The pros and cons of recording audiobooks

Are you thinking about recording your book? We invited authors and industry professionals to speak of their experiences working with this audio platform.

Video really didn’t kill the radio star and audiobooks will never replace the printed version, but just like ebooks, audiobooks are simply a form of storytelling wrapped up in a different package.

ArtsHub spoke to several authors and publishers about the art and practice of translating the written word into its aural counterpart so you can figure out if you’d be interested in being booked for sound.

Should I narrate my own book or commission a voice actor?

Amani Haydar started listening to audiobooks while working on her art: ‘Listening to stories in the background feels like having company and the conversations sometimes even inform my work. It also helps me think about my own writing’. 

Haydar chose to narrator her memoir, The Mother Wound, herself due to the nature of the work, ‘since my story is so personal and I struggle with stories about domestic violence being treated like entertainment. I also wanted to be able to read the Arabic expressions in my own dialect which reflects the region of Lebanon from which my parents migrated as well as the fact that I was born in Australia and that affects my pronunciation.

Read: Book Review: The Mother Wound by Amani Haydar

‘People have commented that after listening to me for a week, they feel like they know me and I think that’s a powerful connection to make with readers, especially when attempting to open up a dialogue about things that have previously been taboo,’ she said.

The process of recording her own audiobook gave Haydar new respect for the medium.

‘It was a lot of hard work, quite emotional and there’s no better way to find typos! I was able to have an excerpt included from a radio interview my mum did many years ago, so her own voice is in there, speaking her own words, which is quite powerful,’ she told ArtsHub.

Haydar reiterates that audiobooks come with several advantages over paper books: there’s the accessibility factor for those with vision impairments or difficulties with reading, as well as the ease with which one can engage with them when multi-tasking with other chores.

If you want to adapt your book into audio, reading your own words may also save money.

When Dave Core started self-publishing his books he found that he didn’t have the cash flow to justify hiring a narrator.

‘I knew I was missing a growing segment of the book-consuming audience in audiobooks. So I did my research and practiced for three years by podcasting as I perfected my recording space. Finally, I had learned editing and technique, and I was ready to take the plunge. It was liberating and fun. It was scary and frustrating,’ Core explained.

‘The technical part was the hardest hurdle for me, and to be honest I’m still learning.

Author Dave Core on recording his audiobooks

‘I’m a writer first and a performer second, both of which are part of this; but I also have to be a sound engineer and a technician and director. But the learning was one reward in itself. The satisfaction of knowing I did it and now I can help others is another. And of course the constant trickle of sales is nice too,’ he said.

Core read for his own audiobooks (8 Tales of Noir, Magnified and Sanctified) but also branched out as a narrator for other authors.

‘Narrating for others is immediate compensation, so that’s a plus. If it’s a royalty share project, I only have to do a fraction of the marketing, which is great. But I’m at the mercy of the author’s – shall we say – ego. Sometimes that means tons of pickups or delays waiting for approvals. I mean, I’m a harsh critic of myself, but at least I don’t have to worry about conflicting visions when I narrate my own writing.’

Author Ashley Kalagian Blunt always wanted her own books to be turned into audio. ‘For personal non-fiction, such as memoir, I prefer it when the author reads their work; it’s more meaningful to hear it in their voice,’ she said, echoing Haydar’s belief.

‘Whereas for fiction, it makes sense to have a voice actor who can bring individual characters to life,’ Blunt added.

The (cost) benefits of audiobooks

For poet and playwright Caroline Reid, audiobooks were a means of diversifying her artistic portfolio and possibly increasing income.

Her debut collection of poetry and prose, Siarad, was launched in March 2020, a week before Australia went into lockdown, and thereby preventing her from touring local and interstate to aid in its promotion.

‘I asked myself how I might capitalise on using the same material in different artforms, have fun while doing it, and hopefully generate a bit more income,’ Reid said.

‘I come from a playwrighting and spoken word performance background, so it made total sense to me to record the collection as audio. I didn’t want a “straight” read of the book; I wanted to work in collaboration with a sound engineer to add special effects and musical motifs, to give the stories and poems a bit more texture, another dimension.

‘I also wanted to record the book myself as a way of extending my practice, of challenging myself, of learning something new’ she continued.

‘Luckily, the SA government released funds for artists through Arts SA – for digital innovation and development of arts practice. I was successful in gaining a grant which enabled me to buy some professional recording equipment and provide wages for an audio engineer and musician, Jeffrey Zhang. Jeff (in Sydney) and I (in Adelaide) worked together remotely over six months to create the audiobook! I learnt so much, and loved the collaborative nature of the project.’

Reid added: ‘The artistic growth and satisfaction for me was enormous. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the grant. For those that have bought the audio collection, I’ve had terrific feedback, which is heartening. So, creative experimentation and diversification, artistic innovation, reader (listener) feedback, and project satisfaction are high.’

