It’s hard to believe, but this year, I released my first audiobook!
A Fallen Hero was first published in 2018. A year later, I started my own self-publishing LLC for my future books. In 2020, I released the series sequel, and both novels received the Literary Titan Gold Book Award a few months apart.
In 2021, I participated in the On-Ramp Creative Entrepreneur Accelerator program sponsored by the Indiana Arts Commission. This unique opportunity provided a fellowship to help me cover the costs of finally turning AFH into an audiobook.
Now… it’s here!
If you follow this blog, you’ll know that I often write about my self-publishing journey. I’ve provided tips for aspiring authors and openly talked about my blunders so others could avoid making those mistakes. With an audiobook behind me now, I’m excited to share what I’ve learned and hopefully help other indie authors looking to expand their stories into the audiobook market.
In this post, I’ll be focusing primarily on my experience with Findaway Voices, although I’ll also explore ACX as a comparison since these are the two big players in the audiobook production and distribution industry.
This is not a sponsored post. All opinions expressed in this article are my own. Although this article may contain affiliate links, from which I earn a small commission from qualifying purchases, I am not directly affiliated with the companies mentioned in this article. Findaway Voices is my audiobook distributor but was not involved with this post in any way.
1. Narrator Contract Options: PFH vs. Royalty Share vs. Hybrid
When I first started researching how to find narrators and distribute an audiobook, I quickly became overwhelmed by all the options. There’s a lot to learn about the process, but hopefully this article will help to clear up some major points.
First, it’s important to understand the types of narrator contracts.
PFH, which stands for “per finished hour,” is the most common agreement, especially for new and independent authors. When a narrator agrees to a straight PFH rate, that means you’re paying them for their finished recorded/edited time, not their studio time. Even if it takes a narrator 100 hours to record your 6-hour audiobook, you’ll be paying for the six finished hours.
PFH works well because it’s a one-time payment for completed work. The narrator has zero risk of losing money if the audiobook doesn’t do well, which is why it’s usually preferred with new authors who don’t have a long track record or massive audience. And the author is paying only for the finished product, so it doesn’t matter if the narrator keeps messing up and needing to rerecord scenes multiple times. What happens on the narrator’s recording time doesn’t influence the final cost.
The royalty share option is an agreement where instead of paying per finished audio hour, the author agrees to split the royalties with the narrator. How this works actually varies depending on the narrator. Some narrators agree to a royalty share until the PFH cost has been paid back, at which point the author is no longer obligated to split the royalties.
Other contracts lock the author into a royalty share agreement for a certain length of time. This can end up being a pro or con for the author depending on the success of the audiobook. If, for example, the royalty share agreement lasts seven years, but the audiobook does better than expected and meets the PFH threshold in five years, the narrator gets to collect extra royalties for the next two years. The author ends up paying more in royalties than they would have if they’d paid the narrator upfront for their work.
Alternatively, if the audiobook doesn’t do well and the PFH isn’t met within those seven years, the narrator is ultimately shorted for their work in the end. It’s extremely rare for a narrator to agree to a royalty share unless the author is a bestseller and has some clout to their name. This arrangement comes with potentially high risks.
A hybrid agreement is a merging of the PFH and royalty share models. Confusingly, it’s often referred to as a royalty share deal even though it’s not actually a straight royalty share. With the hybrid option, the narrator lowers their usual PFH rate in exchange for a small percentage of royalties. The author is still paying for part of the audiobook upfront, but not the full amount.
For example, let’s say a narrator usually charges $200 PFH. A 10-hour audiobook would cost about $2,000 for narration (not counting the post-production work, which I’ll discuss in the next section). If this narrator agreed to a hybrid deal, the narrator might reduce their PFH rate to $150 in exchange for getting 10% of the author’s royalties after the audiobook is published.
Just like the true royalty share, hybrid contracts will vary depending on the narrator and/or producer. The contract may last for a specified amount of time or until the original PFH total is met.
2. How to Estimate Audiobook Production Cost
Audiobooks are not cheap to produce. Not if they’re done professionally, anyway. If you’re planning to break into the audiobook market, expect to make a serious monetary investment.
