How to Make an Audiobook for Almost Free by Doing It Yourself
Over the past few months, I have been working diligently on creating audio versions of self-published business nonfiction titles in my backlist. My reasoning behind this is that the world of audio content is on a roll and on the rise, due to shifts in how we consume content and communicate via technology. Our cars and smartphones can play podcasts and audiobooks. We ask our digital voice assistant, often named Alexa, to order things for us, provide information, and also play audio content. We want to multitask by listening to audio while doing other things.
I've just submitted my fifth audiobook edition for review for publishing on Audible, Amazon, and iTunes. I’ve learned a thing or two by doing these editions DIY (Do It Yourself) . . . and without spending a ton of money. In fact, I’ve spent almost nothing, compared to my peers who could have spent hundreds, even thousands.
That doesn’t mean there’s no cost to doing a DIY audiobook. The cost will be in time, talent, and effort, and it has been significant. But it can be done.
As well, the following only applies to self-published works for which you have all rights, meaning you own the copyrights to all formats and markets for the work. If you are unsure of your rights, consult an attorney to confirm. So once you hold the necessary rights, you’re good to go.
Here’s a short summary of how I did it so you know what's involved.
ACX: Amazon and Audible's Audiobook Publishing Platform
Though uploading your audio files is the final step in the process, the choice of your audiobook publishing and distribution platform is actually the first choice you need to make so that your project meets their requirements.
Since all my print and eBooks are produced and sold via Amazon, Createspace and Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), I chose to use ACX (Audiobook Creation Exchange, acx.com)—owned by Amazon and Audible.com—to self-publish and distribute my audiobooks. Once your audiobook is approved by ACX, it will be distributed on Audible.com, Amazon, and iTunes.
Because ACX is integrated into Amazon, it allows you to “assert” and connect your audiobook project to your existing titles on Amazon. When uploading your audio files, you’ll need to confirm that you have the necessary rights to the work, including audiobook rights.
Once you set up an account with ACX, you can start preparing your audio files.
Your Microphone for Recording Your Audiobook
A few years ago, I was a guest on a podcast that required me to have a better quality microphone than what was available on my PC. They specifically recommended the Logitech H390 ClearChat USB microphone and headset, which is currently at a retail price of around $40, lower on sites like Amazon. So I bought it and have been using it for podcasting, video, and audio recording for years now.
Is it the ideal microphone and headset for recording audiobooks? Maybe not, but it is serviceable. And though I do have access to my husband’s higher quality Blue Yeti microphone, that microphone boom (an adjustable armature to hold the microphone) is so awkward with my desk and PC that it's impossible to use without drilling into my desk. So I’ll use my Logitech headset until I get a new desk setup down the road.
If I would have had to pay for the same microphone hubby has, it would have put me back about $130 (as of this post date). Still not too bad for a piece of equipment that you could use for several projects in the future, podcasting, social media videos, or other spoken-word works. But for easier editing, you’ll probably want good headphones, too. So that would set you back some additional dollars, depending on your choice. That’s also why I chose to stick with an all-in-one headset with the microphone. Less hassle, less cost.
But whether you go with something like my cheap setup, or one that’s more expensive, you’ll need to have some sort of windscreen to reduce the pops, clicks, hissing and breathing sounds that your voice makes when being recorded. A windscreen could be a foam ball or piece that fits over the microphone. Or for mics that have a stand or larger boom, it might be an actual screen that gets positioned in front of the mic. There are also some furry looking ones that I’m going to have to try which claim to reduce a lot of breathing sounds and such. Even if you do have a windscreen, you’ll usually have to do some editing of extraneous noises. (The ACX folks called me out on that for a couple of my files.)
The little foam windscreens are super cheap on sites such as Amazon (around $10 as of this writing) for use with headsets that have small boom microphones like mine. Musical instrument retailers (Guitar Center, Sam Ash, etc.) also carry this type of thing.
Use What You Already Have?
So if you already have a decent quality headset for online activities or gaming, you might be able to use what you have and not spend on more equipment. But if all you have is your computer’s built-in mic, you’re well-advised to get something that can record higher quality audio to avoid massive editing and possible file rejection by ACX.
The only way to test if your current equipment works for ACX is to try it. ACX will come back with what needs to be changed. But there is a way to check if your recording might pass before you even submit it. I’ll talk about that a bit later in this post. So keep reading.
