Audiobook sales have outgrown both ebook and paper book sales for the last several years. For the last 11 years, audiobooks have seen double-digit sales growth year over year. The audiobook market is now $1.8 billion. For comparison, the Kindle Unlimited pot in 2022 was around half a billion dollars. That means, for every dollar spent on KU ebooks, roughly $4.00 are spent on audiobooks.
Many authors earn more money from their audiobooks than paper and ebooks combined. In fact, in some months, I make more money from Audiobook than I do from my ebook and paper book.
This means recording and publishing an audiobook is no longer an optional.
If your book isn’t in audio, readers assume it isn’t good enough to merit an audiobook. Some readers interpret the lack of an audiobook to mean that even the paperback isn’t worth reading. Failing to offer an audiobook at the time of your book launch hurts your overall book sales. Not only do you miss out on audiobook sales, but you also potentially hurt your ebook and paperback sales as well.
- You know you need an audiobook, but how do you make it happen?
- Should you read it yourself or hire a narrator?
- Where do you even start?
I recently interviewed Scott Sigler, a #1 New York Times bestselling author who has recorded and published his own audiobooks and worked with professional narrators. He has seen success as a traditionally published author, an indie author, and as a podcaster.
Thomas Umstattd, Jr.: Scott, you’re a bit unique in that you’re the first of a new generation of writers who write with an audio-first mindset. Fifty years ago, people weren’t thinking about how a sentence would sound when read aloud by a narrator.
How do you write a book that sounds good as an audiobook?
Scott Sigler: It takes several steps.
Omit Needless Words
I learned the first step while recording my own audiobooks, which I released via my podcast. I used to be a more verbose writer, and frankly, I was impressed with my ability to describe, set the scene, and provide details.
When I started to read my own books out loud, I discovered I was getting bored reading certain parts. That’s when I started cutting the fat from my own writing.
Read the Book Aloud
The second part of that process was that I had to listen to every single word I’d written and read and then edit the whole audiobook.
Again, when I listened to my own recording, I got bored in certain places.
Today, when I write a book, I’ve got a much better eye-to-ear ratio for understanding how it’s going to sound.
Listen to the Book
The last step of my editing process, before I mark a chapter as a final draft, is to have Scrivener or Microsoft Word read that chapter back to me with the computer voice.
Even at that late stage in the editing process, I still hear things that are repeated and need to be cut. I’ll hear instances where I’ve used the same word too close together or two similar words that make the paragraph sound confusing. I’m much more attuned to seeing things that sound bad.
Even though it’s absolutely correct on the page, if it sounds weird to listeners, it will pull them out of the story long enough for them to remember that they’re reading. With my writing style, I aim to get you rolling into the story and remove all the “speed bumps.” I want nothing to remind you you’re reading or listening to an audiobook. I want you lost in the story.
Those three steps have impacted my style, which revolves around audiobooks.
When I narrate my own books, we also change things on the fly. In the recording booth, I’ll tell my producer, “Change this line because it didn’t sound right when it came out of my mouth.”
Thomas: When I was in Little League, my coach didn’t let us practice on the fancy Little League fields, and we hated him for it.
He took us to an old, broken-down field that was all weeds and rocks. He told us, “If you can learn to catch a grounder on this field, you’ll have no trouble catching a grounder in the game on a better field.”
The same principle holds true for writing. If your book can sound good when read by the monotone text-to-speech accessibility feature on your computer, then it will sound great when read by a professional narrator or you. It’s such a powerful technique, and it doesn’t cost money. Every computer made in the last 20 years has text-to-speech functionality that’s monotone and terrible.
Recently, the computer’s voice has started to sound more human, but for this editing technique, you want Siri’s monotone. If it sounds good when read by a robot, you’ll know your book is ready to be recorded by a professional.
Why would you read it yourself when you could hire a professional?
Thomas: You’re a successful author and can hire professional narrators, so why would you read it yourself when you could hire a professional?
Scott: I used to read everything myself because I couldn’t hire a professional.
I initially read my first four full-length novels and released them as podcasts. The podcast was the gist of everything. I thought that would bring publishers to me, so I got good at reading audiobooks. I wouldn’t say I’m a pro, but there is something magical about the author reading his story to you.
Even if you’re not the best voice actor, the audience is very forgiving because they love hearing from the author.
I’ve recorded maybe a dozen full-length audiobooks now, and I’ve just gotten better over time. I think I can deliver the audiobooks quite well.
