Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Self Publishing my First Audiobook

I'm pleased to announce that I've begun self-publishing audiobooks. My first, RUM RUNNER, is currently available.

What took me so long to self-pub audio?

It all began 30 years ago...

When I was a sophomore in high school back in halcyon days of 1986, I was flush with cash from my job at Burger King (all about the fryer, baby) and eager to spend my whole $70 paycheck on music.

Cassette tapes were my preference, because I could rock the jams in my car stereo, and also in my Sony Walkman, and in my Panasonic ghetto blaster (which ate D batteries like Pac-Man ate quarters.)

While I admit I did own a pair of Hot Topic parachute pants that were shiny enough to be seen from space (and boasted no less than ten non-functional zippers as decoration), my style at the time tended toward Hawaiian shirts and Vans before most folks in Chicagoland knew what Vans were. And my musical affectation in '86 was metal.

Classic NWOBHM, like Priest, Raven, Tank, Motorhead, and Maiden, but also the newer, faster indie stuff coming out of the US as exemplified by Anthrax, Metallica, Slayer, Exciter, and my personal favorite, Stormtroopers of Death.

I loved me some SOD.

If you were a young metalhead with fast food money burning a hole in your camo pants, you eventually discovered Megaforce Records, the label that released the first Metallica and Anthrax records.

So one fine summer day in '86, I'm in the mall record shop (Flip Side? Musicland?) and see a new cassette compilation called FROM THE MEGAVAULT by Megaforce. New songs and B-sides by Overkill, Exciter, Raven, Blessed Death, and SOD.

I immediately plunked down my ten bucks, and raced out to my car, eager to hear SOD shred RAM IT UP.

But RAM IT UP did not come out of my car speakers. Something else did. And as I fast-forwarded through the tape, I didn't hear any Raver or Exciter, either.

In fact, the music on the tape wasn't metal at all.

Somehow, some southern rock album had been recorded over From the Megavault. Or the factory that manufactured both albums spooled the wrong tape in the wrong case.

Major screw-up. And I was only making $3.35 an hour. How could life be so unfair?

Once I got over my immediate anger at the bait and switch, I gave the mystery album a thorough listen.

And I liked it.

I liked it so much, I made copies for my friends. They liked it, too. But we had no idea who the artist was, or the name of any of the songs.

Remember, this was 1986. No way to look up lyrics. I took that tape to a dozen record shops, playing them cuts, and no one knew who the band was.

Which was especially irritating, because the band was really good. I grew up when John Hughes was making movies for my age group, and he was correct that the music you listened to in high school imprinted on you strongly.

My buddies and I called the tape The Mystery Album, which we labeled with a single question mark. And we played the hell out of that album.

Cut to 1988. One of my good friends moves out of state. We stay in touch, and one day he calls me up, excited.

"I heard a song from the Mystery Album on the radio. The name of the band is The Rainmakers."

And they had a second album out, TORNADO. And soon put out a third, THE GOOD NEWS AND THE BAD NEWS, in 1989.

The second and third albums were just as good as the first, and The Rainmakers became my favorite band ever. Which was a big deal for me, because at the time I had over a thousand albums. My entire bedroom wall was lined with cassettes. I was into tunes in a big way, and this band represented everything I liked about music. Catchy melodies. Powerful lyrics. Songs to dance to, songs to sing along with, songs that hit you in the gut.

Great rock and roll.

But fate was cruel in my younger days, and The Rainmakers broke up before my friends and I ever got to see them live.

Years passed. I toked and drank my way through college and spent years waiting tables and trying to sell a novel on my way to racking up 500 rejections. I was working on a word processor, because I wasn't convinced buying a computer is a good investment, even though this burgeoning "Internet" thing seems like it might be useful someday.

When I finally did get online, I looked up The Rainmakers (it was, literally, my first search ever), and I saw they had a website and a message board. I also found out they've released a live album, and a new CD, FLIRTING WITH THE UNIVERSE. If that wasn't exciting enough, I posted a question on their forum and the lead singer, Bob Walkenhorst, was kind enough to answer it.

His answer: No, they weren't touring.

More years passed. I was still collecting rejections for my novels. The Rainmakers put out their fifth album, SKIN, which was terrific, and then they immediately broke up again.

