Updated: Jun 7
Ok, so you have written your hitherto undiscovered international bestseller and are feeling really great about yourself. Booker Prize winner in waiting. But wait! Everyone is telling you that you need to have an audiobook version. It's 'très à la mode'...so now you begin to question; "How do I get my book professionally narrated and formatted?” Of course, you’ll also want to take it off to your audiobook publishing house of choice. Which means you’ll want it fully edited and audio mastered. But, what is your budget going to be for all this? Do you even know how to hire a narrator? How much is all this going to cost? How long does it even take to make an audiobook? Arrrgh! Stop already! Always with the questions!
Let's start with that last question, shall we…’How long does it take to make an audiobook’? Well, on its own that's quite a subjective question with many factors to consider. If you’re from an era before the Web'Tin-Et, cast you mind back to the good old days and remember what we all used to do before audiobooks took off. We READ a book. Turning the pages with our fingers. Those of you who can’t remember a time before the Interwebnet….close your eyes and imagine!
Now, for the duration of this post we’re going to be making several assumptions and using averages, so please forgive me if you read this and find it doesn’t correlate to your experiences exactly. In fact, if you’d like to share some of your own experiences, I would dearly love to hear your thoughts on the matter.
That aside, for the purposes of the average book-reading Joe or Jane, we won’t be including the great tomes of Melville, Milton, Ulysses, Tolkien and the like; instead leaving them to be digested by the hardcore literati. For the majority of readers, the average bookstore novel ranges between 60,000 and 100,000 words. Now, let us assume you have a steady reading speed of 300 words per minute, and your novel of choice weighs in at a respectable 80,000 words. Provided you root yourself to your favourite reading spot and minimise any and all distractions, (giving the dog an elephant's leg to gnaw, gagging the children, or putting the tea cosy over the parrot), you'll be able to turn those pages from cover to cover in a comfortable five hours, give or take some minutes here and there. All good so far.
So, that's five hours to read the book. All right, how long does it take to listen to someone else reading the same book? Using the average speaking speed of 130 words per minute, which is roughly 2 pages per minute, an 80,000 word book will take 615 minutes, or 10.25 hours to listen to. That's assuming the narrator isn't speaking like Pinky and Perky beating up Alvin the Chipmunk! WHAT!...But hang on a moment...that's over double the amount of time it takes to read the same book. The same 80,000 words...What gives?
Well, to put it into words of less than 80,000: we all read silently in our heads at twice the speed we speak. Experienced or professional readers can blast through pages at eye-blistering speeds of over 1000 words per minute. But for the purposes of today, we're just dealing with Mr. & Mrs A. Verage here.
When we choose not to engage our mouths, (I understand this can be quite a difficult concept for some), our brains don't have to work out all that complicated speech stuff. You know, seeing the printed word on the page, recognising the glyphs, formulating the word, passing the word down to the mouth, telling the tongue which muscles it needs to use in order to form the correct configuration and finally, issuing the visualised utterance. And that's just for one word...for it to deliver a paragraph of spoken words en masse, it has to string multiple words together, apply the correct punctuation and, to quote J. K. Rowling's character Professor McGonagall; 'behave like a babbling bumbling band of baboons'.
When reading in our heads, the brain has a knack of subconsciously missing out all the complicated vocalisation steps, which let's face it is an effort, and keeps it internalised. Effectively halving the time it takes to process the same word. It also has a tendency to skip ahead and miss out many of the written filler words like; 'The', 'And', 'Of', etc. Depending on the diligence of the reader, left to its own devices, the brain can be quite lazy and not bother to properly articulate a difficult word, tending to give a close approximation and move on. (If it's anything like my teenage son, then the bare minimum language skills of an apathetic amoeba are employed). Therefore, devoid of any physical articulation, the brain is now free to negotiate the written word unencumbered by any time consuming processes of speech, and by doing so can speed up to twice the average speaking rate.
So, back to our 80,000 words, and our steady narrator is pleasantly delivering the novel of your choice to your ears at a relaxing 130 words, or 2 pages per minute and all you have to do is sit back and enjoy the ride.
At this point, I should say that there are many professional articles available out there that cover the science behind all this in much greater depth than I can. For example, a pretty good one I've read from a blogger called Akansha can be found here. https://thebookbuff.com/is-an-audiobook-faster-than-reading/#:~:text=An%20audiobook%20is%20not%20faster,it%20at%20the%20recorded%20speed.
Another good article on audiobook narration by Pete Mitchell https://soundadventurer.com/how-long-does-it-take-to-record-an-audiobook/#:~:text=Recording%20and%20editing%20an%20audiobook,reader%20proficiency%2C%20and%20recording%20practices.
(But wait until you've finished reading my ramblings first, before you go off on a tangent and read everything else published on the Internet and not get round to coming back to my article, because life got in the way!)
Right, that's the foundation to the question laid, any one remember what the original question was? Oh, yeah...How long does it take to record an audio book?
Okay, taking everything written so far into consideration, we now have to take a look back stage and go 'Booth-Side'.
There is an widely published formula which states that for every finished hour of spoken word you will spend an average of 6.5 hours behind the scenes editing. This figure is also subjective and will vary depending on several factors, such as: The proficiency of the narrator. (even experienced narrators stumble over their words). The process they use, including the recording equipment. The environment the audio is being recorded in. A microphone will pick up more than just your voice, so the cleaner the input, the less editing needed in post. The difficulty, or ease of the subject matter being narrated. A Janet & John slushy romance story will be leagues easier to narrate than a technical journal discussing the merits in engineering capabilities of early Edwardian steam reciprocating beam engines and their real world applications. (As fascinating the subject may be to some).
By and large, the general breakdown of hours for experienced narrators are:
Recording - 2 hours for 1 finished hour.
Editing - 3 hours for 1 finished hour
Proofing - 1.5 hours.
In the vast majority of cases I would say that the 6.5 hours is a pretty accurate representation. Your proficiency and level of expertise will factor into this time. Also, by using top notch professional equipment and industry leading editing software, you may be able to get this time down a little more. And of course, it depends on how much of a perfectionist you are. If you are one of those people who likes to agonise over the finished quality, then you can add a few PPH's; ('Pinickerty Per Hours'), on top of your original six and a half.
For calculation purposes, we assume an average rate of 2 pages per minute is a good reading speed. For instance, if it takes you 10 minutes to read 5 pages, your average time per page would be 2 minutes per page. (10 / 5 = 2). Multiply the total pages in the book by your average reading time per page to get your total estimated minutes. 80,000 words equates to 320 pages x 2 = 640 minutes. Divide the total number of minutes by 60 to get the finished hours. 640 / 60 = 10.66 Per Finished Hours.
We take the 10.66 hours, add on our 6.5 per finished hours and feed this into our calculator and press 'compute'...and we get a total of ....
69 Hours and 29 Minutes!
Now you can begin to appreciate, long form narration is an endurance occupation and should be seen as a marathon rather than a sprint. If your a really experienced narrator, and highly disciplined, then at best a gentle jog around the park. Not many freelance narrators will choose to sit in a stuffy booth for 8 straight, 5 days a week, if there's other work that needs doing. So the book will usually get recorded in batches, where the rest of the days business can be fitted around a couple of chapters here and there. Oh, but it not quite as cushty as that. No, there's always a vampire of extraneous time gobbling distractions we encounter throughout the day that we nearly always forget to take into account. That can easily bump up the total to a round 80 hours. And, don't forget that we are still talking averages here, so there is plenty of scope for that figure to rise further. In my experience it never goes the other way.
Now we get to apply a financial aspect to all these hours we've been accumulating. Again, there is a pretty standard rate audiobook narrators work from. It usually gives three rates; a lower, a mid-range, and an upper rate. At the time of writing this, the typical market rate in the UK: Lower - £65 per finished hour Mid - £85 per finished hour and Upper - £105 per finished hour. Usage fees and usage byouts are normally included within the price. It is also worthy to note, that the Per Finished Hour means per hour of playback of the edited recording and does not typically include the cost to the narrator to edit the recordings.
So taking our average theme we'll select the mid-range PFH and apply the maths; (notice math(s) plural and not math singular - you know which country you are).
80,000 Words (320 pages)
320 x 2 / 60 = 10.66 Hours
70 Hours (Rounded up)
Not a bad return for a weeks work, eh? But, does the average audiobook narrator actually get £5,950.00 per finished audio book?...Pardon my French, but do they buggary! Although it'd sure be nice. But the reality is, that unless you're at the top of the tree and reputationally capable of demanding such a figure, or a big name celebrity, in which case you can probably triple that fee, most narrators will probably earn a middle of the road figure anywhere between £800 (low) to £2000 (High). Narrating a book on a Per Finished Hour (PFH) basis brings the average cost per book down to roughly, £1500.00 (Middle). The narrator is contracted in to a PFH rate by the rights holder and agreed at the beginning of the audition process.
Then there are the smaller, independently published indi authors, 99% of whom won't be in any position to afford that kind of capital layout. Here we usually see something called a Royalty Share contract. This relies on the narrator sacrificing their time with little or no collateral upfront, but will promise them anywhere between 35 - 60% of all profits on the sale of the audiobook. Well, that sounds alright, doesn't it? Sure, if you manage to get a contract narrating a number one best seller by a top ranking author. Most likely though, you'll get offered 50% of a book that is scraping somewhere in the three millionth bottom ranking score on Amazon and not managed to sell a single title since 2019. Then your 50% of nothing turns out to be a not so enticing....nothing! But, don't forget you've invested 70 of your own hours upfront to produce this book. And while you sit and wait for the royalties to start rolling in, you still have to pay your bills the same as everyone else.
Many experienced audiobook narrators will run for the hills at the mention of Royalty Share. But, for those narrators just starting out, it can be a good way of building up experience and growing that all important client base. We all have to get noticed somehow and as a minnow swimming in the overpopulated waters of narrating, sometimes a little nibble is all you need
So.....How much does it cost to narrate an audiobook?....beats me, I get to do the most enjoyable job I've ever done. If I get paid along the way, that's a Brucey Bonus!