This is a question that has been coming up frequently of late on the various indie author boards.
The question is only natural. Dedicated narrators charge around $250 per finished hour to narrate, edit, and master audio files.
That means $2,700 to $3,300 to convert a 100,000-word novel into an audiobook.
No, those numbers aren’t in Japanese yen. They’re in US dollars.
To be fair to the narrators: Although $250 per hour sounds like a lot, the narrators aren’t necessarily charging the same hourly rates as corporate attorneys, heart surgeons, and high-class call girls.
Notice that I said, per finished hour. That means not only reading the material, but also editing out obtrusive plosive sounds, loud breaths, and overly lengthy pauses. It means mastering the files to make sure they meet certain technical specifications.
According to some estimates, five to ten hours of work can be required to produce a finished hour of audio for an audiobook.
Audiobook production requires a material investment in both hardware and software. There is also something of a learning curve, as sound engineering is both an art and a science. To become competent in sound engineering isn’t quite as difficult as becoming an attorney or a heart surgeon (I won’t speculate about the difficulty of becoming a high-class call girl); but it isn’t exactly simple, either. There are many new concepts to absorb and understand. Unless you have worked with audio at the technical level in the past, all of these concepts will be completely unfamiliar to you.
So hopefully I’ve made clear: No one should be resentful of the narrators who charge $250 per finished hour to deliver store-ready audiobook files.
That said, $2,700~$3,300 represents a significant upfront investment for most indie authors. If you’ve got a backlist of ten books, that means that you could buy a new Toyota Corolla for what it would take to convert your entire library into audiobook format.
It is only natural, then, that some authors are asking the question: Why not just do this myself?
Why not, indeed? This brings us to the debate. There are plenty of reasons for doing it yourself…and for not doing it yourself. I don’t believe that there is an absolute, one-size-fits-all, right or wrong answer to this one. As is so often the case in this life, the only succinct answer is: It depends.
To begin with, the writer who seeks to produce her own audiobooks will have to be comfortable reading her own work in a very public way. Many writers are painfully shy. I am amazed at the number of writers who are terrified to appear on YouTube or on podcasts. Many are too shy to even post their author photos on Facebook or their Amazon author pages. These authors almost certainly won’t feel comfortable reading their own fiction, and that will show in the results.
Narrating an audiobook is also a unique skill, above and beyond other forms of public speaking. I don’t believe that professional theater training is a prerequisite, but it would certainly help. At the very least, no author should attempt to read his own work for audio without first having listened to hundreds of hours of audiobooks as a consumer. If you don’t like audiobooks, if you aren’t a consumer of audiobooks, then you have no business narrating them.
And then there’s the investment and technical side, which I’ve touched on above. Some writers embrace technology, others shrink from it. Can you learn about RMS, noise floors, and hard limits as eagerly as you learned about three-act structure? Are you willing to plunk down the money needed to purchase a computer with decent processing power, a high-quality mic, and other equipment? Are you willing to pay for Pro Tools or Adobe Audition software?…Oh, and are you also ready to ascend the learning curve that it takes to competently use them?
In regard to this last point, I would offer one piece of cautionary advice. On writer forums, I occasionally see writers state that they are overwhelmed by Scrivener (a popular non-linear word processing program designed for writers). If you’re overwhelmed by Scrivener, then you probably shouldn’t try to produce your own audiobooks.
(I don’t mean to imply that you’re an idiot, by the way, if you’re overwhelmed by Scrivener….But I do mean to imply that you aren’t very technically inclined if you’re overwhelmed by Scrivener….We all have our own strengths and weaknesses. I can run a six-minute mile; but I can’t make simple free throw shots on the basketball court with any degree of reliability. Know thy strengths, know thy weaknesses.)
That all said, there are plenty of reasons for embarking on self-production…if you have the basic aptitudes and willingness.
One of the big arguments for self-production is this: The job that you hire out might not be any better than the job you could do yourself, with a bit of preparation.
There are few formal barriers to entry to the narrator field. Anyone can hang out a shingle as a narrator nowadays. Many of the narrators you encounter in the marketplace might be only a few steps ahead of you…or possibly a few steps behind you.
Let’s start with the quality of the narration itself. If you’re going to hire Scott Brick (the narrator of most of the Clive Cussler novels, among many other books) then Scott Brick is almost certainly going to do a better job than you. By all means, hire Scott Brick. Scott Brick is not only a consummate professional, he’s a “brand”. (I’m far more likely to consider an audiobook from an unknown author if Scott Brick is the narrator.)
I don’t know what Scott Brick charges per hour, but it’s probably more than $250; and his schedule is likely booked months or years in advance. I am therefore going to assume that you won’t be hiring Scott Brick. You’re going to hire some narrator from the online marketplace, whom you’ve never heard of before.
I’ve listened to many samples from lesser known narrators on the Audible site. Most of them meet a basic level of competence; but the indie author might honestly ask: Is that voice, that quality of narration, worth $250 per hour?
On the technical side, some of the independent narrators seem to be just as tech-averse as the average indie author. Many seem to have backgrounds in acting. When you think of someone who is technically proficient, is a drama major the first person who comes to mind?
It might therefore be easier to just bite the bullet, and learn about RMS, noise floors, etc.
Yes, it’s hard…but not heart surgery hard. It’s more like building-your-own-backyard-deck, or learning-conversational-Spanish hard.
You also have the option of recording and editing the audio files yourself, then hiring out the final mastering—which is not free, but which is far cheaper, in most cases, than $250 per finished hour.
The quandary of whether or not to narrate one’s own audiobooks, then, is a uniquely personal one that every author needs to carefully assess.
Whichever way you go, audiobook production isn’t going to be easy or cheap. Accept that from the get-go, or don’t even start.
The question is: Given your priorities, proclivities, and resources, are you better to sacrifice ease (self-production), or are you better to sacrifice cheapness (outsourcing)?
That’s the decision that you have to make; and whichever one you choose, you’re likely to encounter a bit of buyer’s remorse if your audiobook sales don’t meet your expectations.