You’ve written your book, and you’d like to create an audiobook edition. How do you do it?
This post walks you through the process, guiding you step-by-step how to:
- choose your best production path
- record an audiobook yourself
- hire audiobook recording services
DIY Audiobooks vs Audiobook Recording Services
There are 3 main paths to creating an audiobook, so the first step in any audiobook project is to decide which path you want to take.
This section walks through what it takes to make an audiobook, the 3 ways to create one, and how to choose the best path for you.
What It Takes to Make an Audiobook
The most important thing to consider with an audiobook is file quality.
I am not saying this because I’m an audio nerd and insist on everything being perfect. I’m telling you because there are strict standards for file quality that you have to meet or Audible will not accept your finished audiobook.
It’s possible to create a quality DIY audiobook, doing everything yourself from start to finish, but it is not easy. For example:
- Every chapter has to be normalized to the same volume.
- The volume has to stay within strict parameters.
- Background noise has to stay below a very strict minimum.
- The quality, tone, and noise floor must be consistent across every chapter.
These requirements must be met throughout every stage of the audiobook’s production, including:
- Narration recording
- Editing and engineering
- Final pass and packaging for Audible and iTunes
I have seen it happen many times where an Author records their audiobook themselves, and it doesn’t pass Audibles standards.
Even if you handled every aspect of your book’s publication yourself, you might not find it worth the time to learn all the skills that go into quality audio production.
Fortunately, there are audiobook services to handle each and every aspect of your audiobook’s production, whether you want to hire an audio engineer, a professional narrator, or a full start-to-finish turnkey solution.
3 Paths to Creating an Audiobook
Path 1. Record and produce it yourself
If you choose this path, you will:
- record the entire narration yourself
- engineer all the sound files
- and package the finished files into an audiobook.
This is the hardest path (unless you already have these skills).
Path 2. Record it yourself and hire a professional producer
If you choose this path, you’ll record the narration, but you’ll hire someone else to engineer and package the sound files into a finished audiobook.
Path 3. Hire it out from start to finish
This is the most expensive path, but it’s (usually) the right one.
High-quality audio narration is not easy, and audio engineering is a highly technical profession.
Even if you can learn to do either or both of these things well, it’s usually not worth the time it would take you to do both.
For most Authors, path #2 or #3 will be the best choice.
Which Path Is Right for You?
Deciding which path is right for you isn’t complicated, but it’s important to think carefully about each step in the decision process, and how each path changes the variables.
Choice 1. Narration
A professional narrator can make a world of difference to the quality of the final audiobook. Some narrators only provide the actual narration, but most, especially those who specialize in audiobooks, offer a start-to-finish turnkey solution, charging per finished hour.
That means they do everything. You send them a manuscript, and they send you back an audiobook that’s ready to upload to Audible/Amazon and iBooks/Apple.
In making this decision, cost is an obvious factor.
Most audiobook producers who handle narration, editing, engineering, and final production charge between $200 and $400 per finished hour. That means they charge based on the length of the final audiobook, not based on the number of hours they actually work.
For an experienced union voice actor to produce your audiobook, you’re looking at a minimum of $275 per hour.
Here’s what that means for a finished audiobook. At Scribe, we recommend an average of 8,000 words per hour in a finished nonfiction book. For a 40,000-word book, that’s about 5 hours, for a total cost from $1,000 to $2,000.
If that sounds like a lot, consider this: narration takes twice as long as the finished book, and editing plus engineering takes at least 3 hours per finished hour. Add in a final control pass, and you’re looking at more than 6 hours of actual work per finished hour, or 30 hours for that 5-hour audiobook.
If you’re starting from ground zero, it will take you far more than 30 hours to produce a quality product.
Still, you might want to narrate your book yourself if you:
- are a professional voice actor
- receive frequent compliments on your natural voice quality
- wrote a highly personal book (like a memoir) that requires your own voice
If one of these is true, you will need a way to record the narration.
The best option is to use a professional recording studio.
Expect to pay about $100 per hour in the studio. Because the process of recording the narration takes twice as long as the finished book, that would be 10 hours in the studio for a 40,000-word book.
