Returns

Although, on the whole, I think I’d rather be talking about film sequels, this isn’t a post about Return of the Jedi or Return of the King. It’s about audiobook listeners returning audiobooks. Yeah, I know. Big yawn, right?

Ordinarily, I’d agree with you. But something has recently come to light that affects many authors and narrators. Not in a good way. I’ll come onto it in a moment after I’ve laid out a little background.

Amazon has what I consider to be a reasonable policy for returns of its Kindle ebooks. A reader can return the ebook within 7 days* of purchase. Since it is possible to accidentally purchase an ebook you didn’t intend to with Amazon’s one-click function, it seems only fair that the reader who does this should be able to return the ebook without fuss. I also have no problem with a reader being able to return the ebook if they can’t get on with the writing style or subject matter and struggle to get past, say, the third chapter, or if the content is utter crap scraped from the internet and published as some sort of scam.

This policy can, of course, be abused. I have held conversations with people who have used Amazon as a lending library by reading and returning ebooks within the period allowed, but I believe Amazon has been clamping down on this practice. I usually get a smattering of ebook returns each month, but they seem to be far fewer now than they were two or three years back. Although the thought of someone buying one of my books, reading the entire thing and then returning it for a refund doesn’t exactly fill me with joy (since I don’t get paid for that ‘purchase’), it happens so infrequently that ebook returns aren’t really an issue for me.

How do I know that ebooks are returned infrequently? Amazon provides this information on my sales dashboard and in the monthly reports I download to compile sales figures. I also receive returns details from most other retailers through which I sell, such as Kobo or GooglePlay. Simple, transparent, as it should be.

So, what about audiobooks? More specifically, audiobooks sold through Audible (or Apple or Amazon via Audible’s distribution arm, ACX)? I’ll post some links shortly to more detailed explanations of the issue for anyone who’s interested; what follows is the potted version.

Audible members pay a monthly subscription, in return for which they have monthly credits (one per month with the basic subscription) they can use to ‘purchase’ an audiobook. Audible is owned by Amazon. It is alleged that both companies are encouraging members to exchange their used credit for a refund, i.e. to reuse the credit to ‘buy’ another audiobook with no questions asked. It doesn’t matter if the audiobook has been listened to and enjoyed in its entirety—the member can return the audiobook and reuse the credit for another book.

You might be thinking that sounds like a great deal for the Audible member, and I’d have to agree with you. But what about the author of the book in question and (if different and they are sharing royalties) the narrator? Ah, there’s the rub. You see, the cost of the refund isn’t borne by Audible or Amazon, but by the author and narrator. Some authors are claiming to be losing up to 50% of their audiobook income. For many of us, this income is part of our livelihoods.

To make things worse, unlike Amazon with ebook sales, Audible doesn’t provide authors with details of audiobooks returned. All we are given are the net sales figures. So, if I sold twelve audiobooks this month, but seven of them were returned by the listeners as allegedly encouraged to do by Audible, I would be paid for five audiobooks and wouldn’t know there were seven more copies sold but subsequently refunded.

To exacerbate matters even further, listeners aren’t limited to 7 or 14 days to return the audiobook for a refund. Fair enough, you might think—it takes longer to judge whether an audiobook is up to scratch than an ebook, so they probably get 21 or even 28 days. Nope, they get 365 days, Yes, you read that correctly. An Audible member could exchange their monthly credit for one of my books, listen to and enjoy the book, and return it up to a year later, whereupon Audible would recoup the refunded cost from me. If I had no sales during that particular month, I’d owe them money.

That’s not what I signed up for when I published my audiobooks on Audible. I was keen to enter the world of audiobooks as a means of getting my work to a wider audience and, naturally, boosting my writing income. I simply cannot afford to, in effect, give my audiobooks away for nothing.

I am deep into producing the second Earth Haven novel in audio. It is a massively time-consuming project that will have taken me the best part of a year by the time it is ready for publication. That’s at least as long as it took me to write, revise and edit the book in the first place. I’m wondering if it’s worth the effort. At the least, I’ll be looking to publish the completed audiobook in places other than Audible.

That’s the thing: unless Audible stops doing as alleged—encouraging returns and allowing them for up to a year without question—and unless it starts providing details of returns to authors and narrators, many content providers will be thinking twice about placing more content with them. What sounded such a good deal for Audible members will become increasingly less so as the flow of new content dries up.

A Facebook group has been set up to pool information and experiences, and to coordinate approaches to Audible. (I’ll link to it shortly in case you’re affected by this—I believe you’ll need to prove you’re an author or narrator before you’ll be allowed to join.) The initial response isn’t promising. While Audible has recently acknowledged there is an issue**, it appears thus far to be reluctant to provide details of returns to authors upon request.

I wondered whether I ought to talk about this. There could be audiobook listeners looking in who weren’t aware that it was possible to use Audible membership as, in effect, an unlimited lending library, and go trotting off to sign up. I am also aware there are people out there who believe that all digital content should be freely available to whoever wants it. Well, all I can say to them is that I, like many others, work my butt off to produce digital content and I simply cannot afford to provide it without any financial return. I hope that most audiobook consumers will agree that authors and narrators deserve to be paid for their work. If we’re not going to be, most of us will stop doing it.

* in the US; in the UK, for some reason, it seems to be 14 days

** from a ‘Letter to the ACX Community’ sent by email on 11th November:
“In addition, we’ve recently heard from members of the ACX community who are concerned about Audible’s overall return policy. While this customer benefit is for active members in good standing and suspicious activity is rare, we take your concerns very seriously and are actively reviewing the policy with this feedback under consideration.”

Links
Audiblegate! The incredible true story of missing sales
The Digital Reader
Facebook group

Audiobooks – Part 5

I had three main concerns when embarking on the process of producing my own audiobooks:

  1. a soundproofed workspace;
  2. differentiating between characters without using accents;
  3. learning how to edit and master.

In Part 4, I looked at the second concern and the process of narration generally. I’m turning now to the third concern. It’s a big topic—editing, especially—that’s going to need two or three posts.

Editing – Part 1

A few pertinent reminders:

  • I record in a homemade ‘studio’—my younger daughter’s bedroom arranged to block out as much external noise as possible.
  • I use the free software Audacity.
  • I have certain limitations: an inability to perform accents and a denture that makes me whistle or lisp or slur on occasions.
  • I have no previous experience of working with audio software.

