Producing an Audiobook as an Indie Author: 4 Lessons Learned

It’s official: the audiobook version of When We Vanished will be hitting the digital airwaves on March 14, 2023!!

This was my first foray into the world of audiobook production, and I’ve learned a lot along the way. While it’s all fresh in my mind, I wanted to share a rundown of how the process works, along with a few takeaways. Note that these are specific to this particular book/project, though. If you’re an indie author who’s been through this and you have more to add, comment away! (Or just say hi – it sure would be nice to commiserate with others who have done this.)

How to Make an Audiobook: A Brief Overview

  1. Choose a platform. I used Findaway Voices, which handles both the production and distribution of audiobooks, since I wanted the book to be widely distributed.
  2. Cast your project. I provided Findaway Voices with information about the book and details about what I was looking for in a narrator. They then gave me a list of narrators I could choose from. I reviewed the narrators’ bios, audio samples, and rate (which is billed based on the length of the full audiobook; the narrators on my casting list ranged from about $250 to over $600 per finished hour). Then, I requested a few auditions to see how each narrator would perform a short sample of my book, and made my selection based on the audition I liked best.
  3. Fundraise. This was necessary for me because I opted to pay full price rather than using a royalty-sharing option. I have no idea if this book will make a splash or a thud, so I didn’t feel it would be fair to ask a narrator to take on that risk. When We Vanished is a complex book with multiple points of view and occasional words/phrases in Mandarin and Persian. I wanted to make sure to adequately compensate the hard work it would take to portray these characters, so I held a raffle and did some other fundraising appeals in order to help offset the hefty price tag.
  4. Review & provide feedback on an extended sample. The narrator I selected prepared a 15-minute sample that I was able to review and provide notes on. Turns out this step was VERY important! After the extended sample was approved, the narrator went into production and I didn’t have a chance to review files again until after the entire book was recorded.
  5. Upload production notes. I went through the book carefully and made notes about all the characters and their backgrounds, as well as pronunciation notes, to help guide the narrator during their performance.
  6. Narrator records the audiobook. I didn’t really know all that this entailed, but the process is very thorough! The narrator records audio files and sends them to an editor, who reviews them against the text and makes notes of any missed words/phrases. The narrator records the missing pieces and the editor inserts the new audio into the file. Sometimes this results in little sound issues or differing volume levels, so part of the editor’s job is to help iron these out.
  7. Review the full audiobook. The ball returned to my court after the files were deemed retail-ready. I listened carefully to every chapter and made notes about sound issues and mispronunciations. The narrator then worked with the editor to address the issues they could. Once I was satisfied with the files (and had completed all the metadata, which was a project in itself), I was able to approve and pay for the book.

Lesson #1: Communication is key!

When We Vanished is the first book I ever wrote, and I’ve read through it so many times that I basically know it by heart. There was a lot to communicate to the narrator via the production notes, from character backstories to little idiosyncrasies in the ways certain words are pronounced. (For example, there are a few references to the University of Washington by its abbreviation, UW. But around here everyone calls it the U-Dub, so I wanted to make sure it was pronounced the same way the characters themselves would refer to it!)

Despite this, there were a few miscommunications that could have been avoided if I’d been clearer up front with the narrator about some key aspects that were important to me. (Part of the issue was that Findaway Voices’ platform doesn’t make it super easy for the narrator and author/rights holder to check in about details that come up during production, plus I didn’t realize I wouldn’t be able to provide any additional feedback until the book was all done.) If I could go back in time, I’d have a conversation with the narrator prior to production so I could make sure we were on the same page, saving us both time and headaches.

Lesson #2: Be prepared to feel ALL the feelings

I had no idea what an emotional rollercoaster it would be to listen to the audiobook for the first time. It’s amazing to hear your book come to life – the narration makes the action (and the pain!!) feel so much more real. Sometimes I wasn’t sure if I was feeling emotional because of the story itself, or because of the very strange experience of hearing my own words reflected back at me through someone else’s voice. Whatever the reason, it’s hard to convey the magnitude of how much this shook me up, other than to say that I watched this music video afterwards and thought, YES THAT IS EXACTLY WHAT THIS FEELS LIKE. It was totally exhausting and I really was not prepared for the toll it would take on me!

Though I’m glad I was able to shape the project in the ways I did, I found myself a bit envious of authors whose publisher takes care of the whole process for them. I know that my reaction has a lot to do with my particular relationship to this particular story, but wish I’d gone into this knowing that it was going to be INTENSE. Next time I’ll be more prepared with extra support, presents to myself, and plenty of chocolate!

Lesson #3: Keep your deadlines flexible

I didn’t go into this project with any hard-and-fast deadlines set for the audiobook release – and that turned out to be a very good thing. Since the process has many steps and multiple people are involved at each phase, it can take a while and entail some back-and-forth (especially for a lengthy book like When We Vanished, which is 11.5 hours long). Unforeseen circumstances delayed the production at the editing step, so despite the narrator trying to turn it around quickly, the production phase ended up taking about three months. I’m glad I waited until the project was nearly final before setting the release date. Even then, I made sure to build in an extra buffer in case of further delays. This buffer will also give me ample time to work on promo ideas and marketing content in advance of the release. It also can take up to 45 days from the time the files are finalized until the audiobook is fully distributed to retailers.

Lesson #4: Trust the experts to do their thing

Going into this process is taking a leap! It’s a collaboration with another artist where your words will be filtered through someone else’s brain. There are bound to be areas of friction between the way you see the work and the way someone else sees it. Even though this was obviously hard for me (see #2 above), in the end I am incredibly grateful to the narrator for the skill and expertise she brought to the performance of this story.

It can be so hard as an author to disentangle my own thoughts/feelings/ego from the process. But my goal in the end was to create a high-quality, compulsively listenable audiobook. Keeping my focus on that intention helped guide me through the rockier moments. And, judging by the reaction of my 12-year-old son, who is listening to it for the first time, this was a success! He’s always been a reluctant reader, but is devouring WWV. When I asked what he thought of the narration, he said he “can’t imagine a more perfect voice to fit the vibe of the story.” His endorsement means a lot to me, and reminds me why I did this in the first place: so that the story can be enjoyed by a whole new crowd of listeners. I can’t wait to share it with you, too!

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