Jessica Kaye: The Making (and Selling) of a Good Audiobook

by Joel Friedlander on May 10, 2010 · 22 comments

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At the meeting of the Bay Area Independent Publishers Association (BAIPA) on Saturday, the featured speaker was Jessica Kaye, who came up from her base in Los Angeles to speak to the crowd of interested self-publishers and authors.

Jessica has deep credentials in the audiobook field. A partner in the Beverly Hills law firm of Kaye & Mills, Jessica has worked on both television and feature film projects as well as publishing contracts. She founded The Publishing Mills, an audio and literary publishing company, and produced the Grammy Award-winning Best Comedy Recording, Crank Calls by Jonathan Winters.

Ms. Kaye has also served as President of the Audio Publishers Association and as a member of the Board of Governors for the Los Angeles Chapter of the National Academy for Recording Arts & Sciences, West. She is the founder of Big Happy Family, LLC, a digital distribution company for audio programming, and was the creator and editor of, and a contributor to, the short story anthology Meeting Across the River.

Jessica started her presentation by describing some of the reasons you might want to convert your book to an audiobook:

  • To further disseminate the ideas in the book
  • To make additional income from your book
  • To further promotion of the printed book
  • For special needs readers to have access to your material

She also pointed out that some books lend themselves to audio while others are much more problematic. Jessica advised authors to take a good look at their material before committing to an audio book. For instance:

  • Fiction usually works well in audio, since it consists mainly of narrative.
  • Nonfiction can be more difficult. Although memoirs or histories might work, books that rely on visuals like charts and graphs don’t translate well.

Publishers, she noted, often sign audio books to capitalize on a print book that has already shown good sales, suggesting there’s a market for additional products based on the book.

Audiobooks for Self-Publishers

For self-publishers, issues are likely to be getting the audio done and finding some way to distribute it. Jessica’s current company, Big Happy Family, aggregates audiobook products from over 75 publishers in order to sell to Audible.com, the leader and dominant force in audiobooks, as well as other vendors. This allows smaller publishers to get distribution through Audible, which they might not be able to secure on their own.

(Audible, by the way, is owned by Amazon.com.)

It was interesting to hear Jessica talk about why she only deals in digital audiobooks now, and won’t carry or distribute “hard copy” audiobooks—CDs in packaging. It sounded a lot like other conversations we hear throughout the publishing industry. What’s her reason for going only digital? returns.

She described the feeling—known by many smaller book publishers—of thinking you were profitable on your product, only to get a message that a large number of items you thought were sold were actually being returned for credit, wiping out any profit you thought you had earned.

Tips on Making Audiobooks

Many attendees were interested in Ms. Kaye’s specific ideas about making audiobooks, and a lively discussion ensued, with lots of feedback and comments from the audience. Some of the topics that were covered included:

  • Decide whether you want to hire a production company to produce your audiobook, or you will try to do it yourself
  • You can find independent audio producers by checking with trade groups like Audio Publishers Association
  • Also check the packaging on audiobooks in stores to see if a producer is credited
  • You may need an experienced audio director to get the most out of your studio time and ensure a quality production
  • It’s equally important to have a sound editor who is used to working with audio books specifically
  • If you’re on a budget you can make audios yourself with some relatively inexpensive equipment. Jessica advised getting a good microphone and a “pop” screen to soften explosive sounds.
  • A big decision is whether to hire a narrator or try to do it yourself. Jessica seemed to feel that a professional voiceover artist would greatly enhance your project, and they may be available for less than you think. Try voice123.com for a large pool of professional audio performers.
  • You can evaluate talent by getting sample audios emailed to you, without the need for live auditions
  • Studio time can be the biggest expense in making audiobooks, although more and more people are setting up quiet rooms with sound equipment in their homes.

Audiobook Distribution Choices

As usual, distribution is the name of the game if you want to sell any appreciable number of copies. For hardcopy audiobooks, Jessica suggested trying to find a traditional distributor, or looking into the small publisher programs of Ingram or Barnes & Noble. The Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) also has resources that help independent publishers with distribution.