However, if I’m in the recording studio for three weeks, that means I’m not writing or editing my next book. So, there’s an opportunity cost for me to record my own books. I was writing and releasing two novels, a novella, and maybe some short stories every year. To record each of those myself would require eight weeks, which meant I couldn’t write and release new work as fast as I’d like.
I don’t rush through the writing, but when I’m not in front of a keyboard at all, no work is getting done in that area.
That’s why we started to hire people to narrate the audiobooks, and it has worked out extremely well for us. I still do the Galactic Football League series, and the audience expects a certain style of delivery. They expect certain accents and character personifications, so I will continue to do those.
Can you switch to a different narrator if you’re not satisfied with their work?
Thomas: I’ve listened to all those books, and if you hired a professional, I don’t care who you’d hire, I’d be angry. I need your voice.
When you’re choosing a narrator for a series, you’re stuck with the person you started with unless they are awful.
Readers grow attached to the voices the narrator gives to different characters.
Listening to a series in which the narrator has been replaced is like watching a TV show where one actor is replaced by another who’s playing the same character. You can maybe get away with it for one character, but if all the actors are replaced, readers get disoriented. Audiences don’t like it, so you can’t switch narrators mid-series.
However, you can switch narrators for a new series. Hiring a narrator is a long-term commitment. You can get a new cover designer or editor, but you’re stuck with your narrator.
Scott: That’s a huge thing to keep in mind. It’s not just getting someone with the gear who can do the job. You need to click with that person, and the narrator needs to understand your work.
For our series, The Generations Trilogy, our big-time narrator did not want to listen to direction at all. He didn’t want any input. He would just go dark and then show up with a finished audiobook. I had recorded a full phonetic pronunciation guide, but he ignored it. By the end of the second book, there was an enormous amount of stress in our company because of it. We changed the narrator for book three, and readers were upset.
Hardcore fans who knew me well and knew the story were fine with it, but people who didn’t know me or my brand were not happy with the new narrator for book three.
Establishing a connection with a narrator who’s going to be there for the whole series is really important. It’s not easy, but it’s something you should strive for.
Thomas: Taking a do-it-yourself approach in your early days is common and beneficial. When you haven’t tasted success yet, and you have more time than money, DIY-ing your audiobooks can help you improve as an author.
Even if you can afford to hire an audio editor for your podcast or audiobook, I recommend editing the first ten episodes yourself. If you make yourself cut all the “ums,” you’ll be more aware of not saying them in the first place. You’ll get better faster if you start by editing your podcast yourself.
How can an author become a better narrator?
Scott: First, don’t set your expectations too high for your first book.
Don’t start by recording your magnum opus. Start by recording an earlier work, such as a throwaway novel or short story. It’s jarring to hear your own recorded voice, and it takes a long time to adapt to the sound of your own voice.
You need that time and practice to relax into your role. If your voice is relaxed, you’ll realize that your voice is perfectly fine to read your own book. It can save you a ton of money and trouble. You don’t have to herd cats or manage anything. Instead, you can record and edit at your own pace and release the book when you’re finished.
That approach will give you a better understanding of the whole process and will help you connect with a narrator down the road if you want to. You may find that when you record and publish your audiobook, you connect with fans in a different way. Finding a lower-pressure book to begin with will help.
Thomas: Author Karyne Norton had a brilliant way of applying that method. She created a podcast called Finding Fantasy Reads, where she reads the short stories of fellow authors whose books are similar to hers. Each episode is a contained story that lasts 30 to 60 minutes.
It allowed her to practice in a really safe environment, and by the time she reads her own book, she will have recorded all these short stories and rapidly worked her way up the learning curve while building an audience of her target readers.
She’s also made friends with authors who now owe her a favor for having featured their short story. Any author can adopt that approach in any genre, and I don’t see many authors doing that.
Scott: That’s a wonderful idea. That will really help. It’s like getting in the gym and doing the reps. You don’t know what you don’t know until you get on that mic and start editing. That’s a wonderful solution.
What’s the process for turning your Word document or Scrivener document into a finished audiobook?
Scott: Before we record, the manuscript has already gone through our continuity editor and line editor, so we’ve got all the grammar and everything else squared away. Your editor can help you determine how things can be phrased to read easier.
We put the Microsoft Word document on the iPad, which is on a bracket in our recording booth. If you have an office that is even remotely quiet, you can record in your office.
There is software that can do the pre-production for you. It can get rid of breaths, noise, and many other things.