What all this means is that my raw recordings are riddled with errors and stray noises that would have no hope of passing muster without serious attention. (The errors that I notice while recording and, as a result, simply repeat the messed-up section are usually the easiest to deal with because it’s merely a case of deleting the bungled bit and smoothing over the join.)

I’d practised and practised recording audio tracks until I felt I’d reached a level of competency upon which I was unlikely to improve without professional acting lessons. I’m an impatient so-and-so and was itching to begin to grasp editing—I knew it was time to sit down and make a start.

Before attempting my first edit, I bought a couple of books about producing audio and devoured the sections on editing, which didn’t take long. They made it sound pretty straightforward: all that’s required is going through the recording to eradicate any obvious foreign sounds or mistakes and then any remaining errors would be erased during the mastering process. Simple. Yeah, right. They failed to mention the endless hours of trial and error, the ‘fixes’ that introduced more problems than they solved, the frustrations and countless occasions when I thought I’d never be able to get the hang of it.

I recorded a short story from the collection Pond Life and used that raw recording for practice. The story is the first I ever had published: ‘Celesta’. Safe to say, by the time I’d finished practising editing, I was sick of the sound of the bloody thing.

At first I was completely clueless. Audacity has dropdown menus for sound effects I had a vague idea about, such as ‘Fade In’, but many more that I’d never even heard of before. There’s an online manual, which is of some use but that supposes a level of knowledge on the part of the reader that I didn’t possess.

After a lot of fruitless fiddling with various effects, I discovered how to delete sections of audio, and how to copy and paste. I edited ‘Celesta’ by deleting any background noises that shouldn’t be on the track and replacing the deleted sections with a second or two of silence copied from elsewhere on the track.

That only worked to a point. The problem was that I was introducing new sounds. Where I pasted in the section of silence, at the beginning and end of the splice popping/clicking/ticking sounds would appear that hadn’t been there before, caused by the background noise differential between the start/end of the new clip and the end/start of the old clips around it. It’s a little like inserting a section of text into a document where the start and end are of a different font or point size or thickness to the text surrounding it. The reader’s going to notice.

Try as I might, and I tried for hours on end, I could not get all the edges of the clips to join seamlessly. In despair, I sent out an SOS to my brother.

His job is like Chandler’s from Friends. We all know he works in IT, something to do with designing graphics for video and arcade games, but that’s about as well as we can describe it. In any case, the chance of him knowing a lot more than me about editing voice recordings was high. And so it proved.

It was he who alerted me to the effect in Audacity called ‘Crossfade Clips’. Now I use it all the time. It allows me to, for example, shorten too-long pauses or eliminate stray clicking sounds or soften whistled ‘ess’ sounds, without introducing new foreign noises. I’ll explain a little more about it in the next part—for now, it’s enough to say that it makes the job of editing abundantly easier.

My brother advised me to add a second track to the recording. I didn’t get this at first. Audible’s requirements are for a mono recording; to me, adding a second track meant the recording would now be stereo. Yeah, it doesn’t mean that at all. What it means is that I now have an effective way of making longer sections, such as the pause between sentences or paragraphs, silent. I use the effects ‘Fade Out’ and ‘Fade In’ to remove unwanted noise, and paste a clip of ‘good silence’ onto the second track to mask the fades. Again, I’ll explain more in the next part.

For now, here’s a screenshot of a track being edited. I’ve added annotations in red to show:

  • the ‘Effect’ drop-down menu (with the effects I use highlighted),
  • the main track, i.e. the original sound recording I’m editing,
  • the second track, which is added post-recording via the ‘Tracks’ drop-down menu, and
  • the clip of ‘good silence’, which I’ll explain a little better next time.

And that’s essentially it. Thanks to my brother, I can now edit raw audio tracks to Audible’s standards using only three effects—Crossfade Clips, Fade Out and Fade In—and a second track on which to add masking clips of good silence. As I’ll talk more about next time, it’s massively time-consuming, but it works.

In Part 6, I’ll run through my editing process step by step. This will be for the benefit of anyone who, like I did, sits down to audio-edit for the first time without the faintest idea where to start, but who, unlike me, doesn’t have a knowledgeable brother to call upon for advice when at their wits’ end.

Till then…

Audiobooks – Part 4

I had three main concerns when embarking on the process of producing my own audiobooks:

  1.   a soundproofed workspace;
  2.   differentiating between characters without using accents;
  3.   learning how to edit and master.

In Part 3, I talked about the workspace and how I had set up a ‘recording studio’ (such a grand title doesn’t fit the reality) in my younger daughter’s bedroom at the back of the house, away from the main road. Nothing’s changed there—this is the best I can do.

Time to talk about the second of my concerns. As anticipated, it turned out that my difficulties would amount to more than merely trying to differentiate between characters, so I’m going to look at the process of narration as a whole.

There are various aspects to consider before starting to record, such as the positioning of the microphone, and the time of day when your recording environment is likely to be quietest and your voice at its optimum.

Here’s something I learned the hard way: it’s vital to ensure your recording software is set to record using the correct microphone. Since my professional microphone ‘lives’ in the recording studio, I can only change the default setting once I’m all set up and it’s connected to my laptop.

One evening I recorded four short stories, one after another, while ‘in the zone’—my pronunciation and enunciation were top drawer, my pacing felt spot-on, I barely made a mistake. When I was back downstairs ready to start editing, that something was wrong became evident as soon as I opened the first recording. The wave pattern was peculiar: all spikes and no flat lines, not even on the silences. The sound coming through my headphones confirmed what my eyes had already told me: my voice sounded distant and tinny, overlaid by crackles and hums and weird popping noises. All four recordings were the same—worthless.

It took me a while to work out what had gone wrong: I had forgotten to set Audacity to record through the USB microphone. The stories had been recorded through the laptop’s inbuilt microphone, which I hadn’t been speaking directly into and which, in any case, is unsuited to capturing sound to the standard required. Live and learn—I haven’t made the same mistake since.

Another time I sat down to edit a new recording, only to find my voice overlaid by a distant humming noise that I hadn’t noticed while recording and which rendered another lengthy effort useless.

