selling well. So, what happens if you have older books or series that you would like to see in audiobook form? Or if you just want to have full control?

torrent-audiobookACX is definitely an option (as I mentioned, you have to be in the U.S. right now, but hopefully, they’ll open up to everyone eventually). You’ll foot all the upfront costs, but you’ll keep a bigger cut on each sale (currently 40% of retail sales if you’re exclusive with them, which means you’ll be in Amazon and Apple and 25% if you’re not exclusive — note, my first three Emperor’s Edge audiobooks were first published on Podiobooks for free, so I get the lower cut on those).

You’ll also be eligible for “bounty payments.” That means: “ACX pays Rights Holder and Producer $50 every time the audiobook is the first audiobook purchased by an AudibleListener™ member on Audible. The $50 payment is split 50-50 between Rights Holder and Producer, amounting to $25 each.”

I just published my third novel and fourth title with ACX, and it’s rare for me to see those bounty payments, so I wouldn’t count on that money.

So, how much does it cost to produce an audiobook through ACX? You’ll pay per finished hour (it may take a narrator and producer 5+ hours to get one finished hour), so the longer the book, the more you’ll pay. I just published my fourth Emperor’s Edge audiobook, after a long gap in production and a narrator switch, and it was about $5,000 for 14-odd hours. My narrator is on the higher end for ACX ($200-$400 per finished hour is typical), but comes with a producer, and they make a really clean book. My proof “listeners” haven’t had to make many notes. Torrent, the first audiobook I did through ACX, wasn’t quite as daunting price-wise, since it was about 9 hours for the complete book. It’s still a big chunk of change, and, here’s the biggie: you really need to consider whether you’re going to earn back your money any time soon.

conspiracy-audiobookAs I mentioned before, audiobook earnings aren’t usually huge, and it’s hard to know how to promote them — there aren’t big lists of sponsorship sites and pricing tricks you can use the way you can with ebooks. Your best bet right now is basically to try to get promos on the ebooks and make sure those keep selling, because some of the people surfing to your Amazon page will be audiobook fans and might pick it up if it’s an option.

When you’re doing an older series, maybe one where you’ve closed things off and completed it years ago, it may be even tougher to earn back the cost of production. My Emperor’s Edge series is the first thing I ever published, and it has some loyal fans, but I’ve already run Book 1 and the boxed set through the various promo sites many times, so it can be a challenge to have a good run with it and get it back into the Top 100s on Amazon. I’m honestly not sure if these audiobooks will earn out. I’ve having new covers made that will debut early next year, and that may help me get some new eyeballs on the series, but I’m also considering doing a limited time Patreon campaign to fund the last few books in the series. I make enough from ebooks that I can afford to lose money producing the audiobooks, but I’d rather not, since that doesn’t make much business sense!

I haven’t mentioned yet that there’s another way to finance the production of your ACX audiobooks: a royalty split with the narrator.

If you don’t have money to use up front, you can put your book out there and hope a good narrator will be interested in the split option. Then you’ll be sharing your 40% earnings with them for the next seven years. The challenge here is that it’s going to be rare for a high quality narrator with a quality setup to want to take on a royalty split gig, considering how much work goes into producing an audiobook. They may do it if you’re a bigger name author or it’s clear that you have a hit on your hands, but if that’s the case, you’re earning enough in ebook sales that you probably don’t need to do a royalty split. (And if your book continues to sell well, you may regret giving away half the royalties as time goes on.)

Another Option: Independent Audiobook Producers

For those who aren’t in the U.S. and can’t do ACX, another option is to find an independent audiobook producer. This (and recording your books yourself) was the main way it was done before ACX came on the scene and before more audiobook publishers started looking for indie authors to work with. With these guys, you’ll pay for the narrator and the production, the same as with ACX, and then they’ll negotiate with Audible to get your books into their store.

I’m afraid I don’t have a big list of producers that I can point you to, but Darkfire Productions did my first three Emperor’s Edge audiobooks several years ago. I would have likely kept going with them, but my narrator got busy and couldn’t continue on, and I decided to put things on pause at that point. Originally, I’d started producing the series so it could go out free on Podiobooks (like a podcast) to help with growing an audience, so I wasn’t making that much from sales.

For those who are interested in this route, it’s going to be just as expensive as ACX, if not more so, so make sure you have your pennies set aside.

My Audiobook Earnings

For those who are curious about such things, this is about how my audiobook earnings broke down for the last year. These series are very different, and some of these books are older and poorer sellers and vice versa (my ACX numbers would surely look very different if I’d done my Dragon Blood or Fallen Empire series there), so there’s not much use in doing an across-the-board earnings comparison, but I’ll share anyway.

