Audiobooks – Part 7

To quickly recap, my three main concerns when embarking on the process of producing my own audiobooks were:

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

The only item I haven’t talked about is the second part of number 3: mastering. You’ll be glad to know that this will be a much shorter post than the last one on editing.

Before embarking on this enterprise, I had no idea what mastering an audio track even meant. I’m still not much the wiser, except that I know it has to do with making the recording sound as good as possible by, for example, making the sound levels consistent throughout the recording. In other words, it’s a process whereby the track is optimised so that it sounds a lot more professional than it did before it was mastered.

Am I sounding a little vague? That’s because I am. And more than a little. Anyway, the point is that you don’t need to understand the tasks involved in this process to be able to perform them and produce audio of sufficient quality to pass Audible’s quality control checks.

If you’ve been using a second track to disguise fades (see Part 6), you’ll first need to mix both tracks together into one: in my version of Audacity, select ‘Mix – Mix and Render’ from the dropdown ‘Tracks’ menu. Then you’re ready to start the mastering process.

Before we go any further, here are a couple of links you’ll need.

If you’ve already begun the process of narrating your audiobook, you should already be familiar with the first—it’s ACX’s Audio Submission Requirements. When I first read these, the techncal jargon in some of the sections made my eyes spin. But it’s okay—you don’t need to understand most of it.

This is the godsend: Audiobook Mastering. I stumbled across this page when desperately seeking a straightforward method and explanation of how to master an Audacity recording. I downloaded a couple of the plug-ins they provided, followed their instructions and—hey presto!—finished up with a mastered audio track that passed Audible’s quality control checks.

I believe this page has been updated since I first came across it—and Audacity has definitely gone through a few upgrades that I haven’t kept up with—and the plug-ins might be called something different to the ones I use. To avoid causing confusion, I’m not going to talk about what I do. Suffice it to say, follow the three simple steps set out in the instructions and you hopefully won’t go wrong. They even provide a plug-in that enables you to check the track to see if it complies with ACX/Audible’s requirements.

If you do as they suggest and your track doesn’t pass the ACX check, they go on to talk about other things you can try to get it to conform to Audible’s requirements. I’m thankful to say that I have never needed to take any of those additional steps. Here’s hoping that you won’t either.

And essentially that’s it. Before exporting your MP3 track, you’ll need to add a short clip of silence at the start (by generating a half-second clip of silence from the ‘Generate’ dropdown menu) so that your opening clip of ambient room sound (what ACX’s requirements refer to as ‘0.5 to 1 second of room tone’) is preserved during export. Otherwise, it could be lost and your track won’t then satisfy Audible’s requirements—I was going to add a link to where I found the advice to do this, but I can’t recall where it was; probably some online forum. Whatever, it was darned good advice.

 

That’s really all I can say about the process of producing an audiobook. I hope that some of it, at least, will be of use to anyone embarking on the process for the first time.

In the meantime, I’ve recently completed the audio version of The Beacon, the second book in the Earth Haven trilogy. (Here’s a link to the UK Amazon page  where you can listen to the free sample.) It took me substantially longer to narrate and, in particular, edit than it did to write in the first place. Now I need a rest from audiobook production before embarking on the third book in the trilogy, The Reckoning.

Much to my delight, The Beacon has passed both Audible’s and Findaway Voices’ quality-control checks. So the process set out in Part 6, long-winded though it is, still works.

Findaway is an audiobook distributor who will make the book available in around forty different outlets. Due to the kerfuffle with Audible and its shenanigans over returns—see Returns—I have removed my existing audiobooks from exclusivity with Audible and distributed them, too, through Findaway.

Whether this proves to be worthwhile remains to be seen. I might report back at some point in a Part 8. And maybe I can discover a way to specifically promote my audiobooks—if I do, I can feel another Marketing for Muppets post in the offing, though I wouldn’t hold your breath.

Until next time, stay safe and happy listening!

Audiobooks – Part 6

In Part 5, I said I’d run through my audio-editing process. This is purely for the benefit of anyone who’s thinking of producing their own audiobooks, but who doesn’t have the first clue about editing.