For digital products, you’ll need to deal with Audible, but it will be much easier going through an aggregator like BigHappyFamily.com than trying to deal with Audible yourself.

What Does An Audiobook Cost to Produce?

Although Ms. Kaye insisted that each project was different, she did offer an estimate of perhaps $5,000 to get a one-hour audiobook done with good quality, by a professional narrator, and directed and edited by professionals. Others in the audience suggested that do-it-yourselfers could simply buy a good microphone and lock themselves in a closet to do their own recording.

Whichever way you decide to go, it was an interesting presentation on a form of publishing most people are pretty unfamiliar with.

Takeaway: Audiobooks are mostly the province of large traditional publishers with the resources to produce them for their top-selling authors. But the tools of production are now within the reach of self-publishers as well.

Resources in this article:
Bay Area Independent Publishers Association
Big Happy Family
Audio Publishers Association
Audible.com
voice123.com
Independent Book Publishers Association

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    { 19 comments… read them below or add one }

    duxf March 18, 2011 at 7:03 am

    TinyBooks for Mac is a simple, flexible, non-bloated, single-entry bookkeeping and accounting system for the Macintosh. TinyBooks for Mac is designed for Sole Proprietors, home and other small businesses, and family finances.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander May 11, 2010 at 10:01 pm

    Chris, that’s interesting about CDBaby, that could potentially solve a lot of distribution problems for small, indie and self-publishers. Thanks for the contribution.

    Reply

    Christopher May 11, 2010 at 9:56 pm

    Hi Jessica,

    The $5000 figure is entirely accurate – skimping on voice talent isn’t recommended, but I’m surprised the option of doing it through CDBaby like my audiobook was done wasn’t mentioned. It’s then available on iTunes and Amazon.com, along with many other places, and it’s fairly cheap and simple to setup.

    Reply

    Jessica Kaye May 13, 2010 at 9:59 am

    Christopher, I didn’t even think of mentioning it because I’ve had very few people say that it has worked for them. It’s probably been two years since someone last told me they were using CD Baby for their audiobook distribution. If that is working well for you, I’m glad to incorporate it into my recommendations from now on.

    Reply

    Jessica Kaye May 11, 2010 at 9:51 pm

    Great comments. I am still learning too, of course. The landscape is constantly changing. Voice123.com is definitely not the only resource. I agree that Audiofile Magazine is a great publication because it is dedicated to audiobooks. You will see reviews of narrators throughout and that can be helpful, especially if you find someone who has been well-reviewed narrating a book in a category similar to your own book.
    As for the cost of making an audiobook, it does vary depending on many factors. The $5000 figure was meant as a general suggestion of what a typical book can cost to record and edit. For the 60 minute program I was asked about, I’d said it could likely be done for less.

    Thanks for the lively conversation. It was a wonderful experience to meet the BAIPA members who were present at the meeting and to feel the unbridled enthusiasm of the group.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander May 11, 2010 at 10:00 pm

    Thanks, Jessica. It’s great to learn about these other resources because there certainly was a lot of interest at the meeting. I think people are reluctant when it comes to “technologies” they’re unfamiliar with, but you de-mystified the process quite nicely.

    Reply

    Peter Markovic May 11, 2010 at 7:58 am

    A great article, I agree with many of Karen’s comments made in this post above mine, a narrator is the person who makes or breaks an audiobook. Even professionally recorded books will vary in sound quality; some narrators will please many but annoy others. People often do not finish listening to a book because they find the narration grating.

    Conversely some narrators have the ability to make ordinary text sound special! They literally bring a story to life by adding characterization, zest and dynamics that keep the listener enthralled.

