An Indie Author’s Guide to Audiobook Production
Everything indie authors need to know about why, how, and where to produce high-quality audiobooks.
I’ll tell you right now that I love a good audiobook. Hearing an author’s words brought to life by a vivid performance helps immerse me in worlds that I might not otherwise have enjoyed. And, as an added bonus, I can listen to them while I’m driving, doing chores, or folding my kiddo’s laundry for the millionth time. We’re getting closer and closer to a world where I never have to stop reading, and I’m okay with that.
If you’re an author, you’ve probably thought about getting into the world of audiobooks. They’re a fast-growing market and look extremely attractive to readers of all kinds. But creating one from scratch can seem daunting - where do you even start? Do you need fancy equipment or a big studio? Can you do it yourself or do you need a professional team?
Let’s answer some of these questions, and explore how to make an audiobook from your work to share with your readers.
Why make an audiobook?
Let’s start with the simple answer to this question. Making an audiobook means you have an expanded market, and an expanded market means more royalties. To get into more detail, choosing to create an audiobook makes your work more accessible. People with visual impairments will be able to enjoy your work, and those who have limited time will be able to read it while they do other things and still get a quality experience. Beyond that, some people simply prefer audiobooks to ebooks or physical copies.
There’s fact behind this fancy, too. According to resources at Kindlepreneur, the audiobook market currently grows at around 30% per year. This makes it the fastest-growing market in the modern publishing industry. Even ebooks can’t keep up; audiobooks are growing four times faster!
Producing an audiobook does take time and money, though, so you’ll need to be sure that your book would be a success in audio format or you’ll be sinking resources for very little return. If, for instance, your book is highly visual, like a graphic novel or certain styles of poetry, then you’re probably not going to be able to easily translate it into an audiobook. If, however, you’ve got a classic fiction book or a text-based nonfiction book (think autobiographies and creative nonfiction), then you’ve probably got a great candidate for audio. For self-publishing authors, it’s important to carefully consider costs vs. potential sales before moving forward with an audio version of your own book.
How much does it cost to create an audiobook?
The production costs for creating an audiobook depend heavily on a few factors, including the number of people involved in the project and the kinds of equipment used to create it.
Who’s making the audiobook?
Of course, the cheapest way to create an audiobook is to make it from scratch yourself. That being said….it’s really hard to do that. Most audiobook distribution platforms - Audible included - have extremely strict standards for production; they require the audio to be of a certain quality throughout the book before they’ll even consider allowing it to be purchased by their readers. You have to have crystal-clear recordings, meaning you’ll need a good home studio, which means quite the investment on your part, and the technical skills to create high-quality audio, which you probably don’t have.
This is why lots of authors build up an audiobook team. This team might be composed of a production company or it might be made up of a few dedicated freelancers. Either way, having a team behind you means that you’ve got the expertise and equipment you need to make a quality recording. Still, these team members need to be paid, and depending on the length of your book and its complexity, you might be sinking quite a lot of money into payroll.
Either way you choose to do it, producing an audiobook is going to cost you some money, so let’s break that down.
Audiobook production costs breakdown
Let’s assume for a minute that you’re going to hire a team to create your audiobook. Lots of things go into the production, and each of them has an associated cost. These things include:
- The narration itself. If you’re doing the voiceover work yourself, there’s obviously no monetary cost, but if planning to hire audiobook narrators, you’re looking at $90 to $200 per hour for non-SAG-AFTRA (the union for those in the entertainment industry) members and just upwards of $200 per hour for SAG-AFTRA members. Some professional narrators will agree to do the work on royalty share arrangements. (This is commonly referred to as the cost Per Finished Hour, or the pfh rate.)
- Audio processing. This is the post-production of the raw audio files provided by the narrator, including cleaning out background noise and removing unwanted sounds like clicks or page turns. While some narrators include this processing as part of their fee, others do not, meaning you’ll need an audio engineer. Audio engineers charge between $90 and $150 per hour.
