Ian here — that bald Californian with the sideburns lurking at the back of most Byte The Book events.
I’ve learned quite a bit from Byte and made some amazing contacts and friends to boot. Recently I composed, (had) produced and launched my first audiobook, The Octopus Speaks! and thought I’d share the experience. I’m also offering 8 (spot the theme) free copies of the book to Byte The Book members.
For your chance of redemption (of a promo code, anyway) please hit the contact button above-right and put “Byte” in the subject line.
Back in my spoken word/performance poetry days I was sponsored for a one-man-show in San Francisco. The show was sadly cancelled due to my suffering a psychotic break the night before (in large part thanks to the anti-malarial drug mefloquin I’d been taking in Madagascar). The show was 90 minutes long and had never seen the internet. This past March I decided to put it out , but wasn’t sure what form would provide the best experience for the listener, and give me a fighting chance to turn a profit besides.
Because the show is comprised of bite-sized spoken word pieces, my first thought was to put it out as an album on streaming services like Spotify, Apple Music and Google Play. There are many players in this game but two of the bigger ones are Tunecore and CDBaby. The merits of each are another topic but one thing I learned in my album search is that 94% of songs on iTunes sell less than a hundred copies and each time a track is streamed on a streaming service, the artist is paid around £0.005. Which is boll*cks. In the end, seeing as the audiobook section of the publishing industry is booming — the Association of American Publishers reported that net audiobook revenue surged 29.5 percent in 2017 — I decided to turn the whole shebang, plus other bits, into an audiobook.
The book is highly personal — similar to a stand-up routine, I guess — and I wanted to retain full control. For this reason, I didn’t seek traditional avenues of publishing, audiobook or otherwise. I wondered if there was a viable alternative to Audible which is owned by our kindly overlords at Amazon. However, while the exact numbers are hard to nail down, I was told by a professional audiobook producer — at a Byte The Book event, no less — that Audible accounts for between 80-90% of all audiobook sales. If you’re a self-published author narrating your own book, you must submit to Audible through a company called ACX. Through ACX, Audible offer royalties of 40% of your cover price (which you don’t get to choose btw — they assign a price based on the length of your title. Mine ended up being £6.39). If you go non-exclusive it’s 25%. There is also the AL or allocation factor where, to quote the ACX website:
the royalty payment for a member (*of Audible) sale tends to be about one-half of the royalty payment for the regular price of the books sold. So, for example, the sale of a book to a member with a regular price of $30 and a royalty rate of 40%, multiplied by the Allocation Factor, would yield about $6.00. The Allocation Factor allows us to share all the revenue generated by members in a fair manner: for a given royalty rate, a book with a $30 regular price earns twice the royalty as a book with a regular $15 price.
ACX will also put your title on Amazon and iTunes. Seeing as this was pretty much the only game in town, I figured I’d give it a go. My budget was £500 all in. My aim was to, at the very least, recoup the cost of production. Best case scenario would be to dominate the audiobook market if not the entire planet with my octophilic, mythopoetic nonsense. A mollusc can dream.
First things first:
In order to put an audiobook up for sale on Audible, the same title must be available on Kindle. Since my experience with self-(re) publishing a novel through KDP was relatively easy, and moderately successful (several hundred in sales plus the title is forever back in print), I got to work. This meant I had to type and format my spoken word routines, write a preface and a couple intros. Even though I was familiar with the process it was still a bit of a headache. Because I wanted people to listen to the book rather than read it, I described the Kindle and paperback versions on their Amazon product page as scripts. (I did a paperback version because, well, as long as you have the noose around your neck you may as well jump off the horse)
Next up: cover design
To keep down costs, after some hard googling I found the following image on on a stock image website. Cheap as chips. I slapped on a title and: bish, bang, Bob’s your uncle! Right?
“Wow, that’s awful,” said the lovely graphic designer couple who live upstairs and whose flat I’d looked after for a month while they were in Australia. “We can take a crack if you’d like…”
Ever wonder out-loud what graphic designers do, or rubbished them for not being proper artists? Now is the time to grovel and beg forgiveness. And learn what vectors are…
Though I would now be watering the upstairs neighbors’ plants for years to come I was still on budget (and very happy with the cover). It was time for sound. If you don’t want to pay anything for your production, you can offer your book to ACX’s network of narrators and “studio professionals” and split the proceeds if one of them is interested. Otherwise you can find a narrator and studio you like, pay a one-time production fee and maintain all rights. The average cost of this is around £150 per finished hour (most audiobooks are around 10 hours long). But this octopus wanted to do it himself. So, after skimming an article entitled,
…I felt pretty confident I could record the thing myself.
To that end I filled the closet with bolsters off the couch (to baffle sound) plugged a USB microphone into my laptop, fired up Garage Band and off I went. According to ACX guidelines, each “chapter” must be uploaded as a separate file. Once I had a few pieces recorded I sent them to ACX to make sure I was on the right track.
“You’re off to a great start,” they said,
“…but there are improvements needed before we'd consider you ready for audiobook production. Below are the issues to address:
“The mastering levels of this file are outside of our requirements. This file's RMS level is -27.3 dB RMS. The peak level of this file is -0.2 dB. ACX requires that submitted files measure at an RMS level between -23dB and -18dB, with a maximum peak level of -3dB….”
