Originally published December 19, 2023; updated February 19, 2024.
Are you an audiobook listener? Back in the day, I remember listening to a few “books on tape,” but only recently have I started listening to audiobooks more frequently—mostly when doing chores like painting or gardening. I’m not alone in my new-found enjoyment of audiobooks. The Audio Publishers Association reports that in 2022 audiobook sales experienced an eleventh straight year of double-digit growth. It also reported that over half of US adults had listened to an audiobook in the past year.
In this article, I want to provide an overview of what indie authors need to know about creating audiobooks. And in a separate article, “How to Publish an Audiobook: Practical, Tactical Tips,” I provide details and practical tips using a client case study.
Major Audiobook Platforms
There are numerous platforms where indie authors can publish an audiobook, but the two I’ll focus on here rise to the top in most of the articles and discussions I’ve seen: ACX and Findaway Voices.
- ACX is owned by Amazon and distributes to Amazon, Audible (also owned by Amazon), and iTunes.
- Findaway Voices is owned by Spotify and distributes to those three as well as to a boatload of other sites (maybe 50ish?).
If you are familiar with the self-publishing world, you are probably familiar with Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), which is owned by Amazon, and IngramSpark, which distributes to a large number of retailers. We typically recommend using KDP for Amazon and IngramSpark for everything else. Similarly, many indie authors use ACX for Amazon-owned sites and Findaway for everything else.
Please note: In February 2024, Findaway/Spotify came under fire for a “rights grab” in its term of service. While some of the terms were changed after enough people complained, always read the full terms of service before engaging with a platform. For more on this particular issue, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, who writes regularly on the publishing industry, has a good overview.
The person who reads the book is the narrator. You might see various terms for them—voice actor, voiceover artist, voice talent—and ACX calls them “producers.”
If you happen to have a radio-ready voice and know how to properly create all the audio files needed, you could attempt recording your audiobook yourself. That is not what I would recommend!
By hiring a professional, you will get someone who does have that radio-ready voice. They will also make sure your book has been through quality control (essentially proofreading, or rather “prooflistening”), and that the files are mastered and structured correctly.
Finding a narrator
You can find narrators in a number of places, including on the ACX and Findaway websites.
If you use ACX to find your narrator, be careful not to get caught in demo overload—listening and listening and listening to samples. I believe Findaway asks you for requirements and gives you a curated list, but not having tried it personally, I’m not sure how many options are provided.
You can also go through production companies or directly to an individual artist if you know one.
Tip: Popular narrators have full calendars, so make sure you allow enough time in your schedule in case there’s a wait.
How narrators get paid
Narrators get paid one of two basic ways: per finished hour and royalty share.
Per finished hour (PFH) means you pay an hourly rate for the finished length of your audiobook. If a narrator’s rate is $250 per finished hour and your audiobook ends up being five hours, the total is $1,250. But it takes much more than five hours of work—recording, making corrections, quality control, mastering—to reach those finished hours.
Rates will vary depending on the narrator’s experience, notability, and so on, so you might see ranges from, say, $200 to $500 PFH. With PFH, you (the author) pay for services prior to publication. Then when your audiobook is sold, you keep all the royalties.
To get an idea how many finished hours your book will have, you can estimate one hour per 9,300 words. So a book of 50,000 words would come in at about five and a half hours.
With royalty sharing, as you might guess, you pay nothing or a smaller amount up front, and then you split the audiobook royalties with the narrator. The split varies: if you pay nothing up front, it could be 50/50, or you could make a partial payment up front to get a split more favorable to you. Be sure to understand the details (and negotiate as appropriate) before you enter this type of agreement.
Tip: My understanding is that most narrators are reluctant to agree to a royalty-sharing arrangement unless they have high confidence that you will sell a substantial number of books.
Working with the Narrator
Now it’s time to turn your book into an audiobook…
What you give the narrator
Once you’ve decided on the narrator, it’s time to give them what they need to record: the script at minimum, and possibly a pronunciation guide.
The script is essentially your book. The narrator will most likely want a digital file (e.g., Word or PDF). The script varies somewhat from the print book:
- The front matter is typically not read. This includes the copyright page, dedication, table of contents, foreword, introduction, and so on.
- The back matter is also typically not read. This includes glossaries, end notes, bibliographies, and so on.
The narrator records just the body of the book—if there is something you need them to record that is integral to the book, such as the introduction, be sure to tell them.
A pronunciation guide is simply what it sounds like: how to pronounce unfamiliar words or names.