For many indie authors, an audiobook is simply not in the budget. I was in that position, too. If it weren’t for a state grant, I wouldn’t have had the funds to invest in my first audiobook.
Even with the financial assistance, the audiobook ended up costing more than I had anticipated based on my initial research and grant proposal.
How much does an audiobook cost to make? Here’s the breakdown to help you create a cost estimate:
- Expect an experienced audiobook narrator to charge $200+ PFH. In my early research, narrator rates seemed to run between $100 and $250 PFH… but the low end of that range isn’t realistic anymore. $200 PFH seems to have become the industry standard for a professional narrator with experience under their belt. If a narrator is charging much less than that, they’re probably new to the business and looking to build their portfolio. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bad, but it’s something to keep in mind if you’re concerned about the quality of your audiobook. For the purpose of creating a more accurate cost estimate, assume a PFH rate of at least $200.
- On average, a person will narrate about 9,300 words per hour. (This is according to ACX, Amazon’s audiobook production company.) Theoretically, you can take the total word count of your book and divide it by 9,300 to estimate the audiobook length. However, I will note that this wasn’t very accurate for me. My 154k-word novel ended up being 18 hours and 50 minutes. By ACX’s calculation, it should have been more like 16.5 hours. It all depends on how quickly your narrator reads, how frequently they pause, etc.
- Depending on your agreement, post-production editing may be a separate pricing factor. This was the case with my audiobook production experience. I had two narrators who each charged their own PFH rate, but they didn’t do the post production themselves. That was a separate rate through the production house, also charged on a PFH basis. (Note: some narrators do their own post-production work or outsource it to a third party on their own. In those cases, they’ll charge a higher PFH rate to cover both the narration and the post production. The union standard is $250 PFH when post production is included.)
So… how much will your audiobook cost? It depends on a range of factors. Findaway Voices estimates that a 50,000-word book would cost between $1,000 and $2,000 to produce as an audiobook. Audiobookstore.com says that a 12-hour audiobook could end up costing between $5,000 and $6,000.
For my audiobook, the cost ended up being closer to Findaway’s estimate than Audiobookstore.com’s. If I hadn’t requested an extra scene to be recorded, I would have come in just over the $5k mark for a book that was approximately 154k words.
Yeah… audiobooks are not cheap! But it all depends on which narrator(s) you choose, how the post-production editing is handled, how long your book is, and other factors.
3. Why DIY Is Usually a Bad Idea
I had essentially come to this conclusion on my own, but when I had my first in-depth conversation with the potential project manager for my audiobook, she strongly agreed that with a few exceptions, recording your own audiobook is a fast road to failure.
From my perspective, I knew from the beginning that I didn’t want to narrate my audiobook because I lacked:
- Proper recording equipment (and the capital to invest in it)
- A reliably quiet space with good acoustics
- Editing software (and the knowledge to use it effectively)
- Training and experience to tell the story in an emotional, compelling way
- Vocal range to handle a large cast of characters with unique voices
- A good voice 😅
From the project manager’s perspective as an avid audiobook listener, she told me rather bluntly that if she’s browsing audiobooks and sees a fiction story narrated by the author, that’s almost always an immediate hard pass. Authors are great with words, but that rarely translates into oral storytelling without proper training and a lot of experience.
However, she did mention that she’s willing to make an exception to the “don’t DIY it” rule if the audiobook is an autobiography. In that case, it’s almost expected that the author would be the narrator.
Other nonfiction books might be able to slide by… but you’re usually better off leaving audiobook narration to a professional. Listeners can tell when it’s done by an amateur, and it’s a big turn-off.
4. Wide vs. Exclusive Audiobook Distribution
Just as with self-publishing, you’ll have to decide whether you want to go with exclusive or wide distribution.
I’ve talked about this frequently in other posts, but I’m a don’t-put-all-of-your-eggs-in-one-basket kinda author. I like to make my books widely available for consumers on just about any platform.
I also don’t have much trust in Amazon, especially considering the ongoing Audiblegate issue where authors are docked 100% of their royalties for returned audiobooks (even if they’ve been listened to in their entirety) and Amazon pockets that revenue for itself. ACX is notorious for shady reporting to makes it harder for authors to track their sales and see when they’re losing out on Amazon’s “easy exchange” program.
But, if you’re asking whether to go wide or exclusive, you’re probably looking at ACX as your exclusive option.
I get it. Experts project that the U.S. audiobook market will grow by 24.8% CAGR by 2030, and there’s no question that Audible controls a majority of that market. If you’re going to target a specific niche, Audible is the place to be. Publishing your audiobook through ACX will also get it onto Amazon and iTunes. That’s three big players dominating the market.
But a wide distribution option will get you onto those same platforms in addition to others such as Barnes & Noble, Google Play, Baker & Taylor, Kobo, and more… at the sacrifice of earning smaller royalties from Amazon and Audible.
So, which method is best? Here are two critical factors to help you make your decision:
Giveaway Promo Codes
The biggest plus for going exclusive with ACX is the promo codes. When you publish your audiobook exclusively through ACX, you’ll receive 25 promo codes for Audible US and 25 for Audible UK, totaling 50. After achieving at least 100 qualified purchases and 10 redeemed promo codes, you can generate an additional 25 codes. (Source: ACX)
Audible promo codes are available ONLY for ACX-exclusive audiobooks. If you distribute through a different company and/or elect to use the ACX non-exclusive agreement, you can’t get Audible giveaway codes.
Findaway Voices does offer promo codes… just not for Audible.
When you publish through Findaway, you can request 30 giveaway promo codes to use through their Author’s Direct platform, which users can download for free to listen to your audiobook. If you enroll in Voices Plus, you’ll get 100 codes. (Source: Findaway Voices)
Voices Plus is Findaway’s exclusivity program. By enrolling, you’re committing to using only Findaway Voices as your distributor. Unlike with the ACX exclusivity agreement, which limits your distribution to only Amazon, Audible, and iTunes, the Voices Plus option gives you access to more than 40 retailers, including library platforms. With such a wide range of retailers, it doesn’t really feel like an exclusivity contract. But it technically is.
Voices Plus also offers its users extra piracy protection. Since they know everywhere your audiobook should be, they’ll handle piracy and DMCA takedown requests on your behalf.
The other factor to consider when deciding whether to go wide or exclusive is the royalties. For the sake of this example, let’s say your audiobook is priced at $10.
ACX offers 40% royalties if you agree to exclusivity. If your $10 audiobook sells on iTunes, Amazon, or Audible, you’ll earn $4 per sale.
ACX also offers a non-exclusive option. By choosing this, you would be allowed to add other distributors in addition to ACX so you could reach other platforms. With this method, ACX provides 25% royalties. Your $10 audiobook would bring in $2.50 per sale.
At first glance, Findaway Voices seems like a much better deal with a promised 80% royalty rate. But that doesn’t mean you’re pocketing $8 every time someone buys your audiobook. Findaway Voices is an aggregator, which means its partners also get a cut. What that cut is depends on each individual retailer, so that profit will vary. Your 80% royalty comes from what Findaway Voices receives after the retailer takes out their share.
For most non-Amazon retailers, Findaway Voices receives somewhere between 40% and 50% of the list price after the retailer’s cut. For example, let’s say your $10 audiobook is sold through a Findaway partner that keeps 50% of the profits. That means the retailer gets $5 for the sale, Findaway keeps $1, and you get the remaining $4. All in all, that’s still a pretty good deal as far as royalties go!
However, keep in mind that for Audible, Apple, and Amazon, your audiobook sales will be the non-exclusive 25% rate minus Findaway’s 20% cut.
If you’re still on the fence about which distribution model is best for your audiobook, ask yourself these questions:
- Do I want my audiobook to be available for libraries? (Wide)
- Will I direct all of my marketing focus to Amazon, Apple, and Audible? (ACX exclusive)
- Do I want Audible-specific giveaway promo codes? (ACX exclusive)
- Do I want higher royalties on smaller (but still relevant) platforms such as B&N, Google, Baker & Taylor, Kobo, etc.? (Wide)
- Is there a possibility I might want to sell the audiobook myself through Author’s Direct, my own website, or another alternative? (Wide)
- Is my audience exclusive to Amazon, Audible, and Apple, or can I reach a lot more people by giving listeners extra options to download the audiobook? (Wide)
Hopefully this section helped you make a more informed decision about wide audiobook distribution vs. exclusive.