At which point I had a little cry. This was not my wheelhouse.
A couple weeks later, I went to the London Book Fair (my entry ticket courtesy of, You guessed it, Byte The Book)
At Byte’s (clearly not a)…
…Circle of Reciprocity, I stuck a post-it note to the wall reading, “I need help producing and marketing an audiobook.” Soon I was talking to an audiobook producer who works with all the major publishers. He told me even his productions sometimes got flagged over Audible’s exacting technical requirements. He also told me that his studio charged around £450/hour, which included an engineer, proper formatting and a finished product. He also said a good narrator will take twice the amount of time it takes to record a book as it does to listen to one. Even though my book would only end up being 90 minutes, this would decimate my budget. Was there a friends and family discount?, I wondered.
(*Full disclosure: this photo is from 2018)
Unfortunately, we then started talking Brexit and, Both Ideologically and geographically, he chose to leave, while I chose to remain. What to do?
Determined to find a middle ground, I googled “east london recording studio” and found The Recording Studio London based in West Ham, not far from me. Music-orientated, they had never done an audiobook before but seemed unfazed by ACX’s specs. I’m pretty sure other music studios would be up for the challenge. Recording Studio London charged a very reasonable £45/hour which included both an engineer and assurance that my book would be accepted by ACX. I rehearsed my various voices a few days then off I went to the studio.
One of the major lessons I’ve learned at Byte is that, when going independent, if you’re not a PR person, hire/consult a PR person. If you’re not an editor, hire/consult an editor. And, if you’re not a sound engineer…
Sam “constructs beats” for a living. I told Sam that ACX had advised me against me using sound effects (as they often led to bad reviews for sound quality) but that I wanted — needed! — to have actual bells and whistles. As well as a campfire, breaking waves, two distinct instances of flatulence (one squeaky, one profound), a ticking clock, a slot machine, a pig squeal…
Sam’s reply at left.
Sam put me in tiny, soundproof room with my laptop and a quality mic and let me do my thing. He made sure my shouting voice was of equal volume as my (ooh yeah, baby) sexy voice. If I flubbed a line or wanted to re-record something, Sam very quickly backed up the recording and had me read aloud the sentence prior, over the mistake, and continue along. This was seamless, and something I was incapable of doing in my closet without brushing against the wires.
The downside of my ridiculous, theatrical vision was it took seven hours of recording to get my ninety minutes. Even so, I came in well under budget and got to have my sound effects — something I wouldn’t have had time for in the major audiobook studio. Sam recorded my poems as high resolution WAV files which he then converted (“bounced” say the pros) to MP3’s. These I submitted one by one to the ACX website directly from the studio. Though it may sound complicated, this part of the process was very straightforward.
Another thing I learned from the mainstream audiobook producer is to record in two-hour blocks and no more than four hours per day. This saves your voice from getting (and sounding) tired. Sam and I recorded over the course of two days. I asked Sam about editing out the sound of my inhales but he said breathing makes the production sound more natural. I think he’s right. If I could have done anything different it would have been for Sam to e-mail me the finished MP3 files to upload to ACX from home, as this took over an hour of my total studio time.
I should also mention the fabulous Josephine
The only female voice I can do is an elderly, white, working-class Englishwoman, which my wife says is racist. If there’s one thing I’ve learned at Byte The Book: if you’re not a woman…
Josephine Buchan is a singing coach, theater impresario, documentary filmmaker, former TV presenter and a very good friend of mine. Her narrative contribution was brilliant and added a touch of class to the production. One listener even thought she was two different people! If you’re not a confident narrator, I definitely think you should hire one. Josephine’s advice was to keep everyone involved in the production sweet. To that end I brought Sam fresh-baked muffins, made Josephine huevos rancheros for lunch beforehand and am trying to source her some discontinued high-end bath soap (nightmare).
After the production was done I waited to see if ACX would accept the audiobook, which they said takes between 10-14 days. I have to say ACX’s customer service was timely and excellent, both on the phone and via e-mail. They told me the most common mistakes people make are to the title/beginning credits which must be exactly the same as your Kindle version, and to the closing credits which must end with “The End”.
A week later ACX sent me a personal email saying,
“Congratulations on a great production!”
In other words, they turn you into a shill for Audible.
“Hey, check out my audiobook, I think you’d really like it. What, you don’t have an Audible account? Well for just £7.99 a month you too can have access to all these great titles. Plus, if you use this here URL…”
This part I am not so keen on. It turns out most of my friends and family are not on Audible, nor are many people in the industry (or members of Byte The Book!) However, I am getting more traction in the States where people spend more time on long car journeys. According to Byte The Book’s own audiobook event, in 2016 “The US audiobook market turned over $1.7 billion (the UK figure is estimated to be somewhere around £100 million).” Seeing as I came in under budget I decided to run a trial-balloon advertising campaign with one of the world’s biggest advertisers: Facebook. I’m also contacting various bloggers, vloggers and influencer-types, and running a Google adwords campaign. As most of you know, it’s a hard slog. Still, I believe I have a great product, the sound quality is rock solid, and so far the reviews and response have been great.
I hope you have enjoyed my audiobook journey! For more of my cephalopodic nonsense, please click around this website and hit the contact button at the top right corner of the page for a promo code. Supplies are limited! I’m also happy to answer any and all questions concerning the experience. And don’t forget: