A while back I said I was going to research what it would take to publish an audio version of my novel, Blood Family. I didn’t say that because I like audiobooks; I’ve only ever listened to one (David Lynch’s Catching the Big Fish, which I do recommend), and I’ve never bought an audiobook, either. If I had a car commute to fill every day then I might listen to them more often, but my bus commute to work and back is always taken up with my own writing. Otherwise, if I want to read something, I want to read it, not listen to it.
But the experience of publishing my novel has taught me that people are very picky about their reading methods. Which is their right! ‘Merica, freedom, etc. For instance, when I published my book, I released it as an e-book first because that was the easiest format to publish. Ease notwithstanding, I was pretty damn proud of myself just for getting the damn thing written and for putting it out in the world. Yay me! But right away—and I mean on the morning of publication day, before lunch even—people said things to me like, “Congratulations! Wait. You mean it’s not a book book? Well, I want to read it, but let me know when the book comes out.” By which they meant the print book.
I had always intended to publish a print version, of course, but I’d wanted to have at least twenty-four hours to laze about on my laurels, drinking cocktails and reading congratulatory Facebook comments, before I had to face the possibility of more hard work. What was I thinking? I could enjoy myself later. For now, there was type to be set, so I slaved away over a forge, melting and setting each individual line of lead type, and once the print version finally came out, a friend said, “Yeah, I’ve been meaning to read your book, but I usually listen to audiobooks.”
I did not let myself sigh gutturally. I did not let my shoulders droop to the floor. Instead I kept my face and voice robotically neutral as I said, “Do you commute to work every day?” He did, and of course that was when he did most of his reading, via audiobooks. This was how I found out that there were people who prefer audiobooks just as fervently as those who only read e-books or only read print books. But surely there weren’t that many of these spoken-word fanatics, right?
Then another friend told me that even though he preferred e-books, he wouldn’t buy one from Amazon unless it could come bundled with an audio version too. He would read e-books during the day and then sometimes would switch to the audio version at night, in bed, where he’d pick up where he left off and read before he went to sleep. I had discovered another type of audiobook consumer: it wasn’t his preferred format, but it was still a precondition for the purchase of an e-book.
So I gave up and decided to be cheerful about it. An audiobook! Great! After all, how hard could it be to produce an audiobook? I’m a pretty good reader, always have been, ever since the fifth grade, when I was the one who usually got called on to read out loud from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I would read the book myself and find some audiobook publisher that would publish and distribute it for no money up front and a cut of the sales, like Amazon does with e-books and print books.
It took me about two seconds to learn that you can in fact self-publish an audiobook through Amazon for no money up front, just like with e-books and print books—and you have to supply your own audio file, just as you have to supply the text file with the other formats. So I checked out Amazon’s guidelines for how to record your own audiobook, and that’s when I realized I would need professional help with the recording if I didn’t want it to sound like the radio play I did in my eleventh grade theater arts class. (“You, old woman, always skulking on the edge of town with your herbs and potions! It is you who has brought this evil upon our village!” But the old woman wasn’t the werewolf; it was the little girl. Oh the pathos.)
So I found an audiobook publisher and contacted them, full of high hopes. They wrote me back, and we set up a phone date, and half an hour later I put down my phone and looked at the figure I’d scribbled on a sticky note on my desk:
No, that’s not my projected royalties in the first year of sales. That is the price they quoted me for what they would charge to record, produce, and edit the audiobook of my novel—and that’s with me doing all the reading, you understand. They estimated that the reading would take about 40 hours of studio time, when meant I would have to take at least a week off from work, and probably two weeks. Although I could get an actor to read it for a measly $1,500 more! Which, let’s be honest, is a very good deal compared to the overall cost. As it turns out, contrary to my high hopes, this publisher doesn’t do the no-money-up-front-in-exchange-for-a-cut-of-sales thing. They do the you-hire-us-to-perform-a-service-and-provide-a-final-deliverable thing.
And who can blame them? It’s a solid business model. I’d love to hire them. I’d love to have $5,000 or $6,500 lying around that I could just turn into an audiobook version of my novel. But, as my former restaurant colleague Eddie—a gruff, formidable Mexican dishwasher—used to say, when I asked him for more platos medianos but he didn’t have any, “No gottie.” I do have some sales from my book, but not nearly that much—not yet, anyway.
So I have not yet solved the audiobook problem, but neither have I given up on it. If anyone out there is sitting on a pile of gold krugerrands that they don’t know what to do with, or if you have a fully equipped professional recording studio complete with a sound engineer who’s kind of bored and lonely and would love to hear a nice guy read a good book, you know what to do.