It again took me a while to work out what had gone wrong. One of my daughters had been charging her electric toothbrush in the bathroom next door to my recording studio. We live in a modern house where the internal walls are slightly thicker than cardboard and the microphone had picked up the electrical hum. Again, it’s now something I make sure to check before starting to record.

Onto the recording process itself and my physical limitations.

Over thirty years ago, when in my early twenties, two of my teeth—one of the front incisors and the tooth next to it—were snapped at the roots. My dentist was able to straighten them, but warned that I was likely to lose them one day. ‘One day’ turned out to be around eighteen months ago; since then I’ve had to wear a denture that affixes to the roof of my mouth. It was only when sitting down to attempt narrating for the first time that I realised the effect the denture has upon my speech.

Where the fake teeth butt up to my real teeth, there’s a gap which occasionally, especially on words with a pronounced ‘ess’ sound, causes me to whistle. My tongue sometimes slaps against the plastic denture plate. The denture causes me to slur or mumble certain words. (I’ve tried narrating without wearing the denture, but that’s worse—without it, I struggle on ‘th’ and ‘ff’ sounds; I can’t say fairer than that, boom boom.)

It’s a disadvantage for audio work. When I realise I’ve whistled or mumbled during recording, it’s fine because I simply re-record that part, knowing I can remove the bungled section during editing. It makes the recording (and editing) process longer, but it’s something I accept I have to put up with until I can get implants to replace the denture. It’s more problematic when I whistle/mumble but don’t realise at the time—more on that when I come to talk about editing in a future instalment.

As for my inability to perform accents, I’ve tried and failed, and concluded that it’s not something I can learn to do, except perhaps by having professional voice acting lessons, and probably not even then. I can do an identifiably Irish or Scottish or Australian accent for the odd stereotypical phrase or two (“G’day, cobber!”), but it lasts as long as the average sneeze before deteriorating into some weird intonation that sounds like a cross between Welsh and, I don’t know, Martian, or something off-planet.

How, then, to differentiate between characters holding a conversation, especially when there are only two speaking and so there may not be many dialogue tags in the source material? I experimented with having one character speak deeper and/or quicker than the other, but found it difficult to be consistent, and the finished recording usually sounded ludicrous and amateur. After many, and I mean many, hours of trial and error, I settled on not trying to differentiate between them at all and relying on the listener to know who’s speaking from context. Now and again, I might throw in an extra dialogue tag during recording if I think the listener needs an additional cue.

Then there’s lack of knowledge about pronunciation. I’ve blogged about The Avid Reader’s Curse, where a reader might only have encountered a word through reading and so has no idea how to pronounce it. There are a surprising number of them.

And there are words I know how to pronounce, but that nevertheless keep tripping me up. ‘Anemone’, for instance, and ‘algae’ (I keep wanting to pronounce it to rhyme with ‘guy’, instead of the correct ‘ghee’). Or ‘pasty complexion’; I know that ‘pasty’ is pronounced to rhyme with ‘tasty’, but my traitorous brain insists on making me pronounce it during recording as the meat-filled parcel of pastry.Some word combinations I stumble over for no apparent reason. ‘Smoky oakiness’ is one. ‘Or harpist’s’ is another. There’s a story in Pond Life with a character named Jake; at one point of the story, I kept calling him Jack, usually without noticing. Fortunately, it was during the practice phase and the recording would be deleted anyway. By the time I came to record the final version, I knew what to look out for.

The practice phase. Yeah, that lasted weeks. Hour upon hour of recording the same material, experimenting with distance from and angle to the microphone, voice tone, pacing, breathing. I kept at it until I could no longer stand reading the same stuff aloud knowing it would be deleted. It was time to start recording in earnest and get to grips with editing.

Editing, hmm. More on this in Part 5. Till then…

Audiobooks – Part 3

A brief update on my progress on producing my own audiobooks. There is so much to learn about the process, so much trial and error involved, that it has been all-consuming for the past few weeks and I haven’t made time to write any regular blog posts. So a hasty update it will have to be.

In Part 2, I mentioned my three main concerns. In ascending order, they are:

  1. I have no space in which to work that’s ideal for soundproofing;
  2. differentiating between characters without using accents;
  3. learning how to edit and master (and discovering what the heck ‘mastering’ even means) the recorded audio is going to be so steep a learning curve, the top is covered in cloud.

I’m only going to look at the first of these today—numbers 2 and 3 are very much still works in progress.

We have a small room at the front of our house next to the living room. We call it the study, a rather grand name for a space that’s big enough to hold a few slim bookcases, a small desk and not a great deal more. But it’s perfect as a workspace for a writer. It would also be the ideal space to record audiobooks, if not for one major drawback.

Our house fronts onto a busy road, separated only by a narrow path, some railings and a pavement (that’s a sidewalk for American readers). Vehicles go past with monotonous regularity. When it rains, which it does a lot here in Wales, the noise of the vehicles’ sloshing tyres is louder. Also, the wind tends to throw heavy rain against the study windows with the sound of hurled gravel. The noises don’t bother me when I’m writing, but would be a problem for recording clean audio.

I knew the study would be unlikely to work as an improvised recording studio, but nevertheless decided to give it a go. First, I taped up the windows with duct tape, hoping that would reduce the traffic noise.

Next, I thought of filling the window space with books, the idea being that any intruding traffic noise would hit the biblio-wall and die. I have enough books in the house to completely fill the window space, but the problem was that once I’d reached a certain height, the wall began to become a little unstable, being constructed as it was of books of varying dimensions and with only a narrow window cill (or sill, if you’d prefer) as a foundation. I didn’t like the thought of the wall toppling onto me in mid-narration so stopped construction when it was high enough to shield my desk and recording equipment, but with only about half of the space filled.

Finally, I draped a spare duvet over the window and biblio-wall, hung blankets on the wall behind me and came up with a nifty temporary blanket-hanging solution to cover the door so that it was a simple matter to uncover it to get in and out.

Then I was ready to record.

Yeah, it didn’t work. The road is too busy, my attempts at blocking the noise too ineffective. The sound of passing vehicles could be clearly heard on my first recordings. I began to pause narration whenever a vehicle was approaching but had to do that so often it was probably doubling the recording time and frustrating any chance I had of getting into a narration flow.

