Monday, October 12, 2015

How to Turn Your Novel into an Audiobook FREE Using the ACX Platform

If you have written and self-published a book, you simply can't afford to overlook the exploding audiobook market.  According to the American Association of Publishers, audiobook sales increased a whopping 26% in 2013 and 28% in 2014, with no slowdown in sight.

What's behind this amazing upsurge of the audio format?  The short and simple answer is technology.  Up until a few years ago, listening to an audiobook required a CD player, but all that has changed.  Every one of us is now carrying around an audiobook player right in our pockets or purses--our smartphones.  On top of that, every new automobile manufactured now has a port for smartphones, which makes it possible to listen to audiobooks over the car's higher-quality sound system.

Although audiobooks were originally created as a way for the blind or sight-impaired to enjoy reading books, with the required audio player constantly at everyone's fingertips, more and more people have discovered that the medium offers a great advantage--a hands-free way for us to "read" a book while we are physically doing something else.  Examples include listening to books while:
- Commuting back and forth to work via car, bus, train, ferry, etc.  
- Exercising/working out/hiking/walking
- Performing repetitive tasks such as housework/cooking/gardening, etc.
- Doing hobby or craft work such as knitting, painting, pottery, modeling, etc.
- Taking long trips by car, bus, train, or plane (audiobooks are very popular with truck drivers)
- Bathing or sunbathing, when the light isn't conducive to reading, you want to lay back and relax, or you simply don't want to risk getting your book or ereader or tablet wet.
- Experiencing a story in a group setting, with family or friends while on a road trip, for example.
- Learning English (or the language in which the book is narrated) - hearing the tone and pronunciation of words can help learners become more natural speakers.

Of course, so many people spend so much time staring at computer screens all day, audiobooks are simply a good way to enjoy a story without having to use your eyes at all.

So, the question is:  As a self-published author, how do you jump on the audiobook bandwagon?  Isn't adapting books to the audio format expensive?  And doesn't producing an audiobook consume a huge amount of time?

It turns out that the answer is no on both counts, not if you follow my advice here.  I'm going explain how you can get it done absolutely free, without spending a penny of your own money or eating up a significant amount of your time...and yet also produce a product of the highest quality, one that will stand up next to those produced by the Big 5 publishers.

How does one perform this magical feat?  Read on...

A Daunting, Impossible-seeming Prospect

When I first heard about the audiobook explosion, my first impulse was to simply whip out my smartphone and use the Voice Memos function and start narrating all my books myself.  After all, people have always said that I have a "good voice" and the recording quality of smartphones is pretty impressive these days, right?  

Wrong! It did not take me long (about ten minutes of recording) to realize that unless you are a trained voice artist with years of experience, you probably aren't going to create a decent audiobook yourself, no matter how "good" your natural speaking voice might be.  Professional audiobook narrators don't just read your book aloud, they perform it.  If you are not aware of this, then I can only say you have not listened to many audiobooks.  An experienced narrator gives each story character a unique voice that can be readily distinguished from all the others, and they convey emotions in those voices that are implied by the dialogue and context.  Furthermore, it takes a lot of stamina to record an entire audiobook.   You have to perform steadily and consistently, word after word, minute after minute, hour after hour, until you reach the end, which, depending on length will typically run six to fifteen hours.  So, unless you have professional voice work and have some acting experience, my advice is not to attempt to record your book yourself, not if you expect it to be taken seriously by a growing audiobook community with increasingly high standards.

But it's not just the actual narration that's difficult--it's also the recording and editing processes, not to mention all the time that it eats up and the learning curve involved. The leading audiobook distributors and retailers have high standards, too, in terms of the overall quality they will accept.  Every pop, click, "mouth noise" and noticeable breath you take during narration must be edited out to perfection.  There can be absolutely NO ambient noise (rumble of traffic on the street, doors closing, noise from aircraft or construction, faint sounds of the TV in the next room, etc.)  All of which means that if you want to meet these exacting standards and have your audiobook distributed to the top retailers, using your smartphone or dictation machine just won't do--you are going to either have to rent a professional recording studio and editor, which is very expensive, or set up a small recording booth inside of your home (also expensive, around $1,500 for the required professional microphone, software, etc.) and learn to edit and produce high quality MP3 files yourself.