- Proofing. This is the process of listening to the finished recording of the entire book carefully to catch any errors in the narration or processing before it’s packaged for distribution. This can be done by you or by another professional. Audiobook proofing can cost around $15 to $30 per hour of recording - for a 50,000-word book, that’s about 5.5 to 6 hours, or anywhere from $83 to $195.
- Audio editing. This takes the feedback you get from your proofing and incorporates it. You’re looking at about $75 to $100 per hour for an audio editor.
- Cover design. Just like any other format, an audiobook is going to need a cover to display to potential listeners. If you have a book cover for other formats already, you can simply resize it and use it again. Purchasing a new cover from an artist will cost you between $50 and $600 on average, depending on the complexity of the work.
- Distribution. Actually publishing your audiobook can sometimes incur a cost. Most will take a portion of your royalties rather than charge you an upfront fee, between 15% and 30% per sale.
Let’s also assume that your book has a final runtime of 6.5 hours and that it takes only one round of recording (we’ll call that 7 hours), processing, proofing, and editing. With those assumptions, here’s the projected cost of an audiobook.
Audio Processing: $630-$1,050
Cover Creation: $0-600
Okay, that’s a significant upfront cost. So, how can you tell if it’s worth it? You might look at your book sales. Was your book selling well on Kindle, or other formats? How many sales do you have to get to make that up? At what price point?
Well, if the average audiobook costs $20 (or more, but we’ll try to keep it simple here) and your production site is taking a 15% cut, you’d need to make between 79 and 191 audiobook sales to break even, and that’s before any other associated fees. The royalty share earned through Audible / ACX is significantly lower than 85% though, and I’d urge folks considering audiobook production to look at the article from the Alliance of Independent Authors that breaks down the convoluted math to determine a break-even point when using them.
Right. That’s…quite a lot of sales. So what if you want to bring production costs down by doing it all yourself? Here are the costs that go into making an audiobook for yourself. (I’ll talk more specifically about the equipment later.)
- You’re going to need, at the very least:
- A microphone. A decent quality mic will set you back between $50 and $500
- A pop filter. The cheapest of these will be around $10 and should be sufficient for audiobook recording if you know how to use it.
- Quality headphones. Studio-quality headphones will help you pick up on all of the minute details in a recording while you’re listening back and editing. A good pair of studio headphones starts at around $100.
- A computer. We’ll assume that you’ve already got one of those
- Somewhere quiet to record. Under a duvet sounds silly, but works surprisingly well. If you don’t want to do that, you can make a simple mini-studio by lining a small box with acoustic foam and putting your mic in it - that’ll cost about $20.
- Good audio software. There are some amazing free audio recording and editing programs, like Audacity, that you can use to create a high-quality end product. However, you might choose to use a more advanced program for more specific options or a better user interface; these will run you between $35 and $400.
- You’ll still need a cover, but if you’re going completely DIY, we’ll assume that you’re making that yourself or reusing an existing cover.
Here’s the breakdown for producing the audiobook yourself.
Pop Filter: $10
Home recording space: $0-$20
Audio editing software: $0-$400
Now, that breakdown may look a lot nicer, but it’s not counting the number of manhours you’re going to have to put into production. Between recording (at least 7 hours), processing (another 10 hours minimum), proofing (7 hours, again), editing, and mastering (another 10-20 hours, depending on the level of detail), you’re looking at a production time of 34-44 hours, which you’ll have to work without being paid at all. That’s roughly a full average work week, at the bare minimum, that you’re going to have to squeeze in around your job and home life. That’s a lot of hard work!
And that’s without counting the amount of time it takes to learn to use all of the recording equipment necessary to produce your first audiobook. Unless you already have experience using recording software and processing audio, you’re going to spend many, many more hours learning how to do that - most audiobook platforms, as I’ve mentioned, have high audio quality standards, so amateur productions simply will not be approved.
When you’re paying for audiobook production, you’re paying for experience and quality alongside practical manhours. Choosing to go through the entire process alone is possible, but far more difficult than simply pressing record. Keep this in mind when deciding how you want to produce your audiobook.