5. How to Price Your Audiobook
If you decide to go with the ACX exclusivity option, this isn’t something you need to worry about. Why? Because ACX gives you zero control over your audiobook price. They will automatically set the retail price.
However, ACX does provide a standard guide for how they price their audiobooks, which is helpful even if you’re going through a different distributor such as Findaway Voices. Here is ACX’s suggestion based on the length of your audiobook:
Findaway Voices gives you control to set the retail and library pricing for most sellers. (Important note: if you are distributing to Audible through Findaway, Audible will override your pricing to set it based on their own guidelines.)
I’ll also note that Findaway automatically generated pricing suggestions for me based on my audiobook length and genre… but their numbers fell far short of ACX’s chart. This caught me off guard, especially when my project manager recommended going with Findaway’s price instead of ACX’s. Essentially, that would have meant setting the price of an almost 19-hour audiobook (estimated at being worth $20-$30 by ACX) at the low rate of a 3-to-5-hour audiobook (valued at $10-$15).
This discrepancy didn’t seem right to me, especially after searching online and seeing that other YA fantasy audiobooks at a comparable length seemed to match ACX’s price recommendation.
When I first started publishing, I had also struggled with ebook pricing. There’s really no universal standard. Too high, and people won’t buy. Too low, and readers might assume you’re an amateur and your book isn’t good quality. There’s a sweet spot where you’re charging what your book is worth AND what people are willing to pay for it.
My audiobook was a big investment, and I reasoned that underselling myself wasn’t a good start, especially if there would be promotions on top of the low price point. I ended up going with ACX’s recommendation instead of Findaway’s. Since I have control, I can always go back and drop my price if I notice people aren’t buying.
Another reason I chose to go with the higher retail price — Findaway allows me to sell the audiobook through Author’s Direct after a one-time fee. This is essentially my own storefront where I can offer my audiobooks and keep 70% of the direct royalties (which is much higher than any other platform). Author’s Direct provides customer service for audiobook purchases and tech support for their app, and I can control promotional pricing.
To encourage audiobook listeners to purchase directly from me instead of another source like Audible (which takes a big cut of my royalties), I can set a sale price on Author’s Direct and still earn more than I would from the full retail price on other platforms. Since Author’s Direct shows the original retail price and the sale price, the discount is clearly visible.
This gives me the advantage of offering my audiobook at 25% off the usual retail price when purchased directly from my storefront, and I still have opportunities to run bigger promotions for holidays and special events. If I’d backed myself into a tight corner by setting my original price so low, I wouldn’t be ale to set these deep discounts.
Consciously going against the advice of Findaway Voices and my project manager was hard… and it’s too soon to tell if I made the right decision on the price point. But ACX has been established for a long time and knows how to price audiobooks, so at least there was sound logic behind my decision. Since I have control over the pricing, I can always go back and adjust it up or down until I find that sweet spot.
6. When In Doubt, Trust Your Gut
This is a really hard lesson. Especially when an industry professional is the one giving you advice.
In this last section, I’m going to be completely open and honest about some of the struggles I faced during the audiobook production. On more than one occasion, I had to trust my instincts and make critical decisions that went against what I was being pressured to do.
As an indie author, I’m used to having nearly total control over my books. I work with a professional editor, but I have the final say over whether or not to accept her suggestions. I design my own covers. I handle the interior formatting for the hardcovers and paperbacks. Except for the ebook formatting, I do almost everything myself.
Forfeiting nearly all of my control over the audiobook was very difficult for me. I had to put complete trust in my narrators and hope that they shared my passion for high quality.
But, to be honest, there were a few instances where I was pressured to make a decision that just didn’t sit right with me. I had to decide whether to listen to my gut or yield to someone else’s judgment.
The first case involved the audiobook cover. According to the project manager, some narrators had declined to audition for my audiobook early in the bidding process because they didn’t like the cover. She passed along the name of her favorite graphic designer and recommended that I invest in a redesign.
I stressed about this decision for several weeks. Until that moment, I’d always been proud of my cover. Designing it myself was a highlight since I often sell my art prints at my events. The book wasn’t just my writing; it was also my art.
