Once expensive to produce and troublesome to consume, audiobooks now represent the second fastest-growing segment of the book industry. No longer stranded on dark shelves in the back of the library, they now come straight to your ears through online bookstores, smartphone apps, and music services. As consumer demand grows like never before, how can you as an author grow your audience?
Delivered in a witty, easy style by multiple-award nominated producer J. Daniel Sawyer, Making Tracks gives you the lowdown on today's audiobook landscape. From narrative technique to studio design to production management, you'll learn everything you need to go from zero to full production,
Those audio rights you used to sell to publishers now have real cash value. Learn how to make the most of them in this entertaining, accessible volume. Don't miss out on the other publishing revolution!
J. Daniel Sawyer is a prolific fiction writer. He's also a professional photographer, videographer, and former journalist. But he's unique among my writing friends in that he and I can have geeky discussions about microphones. I'm a former radio producer, and he's an audio book producer and voice-over artist. He knows more about audio production than anyone I've ever met, and luckily for us, he's put it all into book form. I knew I had to include Dan's Making Tracks because everyone asks me how to produce audio books. I always send them to this volume—and after you read it, you'll understand why. – Kristine Kathryn Rusch
"I don't know if a person can discern from that description just how well Sawyer knows the audiobook gig, but now that I have read his book, I have no doubts about his expertise."– Venture Galleries
"...a well-written and comprehensive guide to audiobooks, whether you want to do everything yourself or hire a team of specialists or anywhere in between."– Steven Pemberton (author of Death & Magic)
The Voices In Your Head
The human race began with words muttered around a campfire, and a deep part of us still strains to hear those firelight whispers through the din of the every-day. For me, the campfire voice was that of my grandmother, who lulled me to sleep with tales of adventure and danger in the Amazon rain forest. She delivered these stories to me on cassette tapes, which arrived in the mail with Por Avion scratched on them in vanishingly thin ball-point, straight from the headwaters of the Amazon river in Peru, where she lived.
Hers wasn't the only voice around my campfire. Her daughter and son-in-law weren't above quieting a difficult and impossible-to-put-to-sleep boy with highly theatrical readings from Tolkien, Mother Goose, and Dr. Seuss. I loved those stories, but I never counted them as special. People just seemed to tell each other stories, and that's all there was to it.
In 1981, at the age of 4, I fell in love with radio stories. I was hiding behind the living room couch, building a Lego fortress, and NPR was playing on the living room stereo set. At the top of the hour, the program changed, and the radio drama version of Star Wars burst in upon me. I found myself awash in a version of my favorite movie that was bigger and more spectacular than anything I'd ever seen on a movie screen.
Until then, I hadn't known that words and sounds could do that.
This love affair with the spoken word never slackened. I was the kid who stayed up late to record Classic Radio Theater at midnight on ABC, who played my read-along records till they wore out, who borrowed every audiobook in the library, who studied Foley and accents from the time I was old enough to know what those words meant.
I recorded my first audiobook when I was 12: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. I read it for my brother who was battling a protracted sinus infection. Once I learned the knack, I couldn't stop. For the next several years, using Dad's old boom box, I produced comedy shows, sound effects, and readings from my favorite books.
I lost interest when my abilities finally outgrew my recording equipment, but the interest re-awoke with a mighty roar when I discovered that I could do multitrack mixing on my PC. In 1998, I produced my first multitrack, stereo-mixed audio drama: the (thankfully) short-lived Internet sensation Bevis and Butthead vs. Darth Vader.
A couple years and a few productions later, at 23 years old, I was marshaling forces for my first attempt at a feature film. I was fortunate enough, while standing in line for Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, to meet one of the early pioneers of electronic musical instruments and his business partner, a sound mixer who'd earned her stripes mixing for the Benny Goodman Band and hadn't stopped since. The two of them agreed to produce the audio for my film, and teach me their craft in the process.
For the next seven years, I ran my one-time hobby as a full-time production services business, producing films, stage plays, soundscapes, corporate video, and audio theater. In 2007, Scott Sigler convinced me to start producing my own content as well as content for clients. Since then I've produced a number of my own full-cast audiobooks, and performed in dozens more for other DIY producers and authors. Now, the kid who listened to stories every night gets to spend his life writing and performing stories for other people, and, as a bonus, I've been privileged to get a front-row seat to the biggest revolution in spoken-word audio since the invention of the wax cylinder phonograph.
How We Got Here
Once upon a time, audiobooks were called "Books On Tape." They were something that appealed primarily to truck drivers, long-haul commuters, and—the most reliable consumers of audio literature—the blind. They came in white plastic clamshell cases and pretty cardboard boxes, they were abridged recordings, and they were usually read (rather than performed) by people with clear—but often dull or harsh—voices.
Starting in the 1930s, the audiobook was one of two forms of spoken-word narrative. The other, the radio drama, was a kind of theater performed live for audiences across the nation. From the 1920s to the 1950s, the so-called "Golden Age of Radio," American airwaves were crammed with soap operas, science fiction plays, Shakespeare adaptations, mysteries, horror stories, romances, children's bedtime stories, broad comedies, and improv shows featuring the greatest voices, performers, musicians, and Foley artists working in show business. The result was a rich medium, painted in sound, bursting with the ability to tickle the imagination in ways that film and television still can't match. In America, the most famous broadcast was the 1938 Mercury Theater production of The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, directed by Orson Welles in the style of a real-time news broadcast. Its vivid production convinced some listeners (who missed the opening credits) that they were hearing coverage of a genuine alien invasion.