Cost: As low as $50, depending on your microphone and windscreen choices. Free if you already have these items.
Audacity Audio Editing Software for Audiobook Recording
Because I had used it for other audio recording projects in the past—and because it’s free, open-source software—I chose to record and edit my audiobooks using the Audacity program. Simply go to Audacity (audacityteam.org) and download for PC or Mac.
The recording procedure is pretty simple with video/DVR-type, mouse-controlled buttons (red dot to record, two vertical bars to pause, black square to stop, green arrow to play). Plug in your mic, click the red dot record button, and start talking!
You may have to select your microphone if your computer has multiple microphones. Most computers have a built-in microphone, and others can be plugged in. If that’s the case for you, you’ll need to select which microphone you’re going to use to record. Otherwise, it will default to your computer’s built-in microphone (yuck!). See the Audacity documentation for how to do that.
Though ACX will accept either mono or stereo recordings, all of your files must be one or the other. I’ve gone with mono since I think it’s easier to handle, especially for audio editing beginners. Stereo files may be more complicated to edit with multiple channels.
Also, each chapter, opening credits, and closing credits need to be in a separate file. ACX also has requirements for what needs to be in the opening (title, author, and narrator) and closing credits (“The End” is the bare minimum).
Heads up that the Audacity “help” files are not that helpful since they do not have an easy search function. This is likely due to it being open-source, meaning that it is constantly being updated by its contributors. So when I need to find something, I usually end up going to Google to search for what I need on Audacity or online forums. Even if you do find what you’re looking for, it’s usually written in audio geek-speak.
Exacerbating the issue is that the ACX “help” information is similarly skewed toward information for audio engineers. As well, the ACX submission requirements use terminology that isn’t the same as on Audacity. For example, when ACX talks about RMS levels, it’s handled by the Compressor function on Audacity.
Being an Author-Narrator
When I first looked at ACX maybe a year or two ago, I was totally discouraged by their emphasis on using professional narrators for audiobooks. I want to be my own narrator! Not just because I wanted to do this on the cheap (narrators could charge hundreds, even thousands, of dollars, depending on your book), but because I wanted to be personally talking to my readers, similar to what I do with my podcasting. Because it didn’t seem like the system was designed for self-published author-narrators, I put this effort on the back burner.
But lately, it seems like they’ve made it easier to be an author-narrator. The interface has been updated and is easier to navigate through the process. So maybe ACX is realizing the profit potential that self-published authors could bring? I’ll just hope that it continues to get even more user friendly over time.
Yes, You Really Sound Like That
Even though ACX is much easier to handle than it’s ever been, what’s not easier is learning to become your own narrator since ACX requires that audiobooks be narrated by humans, not text-to-voice robots.
You have to get comfortable with speaking into the mic and hearing your own recorded voice. This unnerves many authors since they’re devastated by how they sound on the recording. They don’t feel they sound like they do in “real” life. And, they’re right, they don’t!
The way we hear the sound of our own voices can be altered by the physical structure of our eardrums, skull, vocal cords, etc. Google “why you sound different on recordings,” and you’ll get an earful (pun intended) about this phenomenon. So what you hear on the recording may actually sound more “real,” and closer to what your listening audience actually hears.
As well, you’ll have to learn to control your voice in terms of volume and emphasis. This takes time, even years! So if this is new territory for you, practice, practice, practice. And remember that digital audio is cheap (like free if you record as discussed here). So keep re-recording it until you get it right.
Even though you want to aim for a recording with as few bloopers as possible, don’t worry about it being perfect because you can edit mistakes out later. I’ve found that once I make a mistake, I just keep recording and speak the passage again, leaving a bit of silence between the blooper and the corrected passage so that it’s easier to identify and cut out the bad stuff.
Cost: $0 (plus your time and effort)
Once you’ve finished recording yourself reading your book, then the editing begins. As any audio or video pro will tell you, this is the most time-consuming part of developing the finished project. In some cases, it can take several times the actual time it takes to record it . . . at least that’s been the case for me. For example, I just edited a 5-minute segment that took me about 25 to 30 minutes to finalize. Aargh!
Further extending the time it takes to edit is the necessity to learn how to edit audio with Audacity. Recording with the software is easy, but editing is a completely different story. Audacity was developed by audio geeks for audio geeks, not regular folks like self-published authors.
Tip: When you open up your raw recorded file, save it again in a separate file with an identifier such as “Edit” in the file name. This “Edit” file is the one you’ll use for your editing. This way, if you mess up on the editing and accidentally cut out and obliterate a segment that you wish you would have saved, you still have the raw file so you don’t have to re-record.
Actually, I save a separate “Edit” file for each edit round, e.g., “Edit1,” “Edit2,” etc. My first edit file is for cutting out speaking mistakes, and then the succeeding edit files are for the audio quality adjustments. I do this because undoing some audio quality adjustments may not work after the file is saved. As with the raw file, having a file with just the bloopers cut out, prevents me from having to do the whole darn thing over if it doesn’t pass ACX review.
Cost: $0 (plus your time and effort)
The Audiobook Editing Process
Making the Cuts
First, you’re going to want to cut out the bloopers. You just select the bits you want to cut out with your mouse and press the delete key or click the Cut (scissors) button on the Audacity toolbar.
While this is relatively easy, it will take some time to get used to “reading” the waveform. I look at it in Waveform(dB)—not just Waveform—because I find it easier to see little noises that I might want to cut out.
Besides the bloopers, some of the noises you’ll want to cut out are loud breaths (which seem to increase for me as I talk faster), clicking noises for your mouse, and, what ACX calls, “mouth sounds,” which could be things like swallowing.
Audio Quality Adjustments
I’m not even going to pretend that I have a clue about the finer details of audio editing. However, from both online research and experimentation, I have found that these are the key functions in Audacity to help make your files ACX-friendly.
This huge! Even if you’ve done your best to reduce environmental noise during recording, if you’re recording on your computer, noise from the computer (fans, background static, etc.) will show up on your recording and it needs to be removed.
Trust me, you’ll be able to hear the hum from your computer on your recording and it’s annoying! So I use the Audacity Noise Reduction in the Effect menu to remove it. You’ll have to select a portion of the recording that just has that annoying background noise and identify that as the “noise profile.”
The Compressor function is typically used to address the loudness issues, or in audio geek-speak, RMS (Root Mean Square) levels. Adjusting the RMS will help smooth out your recording from having spots that are too loud, too soft, and too annoying for your listeners.
For ACX, the RMS (currently) for each entire track needs to be between -18dB and -23dB. Sadly, here is no “please adjust my audio to -18dB and -23dB” function in Audacity.
You can handle the RMS issue with the Compressor in the Effect menu. Set it for factory defaults (Effect > Compressor > Manage > Factory Presets > Defaults) to start and adjust the sliders (Threshold is usually the primary aspect that needs adjusting). Also, set the Noise Floor to -60dB (required by ACX).
This is another loudness issue, but it deals with the maximum volume level your track will experience. At present, the level ACX requires is -3dBfs. Even though you may set it for this ACX requirement, you may need to adjust it up or down to meet spec due to your file’s particular qualities. I’ve found that adjusting this in 0.1 increments is sometimes all that’s needed to make it work.
How Do You Know if Your Audiobook Files Meet ACX Specs?
Largely by stumbling around on the Internet to find answers on mastering my audiobooks, I found this amazing free plugin for Audacity, the Nyquist ACX Check, which can be found here.
Once you’re done making all your audio edits, adjusting volumes, and removing noise, you will go to Nyquist Prompt in the Audacity Effect menu and it will check your file to see if it meets ACX submission requirements for sound levels and quality. Then you can adjust your files with the functions noted above if it fails. Other adjustments may also need to be made, depending on your file.
Of course, using this plugin is no guarantee that ACX will accept your files. For example, on one of my submissions, everything checked out on the ACX Checker. But there were some extraneous noises at the beginning and end of some of my tracks. So even though those noises met spec, they had to be removed. Also, your files must meet content and other requirements to be approved by ACX.
However, this plugin helps avoids submitting your files to the ACX “black box,” just hoping they’ll meet spec. The ACX review process is long (up to 14 days). So every submission that doesn’t pass could mean extra weeks until it becomes available for sale.
This plugin has been a lifesaver for me! My first audiobooks had to go through two rounds of approval. On my third book that had 40+ chapters (!), I was able to get it through the ACX approval process on the first try.