We break up the recording of full-length novels into chapters. We finish a chapter and then save and upload it to the cloud, where our editor edits it.
We don’t wait until the whole book is finished before we have people editing and finding punch-ins. Because even if you’re meticulously careful, you’ll still mess up. You’ll slur a word and misspeak without realizing it. Someone else will hear it and mark it to be rerecorded so it can be “punched in” to the overall recording.
Punch-ins are a little tricky. Before you even start recording your book, be cognizant of the environment you’re recording in. You don’t want to change your mic in the middle of a book or to record the punch-ins. Accept the gear you have and use that gear to start and finish the book so your punch-ins sound exactly like your existing audio track.
If your punch-ins sound like they were recorded in a different room, it will affect the quality of the audiobook and take people out of the story. If you have no choice and you’re okay with that different audio quality, you can go ahead and record punch-ins somewhere else, but it will take people out of your story.
Thomas: I just finished re-listening to Starship Troopers, and the narrator’s punch-ins are so awful. It was as if he hadn’t warmed up his voice or he was on a different microphone on his laptop in a hotel. The punch-ins were obvious.
For audio editing software, I recommend Hindenburg Narrator. You can load your book into Hindenburg, and as you’re reading it, you can track your errors. It makes finding the punch-ins much easier. You can also use Pozotron for tracking punch-ins.
Scott: At this point, I get a list of punch-ins from our editor. Steve Riekeberg has been our editor for ten years, so he understands all the content. He did the lion’s share of the editing on the Galactic Football League series, which is a complicated audiobook. It features a lot of character voices, filters, crowd sounds, and sound effects. So, at this point, I am lucky enough that I just get the list, punch them in the microphone, send them to Steve, and he does the rest.
Thomas: Effects are much easier now, too. You can buy sound effects from online libraries. For instance, you add different voices and effects to some of your aliens, which make each species of your characters distinct and recognizable.
When should you start adding effects to your audiobooks?
Thomas: How do you know when to start adding those kinds of effects and how many to add without spending your whole budget on Hollywood-type production?
Scott: For your first few books, I don’t recommend using audio effects. Keep it simple. Read it yourself, and you will become a master of the process.
If you start adding even a few sound effects, it will really slow down your production time because it’s far more complicated than it seems. Again, that’s time you’re not spending writing, which is your most important task.
Once you’ve recorded and released a couple of books, you can evaluate your budget and the opportunity cost. If you’re going to introduce these elements yourself and you’re not experienced with audio, you’ll burn a lot of time. So, the opportunity cost will take away from writing content or spending time with your family or your day job. It will take much longer for you to get your audiobook to market.
Doing it yourself will not cost you money, but the opportunity cost is going to be significant.
An audio editor will cost you $1,500 to $3,000. My books are 18 to 24 hours long, so audio editing is a huge job. We’re getting an absolute bargain by having someone else do that work.
You can learn to edit your audiobook with no sound effects. It may take you a while, but just accept that it takes as long as it takes. Don’t worry about it.
I use Logic Pro by Apple, and I use probably 3% of its potential. I know how to crossfade, cut, and drag chunks. That’s it. There’s very little to it. You can do all of that yourself, and then if you have success, you can go out and hire an audio editor.
Thomas: Logic Pro is very powerful. You could do the sound effects for a whole film in Logic Pro. If you’re just getting started, Logic Pro is probably overkill. Hindenburg is specifically made for narration. It’s much easier.
Opportunity Costs for Recording Your Own Audiobook
I’m glad you’re talking about opportunity costs.
When you’re trying to decide what to do, don’t ask, “Is this a good or bad thing to do?” Instead, ask, “How does this compare to my next best alternative?” It’s good for Scott to record his audiobook, but it’s better for him to write another book.
How do you select and work with a narrator?
Scott: I got recommendations from Jonathan Mayberry, who is a colleague and friend. He had been working with Ray Porter, and we were to a point where we had the budget to hire a big-time narrator. Jonathan had me listen to his books narrated by Ray, and they were so great that I reached out to Ray. He told us what it would cost, and I said, “Let’s do it.”
Sometimes, it’s hard to get ahold of narrators. Just remember that they are businesspeople running their own small businesses. If you show up with a check and hire them to record a book, they’re going to do it. It’s not as complicated as it sounds. Don’t get imposter syndrome.
If you like Scott Brick, find his website and reach out to him. Figure out if you can afford him, and if you can, work out a timeline with him.