Time for Plan B. My younger daughter and her boyfriend have been living with us since graduating last year while they sort out permanent jobs and get themselves into a position where they can afford to get their own place. In the meantime, they’ve taken over the spare bedroom and my daughter’s bedroom has been used pretty much as a dumping ground. Her bedroom has one huge advantage over the study as a potential recording studio: it’s at the back of the house, away from the main road.

Long story short, we cleared the room sufficiently that I could position a desk with my back to a wall over which I could drape blankets or duvets and with space to do the same to the sides to provide an improvised sound booth. There’s room for a foldaway table to hold my laptop. I have surrounded my desktop sound booth with spare pillows and cushions to provide more sound insulation.

It’s still not a professional recording studio, obviously, but without the constant noise from the road, it is far more effective as a home sound studio and, apart from the occasional boy racer going past with an unmuffled exhaust, the roar of which reaches even my daughter’s bedroom, I no longer have to worry about external noise while I record my books.

That still leaves my narration and editing abilities. Hmm, perhaps lack-of-abilities would be more accurate, but I am improving. More on these in future posts.

Till then…

Audiobooks – Part 2

When I posted about audiobooks last year, I didn’t anticipate writing another so didn’t call it ‘Part 1’. Well, here’s Part 2 and there will be more parts to come.

Part 1 can be found here: Audiobooks. In it, I explain the process that went into having The Cleansing produced as an audiobook—in short, I hired a narrator and the book went live in November. I bemoaned the fact that I could not accurately estimate how many sales I needed to achieve in order to recoup the initial outlay but guessed at a ‘few hundred’. And I could not afford to begin the process of having the sequels produced in audio format until I’d at least recovered that up-front cost.

Almost a year on, I can now say that my estimate was a little short of the mark. The true figure is somewhere (due to the way ACX calculates author shares, I still can’t make an accurate estimate) in excess of 400 sales—I’m a little over a quarter of the way there so, at this rate, I’m not going to be in a position to have the sequel made for another three years. Oh, man.

Time for another rethink. I wrote this in Part 1:

I toyed with the idea of narrating the book myself to limit cost, but discounted it almost immediately. I don’t have professional recording equipment and I’m hopeless at doing accents. No, it would sound like an amateur production and I wanted the opposite.

You can probably guess what comes next. Yep, I’ve decided to narrate my own audiobooks.

From a financial point of view, it’s a no-brainer. My outlay on the necessary equipment will be a fraction of what it will cost me to hire a narrator for just one book. To have all my books produced in audio format could cost up to £10,000 and that’s if I limit myself to low-end narrators.

I have also been influenced by other authors who have narrated their own books, such as one of my guests, A. R. Kavli. Here’s his post: A. R. Kavli

I began to look into what I need. As always, there’s a bewildering choice of items like microphones and in a huge range of prices. Long story short, I have purchased a microphone, a pop filter*, a set of headphones and, suspecting I need all the help I can get, a desktop sound shield**, all for comfortably below £200. I have downloaded the free sound editing program Audacity and am ready to go, at least equipment-wise.

But I’m not ready any-other-way-wise. I have three main areas of concern. Here they are in ascending order:

  1.  I have no space in which to work that’s ideal for soundproofing;
  2.  differentiating between characters without using accents;
  3.  learning how to edit and master (and discovering what the heck ‘mastering’ even means) the recorded audio is going to be so steep a learning curve, the top is covered in cloud.

Yes, I’m concerned. At the same time, I’m as excited as a child at Christmas. Despite what I said in Part 1, I’m determined that my productions will not sound amateur. No matter how many YouTube videos I have to absorb about vocal and breathing techniques, no matter how many hours of practising and trial-and-error it takes to sound professional and get to grips with the software.

Here’s a snap of the equipment I have so far.

I shall report in Part 3 how I deal with those three main concerns (and the other issues that I don’t even know about yet but which shall, no doubt, arise). Keep your fingers crossed for me.

* I didn’t know what a pop filter was when I embarked on this process—it’s the black mesh, circular thingy in the photo that will go in front of the microphone and which apparently cuts down on the explosive sounds we naturally make when we say certain words; it also prevents the microphone becoming covered in spit, whilst presumably becoming rather damp itself.

** As I understand it, which may not be very far, a sound shield doesn’t aid soundproofing as such, but helps to dampen the voice and limit echoing. My sound shield doesn’t appear in the photo because, at the time of writing, I’m waiting for it to arrive.

Guest Post – A. R. Kavli

Today I’m pleased to host American author, A. R. Kavli, who is going to talk about narrating his own audiobooks. Around a year ago, I was dipping my toes into the audiobook market for the first time and faced the same considerations he’s going to discuss, so it’s a topic I find particularly interesting. Over to A. R.

DIY Audio

Let me start by saying that I’m at the beginning of my audiobook production journey. An audio amateur, if you will. But I can explain what seems to work for me, and sometimes it can be helpful to hear what others have experienced.

I was recently convinced by various articles and podcasts to try my hand (mouth?) at narrating. Audio is a growth market worthy of investigation for indies. Initially, royalty share options sounded like a dream: get an audio book made with no down payment and no work. Royalty share comes with two big drawbacks, as it turns out. One being that your book is locked in a seven-year, ACX exclusivity contract. The other is that narrators will have to believe your book will make money.

Both were issues for me, so I looked into DIY audio. Any endeavor requires money or time. I’m short on both, but I can wrangle more time than money at this point. So I bought an entry-level set up with mic, mic stand and preamp, and proceeded to learn what I could about the craft. I purchased a couple of online courses and have spent many hours on YouTube learning all about mouth clicks, mic position, and using Audacity to record, edit and master my audio.

There are some steep learning curves. And it is hard work. But I kept my goal in mind and when I gained some competence, I found recording enjoyable—despite my profanity-strewn outtakes. At this point I’ve only recorded my own work, but I think in the future, and with a bit more experience, I might put my toe in the market as a narrator.

Recording a full-length novel is a marathon. That makes it harder to maintain a constant sound day-by-day or month-by-month. I have two main, non-American accents in my novel, one Slavic, one French. On those days where I was struggling, my characters sounded like Count Chocula and Pepé Le Pew.