The studio cost of narrating that book would be $1,000 at $100/hour. That’s very reasonable, considering that if you don’t use a studio, you’ll still need:
- a quiet place to record your files
- a budget for sound equipment
- audio recording software
When researching recording studio prices, make sure the rental cost includes a sound engineer to work the recording booth.
Choice 2. Engineering
Sound engineers edit the audio files, ensure the final sound quality, and package them into a finished audiobook that is ready to upload to Amazon and iBooks.
Even if you narrate the book yourself, you’ll want to hire out the production process unless you’re a professional sound engineer.
It’s a lot more common to find full audiobook production services than engineering services alone, but you can find sound engineers on freelancing sites like Upwork and Fiverr. Be sure to vet their audiobook experience carefully if you don’t have a solid referral from someone you trust.
These services range widely in price, but remember that it takes 2-3 (or more) hours of actual editing and engineering work for each finished hour of your audiobook. A sound engineer who charges $75 per finished hour is making $25 or less per actual hour worked.
At 5 finished hours and $75 per finished hour, that’s $375 for the editing alone. Add in the cost of that recording studio time, and you might as well have someone do everything for you.
Like anything else, you can save money by doing the entire project yourself, but it takes a lot of hours to learn even the basics of audio engineering—easily 10+ times the 15 (or more) actual hours it would take a professional to engineer one 40,000-word book.
When researching local recording studios, ask whether they offer package deals on finished audiobook production of files recorded in their studio.
How to Record Your Own Audiobook
Setting up a home studio
If you decide to record your audiobook at home, you’ll need 3 main components for your home studio:
- a soundproof space
- solid recording equipment
- good audiobook recording software
Creating the right space
The first step in creating a home recording studio is to create the right space. If you don’t have a quiet place to record, it isn’t worth the money to buy equipment or software that you won’t be able to use. And when I say “quiet,” I mean pin-drop quiet.
Audible has strict requirements for background noise. If your finished audiobook does not meet these standards, Audible will reject it.
You can find soundproofing materials to reduce external noise, but there are several common noise issues for home studios that have nothing to do with the outside world:
- heating & air conditioning vent fans
- large appliances like refrigerators
- pipe noise from running water
- interference from electrical equipment
In most modern homes, there is a lot of background noise that we aren’t aware of. We think it’s quiet because we’re so used to it that we tune it out, but those small hums will show up in your recording.
Even worse, the electronics that pervade the modern home can interfere with recording devices. When this happens, you’ll hear a hiss in your recording no matter how quiet the room is.
To minimize this risk, turn off everything you can while you’re recording (including your wi-fi), and plug your recording equipment into the same outlet as your computer.
To record your own audiobook narration files, you will need:
- a computer
- a microphone
- a pop filter
Computer. The computer can be a PC or a Mac. Desktops are often better, but a laptop can work in a
pinch. Just remember to listen for fan noise. Once your computer’s fan kicks in, you’ll have to stop recording until it cools down.
Headphones. These are important so the computer doesn’t pick up any feedback from the sound of your own recording. They don’t need to be expensive, but they need to plug into the computer. Wireless headphones can run out of power in the middle of a recording, and the fewer wireless signals you have running through your recording area, the better.
Microphone. Mics come in several varieties, the main difference being whether they are:
- USB-only, or
- connected to an external power source
Mics that require an external power source are technically more powerful, but they aren’t necessary for audiobook production. A solid USB mic is fine for the job. Popular brands include Blue and Samson.
Pop filter. A pop screen filters out the worst of the natural hiss and pops created by certain consonants.
Audiobook recording software
For PC, the most popular free audio editing software by far is Audacity.
If you happen to have access to Adobe’s creative suite, Audition is extremely powerful, but you’re better off starting with Audacity or Garage Band if you’re new to audio editing.
All of these programs can be used both for recording and editing voice files.
Recording at a pro studio
If you decide to record the audiobook yourself using a professional recording studio, here are a few tips to make sure you get the most out of your time:
Time slots. To figure out how much recording time your book will need, divide the total word count by 8,000 (the average number of words per hour) and then multiply it by 2. A 40,000-word book, for example, will need about 10 hours of recording time.