Of course, there is a middle ground.  This is to hire a professional voice artist who also knows how to edit and produce the required high quality audio files, and who has all the required equipment at home.  It turns out there are a lot of such folks, especially around Los Angeles, New York, London, and other creative centers.  But how do you find them? How do you hire them?  How do you know you're getting a good deal?  How do you know they'll deliver? What about legal contracts?  Aren't they complicated?  Will you need to hire a lawyer to work it all out?  And won't this still eat up gobs of your time?

The answer is yes, it will eat up gobs of your time, and it becomes extremely complicated to manage.

I know this from personal experience--I went down this "middle ground" path for a while and got nowhere.   I ran advertisements online for narrators, interviewed and auditioned them on Skype, but ultimately did not feel comfortable enough with any of them to make a deal, not for that kind of money--the average professional narrator charges $4,000 to $5,000 to produce the average length audiobook.  Moving down this path you will discover a hundred and one ways to get ripped off.

Enter ACX

I probably would have dismissed the prospect of producing my own novels as audiobooks altogether if I hadn't stumbled upon ACX, the Audiobook Creation Exchange.  Launched in 2011 by Audible, the market leader in audiobooks, ACX is website that allows authors and narrators to find each other and create audiobooks together.  The way it works is elegant in its simplicity--you post your book on the ACX site, free, using the Amazon Kindle link for the book, along with a sample for auditions, and narrators browse the site, find your posting, and submit auditions to you.  What's more, once you settle on a narrator, all the contracts are handled automatically online in a clean, logical, step-by-step format--it's literally a matter of clicking buttons.  You and your narrator agree on a deadline and payment terms, and the brilliant way that it's set up forces you both to act logically and professionally and keeps either party from being taken advantage of.

Once the audiobook is finished, it appears for sale on Audible, Amazon, and iTunes in a matter of days.  Under the scheme I use, Audible even takes care of the accounting and royalty payments to the narrator--you don't have to lift a finger.  Other than listening to auditions (which is kind of fun) and choosing your narrator, the only other thing you have to do is listen to the chapters as they are produced in case there are any mistakes, upload a cover image, and sign-off on the final product.  So, as an author, the required time and learning curve are minimal, which allows you to stay focused on your books.

Of course, all this ease and simplicity comes with a price tag.   The royalty ACX pays for each audiobook sold or downloaded is a flat 40% of the sales price.  This assumes you give ACX exclusive distribution rights for seven years, and since they cover the lion's share of the market and will likely continue to do so, I don't know why you wouldn't want to do that. Which means that ACX takes 60% for distributing and selling your books, and providing you with the platform to connect you with narrators, and for making it all simple, professional and easy to deal with.  

Is this a fair price for such a service?  I think so.  If you reread the details of what I just said above, or take a few small steps in the direction of producing audiobooks on your own, you will see how complicated, risky, and time-consuming it becomes otherwise, and I believe the cut ACX takes is well worth it.

To Share or Not to Share?

The only thing you have to do to produce your audiobooks with ACX for free is to opt for what they call their Royalty Share option. This means that the narrator produces the entire, polished audiobook at his or her own expense in exchange for half of the future royalties.  

I have currently produced seven audiobooks this way (you can see them in the left-hand side of this blog), with more in the queue.  Why have I chosen this option, besides that it costs me nothing up front?  First, producing any new product is always risky, and with the Royalty Share agreement, you and the narrator share the risk.  On top of that, I believe that the narrator is more committed and will do a better job this way.  If you pay him or her up front, the narrator is working more or less like a temporary employee and has no vested interest in the future, other than perhaps you hiring them for another project someday if you think they did a good job.  In contrast, with the Royalty Share option, the narrator is putting his or her own time and resources into the product, which shows a belief in its success.  The audiobook truly becomes a long-term, joint creative venture between the two of you.  If the audiobook does well, both of you will profit equally and hopefully for many years to come. 

But there is another advantage to choosing the Royalty Share option.  If you are trying to make money with your writing, you need to view it as a business, and every dollar (or pound or euro) you spend on producing the audiobooks must be made back by selling said audiobooks to listeners.  Again, the average price for a narrator to produce a finished audiobook is between $4,000-5,000.  That amounts to a lot of audiobooks you have to sell just to reach the breakeven point!  In a way, when you go into this kind of debt up front, you are stacking the odds against yourself, because chances are that you will get discouraged and stop making the required effort on the marketing side.  Yes, just as with ebooks and paperbacks, your audiobook sales will likely be sluggish without some promotion behind them, so be prepared.