I am not claiming this to be the only or best way to edit audio using Audacity. On the contrary, it is not even an advisable method because it is massively time-consuming. 

As I write this, I’m picturing experienced audiobook producers rolling their eyes. What a ludicrously time-intensive way of doing things, I imagine them thinking. I completely agree with them. There must be quicker, more efficient ways of achieving the same outcome.

What this method has going for it is that it works—i.e. it results in audiobooks that meet Audible’s production standards—and works for narrators, like me, who don’t have a professional recording space and who aren’t professional narrators. I was extremely doubtful that my efforts would pass Audible’s quality control checks—why would they with the limitations on my recording studio and narration capabilities (see Part 5)? To have had both short story collections accepted first time without the need to make any changes was a huge boost. It also makes me reluctant to depart from the method that I know works, no matter how painstaking it is.

Painstaking is right. I have speeded up a little, but my editing time probably exceeds half an hour per completed minute of recording time. When you consider that the novel I’m currently producing in audio—The Beacon —is coming in at over thirty minutes per chapter, and there are twenty-three chapters altogether, that’s a significant time commitment.

Seriously, I’m not recommending you use my editing process. If you look around, you should be able to find a far more efficient method—if you do, please let me know. I’m setting out what I do for those who can’t find another way of doing it to a standard that meets Audible’s requirements.

Editing – Part 2

Always back up first—you really don’t want to have to make a new recording if something goes wrong during editing and you lose the original. I usually export the raw clip from Audacity as a WAV file and then save that file to the cloud.

Step 1
Listen to the entire recording, deleting the mistakes. By ‘mistakes’ I mean the sections that I mucked up during recording or an external noise intruded or whatever and I noticed and so was able to re-record the mucked-up section immediately. There’s something quite satisfying about deleting the duff bit, leaving only a popping or clicking noise where that bit was. (That click will be eradicated later—don’t worry about it, or any other unwanted sounds, now.)

Raw recordings of each chapter of The Beacon might be as long as fifty minutes—I told you I make a lot of mistakes during narration. By the time I’ve completed Step 1, the recording will typically be reduced to around forty minutes.

Step 1 is easy since it is simply a case of deleting, without being concerned about removing clicks, etc. There’s no finesse required here and it might take me around an hour or two, depending on the length of the raw recording.

Step 2
I now need to create my ‘good silence’. I usually record around thirty seconds of silence after speaking the final word. This gives me plenty of ambient room noise to play with.

Although I’m only looking for around two seconds of good silence for the editing process, Audible requires around four seconds of room noise at the end of each chapter so I make sure I have at least four seconds at this stage.

What do I mean by ‘good’silence’? It’s ambient room sound (a distant background hum) without any external noises like traffic or breathing or rustling. It will show on Audacity as a flat line, unbroken by the spikes that represents sounds.

Although I sit as still as a statue to record the thirty seconds of silence, you can guarantee my stomach will rumble or a noisy vehicle will go past or the house will creak for no apparent reason. (You notice sounds like that when you’re trying to be especially quiet.) So I need to remove those extraneous noises, leaving only the ambient sound, using the effect ‘Crossfade Clips’ (see below).

Step 3
This is the time consumer. This is where the attention to detail comes in.

First things first—I add a second track (from the dropdown menu ‘Tracks’) and then copy around two seconds of the good silence I created in Step 2 to the clipboard*. You can paste that clip as many times as you want during each session, but it won’t remain in the clipboard after you close Audacity down. I therefore begin each editing session by going to the end and copying the two-second clip of good silence before resuming where I left off.

It’s then a case of working my way through every second of the recording to:
– shorten pauses between sentences and paragraphs to make them roughly the same length,
– insert a two-second pause between scenes, and
– remove unwanted noises: breathing, creaks, rustling, clicks, slappy mouth sounds (no matter how careful I am, I will inevitably make a few per recording that the microphone gleefully picks up), banging doors, passing vehicles, whatever.