Less is definitely more when it comes to accents.

Editing the audio files is relatively easy. You have to listen and watch the track to each file, though. I’ve found noises I could hear but not see, and noises that showed up in the waveform that I couldn’t hear. It can be laborious to listen to the same track again and again, but think about how the listener will feel. When you have to later record over something to fix a mistake, it can be difficult to match the original voice qualities.

I still struggle with mouth clicks, both while reading and while mastering. You can’t get rid of them all, but I’ve learned how to adjust my speaking in a way to reduce the problem. Thank you, YouTube.

My cozy recording booth consists of a laptop set on my dresser surrounded by a PVC frame draped with a thick comforter.

I work in my bedroom corner, with roads nearby outside. It doesn’t keep out the noise, so I have to pause whenever someone wants to show off how loud their truck gets. Nor does my booth keep out the stomping kids, barking dog, or my own gastrointestinal misadventures. But it treats my recording space enough for a good, clean background noise level.

I enjoy the process, despite the extra work and frustrations of my DIY set-up. I think you have to enjoy it to keep at it for the long run. It is time-consuming and surprisingly exhausting. Oh, and my air conditioner has to be turned off, too. Very noisy.

I made the rookie mistake of deciding I didn’t need a final edit, then recorded my audio. In the course of that read, I came across many mistakes. I hired a final proofread and it turned up more word changes than I expected. My work was riddled with overused and improperly used words. Or, more accurately, it was a handful of words misused throughout. I knew there were comma issues, but dang. I’ve decided it would produce a better product—and probably be the same amount of work—to record the book over. And, I could apply the things I learned along the way to the beginning chapters.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. I love the work, and I think you really must love it to be able to stay in it for the long term. Just like writing.

I’m hoping to finish the audio production in time to match the ebook and paperback release of my novel, With Our Dying Breath. It is already up for pre-order (reduced price for pre-order) in ebook format, with a release date of Aug 31, 2019.

A.R. Kavli is a U.S. Navy veteran, author, gamer, and long-time fan of all things science fiction and fantasy. His first paid writing projects were for role-playing game companies and his first book was published in 2011. He lives in Middle Tennessee with his wife of 24 years and four children.

Please visit arkavli.com/my-books to purchase and for more information on his work.

 

Guest Post – Tom East

A departure from the norm this week as, for the first time, I host a guest. I’ve known Tom East—though we both use different names in our everyday lives—for around twenty years since we were members of the local writers’ circle. We hit it off immediately, sharing a fondness for good ale and rugby, and both viewing writing as more a compulsion than a hobby. But that’s enough from me. Over to Tom.

Why Write?

Leaving aside more mundane demands like shopping lists and business writing, plus shorter things like personal e-mails (not to say some of these shouldn’t be creative), it seemed to me there are three main reasons to write. In reverse order of importance, I have always considered these to be:

  1. To make money.
  2. To express your thoughts to others.
  3. Because that demon keeps jab-jab-jabbing away at us and making us write.

N years after I first wrote for publication, this is still the way I see things. I have, though, recently modified my view to an extent.

When I lived in London, back in the Dark Ages (well, it was a long time ago), I wrote a few things commercially or semi-commercially. This first period of literary activity lasted for not much more than two years before ‘life got in the way’ and my attention went in other directions. This period of comparative dormancy went on for a number of years. I did do some creative writing in this interval—I didn’t seem to have any choice in the matter—but didn’t try to get anything published.

Then, following a trip to Romania in 1988, at the time when Nicolae Ceauşescu was still dictator, I was bursting with ideas I had to express, in prose and poetry, in fiction and non-fiction. At that time the outlet most readily available was the small press, so this was where I initially concentrated my efforts. The first thing I wrote (an essay; nothing to do with Romania as it happens) appeared in Schools Poetry Review in 1989. Over the years, I have published around 200 poems, about 80 short stories and roughly the same number of commercial features. Added to this is a large number of works of reviews, essays and things I can best describe as ‘other prose’. My first book-length work appeared in 1993 and six more followed from medium-sized and small presses. You can see samples of all this activity on my website here.

Given what I said earlier about motives for writing, you’d think I should have been happy. If I hadn’t made enormous sums of money, I do know that a large number of people have read what I’ve had to say and at least I’ve managed to keep that demon and his pitchfork still. There were, though, two large flies in the ointment. Firstly, much of my writing had to be undertaken against the background of a busy and demanding job. Secondly, several years ago life got in the way again, more negatively this time, just when my literary life was showing signs of taking off.

This year, I’ve decided to bring more focus to my literary activity. Unless you’re an ‘all-purpose sleb’ or a leading footballer, the window into ‘mainstream publication’ is getting smaller. On the other hand, independent publishing is becoming a viable alternative. So this, armed with a new nom-de-plume, is the route I’ve decided to take. First will be The Eve of St Eligius with more to follow early next year.

Wish me luck! ‘Eligius’ will appear electronically on 30th November, 2018 (which happens to be the eve of the festival of St Eligius) and as a paperback in mid-December.

Tom East

Tom’s first foray into the world of independent publishing is available now in e-book on Amazon:
The Eve of St Eligius – Amazon UK
The Eve of St Eligius – Amazon US

Audiobooks

A few years ago I was approached by the same company who produced the audiobook of The Martian. They expressed interest in producing an audio version of The Cleansing. Sadly, I could not take the matter any further because I was at the time contracted to a small press publisher. But I’ve remained curious as to whether there would be any interest in my work from audiobook listeners—there’s only one way to find out, right?

It wasn’t until this summer, after I’d parted company with the publisher and all rights to my works had reverted back to me, that I was able to turn my attention to audio.

There seems a bewildering number of audiobook producers out there. Long story short, after browsing various sites and discussion forums, I eventually decided to go through Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX). And there is quite a range of options within ACX. I toyed with the idea of narrating the book myself to limit cost, but discounted it almost immediately. I don’t have professional recording equipment and I’m hopeless at doing accents. No, it would sound like an amateur production and I wanted the opposite.

I decided to offer the book for audition on a royalty-share basis. This involves making available an extract of the book of 2 or 3 pages (around 5 minutes of recording time). The royalty share would mean I wouldn’t have to pay the narrator up front, but we would share equally a percentage of each sale. Again, my prime motivation was to cut down on up-front costs. What seemed a woefully pitiful percentage share of sales would be the trade-off.