Resources for making an audiobook
Once you’ve decided how you’re going to produce your audiobook, you’ll need to decide on the resources and tools you plan to use. This includes people and production equipment, both hardware and software.
Audiobook production professionals
If you plan to hire professionals to help you create your audiobook, you can do so in a few different places.
If you’re a veteran author with good connections, you might start by asking around. Who are the best narrators? Who are the best audio engineers? Ask your network (that is, the other authors you know) who they used to help produce their audiobooks. Most authors who had a good experience will leap to give you their narrator’s contact info - and alternatively, those who’ve had a bad experience can tell you who to avoid.
Once you’ve got some leads, reach out! Contact your various potential workmates with a job proposal. You’ll want to let them know:
- Who you are and how you found them
- The book’s basic information: title, genre, whether it contains any adult content, when it was/is going to be published and by whom, etc.
- How long it is
- Your proposed rough schedule: when you plan to start production versus when you would like to have the audiobook finished (try to be flexible with this!)
- Your proposed pay rate
If they’re interested, get a contract in place (you can find some more specific advice on that here; I’m not a lawyer), and get to work! There are a few things to note about this method, though.
First, you’ll want to offer the people you hire fair rates. If they have rates per hour or per project listed somewhere on their website, don’t offer them anything lower than that - they probably won’t accept. If they don’t have a rate listed, offer them a fair market rate for the project. You’ll need to do some research on this by finding comparable artists with listed rates or going through job boards to see what people are paying.
Second, direct contracts happen based on word of mouth most of the time. If you don’t have a massive author network, you might not have access to these kinds of recommendations. That’s okay! You can still find very talented independent professionals by exploring social media, online databases, and local organizations.
If you don’t want to use or can’t find what you need through independent contracts, you can always try posting a job on a freelance board.
Freelance boards are websites dedicated to connecting talented freelancers with the people who need work done; they’re great for one-off projects like audiobook productions, but they can also offer a connection for future work. They have strict rules for the contracts, deliverables, and the payment as well, so you can both be held accountable and scams are less likely to happen.
The most popular freelance boards are
- Freelancer, the largest freelance job board on the internet which covers a wide variety of industries
- Upwork, another major player with an excellent hourly or milestone payment system and the option to create offsite contracts
- Fiverr, great for quick work at discounted rates (though you’ll have to be careful to vet for quality.)
- Casting Call Club, which is a site specifically for voice actors and audio engineers, and lets you sort through auditions rather than just resumes
Keep in mind that each job board is going to have its own rules and requirements for listing on the website, and may charge you a fee to do so. They may also take a portion of the freelancer’s fee, meaning freelancers are likely to set their rates higher on job boards than through independent contracts to compensate for the difference.
Audiobook production services
If you don’t want to deal with coordinating a team of independent workers yourself, or you feel you don’t know enough about the process to create a quality finished product even with that kind of help (no shame! It’s a tough job to coordinate a massive project like an audiobook), you might choose to work with an audiobook production service.
These services do the whole thing for you for a flat charge across finished hours. They edit the manuscript, hire a narrator, edit and master the audio to meet the technical requirements platforms set, and deliver the finished book to various audiobook distribution platforms. This makes them remarkably convenient for new authors or those who do not have the time to dedicate to the project.
That being said, these services are costly. You can expect to pay upwards of $300 per finished hour, and with most books taking about 10-15 total production hours to finish this way…well, you can see how expensive this can get. Still, if you don’t have the connections, personal skills, or time to do the project justice on your own, it might be well worth the investment.
The two top audiobook production services are:
- Audiobook Creation Exchange, or ACX, is basically a freelance board for audiobooks, but jacked up to the max. You can either upload your finished audiobook file to distribute it to Amazon (often with an exclusive Audible contract), or to Apple and other major retailers after finishing the project yourself, hire a team all in one place to create and distribute the audiobook, or hire a Producer to handle the process for you.
