Brian Niemeier has an interesting post on the considerable difficulty of producing audiobooks. Central quote:
Let’s break this down. ACX pays 40% royalties on audiobooks. If you don’t want to hire a narrator at an one-time fee, ACX will help match you with a narrator. You and the narrator then split that 40% royalty 50/50. Forever.
If that doesn’t make you run screaming from ACX Royalty Share, you’re either innumerate or have no concept of time.
Here’s a concrete example. An audio version of my first book Nethereal would have a total running time of 30 hours. According to ACX’s suggested pricing schedule, I could reasonably charge $25.00 for a Nethereal audiobook.
H/t to my friend JimFear138, a pro audiobook narrator who’s wisely getting in on the audio bubble while the gettin’s good. More power to him!
I earn roughly $5.00 an hour from writing (no 5 day, 40 hour work weeks for me!), which in this market is actually pretty good.
Hiring a narrator at the lowest price I’ve found to record a 30 hour audiobook means paying over $60.00 an hour. Let’s factor in editing, mixing, outtakes, etc. and double the number of man-hours going into the finished audiobook to 60. That’s still more than $30.00 an hour.
Rod Walker has a bit of experience with audiobooks, so he’ll go into it here.
The difficulty of creating an audiobook is actually harder than Mr. Niemeier describes. Audiobooks come in terms of “finished hours” in the final recording – a 90,000 word novel would land at about 8 to 10 finished hours. Additionally, a finished hour has to be finished – the levels of the recording need to be adjusted and the recording has to be mastered.
Making an ebook that doesn’t suck in terms of formatting is relatively easy. Making an audiobook that doesn’t suck is much harder.
A good narrator (one whose voice doesn’t make you reach for the mute button) can come in at $300 per finished hour, and top-tier narrators can easily command $500 and higher for a finished hour. You can find narrators who charge less, but their quality can often be questionable.
There are many reasons for this. To put it bluntly, not everyone has a voice that other people want to listen to for 10+ hours, just as not everyone has the good looks to be an actor. Rod Walker’s own voice sounds like he just got punched in the throat while smoking a cigarette, so he would not attempt to narrate his own books as many authors do. For that matter, learning to narrate and enunciate properly is its own skill – a lot of would-be narrators sound like they either have a mouth full of marbles or they talk faster than the guy reading the disclaimers at the end of radio used-car ads. There is also the matter of editing and leveling the raw sound files, which again is not something everyone can do properly. (Occasionally you come across an ACX sample that, to judge from the echoes, sounds like it was recorded in the narrator’s bathtub.)
In the end, a good narrator can charge a lot because he possesses a skill set that is difficult to acquire. The author makes or breaks the ebook. The narrator makes or breaks the audiobook.
Because of this, producing audiobooks gets expensive. An indie author with the right skill set and the right software can create a high-quality ebook with nothing more than time and some money to buy the rights for a stock image for the cover. It’s much harder to do that with audiobooks.
Consequently, creating an audiobook is a risky financial decision for an indie author. Turning three long novels into ebooks could cost around $100, maybe less. Producing three long novels into audiobooks could easily cost around $10,000. That’s small business loan territory, and Rod Walker is acquainted with several bestselling indies who sunk tens of thousands of dollars into producing audiobooks and don’t expect to recoup the investment for several years, if ever. A lot of successful indies get approached by companies like Tantor and Podium to license their audio rights – some money from licensing the audio rights is better than no money from never doing anything with the rights, and it’s definitely better than sinking tens of thousands of dollars into producing a long series as audiobooks and never seeing the money again.
So producing an audiobook is like running a Kickstarter – if you’re going to do it, you’d better have a good business plan.
Because of the headache involved, Rod Walker is relieved his book doesn’t have an audiobook.