We also tracked down Emma Galvin, who did the Divergent series. We went to her website, tracked her down, and hired her from there.
If you listen to audiobooks and hear a narrator you like, see if you can afford that person. If not, then keep looking around.
Thomas: Narrators have their own followings. You can click on a narrator’s name in Audible and see what other books they’ve read and follow their work.
Scott: Ray’s audience was a huge part of the success of my novel, Earthcore. Earthcore has done just fine in print and on Kindle, but the audiobook is our biggest hit by far. Even after five years, it’s doing extremely well.
That success was due to the combination of my audience, my content, Ray’s style, and Ray’s audience all coming together. It impacted the algorithm and spread it to a lot of new people.
We tried to do the same thing with Emma Galvin, who did Divergent, which was a huge success, but we did not catch fire with that one at all.
You’re better off hiring a narrator with a track record of recording books with 5,000-10,000 reviews on Audible.
Thomas: If you can’t afford a celebrity, don’t be afraid to hold an audition. Reach out to at least three narrators. ACX and Findaway Voices make it easy to hold an audition. You can invite narrators to audition and make an apples-to-apples comparison.
They each narrate the same text so that you can hear their voices. See which narrator is easiest to interact with. Ask how busy they are. That research is important, and it’s even worth delaying your launch.
If you can offer the audiobook on the first day of your launch, your audiobook can benefit from all the marketing and promotion efforts associated with your launch.
Scott: ACX is great if you’re really on a budget and don’t want to be on the microphone. When you find the right narrator, ACX also allows you to offer a revenue split, which is a royalty that will get someone to commit to narrating your book if you don’t have the right budget for it.
It’s a great way to get the audiobook done when you just don’t have the resources to hire a narrator outright.
Thomas: Splitting your audiobook revenue with a narrator will still earn you more income than not having an audiobook at all.
Once you hire a narrator, how do you work with them?
Scott: I’ve lightened up on this. I used to be obsessive about it. The gentleman who did Nocturnal for us was a wonderful narrator with a powerful voice who’d been narrating for a while. But I knew what I wanted, and I gave him too much feedback. I really micromanaged him.
He handled it very well and was very professional, but I was out of line with much of the management. I got what I wanted, but it took a long time. The process wasn’t much fun, so after that, I backed off.
If a narrator has their own audience and experience, you need to let them do their thing. In your initial consultation, you can go through the different accents for each character. You can note that one character must have a South Side Chicago accent and ask if they can perform that accent. Ask those kinds of questions ahead of time, but once the process gets rolling, let the professional do what they do. If they ask you for information, you should certainly answer, but let them do their job.
Thomas: That’s good advice, especially for fantasy and sci-fi. It’s also important to listen to the first chapter they record so that you can see how it sounds.
Jim Rubart wrote a book with a female protagonist, so his publisher hired a female narrator. His books take place in the real world in real cities in Washington state. But it wasn’t until his audiobook was finished that he realized the narrator had mispronounced the names of cities.
His publisher didn’t loop him in until it was too late.
Scott: That would be maddening.
I go through and record all of the pronunciations of all the unusual words, and I deliver an MP3 to the narrator. I also provide a 10-page sourcebook with the phonetic spelling of those words and what they mean because I’ve made up many words.
Some narrators read it, and some don’t.
Again, at this point, there is an opportunity cost for me if I try to micromanage those things, so it’s easier to let some things go.
I encourage authors to work on it one chapter at a time, at least for the first five chapters. Ask a lot of questions. Tell the narrator before you hire them, “This is my first audiobook. I’m going to ask a lot of questions. Is that okay?” Hopefully, they’ll answer truthfully.
Thomas: Right now, I’m listening to Monster Hunter Memoirs: Fever by Larry Correia, which has a female protagonist. Larry brought in a new narrator for this book. If the protagonist is female, bringing in a female narrator is a good idea. My stick-with-the-narrator advice goes out the window for a series if the protagonist changes.
I’ve enjoyed her narration because I can tell she made the effort to listen to some of his other books. She’s giving a performance that’s similar, but it’s also different to hear a female doing Frank’s big voice.
Scott: For an author like Larry, who has 89 books in that series, that’s a tall order. You can’t expect the narrator to listen to all of those.
If you’re going to switch it up, give the narrator a short list of books to listen to. Pay them for their time to listen so they can perform the characters and accents as close to the original as possible.
Thomas: The author could also curate an audio file with snippets from the five characters that appear in that book.
