Writer in Residence

Calling All Writers to an Audio Book Project

By Lesley Krueger


Once upon a time, audio books were recorded (somewhat mysteriously to a writer) by the Canadian National Institute for the Blind.

There was always a clause in your publishing contract giving the CNIB the right to record. After you signed off, that was the last you heard of it, except if someone randomly remarked, Hey, my cousin’s been listening to your novel. She’s blind?

Disclosure: although I was happy to grant them the rights, like many writers, I’m not very pleased that the CNIB never told me they recorded two of my books, and I haven’t heard either of them. An email would have been nice. Courtesy never hurts.

In any case, audio moved beyond the CNIB during the late 1990s when Audible first appeared on the scene, and exploded in 2008 when it was bought by Amazon for $300 million. Now, under the tag Listening is the New Reading, Audible sells audio books individually and by monthly subscription. Most of its books are American bestsellers, but there’s also a range of Canadian books from big publishing houses and a smattering of indie titles.

My publisher, David Caron of ECW Press, opened a bigger portal for indie audio books last year when ECW snagged a grant from the Ontario Media Development Corporation. Under the new program, ECW has a year to record titles not only from ECW, but from other indie publishers. So ask your publisher about the program if you're an indie author whose book is published in Ontario.

As the program’s technical director, Jessica Albert oversees audio book production. We chatted last Monday about the initiative at the first recording session for my novel Mad Richard, heading outside the studio in Toronto’s west end, where we hunched against the unexpected chill of this very late spring.

According to Jessica, 100 indie books will be recorded under the OMDC project, with about fifty now finished or significantly underway. Depending on length, each book takes a week or two to record, with sessions lasting three hours apiece. Any more is too much for the actor. My novel, which checks in at the average length of 90,000 words, was recorded over four days this week, with another couple of sessions scheduled for next week.

Each audio book takes between three and five months from start to finish, with the casting and recording sessions taking the first month or so. After the last word is recorded, an audio engineer cuts together a seamless version of the sessions. This first draft then goes out to several people, including Jessica and the author, so mistakes can be flagged—missed words, mispronunciations and so on. Afterwards, the actor might have to do a follow-up session or two. Once everything is corrected, the book is locked.

“These days, we can finish an e-book one day and publish it the next,” Jessica says. “But audio books are only put on sale three weeks after they’re finished. They take more time to process.”

Books like mine will be sold on Audible, which acts as a distributor as well as a content producer, along with sites like Audiobooks, Recorded Books, Downpour, Storytel, Libro FM and Findaway, and offered on library services like Hoopla and Overdrive.

Lately, Jessica is overseeing the recording sessions for two or three books per day. The OMDC grant makes the process affordable for indie presses by providing $1,500 per book. An upfront fee of $100 per finished hour of a book goes to the actor, who also gets a per-book royalty. There’s nothing up front for the author, but we get something like fifty per cent of sales, depending on our contracts, and the other half goes to the publisher to cover administrative, studio and personnel costs and (hopefully, taking the grant into account) to make a profit.

Sales? Too early to project, Jessica says. They hope for thousands, with the market growing.

“I used to take public transit to work and read,” she says. “Now I drive and listen to audio books.”

From what friends tell me, she’s not alone. Driving kids to school, doing the ironing, pumping the treadmill—they’re now listening to audio books and podcasts as much as music.

Then there’s the X factor.

“A friend of mine’s daughter had to read a huge, 800-page book for a test,” Jessica says, “so she downloaded it from Audible and listened to it at three or four times normal speed so she could cram.”

New Technologies, new workarounds. Plus ça change.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Lesley Krueger is a novelist and screenwriter. Richard Dadd’s first cousin-in-law five times removed (if she has the genealogy right), Lesley drew on family information unknown to biographers in writing Mad Richard. The author of six books, she lives with her husband in Toronto where she’s an avid member of a women’s hockey league and a writer-mentor at the Canadian Film Centre. Find her online at LesleyKrueger.com.