I was aware that it was highly unlikely I would attract any experienced narrators—why would they risk their time and effort for no guaranteed return on a novel written by a virtual unknown? Not only did I not attract any experienced narrators, I didn’t attract any at all. The book extract remained available for audition for a 30-day period, but I didn’t receive a single audition.

Time for a little soul searching. It boiled down to how much did I want to have an audiobook version of The Cleansing. Turned out the answer was I wanted it a great deal. Enough to bite the bullet and offer the extract for audition in return for a fee. This way, the narrator wouldn’t have to bear any risk of the book not selling and I would benefit in the long run if the book continued to sell after I’d recouped my initial outlay. I opted for exclusivity, meaning the audiobook would only be made available in three outlets—Audible, Amazon and iTunes—but I would receive a higher percentage of each sale.

I mentioned ‘recouping my initial outlay’. Here’s the thing: I don’t know how many sales it will take to do that and start to make a profit.

Firstly, I have no say whatsoever in how much the three retailers charge for the audiobook. Being accustomed to the freedom independent publishing allows me over the prices of my books, to have no say in the price asked for the audio version is a little strange to say the least. (I suppose it has to do with protecting the market for audiobooks and ensuring the price doesn’t spiral downwards like it has with e-books.)

Secondly, I understand audiobooks may be purchased in one of three different ways: directly in the normal sense; directly by members of a subscription service at a discounted price; indirectly by members of the subscripton service by using one of their monthly credits. In each case, the amount the author receives will vary.

So, bizarrely, it’s impossible to say how many sales I need to break even. I’m guessing it’s going to take at least a few hundred, but I’m stumbling about in the dark. The Cleansing is the first in a trilogy and I’d like to have the sequels also produced as audiobooks. Before I can think of making The Beacon available for audition, I have to at least recoup my outlay on the first book. It’s mildly frustrating that I have no way of estimating how long that might take.

Anyway, I offered The Cleansing for audition on a pay-for-production basis. You can set the price range of what you’re prepared to pay and I opted for one of the lower ranges. Not the lowest, because I wanted to attract narrators with some experience, but not high enough that I would bankrupt myself in the process.

Within a few hours, I had received three auditions. Within a week, I had received eight. I had been concerned that I might have priced myself out of attracting any good narrators, but I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the auditions I received. I narrowed it down to three—two men, one woman—and from there picked my favourite. That wasn’t easy; all three were excellent.

Before I made the chosen narrator an offer, I checked him out online. Not to be nosy, but to make sure he was someone I was happy to do business with. Here’s one of life’s little coincidences. He is an actor and musician, and had appeared in a stage musical I had been to see in Cardiff for my birthday last year. I’m not normally one for musicals, but I love sixties music and had thoroughly enjoyed Cilla – The Musical.

I made him an offer, which he accepted. I could now finalise the audiobook cover by including his name and upload that to ACX. The narrator recorded the first 15-minute segment for my approval, which I didn’t hesitate to give. He then recorded the whole book. It was my job to listen to the completed recording and feedback any mistakes.

It felt weird and wonderful listening to one of my novels being narrated. It made it sound like it had been written by someone else and I found myself getting caught up in the tale. I made a note of the errors—there were remarkably few, perhaps a dozen out a 90,000-word novel—and sent them to the narrator. He fixed the errors promptly, I paid him and we were done. A relatively painless operation—the narrator was excellent, easy to work with and earned every penny of his fee.

It was then down to ACX to make the book available on the three retail channels. That happened this week. I received notification on Wednesday, 14th November that it had gone on sale on Audible and would be available on Amazon and iTunes within the next few days.

The whole process was much quicker than I’d anticipated. I made the book available for audition the second time (on the pay-up-front basis) on 2nd August. I had chosen my favourite narrator and entered into an agreement with him by 10th August. From there, it has taken marginally over three months to complete the recording and make the book available for sale.

Now all I need to do is learn how to market it. If you’ve read any of my posts on marketing, you’ll understand what a challenge that presents.

A word of warning for any writers reading this who are considering taking the plunge into audiobooks themselves. I read an online discussion in which authors who know more about the audiobook market than me (which isn’t difficult) stated that the wider audiobook market is set to explode with lots of potentially lucrative markets becoming available through various new players about to enter the audiobook game, and cautioned against entering into an exclusive deal with anyone.

I can’t recall details, but if you’re about to embark on a new audiobook project, read up on it. If you decide, like me, to go exclusive with someone like ACX, make sure it’s an informed decision that you won’t quickly come to regret.

To finish on a high note, I noticed yesterday that the audiobook was available on Amazon and that it already had a ranking in both the US and UK. That normally only happens when a book has achieved some sales, yet my ACX dashboard wasn’t showing any. Until I looked again, a little later, and discovered to my delight that the audio version of The Cleansing has already been purchased several times. I still get a buzz from the thought of a complete stranger reading, or in this case listening, to something I’ve written.

(For a peek at the book, and to listen to the opening scene, follow one of the links to the audiobook on the Earth Haven page from the ‘Books’ dropdown menu above.)

(Mis)Adventures in Publishing Paperbacks

This is going to be a lengthy post. It’s primarily aimed at writers considering publishing their own paperbacks, who don’t know where to start. I thought about cutting it into two or three smaller posts, but that wouldn’t be so helpful if you have to wait weeks for the next part and have to scroll between posts to get all the information you might need. (You can, though, skip this introductory bit by scrolling down to the sub-headings—I won’t be cross.)

In late March 2018, I parted company with the small press publisher I’d been with since April 2013. Although I’d been wanting to go my own way for a while, it happened a little unexpectedly.

The publisher had taken care of the paperback editions of my books—it was one of the main reasons I’d signed with it in the first place—so I’d never had to worry about learning how to produce my own.

Before worrying now, I concentrated on publishing my own versions of my e-books, taking the opportunity to revise each book and using Canva for my covers. (Canva is a website where you can design your own banners, ads and book covers at little or no cost. It’s fine for e-book covers; not so much for the greater complexities and resolution required for paperbacks.)

