Friday, April 4, 2014

Grace Burrowes On Audio Books' Sound of Success

by Joyce Lamb)

Photo: Grace Burrows

Best-selling historical author Grace Burrowes (latest release: The MacGregor's Lady) embarked on a new adventure when she decided to produce the audio books of a trilogy of novellas. She shares that adventure here …

Grace: I learned a few things when Tantor Media bought audio rights to a trilogy of my Scottish Victorian romances. First, I learned that a talented narrator can find more story in the words on the page than even the author knew she wrote. Second, as many authors heard at RWA National in Atlanta, the audio book market is growing rapidly, a trend likely to continue as content-delivery devices proliferate.

Third, I'd forgotten how much I enjoy a good audio book.

With those lessons in mind, I tried an experiment. Rather than use the Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX) model to put my books into audio form, what if I produced the audio books myself? ACX, an Amazon company, makes finding a narrator and producer easy, and provides content to Amazon, Audible and iTunes.

They also, however, put all development costs on the author and take a portion of the proceeds, based on volume of sales. For some, that portion is as low as 10%, and in all cases, the author chooses the narrator and production team.

I took a different approach.

I hired my narrator, James Langton, who has also read for historical romance author Julia Quinn. I also hired a highly recommended production company, Common Mode, then turned them loose on three novellas to which I had audio rights.

More lessons awaited me.

The "unabridged" version of a book isn't necessarily its optimal audio form, though it's the one we hear most often. In a scene where the hero and heroine are having an argument, for example, you will need virtually no dialogue tags. The narrator will clearly distinguish between the two characters, and the dialogue tags that were helpful on the page can become an irritating form of aural clutter.

The visual page also allows the line break to signal either continuity or change of the actor or speaker, so for the audio book, you might have to add a few hearable clues about which "she" is leaping onto her horse.

I also learned that even the final, final published manuscript, professionally edited, proofread, and author-reviewed (ahem) has errors that I did not see on the page, but I will hear in the audio file.

The narration and production team, however, are also human. They can introduce the occasional boo-boo into the script, many of which the general reader won't catch, but the author will — or should. This step of the process was good for about… twenty-five miles on my treadmill desk.

And if I wanted to sell these lovely little tales myself, I needed to turn my Wax Creative website geniuses loose designing an audio page for my website, developing virtual packaging for the stories, and linking up with a distribution vendor. (I chose Gumroad.)

From start to finish, getting 100,000 words into high-quality MP3 files, creating the audio page on the website (where you can check out audio snippets) and loading the products onto Gumroad took about six months, though we could probably have done the same work in six busy weeks. My emphasis was on quality and creating good working relationships with a team that will likely collaborate again soon.

The novellas at present are available only as MP3 downloads through my website, though I'm looking into CD sales as well. I expect I'll find other distribution channels for them, but as I write this, ACX has announced that its royalty structure is changing, such that, going forth, authors will pay all the development costs, and see only 40% royalties, in addition to giving ACX exclusive distribution for seven years.

I paid handsomely to develop my novellas into audio products, and I'm pretty sure I'll do it again, for several reasons. First, I like having control over where my audio books are distributed, in addition to control over the production, price and presentation elements. Second, I learned things about another form of artistic expression, and when isn't that a worthwhile endeavor?

Finally, I enjoyed the daylights out of this project. Writing can so often be a solitary undertaking, but the sheer fun of collaborating, of having other professionals take an interest in and liking to my stories was delightful.

This is another area of our industry where the roads to Rome are proliferating, and the road I took certainly won't be for everybody. I'd enjoy hearing about other people's experiences with audio books, and with becoming audio authors.

Find out more about Grace and her books, audio and otherwise, at

Update: HEA heard from Matthew Thornton, senior director of communications at Audible, who said, "While we did announce changes to the royalty rates, we do still have a royalty share option, which means that authors who choose that option do not need to pay all the development costs. Furthermore, exclusivity terms have not changed, so authors are not forced to give Audible exclusive distribution."