Every day, either I or an assistant look through the ACX audition list for potential new projects. We're looking for high-value targets: pay-for-production books that aren't too difficult to read and offer a reasonable rate, or royalty share projects that are at or below a 20,000 paid Amazon Bestsellers Rank for the ebook edition. Most days we don't find much, if anything at all. When we do, I'll evaluate the project further, determine if it's a good idea for us to produce, and then record and submit an audition. This is a frustrating process because rights holders who are new to audiobook production often don't take their ACX listings seriously, focus on the wrong metrics, or have some deal-killing misconceptions about the technical and financial aspects of audiobook production. Here are some of the most common problems we see:
1. You're not actually looking for a producer
This is the worst one. We often see it happen with authors who are getting their publishing rights back from a corporate book publisher, and have a 5-book series that they are self-publishing a second edition of, and want an audiobook version as well. They already have a narrator selected, but have listed their projects for audition. Some are kind enough to say in the project notes that they've already selected a narrator, yet the project still appears in the audition list. That wastes our time a little bit, but it wastes a lot more time when a high-value project is not actually in search of a producer, and we record an audition for it.
Please, if you're not looking for a producer/narrator, don't list your project for audition. If it's already cast, you should make an offer to the producer you're working with. At the very least, you can put in a note on the project's page (or in lieu of the audition script) saying that it is not actually up for audition. Or you can upload some really terrible cover art; this will make your project essentially invisible in the audition list.
2. The illusion of abundance causes you to conduct "gotcha" auditions
When you search ACX for "Producers for Hire," the default listing shows (as of this writing) more than 50,000 samples. This is not the number of narrators looking for projects; this is the number of samples posted by narrators, many of whom may no longer be producing audiobooks. I have 12 narrator samples posted on ACX, and as far as I know there's no limit to how many can be posted. I think a lot of rights holders see that huge number and think, "There are FIFTY THOUSAND narrators for me to choose from! I need to narrow the funnel so I don't get overwhelmed by auditions." In actuality, there are comparatively few.
I see projects posted that attempt to narrow the audition funnel by posting bizarre audition scripts that take four or five different excerpts from the book, all 5-10 pages long, and have no context about the characters, the setting, or the story. Or the character voice requirements are totally crazy, such as: "This character is from deep in the Louisiana Bayou, but educated in Glasgow, and his parents are from Sri Lanka and Morocco, so his accent should reflect all of that. Oh, and his parents are in the story but are now living in Taiwan, so their accents must be perfectly accurate, too!" (This isn't even an exaggeration).
3. Your audition script is either way too long, or way too short
Along the lines of the previous point, many audition scripts are posted with unrealistic expectations. You should be able to figure out whether a narrator is right for your project by listening to 3 minutes or less of their work. You don't need to hear every character's voice in the book -- you'll work that out later, maybe in a second audition if absolutely necessary.
3 minutes of audio is about two pages, depending on formatting. If you really need to hear more than that, then ask for 5 minutes. Never ask for more -- that's too much work to do for a project that, as far as we know from the production side, may not even be looking for a producer because it is mistakenly listed for audition.
At the other end of the spectrum are auditions that are pasted into the audition script window on ACX, with no formatting, no context, no information about the story whatsoever.
Ideally, you'll take one of two paths: summarize the whole story (including the ending) and explain who the characters are and how you'd like them to sound (use celebrity voices for reference, if possible), and upload the 2-3 page section of the manuscript that you feel will represent the narrator's style and ability. If that excerpt is not at the beginning of the book, provide some context to set the scene. Alternatively, you can upload the entire book in PDF format and ask for a certain range of 2 or 3 pages. That way we can read the context for ourselves.
4. You want two narrators
Before ACX started time-limiting auditions, there were a lot of permanently unproduced romance or erotica projects that demanded two narrators. Logistically that is difficult to arrange on the production side because a rights holder only enters into an agreement with one producer. That producer must then manage the other details of the project in addition to narrating; this can include arranging separate contracts with a second narrator and possibly an editor or engineer, proofing, and sending out 1099s at the end of the year. Even if it isn't as complicated as that, the rate will still be substantially higher because of the extra overhead. If you aren't prepared to pay at least $350 and more likely $400-$500 per finished hour for a duet or dual narrator team, you're probably wasting your time even listing the project for audition. If you're putting it up as a royalty share project with a reasonable pay-for-production rate on top of it (to pay the second narrator), then that might work if you've got an awesome sales rank. If you put up a dual narrator project as straight royalty share, then your name had better be E. L. James or Stephanie Meyer.
There are a small number of narration teams out there who work together out of the same studio, and may offer a lower rate. This doesn't leave you with very many choices when it comes to vocal style and production quality, though. If it isn't going to be a great two-narrator production, then your money is better spent on one really good narrator who can do the whole book solo. Good narrators can do excellent, realistic voices for opposite-sex characters. Will adding a second narrator truly provide a better listening experience, and will it be worth the extra cost?
