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FAQ: Audiobooks

I get a lot of messages asking me about why a certain book isn’t in audio yet or when it will be in audio, so I thought I’d write a blog about my journey in audio so far and why it might take a while for my entire (large) back catalog to be in audio.

I had no plans to make audiobooks back when I first started publishing. I had a day job (still do) that took up much of my time, and my wife was too busy running the business and putting out new books. When an audiobook agent reached out to me asking to represent me, I thought that would be a good compromise because we wouldn’t have to learn the whole sub-industry, and the agent would do most of the work. Months later, we had no takers, which felt odd because I’d seen other authors in my genre getting picked up, and I wondered if maybe she had too many clients or if something was just wrong with my books. I asked her, and she confirmed that there were no takers but that she’d been pushing, so I decided to end my contract with her so that I’d be able to pursue audio on my own when I was ready.

Literally the next day (and that’s not hyperbole), I heard from Tantor. I have no idea why it worked out that way, but they wanted to produce ALL THE LOVE SONGS. Something to keep in mind here is that when you get a company like Tantor, they produce it from start to finish for you. There’s very little control for the author, and they don’t even tell you when the audiobook will be released. I’ve heard this from other authors as well, and I have my suspicions as to how this all works, but I haven’t confirmed them, so I won’t speak to them here. ALL THE LOVE SONGS was released, and I had a book in audio. I thought that would be my only for a while, but they reached out and asked for REALITY CHECK next - which was an odd choice, I thought, since I now had a lot of other books out and available for them to choose from. I agreed and asked if they wanted ALWAYS MORE, since that was the beginning of a series, and I’d hoped they’d want to pick up all of them. They said yes to ALWAYS MORE as well. Later, they also got NO AFTER YOU, but they weren’t interested in picking up any more of my books.

I don’t know why for sure, but I can guess that, like everything else, the sales just weren’t there for them, which I understand. Here’s what you should know, if you don’t, about companies like Tantor: production companies will often issue you a small advance of around $500 as their standard, and they will then take a large portion of your royalties (and I mean LARGE). Audiobooks are not all that profitable. I consider them more passive income than anything, and they take a while - if ever - to make any real money. This is largely due to everyone taking their cut. With an advance, you won’t get paid anything else until you’ve “paid off” that advance. It’s not free money. It’s them saying to you, “We know you’ll make us at least $500, so we’ll give that to you now.” If your book turns out to be a hit, you’re in business, but it might take some time to even earn that money back for them.

Your royalties might vary based on the sale type. For example, you might have a different percentage for library downloads than for retail purchases. This means that it can take a while for you to “pay them back” for the production. You might only make 20% royalties for the book (of what the production company will make), so if it’s priced at $20, you make $1, minus taxes, because the platform will take its cut, the production company will take their 25% of the total royalties, and an author is left with a tiny cut of those 25% royalties. To pay off that $500, you’d have to sell 500 books. Then, you’d start getting your royalties paid after that.

There are things I didn’t like about this overall process, and it’s no one’s fault. I knew so little about audiobooks back then. I went in mostly blind, but I didn’t like the lack of control. I had it included that I got to pick my narrator in my contract, but I had to go through the ones Tantor had worked with before and couldn’t pick someone else. I’m not sure if this has changed since I went through this process, though. I didn’t like that I couldn’t control when the book was released or that I got no communication unless I reached out first. They also do NO marketing for you, which is something I knew, but since marketing is not my forte, it would have been very helpful to have them, with their reach, help post on social media about my books. So, I’m sure my sales weren’t as good as more well-known and established authors with a better social media presence. There also wasn’t a chance for me to approve any audio first. With ALWAYS MORE, I was pretty insistent, and I received some auditions with my actual script, but that was it. There’s no check-in and no real opportunity to give feedback to the narrator. When it got released to you, listeners, that’s when I heard it all for the first time, which isn’t what I would prefer.