- Findaway Voices is another professional audiobook production site that lets you either make and distribute audiobooks for yourself or hire a team to work with you to do so. They boast the largest distribution network and note that they have no exclusivity contracts; you can post and sell your audiobook anywhere.
Audiobook production tools
If you choose to create (or at least record) the audiobook yourself, you’ll need a few basic tools to do so.
Microphone and Headphones
To record, obviously, you need a microphone. For audiobook recordings, you’ll want to go with a condenser mic, which is audio-nerd-speak for a microphone that is more sensitive to quiet sounds and produces clearer results on playback. These are the microphones found in most studios and are some of the best fits for home studio setups because of their adjustable settings for noise cancelation and pickup. You might also consider getting a mic that is USB compatible rather than XLR. This just means you’ll be able to plug it directly into your computer without having to get a mixer or an audio interface as a middle man.
Some great microphones for home recording are
- The Blue Snowball. Having personally used this mic, I can let you know that it produces high-quality recordings from the get-go, even before any processing is done. The sound is crisp and clear, and though it doesn’t have adjustable settings on the mic itself, it’s easily the best you’re going to find on a budget. The Snowball costs roughly $50.
- The Blue Yeti is Blue’s step up from the Snowball and is both famous and infamous in the world of home recording. Yetis are easy to adjust, with gain control and muting options directly on the mic, and picks up high-quality audio easily. It’s infamous for having a bit of a learning curve - on the wrong settings, you sound like you’re recording from underwater in the Arctic - but once you fiddle with it and find your ideal settings, you can basically set it and forget it. The Blue Yeti costs roughly $130.
- The Audio Technica AT2020 is a popular YouTube and Twitch mic that has awesome on-mic controls. It features a headphone jack so that you can actively listen to yourself as you record, cutting re-recording times significantly. The Audio Technica AT2020 costs roughly $130. Be careful to order the USB one, though - there’s a slightly cheaper version available, but it’s XLR, which means you won’t be able to use it without a conversion medium.
You’ll also want to pick up a pop filter. This is a piece of mesh or fabric that stops popping noises from certain sounds and words from getting into the recording. You can buy one that fits over your specific microphone (prices will vary depending on the mic) or you can buy one that sits in front of your mic on its own adjustable arm (they start at about $10 online).
To go with your fancy new microphone, you’ll need a set of studio headphones. High-quality headphones mean that you can pick up on small issues with your audio as you’re editing and correct them before you go to publish.
For headphones, you’ll want to make sure they have some level of active noise cancellation so that you can listen to your audio and your audio only. I’d recommend getting over-ear headphones for this exact reason. You can also choose between wired and wireless headphones; wireless headphones mean you don’t have to worry about tangled cords, but wired headphones mean you don’t have to worry about the headphones dying mid-edit.
Some great headphones include
- Mpow H19 IPO Active Noise Canceling Headphones. These headphones can be either wired or wireless (bonus), they’re relatively lightweight so your ears won’t get too tired from being squished under them, and they have strong drivers for better bass pickup. They’re not perfect for recording as they are designed more for listening to finished audiobooks, but if you’re on a strict budget, they can give you some good mileage. The Mpow H19 IPOs cost about $50.
- Sony MDR7506 Professional Large Diaphragm Headphones. Sony is known for making some great headphones (I use their ultra-cheapo MDR ZX110 headphones daily and still get awesome quality), and this particular set is a standard for recording artists at Audible. They’re wired headphones with a long cord - 9.8 feet - for easy standing recording if you prefer to do that. They also fold for easy storage and traveling, which is convenient if you need to bring them with you on a business trip or particularly loud plane. The Sony MDR7506s cost about $100.
- Audio Technica ATH-R70x Professional Open-Back Reference Headphones. If you’re willing to splash out for good headphones, you might consider these from - yet again - Audio Technica. They’re wired, open headphones, which means they’re better for mixing and mastering your audio than for wearing while you record. These headphones are incredibly lightweight and designed to be worn for long studio days. The ATH-R70x’s cost about $350, though they do have some similar options available for around $125.