    Peter Markovic
    Publisher of audioforbooks.com

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander May 11, 2010 at 10:17 am

    Peter, yes, that’s an excellent point. I had an audiobook of Greek myths I used to keep in the car for when the middle schoolers got too restless, and it was amazing how they would quiet down and listen attentively to these old, old myths because the voice talent doing the reading was just extraordinary. Thanks for stopping by!

    Reply

    Karen Commins May 11, 2010 at 6:01 am

    Greetings, Joel! As a professional voice talent who specializes in narrations and audiobooks, I greatly enjoyed reading your excellent synopsis of Jessica Kaye’s presentation. While it’s true that sites like Voice123.com offer a large pool of available voice talent, the quality of experience and equipment of those registered on these sites varies widely. Many are newcomers who are recording on cheap microphones in noisy environments rather than recording in pristine studios. An audiobook narrator producing work in a private studio also needs stamina and editing expertise to perform a long narration or book. I therefore wanted ton add another resource in addition to the Audio Publishers Association where interested publishers could contact experienced audiobook narrators:

    http://www.AudiofileMagazine.com/guide_search.cfm

    You can search for talent based on numerous categories, including genre, accents, and post production services.

    I am glad to see you mentioned the costs of audiobook production. Many people don’t realize the tremendous time commitment required to create an hour of recording. My rule-of-thumb is that each hour of audio requires at least 4 hours in real time to produce it: 1.5-2 hours to record it, and another 2 hours to edit it. In fact, I wrote a blog article ablout the time required to produce audiobooks that may be useful to your readers:

    http://www.blog.KarenCommins.com/2009/11/time-requiredu-to-narrate-and-p.html

    Thanks again for the wonderful post!

    Cordially,
    Karen Commins
    “A vacation for your ears”
    http://www.KarenCommins.com

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander May 11, 2010 at 10:15 am

    Karen, thanks so much for the useful links, I’m sure they will expand the options for interested publishers.

    The subject of cost was one of the more elusive questions at the presentation, and Jessica, understandably, didn’t really want to be pinned down to a specific figure because truly every project is different. Lovely to have you here.

    Reply

    Vincent Nguyen May 10, 2010 at 11:25 pm

    Thank you for the succinct and helpful information on audio books and now gives me a clearer idea of whether or not to make an audio book.

    I also subscribed and downloaded your “Copyright” pdf….great great material on copyrighting and demystifying other aspects of copyrighting.

    Thank you

    Reply

    Jennifer Robin May 10, 2010 at 9:30 pm

    Joel, I am getting spoiled by your excellent coverage of the BAIPA events. I really appreciate access to the information when I can’t attend. You are providing the entire independent publishing community a great service and I thank you for it.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander May 10, 2010 at 11:28 pm

    Well, I hope it doesn’t keep you away because we miss you when you’re not there Jennifer! And thanks so much for your kind thoughts. I think you can tell how much I enjoy it.

    Reply

    Leanne May 10, 2010 at 1:20 pm

    In 2006 my husband and I created a short story collection audiobook. I have received many positive reviews and all listeners I have heard have been very pleased. The only thing that frustrated me about this project was marketing. It was (and still is) hard to get my audio book into the hands of interested listeners. I am grateful that you have shared this information with me.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander May 10, 2010 at 3:25 pm

    Leanne, I think the marketing part is the toughest piece of self-publishing in any format. Perhaps you should try some of the distribution options that Jessica outlined in her presentation. Thanks for visiting.

    Reply

    betty ming liu May 10, 2010 at 9:36 am

    What a nice, clear overview of the issues involved in making an audiobook — more stuff I’ve never thought about. I like your plain talk, right down to giving us the estimated costs. Thanks!

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander May 10, 2010 at 3:24 pm

    Betty, I really enjoyed Jessica’s presentation because she is so knowledgeable about the field. Thanks!

    Reply

    audiobook May 10, 2010 at 2:04 am

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    Joel Friedlander May 10, 2010 at 3:23 pm

    Audiobook, thanks for that. Looks like a terrific piece of software for Mac users.

    Reply

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