Podium Publishing ~ $18,000

The Dragon Blood Omnibus Amazon | Apple

Patterns in the Dark (DB4)

The Blade’s Memory (DB5)

The Forgotten Ages Saga Amazon | Apple

Star Nomad Amazon | Apple

Tantor (hasn’t earned out 2015 advance)

Stars Across Time (pen name stand alone) Amazon | Not on Apple

ACX ~ $3,500

Torrent (Rust & Relics 1) Amazon | Apple

Destiny Unchosen (novella)

Thornfall (R&R2)

Conspiracy (EE4) (just published so doesn’t figure into earnings yet)

Darkfire Productions ~ $1,000 (no new titles since 2012)

The Emperor’s Edge Amazon| Apple

Dark Currents (EE2)

Deadly Games (EE3)

The Final Verdict

Here are my final opinions, now that I’ve done audiobooks three ways:

If an audiobook publisher approaches you, and you’re busy with writing and life and don’t mind giving up some control, it’s worth saying yes and handing over the rights for them to produce the book.

If nobody has approached you or you want full control over the process, then ACX is an option. But, unless you have money to burn, I’d only recommend it for titles that are already selling well in ebook form (probably sub 10,000 overall in the Kindle Store). It’s not impossible for an audiobook to take off even if the ebook didn’t (Torrent actually sells fairly well for me, given that it’s never been a big ebook seller and I haven’t published a new installment in the series for several years), especially if it has a great cover, but chances are, you’re not going to earn back your investment on books that sell less than 100 ebooks a month.

What are your thoughts? Have you done audiobooks? How have they done for you?

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Comments (12)

Hi Lindsay,
I was one of Podium’s first indie authors. And though I have made quite a bit of money with them, I would like to add that when choosing a publisher it’s important to understand how to compare rates.
If Podium or Tantor is competing with Audible, their rate needs to be somewhat higher. Precisely how much higher I’m not sure. I had the figures previously, but can’t remember where I saved them. But it should be easy to find online.
The reason being, Audible owns the platform. Other publishers get a percentage from which they pay out royalties. So, 15% of their cut will be lower than Audibles 15%. This naturally would not apply to Itunes.
Anyway…love your work. Hope we can run into one another one of these days.

Oh, yeah. I should mention that where audio was only a small percentage of my earnings, I now see six figures per year. It’s by far the fastest growing market I’m into.

Thanks for stopping by, Brian! Congratulations on your success with audiobooks!

That’s a great point on the contracts — from what I’ve heard of Audible, they’re putting together some nice offers for authors too.

Just a slight correction: ACX is available in the UK as well as the US nowadays. I don’t think it’s rolled out anywhere else, though.

Good news. Thanks, Russel!

I’ve gone through ACX. Like you said, it’s a bit of gamble. I chose to produce the first book in a series last October so the book was simultaneously released on Kindle and audio. It’s definitely earned out and I produced the next three books in the series as well. The Kindle versions generally hang out around the top 1-4k ranks on Amazon, and my income from audiobooks ends up being about 15-20% of my gross book earnings. Definitely worth it for me to do ACX with that series, but like you, I’d only recommend doing it if you have a strong inclination your series is going to sell well. Each book in the series, at the ranks I mentioned, takes about 3-4 months to pay off its own production costs. Really happy to have taken this risk, as it was money I would’ve left on the table otherwise.

That’s awesome, Anthony, and I bet it really helped releasing the audio at the same time as the ebook. A lot of us wait to see how things will do, and by then, the books have dropped in ranking and we’ve already missed a lot of potential sales.

Thanks, Lindsay! Have been thinking about audio books and your analysis helps me decide when it’s best to jump in.

Where the royalty share option pays dividends is with niche or slower-selling titles.

If we are able use the royalty-share option to get an audio-book version out there at zero up-front costs that otherwise would not be produced as an audio-book at all it’s really a no-brainer.

X-percent of something is infinitely preferable to 100% of nothing.

At the production level all we author have to do is listen to the auditions, choose the right one, and check the quality of the work as it rolls in. Add a cover and we’ve a new income stream, however small it may be.

ACX royalty-share is a great way to test the water for audio-interest, but beware using a first of series this way unless we are happy to have the whole series locked into Audible-iTunes.

Royalty share requires seven years exclusivity and at best we get these two outlets.The biggest sure, but OverDrive is making big strides and there are lots of other audio outlets.

Who knows when Amazon may decide sending audio-books to Apple is maybe not in their best interest and it becomes an Amazon/Audible show?

In any case no point going wide with the latter half of a series if the first half is only available from Amazon/Apple.

The aggregator PublishDrive (great ebook distribution and analytics) is currently sounding out indies for interest and may well be distributing audio-books next year.

Check out AuthorsRepublic as an alternative to ACX if you have produced and own your audiobook rights yourself.

They distribute much more widely, and include Audible and Amazon as retailer partners.

I just finished your 3rd Fallen Empire book on Audible, congrats on getting Kate Reading to read for you, she’s one of the best out there. I’ve always wondered how the business side worked with Audible, great write up and looking forward to book 4 whenever it comes out.

Thanks for listening, Sean! Podium Publishing is working on Books 4-6 now. 🙂

[…] I also read this post from Lindsay Buroker detailing how a couple of different companies have been approaching indie writers and licensing the audio rights to their books. This meant that I now suddenly could add Option Five to the list of four options previously: […]

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