If you want to rent recording studio space rather than buying all of the equipment yourself - for instance, if you don’t plan on recording very many audiobook projects - then you can look on sites like Peerspace to find studios near you. They cost about $35 to $60 per hour of use on average. If you’re recording for about 7 hours, not including re-recording, that’s between $245 and $420. You’ll be spending about the same amount to record in a studio that you would to record at home, but studio spaces come with privacy and professional equipment.
If you are going to record at home, you’ll need a dedicated space for it. Since most homes don’t come with a built-in studio, you’ll have to make do with a room that has a solid door, few if any windows, and carpet on the floor to keep excess sound to a minimum. Surprisingly, you can get some great results using a closet as a recording booth. Think about it; small space, no windows, thicker door, and it’s incredibly easy and much cheaper to install noise cancellation.
And you will want noise cancellation; echo-y recordings are nearly impossible to fix, and will make your book sound unprofessional. To do this, you’ll want to work with acoustic foam; you can get a 12-pack of 1ft x 1ft panels for about $20 online, which should be more than enough.
Set up your mic and your computer so that they won’t move or be easily jostled while you work, and make sure that you won’t be disturbed while you’re recording by advising anyone else in the home of what you’re doing.
Recording and Editing Software
Now we get to the point of actually recording your audio, and for that, you’re going to need recording software. While most computers come with some kind of in-built voice recording software, it’s really best to find a program specifically designed to be used to record high-quality audio.
In this software, you’ll want to be able to control noise reduction (removing the background noise in your recording), reverb (adding artificial “echo” to the recording to make it sound more natural), and volume levels, among other settings.
The most popular recording software is Audacity. This free, open-source program has basically everything you need to master your audio yourself. The only issue I’ve found with it is that it isn’t very beginner-friendly. It’s hard to tell what does what, with so many settings available to you. That being said, you can find great tutorials to walk you through it online.
You might also choose to use Reaper, Twisted Wave, Studio One, Pro Tools, or another similar recording software. Most of these, though, charge a license or subscription fee for their use; some have better user interfaces, though most have the same general functionality as Audacity.
Audiobook publishers / distributors to consider
Once you have an audiobook in hand, you’ll need somewhere to distribute it to major retailers. All of these sites will have fees associated with them per book uploaded, so be sure to carefully research and find out how much you’ll be paying upfront. Here are some of your options.
- ACX, as mentioned earlier, allows you to put your audiobook on Audible, iTunes, and a few other retailers, though they do often offer exclusivity deals for Audible if you are producing your book through their network.
- Findaway Voices, once again, is a production and distribution network. It operates as a free market for audiobook producers to distribute according to their own pricing and retailer options.
- Author’s Republic is great if you want to handle your distribution in a more hands-on manner and have control over every aspect of the process. They boast more than 50 retail channels including the library system.
- ListenUp is a top production company for indie authors paying 80% of royalties directly to the author from retailers and libraries around the world - in more than 190 countries! You control the pricing, though it’s based on a distribution cost calculated using the length of the recording.
- Kobo Writing Life is a relatively new and popular offshoot of ebook retailer Kobo, focused specifically on indie creators. You can use this platform to distribute your book through Kobo, Walmart, Indigo, and Bol, though your royalties will be fairly moderate at 35-45%.
- PublishDrive is a good platform for wide distribution across North America, Europe, and China with options for promotion and review tracking to help you analyze sales patterns. Their pricing depends on the number of titles you have with them.
Creating your own audiobook can be a confusing and intimidating process, especially if you’re not familiar with the world of recording in general. That being said, if you’re willing to invest the time and money, you’re likely to get some great returns. You’ll open your books to a new audience seeing your work for the first time, get the joy of hearing your work performed and brought to life, and have a new revenue stream.
Audiobooks are a growing and profitable industry; they might be worth looking into.