There are two main methods I use—which one will depend on the type of change I’m trying to make. You can only work this out through trial and error initially, but it gets much easier the more accustomed to it you become. Don’t be afraid to experiment—one of the big pluses of Audacity is that it allows you to undo any number of steps (within that session), so if you make a mistake, simply undo it and try again.

Crossfade Clips:
I use this mainly to decrease spaces between sentences, to shorten mid-sentence pauses and to get rid of clicks left over from Step 1. It can also be used to eliminate clicking noises mid-word, though this can be tricky to achieve without losing part of the word and thus making it noticeable to a listener. You might need to use fade instead—you’ll have to experiment.

Here’s an example:

In A1, the space between two sentences, at over two seconds, is too long. I want to reduce it to about a second. Simply deleting a chunk of gap will introduce popping noises. To avoid this, use the Effect ‘Crossfade Clips’.

As shown in A2, highlight the area to reduce and apply ‘Crossfade Clips’ from the dropdown menu.

A3 shows the result. The gap has been reduced to just over a second. If I want to reduce it further, I can repeat the process, highlighting a smaller area if I only want to reduce the gap slightly. The larger the area highlighted, the greater the reduction. Only trial and error will give you a feel for it, but it will come with practice.

Fade Out/Fade In:
In the above example, I’ve reduced the gap between sentences, but I haven’t addressed the sounds (the clicks, pops, creaks and sighs) picked up by the microphone during recording and represented by the thicker dots and dashes. If I use Crossfade Clips again, the gap will become shorter, whch I may not want. Here’s how to eliminate unwanted sounds in the gaps between words and sentences without shortening the gap.

As shown in A4, apply Fade Out from roughly the end of the preceding sentence to around the midpoint of the gap. This will eliminate any unwanted noises, especially towards the end of the highlighted area. To get rid of noise from the start of the gap without shortening it, you can start/end a fade in a different place (but you’ll have to be careful not to introduce extra clicks or pops—generally speaking, so long as you perform a corresponding Fade In/Out that slightly overlaps the first one, you shouldn’t introduce any new clicks). Again, it’s a matter of trial and error—practice and you’ll become proficient.

As shown in A5, you then highlight from the centre of the gap to the first word of the next sentence and apply ‘Fade In’. You must ensure that the highlighted area begins just before the point where the previously highlighted area ended—the overlap I mention above—as otherwise you’ll create a new clicking/popping sound. Again, if this doesn’t eliminate sounds towards the end of the gap, you might need to do a Fade Out, but practice will make perfect.

The sounds you can see in the highlighted section in A3 have disappeared; the line in that section is now perfectly flat. However, if you do nothing further, you’ll be able to hear where the fades start or end, so you need to cover them up. This is where the clip of ‘good silence’ comes in. Simply paste it over the gap onto the second track, making sure the start and end of the clip corresponds with speaking on the main track (adjusting the length of the clip as necessary using ‘Delete’ from the ‘Edit’ dropdown menu) as otherwise the start/end of the clip will be heard as a clicking noise.

 

Okay, so that’s how I do it. If you’ve been struggling to find a way to edit that satisfies Audible’s requirements, feel free to copy what I do. It’s worth repeating the warning, though: it’s hugely time-consuming and there must be a better way to do it.

Next time, in a much briefer post, I’ll talk a little about mixing and mastering. (That makes it sound as though I know a lot about them—I don’t, I really don’t, but I know what to do to get it approved by Audible.) Till then…

 

* Since drafting this post, a way to reduce the editing time occurred to me. I recorded a lengthy section of ambient room noise. Then I used Crossfade Clips to remove any extraneous sounds, leaving only good silence. I spliced the clip together a few times (and used Crossfade Clips to conceal the joins) to leave me with a track of thirty-six minutes consisting entirely of good silence. It’s saved as a WAV file and labelled ‘Ambience’. When I embark on Step 3, the first thing I do is import ‘Ambience’ as the second track. This avoids having to paste a clip of silence over each edit and is saving me a fair amount of time overall. Wish I’d thought of it sooner. Here’s a screenshot of the current Beacon chapter I’m working on showing the Ambience track beneath the main track.

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

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.)