Creating my own cover was part of the reason I decided to become an indie author in the first place. I had envisioned how I wanted the series to look with each book featuring a different character and eye color on the cover. As an indie author, I had the control to bring that vision to life.
But now, an industry expert was pressuring me to change direction, and I started to doubt my past decisions and artistic skills. Was my cover not good enough? It certainly wasn’t the worst cover in the world, but was I metaphorically shooting myself in the foot with an unmarketable audiobook if I didn’t listen to her? Would potential listeners reject it as the narrators had?
Money was also an issue for me. I’ve already talked about how expensive audiobook production cost is. I do most of my own self-publishing work in part because I can save money by doing the cover designs and interior formatting myself. I wasn’t financially in a position to increase my audiobook production cost by paying a graphic designer on top of the narrators and production house.
Still, I humored the project manager and scoped out the designer’s website to see examples of her work while I was deciding what to do. Yes, she was talented. But I noticed that a lot of the covers were very… generic. They were fantasy covers I’ve seen redone again and again and again. A dime a dozen. Pretty, sure. But instantly forgettable.
I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again — I didn’t write a generic fantasy book. Therefore, I’ve never wanted a generic fantasy cover.
In the end, although it took me a while to come to this stressful decision, I opted to go with my gut and stick with my original cover design.
As an artist, I knew that I would regret giving up the cover to someone else. It may not be the “typical” fantasy cover, but I know people remember it because they tell me so all the time at events. I frequently get unsolicited compliments on the cover (which helps me feel better about the choice I made).
I think it’s likely that the narrators who passed on the audiobook solely because of the cover weren’t right for the project anyway. That doesn’t mean the cover is bad. It accurately reflects my dark, paranormal sci-fan genre. Not every narrator is suited for that kind of book, just as not every reader gravitates toward it, either. Everyone has a different taste.
The timing also didn’t feel right for a redesign. I’d already established the pattern for the series with A Fallen Hero and Phantom’s Mask. Changing direction for the audiobook would mean redesigning the hardcover, paperback, and ebook covers for both books so they’d all match, plus starting over on Book 3’s cover (which was already nearly finished).
Maybe someday, after the whole series is out, I’ll relaunch the books with a remarketing campaign that includes new covers. But not now. The timing was wrong, and I knew that in my heart. I’m grateful that I didn’t give in to the pressure. Personally, I like how the audiobook cover turned out!
The second issue happened right before the audiobook was released. Unfortunately, despite reaching out multiple times throughout the production, I was not included in the proofing phase of the audiobook.
This came as a surprise to me since I knew other authors who were very involved in their audiobook production and communicated regularly with their narrators if they wanted changes. Because of those authors’ experiences, I hadn’t thought to ask about my level of involvement upfront, so I made an incorrect assumption that my experience would be similar. Instead, I ended up being completely in the dark with no idea what the timeline looked like.
Out of the blue, the project manager sent me an email that said the audiobook was finally ready. All I had to do was put in my payment information for direct royalty deposits, then hit publish.
My response: “Can I listen to it first before I publish it?” I hadn’t even heard the audiobook yet!
Let me just say that I was extremely lucky to have picked great narrators. Overall, they did an excellent job, and I’m so grateful that they had the skill and talent to portray my characters so well with hardly any guidance from me (even though I wanted to be more involved and provide input). If I had gone with less qualified narrators, this could have been an absolute disaster.
During my first listen, I heard a handful of relatively minor errors. Some of my fictional words weren’t pronounced correctly, including the name of a former teacher who had passed away (I had named a school after her as a tribute in the story). My own last name was slightly mispronounced in the introduction. A noticeably wrong character voice was used for one sentence of dialogue. I caught a few sparse technical issues as well, such as an accidental s occasionally added onto a word that wasn’t supposed to be plural. Mostly minor. Theoretically, fairly easy to fix without the narrators’ involvement in many cases.
But when I asked for revisions, I received stern pushback on everything except fixing my name. “The audiobook is no longer in the proofing phase,” I was told (paraphrasing). “It’s now in the promotional phase. Changes will cost extra and delay the release.”
In which case… maybe the author should have been involved in the production and proofing phases so these issues could have been addressed before the promotional stage? Many of the errors slipped right past an editor because only the author knew the book and worldbuilding well enough to catch them.