By the end of April, that was done and I could turn my attention to the paperbacks. That was when it hit me that, although I knew enough to have a general idea of what I needed to do, I was completely clueless about the detail. There were various issues to consider.

For the benefit of anyone who might be considering publishing their own paperbacks, who is as bewildered as I was, I’ll summarise these issues under sub-headings for ease of reference. And this is the potted version—over the ensuing weeks, I was to negotiate learning curves so steep I could have done with grappling hooks. Some of these things took me days to work out.

By the way, I’m not claiming this is the only or best or recommended way to publish paperbacks. It’s merely what I did—your mileage may vary.

Who to publish with?

There’s a growing school of thought that CreateSpace, much loved by the indie community, is being deliberately wound down by Amazon in favour of its in-house kdp. kdp was, and I believe still is, in beta and did not, when I was making these deliberations, offer wide distribution (though it does now). Anyway, I decided to publish with kdp for distribution through Amazon only and Ingram Spark for wide distribution, i.e. everywhere else.

Having made that decision, I needed to move quickly. Ingram charges a fee ($49 last I looked) for each title uploaded, but was running a free promotion until the end of June. Since I had six paperbacks to publish, that would mean a saving of almost $300, provided I got my skates on.

ISBNs

International Standard Book Numbers—a unique identifying number for each edition of a book. Exceptionally, an e-book edition doesn’t normally require its own ISBN, although some retailers (such as Google Play) assign their own to any e-book published through them that doesn’t have one.

I believe that kdp, like CreateSpace, will assign an ISBN for paperbacks published on its platform, but that ISBN can’t be used elsewhere so it would have been necessary to pay for Ingram to assign one.

Since I was going to have to pay for ISBNs no matter what, and I didn’t particularly want two versions of the same book with different ISBNs, I decided I would obtain my own.

A little research informed me that ISBNs can only be acquired in your native country by the agency charged with (and gleefully charging for) being guardians of the sacred numbers. In the UK, that’s Nielsen. (In the US, the agency is called Bowker. Not sure about elsewhere.) I have heard that in Canada ISBNs can be acquired free by Canadian citizens. Lucky them. In the UK, you have to buy them and they come at a fairly hefty price.

They can be purchased in the UK singly or in batches of ten or a hundred. Hmm. I had six paperbacks to publish by the end of June. I have many more novels I want to write. I knew I would be looking into audiobooks when the paperbacks were done. I would definitely need more than ten.

I worked out the unit prices. The price for each ISBN drops significantly when purchased in bulk. On impulse, my focus more on the unit price than, as it should have been, on the total outlay, I ordered a batch of one hundred. One hundred? What was I thinking? Safe to say, I now own enough ISBNs to write and publish a couple of novels each year until I’m a hundred.

Book size

The small press did a great job of publishing the paperback editions of my books. My only reservation was the size of the books. The publisher chose 9 inches by 6 inches, which I’m led to believe is a popular size for novels in the States. Well, it isn’t in the UK. Novels here tend to be around 7″ by 4-and-a-bit”, rising to 8″ by 5″. 9 x 6 is unusual, a fact brought home to me when a local independent bookshop agreed to stock my paperbacks. When I visited the shop a few weeks later, I couldn’t see my books anywhere. I eventually spotted them, lying on their sides on a top shelf where their visibility was, to put it mildly, limited. The owner told me that my books were too tall to fit onto the regular shelves, adding that at that size they looked like self-published books, even though they weren’t.

Needless to say, I hadn’t moved many copies by the time the bookshop closed down. To add insult to injury, I didn’t get paid for the few copies that had sold.

Live and learn. When it came to publishing my own paperbacks, I was determined they would be at a size more in keeping with the size of novels found in British bookshops. I opted for 8″ by 5″; there are plenty of other options.

Formatting

I had set up accounts with Ingram Spark and Nielsen (you don’t need a separate account with kdp, provided you already have e-books published through Amazon), and was awash with ISBNs. Next, to begin formatting a manuscript.

I began with the shortest work I was going to turn into a paperback: my first novel, 64,000 words long. I turned to the formatting guidance I’d downloaded from Ingram.

My heart sank. (During the weeks this entire process took, my heart was to bob up and down more than an adrift dinghy.) It seemed, at first (second and third, too) glance like utter gibberish.

Feeling I may have bitten off more than I could chew, I hunted down kdp’s formatting guidance. This I found a little more user-friendly. (For anyone who’s interested, it can be found here. It’s been updated since I last used it and looks to be more comprehensive now.)

I use Word, and came to learn more about it during the next few weeks than I had learned in the previous ten years. Mirror margins; unusual line spacing (1.15 is perfect); section breaks; justification; headers and footers, and (aargh!) page numbering; kerning (a word I’d not even heard of before); tracking; font sizes and types and licences (who knew you needed a licence to use certain fonts?—not me); embedding fonts; converting to print-ready pdf.

After days, probably a week or more, of running up blind alleys and cursing and threatening to throw my laptop out of the window, I produced a pdf that kdp’s automated system seemed to like.

It was then I returned to Ingram’s specifications, better equipped to understand them, and realised their requirements were not the same as kdp’s, were more stringent and I would need a differently formatted file to upload to Ingram. Bugger!

After more fiddling and fussing, more trial and error, more turning the air blue, I settled on a template for all my paperbacks that satisfies the requirements of both kdp and Ingram. (Tip: follow Ingram’s guidelines—they work for kdp, but that doesn’t hold true the other way around.) The dimensions are noted for future use in a notebook I keep handy because you can bet your bottom dollar I’ll have forgotten how to do it next time I need to format for paperback.

Covers

Probably the steepest learning curve of all, and one where I’ve yet to attain the summit and start down the other side. For my e-books, I’ve either purchased premade covers, designed basic covers myself (using Canva) or, for a more professional look, my brother has helped me out by designing them for me in Photoshop. However, I wanted to go the whole hog and become completely self-sufficient. This meant not having to rely on the goodwill of my brother (who is always willing to help, but is himself a busy man) and not having to buy covers elsewhere.

Clearly, I needed to acquire a photo manipulation program and learn how to use it. (This is someone who has never used Photoshop or anything similar, ever.)

Photoshop was a non-starter—it seemed I would have to pay an annual subscription to use it. No, thanks. I wanted something I could pay for once and would do the job. It didn’t matter that I wouldn’t receive fancy upgrades; chances are, I wouldn’t know how to use the new features anyway.