American radio drama died a long slow death between the 1950s and 1980s, but the art form survived in Britain and in the British Commonwealth—leading, incidentally, to the second most famous radio drama of all time: The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy (which came before the books, the TV show, or the film).
During the 1980s, the cross-pond popularity of The Hitchhiker's Guide and other BBC productions, coupled with the continual late-night rebroadcast of Golden Age radio dramas, helped revive interest in the medium. But it wasn't until the early 21st century that things really started to pick up steam again in the United States.
Note: the difference between a "radio drama" and an "audio drama" is how it's published. From this point forward, I will exclusively use "audio drama," except when discussing a production in relation to radio broadcast.
Throughout most of their history, the audiobook and the audio drama have been distinct beasts. Until the late 1990s, the audiobook was technically inferior (in every respect) to other contemporary spoken-word entertainment.
Older audiobooks were lackluster for three reasons—one political, two deliberate.
First, the early audiobook industry was essentially a government program, established by an act of Congress, to give blind people access to more literature than that which was available in braille, and until the ubiquitous adoption of the audio cassette player in the 1970s, libraries for the blind comprised the bulk of the market. A negligible market supported by subsidies resulted in an audiobook landscape that was the artistic equivalent of standing in line at the DMV.
Second, the low quality of older speakers and the lower fidelity of older tape and record players dictated that, for maximum intelligibility, a clear, cutting voice with sharp consonants was a must. Voices like this are often not pleasant to listen to, but you can't fail to follow a story read by one. This technical demand dovetailed nicely with the third reason for mediocre quality:
Audiobooks are expensive.
The expenses start with the voice actor, the studio time, the recording engineer, the director, the editor, the mixer, and the mastering—but they only start there. Until the 21st century, all audiobooks were distributed on vinyl, cassette, and CD. That means package design, printing and duplication costs, shipping costs, warehousing costs, and a retail distribution infrastructure. To ship audiobooks to market at a price that wouldn't drive the customers into bankruptcy, the recordings were often heavily abridged (which also incurred the cost of an abridging editor, though at far lower expense than the increase in distribution cost incurred for every additional tape or CD in a title). As the market grew through the late 1980s and in the 1990s, production quality at most audiobook companies went from mediocre to stunning. Celebrity actors and professional voice actors became regular readers, new performance standards moved in, and new recording formats (multi-voice, full-cast, and full-production) brought audible variety to the market.
As consumer demand grew, so did demand for unabridged recordings. The costs, however, meant that only bestsellers were ever released in unabridged format—the label "unabridged" on an audiobook box became a premium mark, deserving of a premium price. As prices crept upward and CD ripping became common, audiobooks joined pornography and Top 40 pop music as the most common targets of pirates in the age of dial-up and low-end broadband Internet service.
But what the Internet took away with one hand, it gave back with another. From 1999 through 2003, the Sci-Fi Channel sponsored Seeing Ear Theater, a streaming showcase of dramatizations of classic and new science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories starring the luminaries of the genres and written by such giants of the field as Jack Vance, James Patrick Kelley, Dean Wesley Smith, J. Michael Straczynski, Neil Gaiman, and Octavia Butler.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, audio equipment companies sensed a market opportunity brought about by the fragmentation of the music industry. They brought advances in chip fabrication to bear on their products, driving down the cost of recording studio gear on a Moore's Law schedule.
Moore's Law states that every eighteen months, the number of transistors on a processor doubles, while the price halves. Thus, the power and quality available at any given price point increases exponentially. Businesses that become subject to Moore's Law tend to experience radical destabilization and democratization, resulting in tremendous opportunities for small business and content creators.
By 2005, a high end sixteen-channel recording studio (which cost $40,000 in 1995) could be had for as little as $3000. If you wanted to record a single reader instead of a rock'n'roll band, you could set yourself up in business as a voiceover artist for as little as $300 (assuming you already owned a computer).
Then, these two technology curves (home recording and Internet) collided head-on with a third one: the iPod. In 2005, Apple included the Podcast—serialized spoken-word audio content—in the iTunes store. Not long after, three people—Scott Sigler, Tee Morris, and Mark Jeffrey—got the idea, independently, to start podcasting their own audiobooks for free. Releasing a chapter a week, Morris and Jeffrey used their podcasts to drive customers to their print books. Scott Sigler, on the other hand, released new content unavailable in other media as part of a long (and very successful) campaign to build himself a devoted bestseller's audience. Their success had a few consequences:
1.Along with the authors they mentored (including myself and bestselling authors Nathan Lowell, Philippa Ballantine, Mur Lafferty, Seth Harwood, and others), they contributed heavily to a growing demand for author-read audiobooks.
2.The formation of Podibooks.com (co-founded by Morris with social media pioneer Evo Terra), a donation-funded distribution hub for podcast audiobooks and the second major entrant into the online audiobook distribution market (after Audible.com, founded in 1999).
3. Together with a handful of theater companies that helped revived audio dramas on the Internet, the birth of The Parsec Awards, one of the major industry awards in audio fiction.
All these factors, coupled with ever-increasing customer demand, have created something even better than the Golden Age of Radio. We're now in the Platinum Age of Audio Fiction—never before in history have audiobooks been so easy to produce, so profitable to distribute, or so frequently enjoyed, and never before has the author's voice been so heavily in demand.
Once upon a time, audio rights were nearly worthless. Publishers bought them for a song and sold them on to production companies to help offset the cost of the author's advance. Now, they're gold—and when they're read by the author (assuming the author does a good job), they are the third biggest potential income stream you have at your disposal, which you can hang on to and control for the rest of your life.
And you know what? It's fun, too.