Tips on Producing Audiobooks with ACX and Working with Narrators

First, at the outset, fix in your mind that an audiobook is not a book (or an ebook or a paper book).    It is a different art form altogether, similar to a movie or a stage play that is created from your book.  An audiobook is an adaptation of your work into another format, an "interpretation" of the work, if you will, one that is created mostly by your narrator.  To do a good job working with him or her, you will find that you must let go a little bit--with an audiobook, there is simply no way to exercise the same amount of creative control you have over a self-published ebook or paperback, not without driving both yourself and your narrator crazy.

Bearing this in mind, here are my tips:

1.  If you have self-published more than one book, start with the one with the most positive reviews on Amazon.  When browsing through books on ACX, narrators willing to work under the Royalty Share agreement take this into account.  Naturally, they want to narrate books that have good reviews, and as many good reviews as possible, which is certainly understandable.

2.  Choose with great care the audition pages that you post from your book.  Ideally, you want to test the narrator's skills on several levels.  Probably the most important is the ability to separate character voices and make them distinct for the listener.  Another is the ability to convey emotion.  A third is pacing--how fast do they read? Try to post an emotional scene or scenes that include rich dialogue between your main characters.  Your audition does not have to be from the beginning of the book, nor does it have to be a continuous piece--there are no rules about which parts you can post.   If it is important that any of your characters speak with foreign accents or regional dialects, try to include a piece that tests that in the audition, too.  Most narrators are good at some accents but not so good at others.  Having said all that, keep your audition text as short as possible, because most narrators view this phase as highly speculative and are hesitant to invest a lot of time into long, drawn out auditions that may not lead to a contract.

3.  During the audition and choice-making process, resist the urge to "change" the narrator.   I would say that if you don't like more than one major thing that a narrator does in the audition recording, pass.  Only offer a narrator a second audition if you think there is a good chance you will make a deal with that person.  "Can you try reading a little faster (or slower)?" is a reasonable suggestion, or "Could you try to make the hero's voice a little more masculine (or feminine)?"  They may or may not agree--again, it's speculative work for them.  Avoid trying to shape or mold your prospective narrator into some ideal that you have in mind.  Remember that an audiobook is a separate art form and the small things you don't like may be in fact something that many listeners do like.  In short, take a lesson from great film directors, like Alfred Hitchcock and Woody Allen.  Despite their larger-than-life portrayals by the media, most of them do not "elicit" fantastic performances from their actors through extensive coaching or instruction--they simply hold auditions, choose the best professionals for the job, and then get out of the way and let the actors do their thing.  This is how I work with my narrators and I urge you to do the same.  Trying to micromanage your narrator, once contracted, will only frustrate him or her and bog down your project.

4.  Similarly, during the narration process, as you listen to each chapter that has been recorded, resist the urge to change anything except what is absolutely necessary.  What do I mean by that?  Only omitted words, grammatical mistakes and gross mispronunciations that you think a large number of readers will notice.  Going back and editing the recording is a lot of work on the narrator's part, so be mindful about changes.  The narration does not have to match the book down to every tiny word--if they add "the" or take one away somewhere, as long as the sentence is still grammatically correct and sounds alright, leave it be.  Inevitably, your narrator will come across a typo or other mistake that you and your proofreaders missed--sometimes they will correct these on the fly, but sometimes they don't.  In these instances there is nothing you can do but change them, unfortunately.  If your narrator is encountering more than one such error per chapter, my advice is to put the recording on hold and have your entire manuscript proofread again before proceeding.

5.  In closing, always be polite to your narrator and behave in a professional manner.  Narrators are artists, too, and just as sensitive about their work as you are about yours.  As you listen to each chapter they record, be sure to give plenty of praise about what you like and be gentle in pointing out any mistakes.  I believe if you choose a competent narrator and always keep this in mind, things will go smoothly and you will be pleased with the resulting audiobook that you produce together.


I hope that this article has helped you understand how you can have your books adapted into audiobook format at no cost to you and consuming very little of your time.  If you have any questions, please feel free to ask in the Comments section below.

Good luck with your audiobooks!

If you have any questions about using ACX to create audiobooks, please feel free to ask in the comments section below or email me at mike (at)


  1. FrAncis Bandettini and Blair Howard, both Goodreads authors, would really like this!!!!!!

    1. Hi Connie. You should tell them about it (forward a link to the post) - I don't know either one of them

  2. A very informative post Mike! Thanks! I had been considering the idea of making an audio book or two but it seemed excessively expensive. I'll definitely check it out!