Read: How to get into voice acting for video games

And what about the downsides?

‘Sales have been very low, despite independent reports citing that audiobook sales were set to overtake ebook sales in 2020. It wasn’t the case for this little independent collection of poetry and prose,’ Reid admitted.

‘It’s the usual story I guess, a saturated market, and the difficulty of unknown local [Australian] writers of short stories and poetry getting noticed. I tried to promote it as much as I could but I’d much rather be making the work than marketing it.’

Rashida Murphy did not have a satisfying experience with audiobooks generally, citing personal costs as a deterrent for future efforts. Her novel, The Historian’s Daughter, was read by a voice actor but she read her own collection of short stories, The Bonesetter’s Fee and other stories.

‘Narrating my own book was hard for me to do, and expensive, because I paid for it myself. I also paid for a professional to record my novel, and while that was beautifully done, it was also expensive. Yet to see returns on either,’ said Murphy.

Audiobooks in Australia: a growing but still nascent form of communication

Sarah Bacaller co-runs Voices of Today, an Australian audiobook production company with a global network of over 100 narrators and producers. She’s also narrated over 40 titles on Audible and elsewhere and has produced for a number of authors.

’All our narrators are set up with home studios, which is how a great deal of narrating works these days. It reduces overhead costs massively and means that narrators all over the world can collaborate together,’ she said.

‘The audiobook narration industry in Australia is in its early stages; things are much more developed in the US and it’s easier for narrators to make a living there. We’re still a fairly disparate group in Australia, though industry traction is growing.’

Sarah Bacaller, Voices of Today

Bacaller points to research showing how library usage of both ebooks and digital audiobooks grew exponentially in 2020 in particular, caused by COVID-led lockdowns of public libraries, but laments the lack of ELR/PLR (Australian Lending Right Schemes) payments to authors.

‘As with ebooks, authors are not reimbursed for library audiobook use,’ she said.

Meanwhile, Bronwyn Mehan, Publisher, Curator and Producer of Spineless Wonders, an outfit that publishes ‘short fiction, novellas, microlit, poetry and everything in between’ told ArtsHub about the company’s recent decision to transition to audio.

‘Our move to audiobook production was a very organic one. Over the past 10 years, Spineless Wonders has been putting writers together with sound designers, composers, actors and directors to take stories “off the page” and onto stage, on radio and into film. So, we had a great pool of talent and experience to draw on,’ said Mehan. 

‘Since launching Spineless Wonders Audio in early 2021, we have produced 19 audiobooks. Eight of these are “SW Audio originals”, that is, audiobooks based on titles originally published or commissioned by us. The other audiobooks have been produced for indie publishers and authors. They cover a range of categories including contemporary, speculative and thriller fiction as well as poetry, memoir, non-fiction and children’s books.

‘The best part about producing audiobooks, for me personally, is the collaboration between the creative and technical teams, especially when it comes to books which include sound design such as the children’s books. I am very proud of this kind of storytelling which engrosses the listener in an immersive experience,’ Mehan added.

Blunt championed the hybrid approach Spineless Wonders suggested for the audio production of her book My Name Is Revenge, which combines a novella with collected essays.

She explained: ‘Voice actor Felix Johnson performed the novella, and I read the essays. The hybrid audio format complements the hybrid approach of the book. I couldn’t have envisioned a better result for my first audiobook.’

Local versus international markets, and future prospects 

‘It is great that the international audiobook market is booming,’ Mehan said, ‘but the downside is that in a saturated market, it is harder for new Australian voices to be discovered on platforms such as Audible, Scribd and Kobo.

‘Added to that, the income from popular subscription services can be largely defrayed in distribution fees. Luckily, there is an alternative audiobook app called Authors Direct where the bulk of the download fee paid by the listener goes directly to authors’ she added.

Martin Hughes, publishing director and CEO of Affirm Press, is buoyed by the idea of audiobooks having a reach beyond the traditional markets. He believes they will have incremental and exponential value.

‘The growing popularity of audiobooks is one of the most positive things to happen in publishing in recent years,’ Hughes said.

‘In our experience, unlike with ebooks, audiobooks are attracting additional readers so an additional audience for authors and who is not going to love that?! We work with some really excellent audio publishers who have author care and author satisfaction as top priorities so our experience with audio has been excellent.’

Thuy On is Reviews Editor of ArtsHub and an arts journalist, critic and poet who’s written for a range of publications including The Guardian, The Saturday Paper, Sydney Review of Books, The Australian, The Age/SMH and Australian Book Review. She was the books editor of The Big issue for 8 years. Her first book, a collection of poetry called Turbulence, came out in 2020 and was published by University of Western Australia Press (UWAP). Her next collection, Decadence, was published in July 2022, also by UWAP. Twitter: @thuy_on