Hydrate. Drink plenty of water the night before, start again in the morning as soon as you wake up, and bring water with you. It isn’t about your health; it’s about voice quality. If you’re even slightly dehydrated, your tongue will start sticking to the roof of your mouth, adding horrendous mouth sounds that can render your entire recording useless.
General recording tips (home or studio)
Whether you record your own narration at home or in a studio, these additional tips will raise your audio quality and make your audiobook sound more professional:
Maintain a steady pace. Even if you’ve practiced ahead of time, remember to maintain that pace throughout the session. It’s tempting, after a while, to start speeding up to get through it faster. Don’t. If you feel yourself getting impatient, it’s time to stop and rest.
Enunciate. Remember that you’re not talking; you’re reading. Listen to several professionally produced audiobooks and notice their enunciation. Every word is separate, and every syllable is distinct. Normal speech patterns slide over certain vowels and mash words together. Be conscious of your speech pattern and avoid those habits.
Maintain the same voice level. This can be a difficult one, especially for first-time narrators. When a passage needs emphasis, make sure this comes from your use of tempo, pauses, and tonal quality, not volume. If there’s too much variation between the softest and loudest sections of the recording, you’ll have to record that whole section again.
Read every word. As the Author, you’re the rights holder, but just because you can change the wording doesn’t mean you should. Kindle’s Whispersync system lets people switch easily between the Kindle and audiobook versions of your book. If there are variations between the two versions, Whispersync won’t work, and readers will be frustrated.
Record the room tone. No matter how perfectly you remove background noise, every recording has a room tone: the audible pattern of background noise. To help your engineer reduce this noise floor, start each session with a pause of several seconds to establish a baseline.
How to Hire an Audiobook Production Service
Whether you need to hire a sound engineer or a full-service production company, here’s what to look for.
Audio engineers & producers
As I mentioned earlier, you can find audio engineers on any freelancing site, but one is not the same as the next:
Audiobooks are unique. Just because an engineer has a lot of experience editing music does not mean they’ll be great at engineering an audiobook. Audiobooks have a specific structure, and the final result must fit within strict limitations or Audible and iBooks won’t accept them. Chapter files are also much longer than most music tracks and involve only the spoken word. Ask to see a portfolio.
Screen their portfolio. When an engineer gives you a portfolio of audiobooks, listen to the samples through headphones. Most computer speakers don’t provide enough sound clarity to highlight problems with hiss or other background noise.
Find the books on Audible. Don’t settle for a portfolio of short audio clips on an engineer’s own website. Find each final book on Audible, listen to the Audible sample, and make sure the producer is given credit on the copyright page.
Hiring out the whole project
Whether you’re looking for an independent audiobook producer or posting a project on ACX.com, make sure you choose the right person for your project:
Think about the voice. The voice of your book is an important marketing decision and needs to match your author branding. Ideally, run your top choices by several readers in your target audience.
Read reviews from other Authors. The more, the better. Make sure your audiobook narrator has enough experience to trust that your own project will run smoothly.
Find the books on Audible. Again, make sure their portfolio links to actual books on Audible that credit the narrator and producer. Listen to samples to make sure the portfolio matches the finished product.
Know what you’re getting. Make sure it’s 100% clear what they will and won’t deliver, by asking the right questions:
- Are they only providing narration files, or will they deliver a finished audiobook, ready for uploading?
- If you want music in the intro, will they provide it?
- Will they write the intro credits, or do you need to write them?
- Will they produce your cover image, or do you need to provide it? (Audiobook covers are square, not rectangular, so you can’t use your book cover as is.)
- Will they distribute the audiobook for you, or do you need to upload it?
- If they will distribute the audiobook, who will be the official publisher?
Know what you’re giving. It’s equally important to make sure you’re 100% clear on what your producer is getting from you. Some producers offer reduced rates in exchange for taking a percentage of your royalties. This can end up being a lot of money for a book that sells a lot of copies, so make sure you understand the deal upfront.