5. You mistake "finished hours" for "hours of labor"
For pay-for-production projects, you're setting a price per finished hour of audio. Each finished hour will take, at minimum, 4 hours to produce -- and that probably isn't going to be a very inspiring performance. Most ACX projects should probably double that -- 8 hours of labor for one finished hour of audio. That estimate may seem high, but there are aspects of the production process that you don't see:
- Reading and markup: The narrator skims the text to get the basic overview of the story and the characters, takes notes, looks up pronunciations, and marks up the script where necessary. Usually when I narrate a book, I highlight the character dialogue in different colors for the first third of the book or so, until I know them well enough that I don't need the highlighting anymore. Depending on the project, this is between 12 and 25 pages per hour.
- Recording: This can vary wildly depending on the kind of book it is and how many characters there are. Usually it takes 1.5 to 2 hours of work to record one finished hour of audio, but it can be a lot more than that if there are difficult character voices, new accents to learn, non-English words or phrases, or other stumbling blocks.
- Editing: This is the long pull. How long it takes depends on how the recording process went, and if there are any vocal effects, multi-tracking, or music to add. At a minimum, it will take 3 hours of editing to produce one finished hour of audio. Typically it's more like 4 or 5 for me because I like to get the pacing just right and remove extraneous mouth noises.
- Corrections and changes: You hear something that isn't right, and ask for it to be redone. No matter how good the narrator is, this happens a few times on almost every project. You wanted the French pronunciation of "macabre" and the narrator used the English pronunciation. No problem, that's normal, but it does take extra time.
And there are some things that cause extra delay:
- Copyediting and proofreading errors. For every grammatical error, split infinitive, spelling error, inconsistently-named character, erroneous dialogue attribution, verb tense error, missing punctuation mark, run-on-sentence, gaping plot hole, incorrectly used word, and weird formatting error, it costs us 5 minutes (or more) of production time. Every manuscript I've produced, even some from big New York publishers, contains some errors. On a small scale this is accounted for in the recording and editing time estimates, but when there are 50 errors in 50,000 words, we have a problem; we're now spending an extra 250 minutes (4.2 hours) of labor on about 5 finished hours of audio.
- Bad formatting. Ideally, you'll send your manuscript in DOCX or ODF format, and we'll make it into a PDF that I can work with. I prefer: 1.5-line spacing, 12-point Verdana font (designed specifically for low eye strain and readability on screens), and justified margins (NOT left-aligned with a jagged right edge!). When you send a PDF that is grossly outside of these parameters (or a printed book, which I no longer accept), it increases production time.
6. You overestimate the value of your project
Unless you have a sustained Amazon Bestsellers Rank of 20,000 or better (lower is better) for your ebook (not your print book -- print book sales are meaningless to audiobook sales potential), you probably won't find a really good producer for a royalty share deal without offering an extra pay-for-production payment. ACX identifies royalty share projects that are high-value but still up for audition after a few days, and tacks on a $100 PFH stipend in addition to the standard royalty share agreement. You'll need to take the same approach if you want your royalty share project to be considered by professional producers.
The formula for estimating royalty share earnings is complex (see our Audiobook Production FAQ for the specifics), but it boils down to this: for most projects of average length, count on earning $4 per audiobook sale. Count on selling one audiobook for every 10 ebooks you sell (ignoring all free ebook downloads; also, if you are good at book marketing and you know your fan base will like the audiobook, then you can increase the ratio to as high as 1:5 as an outside figure, but for initial estimation purposes it's best to be on the conservative side). Multiply that over a term of 7 years. That's what your audiobook project is worth to you as a business asset. From there, you can decide if you want to split that 50/50 with a producer (meaning you'll each earn about $2 per sale), or offer them a rate that is profitable to both of you.
If your 8-hour audiobook project is estimated to earn $5500 over 7 years, then you have to decide how much of that you want to reserve for yourself (it'll be paid back via royalties at the previously-estimated rate of $4 per sale), and how much you can spend on a producer (you could offer a rate of $400 PFH, make $2300 for yourself, and find a very good producer).
If your 8-hour audiobook project is estimated to earn $500 over 7 years, then you must either decide that it's not a good business decision at the moment and work on building your readership for now, or that it's a labor of love and worth the cost of producing it on a pay-for-production basis (producing an audiobook from my own poorly-selling novel cost my production company a loss of about $4800). In that scenario, you'll take the upfront loss with the hope that new marketing efforts and future book projects will boost sales significantly within 7 years. You could also try to narrate it yourself. But putting that up for royalty share auditions is almost certainly a waste of your time.