The thing is, I’m a perfectionist. If I find typos in my print versions, I always fix them. I can’t tolerate knowingly letting errors slip through.
Getting those changes made to the audiobook was like pulling teeth. I had to be selective about which edits I wanted to go to bat for and which ones were minor enough to let slide. The audiobook establishes worldbuilding pronunciations in a way the print and ebook formats can’t do, so I didn’t feel that an author should be expected to change the lore of their fictional world to match a mispronunciation in the audiobook. Some of the words I’d invented were based off real last names or had etymological significance.
All in all, those were relatively small changes and not the main point of this story. There was one big change I wanted… and I had to decide if it was worth fighting for. My gut said it was.
I’ll admit that I didn’t consider the audiobook format when I was writing A Fallen Hero. Even if I had, I probably wouldn’t have thought about having two narrators. In several chapters, the POV shifts between A.J. and Mia fit together beautifully by sheer dumb luck with the narrators fluidly passing scenes back and forth to build phenomenal tension.
But there was one chapter where A.J. ended up having all of the scenes except one. Because of that, Mia’s short scene in that chapter felt jarring and out of place — almost accidental.
Although A.J. was technically supposed to have the male POV scenes and Mia was supposed to have the female POV scenes, one of the sections in that chapter was ambiguous enough that I could get away with having either narrator do it. I wanted to pay Mia to record A.J.’s one scene so she would have an extra part for better balance and that ideal back-and-forth momentum between the two narrators. I had no problem paying both narrators for their work on that same scene even though only one version would be used.
But I knew my request would cause conflict. I was asking for a whole scene to be recorded from scratch and then edited. There was already a lot of tension at this point since I’d made it clear that I wasn’t happy about not being involved with the proofing… especially since I’d asked about it on more than one occasion but never received a response. As a former landscape architect, I can’t even imagine a client spending thousands of dollars and not being at least somewhat involved through the various project stages to make sure the final result was what they wanted (and paid for).
I hate confrontation. I’m a passive person who absolutely loathes being a “difficult client” and causing issues… but if I was going to fork over $5,000+ for this project, I felt entitled to be satisfied with the final result.
Again, after dwelling on the pros and cons of pushing back when the project manager clearly just wanted to publish and move on, I realized that I would forever be kicking myself for not standing my ground when I had the opportunity. I wasn’t asking for freebies; I was a paying client offering to pay the same PFH rate for the new scene. If I had to be a difficult author, so be it. My gut was telling me not to be intimidated into letting this go when I knew taking the extra step and recording that scene would make the audiobook flow better.
As you can probably guess… my request was met with resistance from the project manager, who wasn’t keen on the extra delay and work.
Luckily for me, my narrator agreed to do the scene once the project manager reached out to her. It all worked out in the end, and it truly did make a positive impact on that chapter… just as I knew it would.
Overall, I had a mixed experience with my first audiobook. It wasn’t all smooth sailing. Without my insanely talented narrators, I’m not sure how it would have turned out.
I’m grateful that I kept my original cover design and didn’t settle for a typical one done by another artist. And I’m happy that I insisted on fixing errors, having my fictional words pronounced correctly, and rerecording that one scene with a different narrator. I endured more anxiety about those issues than I should have, but I listened to my heart and made the decisions that felt right… and the audiobook was better because of it.
My advice is to find a balance between your ego and your gut. Don’t completely tune out a professional’s advice just because they’re telling you something you don’t want to hear. But at the same time, don’t immediately fold every time and default to someone you perceive as having higher authority and more experience. It’s your book. Nobody knows it better than you do. Take their advice with a grain of salt.
You are the client. You need to be happy with the final result. Your audiobook is a big investment, and you shouldn’t be kicking yourself in the end for not having the courage to ask for changes when you had the chance.
I also recommended asking a lot of questions. If something doesn’t make sense, don’t hesitate to ask for clarification! Understand what your narrators need from you. Based on my issues, I HIGHLY recommend being direct and asking how involved you’ll be in the proofing phase before you sign a contract. Know your role and set your expectations. Otherwise, you might get an unpleasant surprise later.
Choose your battles and try to enjoy the adventure. You’ll learn a lot!