Over to my brother, who recommended a reasonably priced (around £50) program—Affinity—that should do what I needed it to and, more importantly for me, only required that one-off payment.

Then I began to try to work out manually the required size of the covers; more particularly, the spine widths—different requirements, again, for kdp and Ingram. Oh, boy. I still have the workings; they look like the jottings of some maths genius devising a formula for proving homological conjectures in commutative algebra*.

I began to despair—I was running out of enthusiasm and hadn’t even opened my new program—and vented to bruv, who again came to the rescue. “Why don’t you download a cover template?” he enquired. A what? There are templates? Of course there are. Both Amazon and Ingram provide templates. You merely insert the dimensions of the book and number of pages—Ingram also needs the ISBN to produce a template.

So I was up and running. All I needed to do now was learn how to use the new program. Again, oh, boy. Probably another post’s worth in itself. Suffice it to say here, I managed to produce six covers in time to meet the end-of-June deadline. I’ve included photos of them—they are the kdp proof copies, thus the stupid ‘not for resale’ band around them. They’re not the greatest (due solely to my limitations, not Affinity’s) and a few of them are in dire need of improvement. Trouble is, Ingram also charges for making changes to covers and manuscripts so I’m going to wait until it next runs a free promotion before swapping the covers for improved versions.

Barcodes

At one point, I was stressing about how to produce the barcode that appears on the back of paperback books. There was no need to worry—the Ingram cover template includes the necessary barcode; kdp adds it following submission of the final cover.

Pricing

The final conundrum, and one which I’m not convinced I’ve solved. I was ready to publish my paperbacks, but had no idea how much to charge for them. And Ingram’s guidance rabbited on about retailer discounts and returns and other stuff I didn’t understand. I ended up asking about pricing in the Writers’ Café on kboards and was pointed to the blog post of a knowledgeable and well-respected member of the kboards community. I can do no better than share the link to her post: here.

I was running out of time to publish the books before the Ingram free promotion deadline, so I hastened to the blog, read her advice and decided to follow it.

It seems to me that what the prevailing wisdom boils down to is this. We indies don’t enjoy the economies of scale of print runs of ten thousand copies at a time—our books are printed on demand, which is a significantly higher cost per unit. We don’t have the distribution networks and goodwill that see traditionally published books on sale in all the major bookshops. No matter what we do, the chances of having our books stocked by any bricks and mortar bookshops are minuscule. If we don’t price our paperbacks correctly, we are unlikely to make much, if any, profit from selling them; it’s even possible to end up operating at a loss.

Essentially, we cannot compete on price with the big boys when it comes to selling paperbacks and so shouldn’t try to. (It’s been a while since I looked into pricing and I’m not sure I fully understood all the ins and outs when I did. If there are errors in the above summation, they are mine alone.)

My paperbacks are priced between $13.95 and $15.95 (that’s £9.99 – £11.99). I might not sell many at these prices, but at least I’ll make a few pounds profit on any that do sell. Heck, what would be the point otherwise?

Marketing

If you’ve read any of the posts about my efforts at marketing, you’ll know that I’m hopeless. A complete muppet. But I’m trying to improve. How I’m going to attempt to market my paperbacks, I have no clue right now. It’s something I need to think about and research. But it can wait: I don’t want to spend a penny marketing them until I’ve been able to upload the improved covers. A topic for a future ‘Marketing for Muppets’ post, I think.

[ * there is such a thing—Google it, like I did]

 

Pen-name – help or hindrance?

[First posted on Goodreads January 2014]

Sam Kates is a pseudonym. When I first decided to self-publish a collection of short stories almost a year and a half ago, it wasn’t a question of whether to use a pen-name; only which pen-name to choose.

Life is full of unexpected contradictions. Here’s one that some writers may recognise. I deeply desire making a living from writing fiction – to be paid to do what I most enjoy, thus freeing me to do it more… It must be like the starry-eyed schoolboy who signs a professional football contract and suddenly finds himself sharing a changing room with his heroes. Yet that dream can become reality for a writer at almost any stage of his or her life. I’m way past the age where Liverpool would be interested in me (even – in my dreams – were I good enough), but at 49 I’m not too old to become successful as a writer. And yet, I have no desire to seek the limelight, to become even moderately famous – not as me, the real me anyway.

So here’s that contradiction (no, I hadn’t forgotten): I want to be a successful author of fiction, yet I don’t seek fame. Hmm… becoming successful in most fields of the arts requires the artist to become well-known. In the field of literature, this means the author’s name has to become familiar to readers. There are way too many indie authors out there – the more well-known a writer’s name becomes, the more visible he or she will be among the milling masses. To use a more business-like expression: it’s about building a brand. So, success without a modicum of fame? Ain’t going to happen.

Going with a pseudonym was, therefore, a non-brainer. There were other reasons, such as being the sort of reserved person hopeless at blowing his own trumpet (it’s a lot easier to promote Sam Kates than it would to be to promote me), but the overriding one was to impose a degree of separation between writing and my private life.

By and large, then, having a pen-name has been a help. Today, for the first time, it became a hindrance. The local newspaper had agreed to run a feature about my new apocalyptic novel, The Cleansing. The reporter who interviewed me e-mailed this afternoon to say that his senior editors would only publish the piece on condition that they used my real name. After a little soul-searching, I told him that I didn’t want to proceed under that condition. Some of you might be thinking, “Fool! You’ve just given up some free advertising!” and you’d be right. My publishers, when they find out, may be displeased, though I think (hope) they’ll understand. But I’m certain I’ve made the correct call.

Not that my real name is a great secret. Anyone who knows me knows I write under the name Sam Kates. Anyone with a little computer savvy who can be bothered could probably find my real name online within minutes. But given what I said above about why I used a pen-name in the first place, to start announcing my real name to the world (or at least this small part of it on the edge of the South Wales valleys) seems self-defeating and more than a little hypocritical. If that means I’m going to miss out on promotional opportunities, (with apologies to my publishers) so be it. I’ll just have to work harder at other methods of promotion and, more importantly, writing books that readers find entertaining.

Hindrance or not, Sam Kates is rolling up his sleeves…