I didn’t get involved further in audio for a while because it felt like such a beast, and I didn’t have the time (or, quite frankly, the money). I still work a day job, as I call it, and I write in the evenings and on the weekends. My wife runs the business part of Pyland Publishing, and taking on one more thing just seemed too hard during COVID and with the pending war in Ukraine that we’d known was coming for a while (where her family would be directly impacted). Eventually, we sat down and decided to check out ACX to see how easy/hard it would be. At the time, ACX was the only audiobook production company I’d heard of, and I knew they were owned by Amazon, so we decided to give them a try.

Getting started in the system is easy, but everything after that is time-consuming and expensive (if you do it how I do it). The first part of the process (I’ve shortened the process here for brevity) is uploading your script for narrators - or, as ACX calls them, producers - to use in their auditions. For my first book, I had no narrators in mind, and I set up The Show Must Go On for auditions. I received several within a couple of days and had to sit and listen to each audition; some, several times. Auditions are about 5-10 minutes long, and you can ask people to audition again if need be, but my wife and I then had to:

  • talk about the auditions,

  • decide on a producer,

  • reach out to that producer,

  • talk about the logistics and the price,

  • then upload the manuscript,

  • make the cover for the audio version,

  • listen to their check-in, which is about 15 minutes,

  • offer feedback if needed,

  • listen again,

  • then, wait.

When the book is done, you have to listen to the whole thing (which is a pain for me - I can read my words again, but listening, for some reason, drives me crazy - not because of the narrator). If anything is wrong, you let them know, and you only get so many “revisions.” You pick out the retail sample next, and you wait some more. Then, you find out how they take payment, set that up, send it to QA, and wait for it to be released. With ACX, their QA time is, at most, 10 business days (in my experience), but unless you select a specific release date, you don’t know exactly when it will come out. Even when I have requested a specific release date, I’ve struggled with them confirming it and then not following what they confirmed, so there’s that added stress and time to call their support and get things worked out.

Each book is hours upon hours of time, but it’s also costly. There are options in ACX production. You can do “royalty share,” which means you spend nothing upfront or a % upfront and pay your producer in royalties, but generally, the top-quality narrators work on PFH (“per finished hour”) and work for unions, where they need to make $250/PFH minimum. That means, if your book is 8 hours long once produced, it’s going to cost you $2000/book, at least.

I have more than 40 books currently. If I subtract the ones I already have in audio as of this writing and just assume that, on average, each book would be 8 hours long, that would amount to about $46,000 dollars and would only get me through my back catalog and not be for my new releases. I do about 7-8 of those a year in a normal year. So, assuming only 7 books that are 8 hours long on average, that would be $14,000 a year spent on audiobooks alone.

I do choose to pay upfront to get a narrator that’s at a minimum $250, but I do this because I want the highest quality audiobooks, and working with a professional producer makes all the difference in the world, too. They know what they’re doing. They’re communicative. Their equipment is top-notch, and they get things done on time. This is a huge stress relief on my end. I also choose this because there are tax implications with “royalty sharing.” (ACX doesn’t help with this, so it’s always the author’s responsibility to ensure the producer gets paid, and then, you deal with taxes later.) This was something I couldn’t and didn’t want to take on. I know I have other options, and that other authors use those options, which is completely their choice, and I support them in doing what’s right for them.

Producing audiobooks this way is more time-consuming, but it gives me more control over my own work and a higher percentage of royalties (not by much, though). Amazon, ACX, and everyone else still get their cut, so while I don’t have to share my royalties further with a producer, these books take months - or, years - to even pay themselves off before they start turning a very slow profit. That profit is important because it allows me to keep writing, publishing, and making more audiobooks.

Now that I’ve done this a few times, I’m more confident in reaching out to narrators like Melissa Moran to have her finish the Celebrities Series (which she did so beautifully), but it still takes time and money.

I tell you all of this not to dissuade you from asking the question about when a certain book will be in audio, but to give you the whole picture from my perspective. I would love to have all of my books in audio, and the long-term plan is that I will do that, but it will take years to get there.

I pretty much exclusively listen to audiobooks, so I know how much it means to have them in that format. If you like my audiobooks, please rate and review them, give a shout-out on social (especially to those hard-working narrators), and tell your friends about them.


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