With a bit of work on your part, you can save the narrator a lot of work. And that is where having audio-editing skills can be useful.
Scott: If you are reading the book yourself and doing a straight read with no characters or inflection, no problem. If you want to try character voices while you’re recording the book, you need to make an audio library of sorts for your own reference.
The first time that character shows up, isolate that piece of audio and save it as a separate mp3. We call those buttons.
If I’ve come up with a character all by myself, I have a 30-second clip I listen to every time that character comes up. I tend to impersonate an impersonator who impersonates a big actor. For example, I might listen to a comedian impersonating Dwayne Johnson, and then I would impersonate the comedian for my character’s voice.
I have over 300 characters with different voices that I’ve recorded. I can’t keep them straight, so I created a button for each one.
Even if I listen to Dwayne Johnson as The Rock saying something in the ring, it still puts me in the right mindset, and I get the right inflection. No one will think Dwayne Johnson is doing the voice, but it helps me make my voice do something that doesn’t sound like my other characters.
Whether I’ve come up with the character myself or whether we are basing it on someone else, we’ve got audio clips always at the ready. I can ask my producer, “Can you play that one clip before I read character B?”
That practice will save you an enormous amount of time, frustration, and embarrassment. It will help you remain consistent with your characters throughout the book and series.
Listeners will notice inconsistencies. If you don’t even keep your own voices straight and the character sounds like a different person, that will not go over well with listeners.
Thomas: You would love Hindenburg because it has that feature built-in. You can create a library of pronunciation recordings for places and names. It’s a big time-saver, and it’s especially important for fantasy and sci-fi. Wherever your story takes place, you need a system for keeping those pronunciations straight.
How do you promote your audiobook?
Thomas: Besides having an award-winning bestselling podcast, how do you promote your audiobook?
It’s not easy, and I don’t have easy answers for it. The core element of all marketing for any author is a website, email list, and social media. Those are things that you must be doing.
You have to have a landing page where people can go, but you need to host the landing page on your own website, not on platforms like Tumbler, where you can lose all your connections with one algorithm change.
Start an email list from square one because that’s the one thing you get to hold on to. I had like 24,000 followers on Twitter, and I don’t even use Twitter anymore because I don’t like where the platform is going.
If you cultivate a website, email list, and some social media when you’re starting out, then over time, you’ll have a battery of people who will be motivated to preorder your books.
For audiobooks, preorders are especially important because preorders roll up to week one on Audible. If your 500 fans buy the book before it comes out, then on release day, you’ve got a possibility to chart on Audible. That helps trip the algorithm and gives you a great marketing angle. You can tell your fans, “Hey! The book was in the top 20 in fantasy on Audible!” You can hold onto that forever, even if you drop off the charts immediately.
The core elements of marketing audiobooks are:
- Developing your fan base
- Communicating with your fan base
- Being unafraid to ask your fan base to preorder a certain book on a certain date
Everything outside of that is not my area of expertise.
Thomas: Those things are critical.
The preorders on Audible work differently than they do on Amazon Kindle. Amazon Kindle does not count preorders as first-day sales, while Audible and iBooks do. The fact that you get to count the preorders on launch day is big. It makes having a preorder window very advantageous.
If someone wanted to start listening to your audiobooks, where should they start?
Scott: I’d recommend starting with The Rookie. It’s a story about an American pro football league, 700 years in the future, with aliens playing different positions based on their physiology.
It’s a sports story, but it’s also your traditional fantasy hero’s journey. The main character, Quentin Barnes, comes into the league as a 17-year-old prodigy. It moves through his quest to try and attain his goal, and football is largely a backdrop to everything. It’s not about football, but the football backdrop gave us the opportunity to use sound effects and various effects for the different species of aliens.
Thomas: My gateway recommendation is The Stone Wolves. It’s a military sci-fi fan that made me want to learn more about this strange football game.
What encouragement or advice do you have for authors?
Scott: You learn by doing things badly. If you don’t know how to do something, just start doing it. Grab some short stories, and get used to the process. You will be very frustrated to begin with, but you’ll soon realize it’s possible and you can do it.
Even if you are the worst narrator on the face of the earth, you’re still the author reading a story to people, and that touches emotions in a unique way.
Thomas: If you want to know what a good author website looks like, go to Scott’s recently revamped website. All it needs is a reading order list, and then it’ll be perfect.
Subscribe to Scott’s podcast to hear him perform one chapter each week.
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