What you get back from the narrator
After the narrator is done recording and the files have been quality-checked and mastered, you’ll get the audiobook files as MP3s (or some other format, but MP3s seem to be the most common), ready for uploading to the platform of your choice. The files should include:
- Opening credits
- Each chapter recorded as a separate file
- Closing credits
- A retail sample (about five minutes) for potential buyers to listen to before buying
Before signing off on the project, be sure to review the files. You might want to listen to the whole book, but at least check the beginning of each file.
Once you’ve got your files, it’s time to upload them to the platform(s) of your choice. I’ll describe the process for ACX and Findaway here. Other platforms are probably similar.
Before you can publish an audiobook, you need to set up an author account, including the appropriate tax and banking info. This should be fairly straightforward.
Then, to set up your audiobook:
- Claim your book. With ACX, you first need to claim your book. The audiobook is usually published after the print book/ebook, thus you can “claim” the existing book (though I have seen at least one recent book that was audio only). Note: I have heard that it is possible for someone other than the author to claim a book, so once you have published a print book or ebook, it might be worth claiming yours to avoid problems later.
- Enter or adjust the metadata. Metadata includes things like the book description and author bio.
- Upload the audiobook files (MP3s). As mentioned, these should have been given to you in the appropriate segments: opening credits, the body of the book (introduction, chapters, conclusion), closing credits, retail sample. Adjust the descriptions as needed.
- Upload the book cover. This is a square image, so you might need your cover designer to help tweak the original cover design.
- Submit for review. Once you submit your book, there is a technical review that ACX says takes ten business days. If anything is found to be wrong with the files, you will be notified. Otherwise, the audiobook will be made available for sale.
- Email supplemental material (optional). If you have supplemental material for your book, e.g., diagrams, glossary, bibliography, you can email it to the ACX support team.
Again, before you can start your audiobook, you must set up an author account. The setup is similar to ACX (tax and banking info and such).
To set up your audiobook:
- Enter the metadata. Findaway lets you enter much more metadata than ACX does, including among other things, categories and keywords, ISBNs, the copyright owner, and the price (see the next section for a discussion of pricing).
- Upload the audiobook files (MP3s). As with ACX, upload the files and adjust the descriptions as needed.
- Upload the book cover. Again, square.
- Upload supplemental material (optional). Findaway lets you upload one PDF of supplemental material (easier than remembering to email it!).
- Choose where to distribute. Findaway provides a long list of retailers you can distribute to. You can use the default, which selects them all, or you can select specific retailers.
- Submit for review. Findaway too says it will take approximately ten business days for technical review, and that it can take twenty to thirty days for your audiobook to become available for sale on retail sites.
Pricing and Royalties
Two related topics—pricing and royalties—can cause some head-scratching.
If you’re an indie author, you’re probably used to setting your own prices on KDP and IngramSpark. Of course, a retailer can choose to sell your book for a price higher or lower; nonetheless, you get to determine the suggested retail price.
One of the oddest things in audiobook pricing: ACX does not let you set your price! Instead, it sets prices based on the length of the audiobook—and does not give any indication of the price before you submit your audiobook for sale!
- under 1 hour: under $7
- 1–3 hours: $7 to $10
- 3–5 hours: $10 to $20
- 5–10 hours: $15 to $25
- 10–20 hours: $20 to $30
- over 20 hours: $25 to $35
Findaway, on the other hand, lets you choose not only a retail price but also a library price, which is often higher. And, it suggests an appropriate price for each. Additionally, Findaway allows for launch pricing and promotional pricing, if you are interested in that.
The royalties you receive are influenced by the price of your audiobook, whether you paid for narration up front or chose a royalty-sharing arrangement, and, with ACX, whether you are exclusive or not.
Both ACX and Findaway offer royalty-share arrangements, with payments dependent on a number of factors. If you choose one of these arrangements, be sure you understand the details and obligations. The rest of this section assumes you paid up front.
With ACX you get a choice of being exclusive to ACX, which pays a 40% royalty, or non-exclusive, which pays a 25% royalty. The higher royalty might sound enticing, but it means your book is available only on Amazon, Audible, and iTunes—three big markets, but not all.
Findaway acts as a distributor so that you as an author don’t have to create individual accounts on each audiobook platform (remember, there are loads of them). As a result, they take a 20% cut of what you would get in royalties if you went direct. So if the direct royalty is $5, you would get 80%, or $4. Since Findaway is owned by Spotify, however, you get 100% of the royalties from sales on that platform.
Ready to record?
With audiobooks on the rise, even if you’re not quite ready to jump in, it’s a good idea to understand your options. We’ll update this article periodically as we learn more about audiobooks and as platforms evolve. If you have questions, let me know and I’ll do my best to incorporate the answers in future updates.
For more audiobook tips and tricks, check out “How to Publish an Audiobook: Practical, Tactical Tips,” a case study with client Matt Holten, author of Moneyless Society: The Next Economic Evolution.