Cost: $0 (plus your time and effort)
Exporting Your Audiobook to MP3 Files
More gobbledygook to follow. But I’ll do my best to clarify.
According to the ACX submission requirements, your files need to be 192 kbps or higher MP3, constant bit rate (CBR) at 44.1 kHz. I am not even going to attempt to explain what this means! However, I can tell you that this deals with how your audio files are encoded so that they play properly on your listeners’ devices.
Once you’re finished editing your audio files, and it’s passed the ACX check, you’ll go to File > Export in Audacity to create the MP3 files for uploading. You will set those ACX requirements in the File > Export screen.
Your Audiobook Cover
Even though ACX makes it easy to connect your audiobook project to your existing print books or eBooks on Amazon, there is no transfer of the cover art to ACX. This is due to a couple of issues.
First, the artwork is not sized or designed to meet ACX cover specs. ACX requires a 2400 X 2400 pixel square. Most print and eBook covers are vertical rectangles. And ACX does not allow you to drop in this vertically oriented art into a square which then creates borders on each side of the art. So you have to create brand new artwork for the audiobook.
Next, since I created my print and Kindle eBook covers using the Createspace and KDP Cover Creator tools, any images may not be licensed for use with ACX and audio editions. Thus, I would have to create new art for the audio cover no matter what.
ACX does have a cover art tool. However, it is so crude that it may fail to impress potential readers. But it works.
What I’ve ended up doing is creating a new cover that coordinates with the existing book cover art. In one instance, I created a new cover for the audiobook, and then redesigned the print and eBook covers to match. Not suggested! Too much work and really not necessary. Better to just do a simple text-only audio cover that matches the color scheme of any existing book cover artwork.
To create my text-only covers, I've used the free Canva online graphic layout program (Canva.com). Caution! Do NOT use their templates or images! They may not be licensed for commercial book or audiobook use (see Canva's Terms of Service for details). Just set up a custom dimensions square for 2400 X 2400 pixels, select a color for the background, type your text, and be satisfied with it.
All that really matters is that your title is easily readable for your reader-listeners.
Cost: $0 (unless you hire a graphic designer or license stock photos and artwork)
Why Is It So Hard to Self-Publish an Audiobook?
We learn a lot through trial and error. And learning audiobook production is no different. So what I did was to create the audio edition of a short, focused topic Kindle eBook that I already had published. I’m glad I did because I was able to figure out many of the issues before I launched into creating a much longer audiobook of 40+ chapters!
Right now, I believe all these tech issues, are keeping self-published authors from delving further into the audiobook arena. Truth be told, hiring an audio mastering pro and professional narrator will probably produce a beautiful sounding result. So that’s why I think there’s so little useful (emphasis on “useful”) information on DIY audiobook production for self-publishing on the web. The pros are still handling production for authors.
Don’t believe me? Do some Google searching for any of the terms in the ACX submission requirements or the Audacity functions. You’ll be directed to geek-speak audio engineer forums and blogs that are impossible to understand and apply for the layman. The only way I can describe it is that these resources tell you how a clock works when you only want to learn how to tell time.
But authors are contributing to the issue, too. Most authors are writers and creatives, not tech geeks. So many of them may be unable or unwilling to learn how to use these tools. Like me some years back, they see the enormity of the project and decide to back burner the effort until it becomes a more practical reality, or they have the financial resources to hire the pros.
Aside from the tech issues, I think the idea of recording and hearing one’s voice is so troubling for more introverted authors that they don’t even attempt it. Truth be told, audio narration is a performance art akin to acting. That takes practice, practice, practice! I can attest to that even though I’ve done public speaking and teaching for years. So if you’re not up to doing it yourself, you’ll have to hire the pros.
And I haven't even touched on unique marketing issues for audiobooks!
To further assist self-published authors who are trying to figure out this whole audiobook thing, I developed a video course on Udemy that includes step-by-step demos (search for my name on Udemy). But as we saw with eBooks, I think that at some point, the Amazon/ACX geniuses will come up with ways to make audiobooks more doable for authors. They’ve proven it with eBooks by giving us Kindle Create and Kindle Direct Publishing. We'll see. Until then, it'll continue to be a steep learning curve.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2018 Heidi Thorne