I was convinced that I'd French kiss the Loch Ness Monster before I ever saw The Rainmakers live.

In 2002 I sold WHISKEY SOUR. My audio rights went to Brilliance Audio in Grand Haven, MI, the largest independent audiobook producer in the world. I loved Brilliance. They rolled out the red carpet for me, the narrators were terrific, and I even got to voice a few characters.

In 2009 I discovered self-publishing on Kindle and started making real money for the first time in my life. Brilliance Audio continued to buy my self-pubbed books, and I was fine with that because they did a great job.

In 2011, The Rainmakers put out a new album, 25 ON, and announced a reunion concert.

I don't think I'm overly nostalgic, or overly excitable, but I do consider myself a fanboy of certain things. Going to see The Rainmakers with my high school buddies, after first hearing the Mystery Album twenty-five years earlier, was surreal.

Maybe I'm not using the word "fanboy" in the proper context. Bob Walkenhorst and The Rainmakers have released nine albums (my current fave being MONSTER MOVIE), and I know every song. By heart. I can sing each tune from start to finish with minimal lyric mistakes depending on how much beer I've had.

So when we finally saw them live, and they played The Mystery Album in its entirety, I was hoarse by the middle of the show from screaming so loud.

That's the happy ending, right? Throw in a romantic subplot, and some conflict within the friend group, and it's enough to be the backdrop for a John Hughes film. Or a Cameron Crowe flick.

No more to tell, you'd think.

But actually, there is more.

I kept checking The Rainmakers website every so often, hoping to hear news of another show or new album, and I noticed Bob was offering to do house concerts. Fly him out, pay him well, and you can have a Rainmaker in your living room.

This resonated with me. In 2006, I toured for two months and stayed in fans' houses. It was a tough tour, but rewarding. Getting to know people that my work had touched was something I'll never forget, and I wondered if it was possible to have an experience like that with Bob.

So I emailed him, saying I'm a famous author (this no doubt didn't impress him, as the previous famous author who flew him out for a show was Stephen King). I said I'd like to book him for two nights, three hours a night.

He was skeptical we'd want to hear him for six full hours. He was also dubious of the crowd; this is a man who has played 20,000 seat arenas, and I was asking him to play for just me, my wife, and my two high school buddies. For two nights in a row.

After some back and forth emails he did eventually accept, and his wife came along (to save him if the gig turned sour).

It was one of the most fun things I'd ever done. Even though you really couldn't hear Bob over my singing.

We talked in the downtime, trading stories about our professions and basically get to know each other as people.

And that somehow turned into a friendship.

Besides being the greatest singer/songwriter of our generation, Bob is a ridiculously nice guy and extremely easy to get along with. And for some reason, I amuse him.

So a few years pass, and we've hung out a dozen times, and talk and text as friends tend to do. When my other friends come over, we usually drink too much and sing some of Bob's tunes and then send him the videos because what rock star doesn't want to see drunken idiots screeching off-key to songs he labored over? To one-up me, Bob sent me a video of him reading one of my books aloud. But unlike my singing, Bob was good at reading. Really good.

I told him he should check out ACX, because I thought he could make some decent money narrating audiobooks.

Then I promptly forget about it.

My secret fanboy fantasies involving Bob Walkenhorst all center around his work, not mine. Like perhaps someday he'll invite me on stage to sing with him (he's heard my voice, so he hasn't), or maybe he'll call me up, stuck on a lyric, and ask me to use my writing skills to assist him (his lyrics are perfect, so he hasn't).

But in the past six months, I've been pretty prolific. RUM RUNNER, WATCHED TOO LONG, and WEBCAM, with LAST CALL coming up, and more on tap for later in the year. I was planning on selling the audio rights to Brilliance, but my old buddy Blake Crouch told me I was foolish for not self-pubbing audio since the royalties are so much better.

The seed was planted in my head, but I still didn't connect the dots until we were at Bob's house and my wife said, "You should ask him if he wants to narrate your books."

Right. Then I could call Bill Gates and ask him to overclock my CPU.

But my wife pushed it. So, expecting a no, I gave Bob the worst pitch ever, "If this is something you might consider, maybe you could try it, but I have no idea if it'll make any money because I haven't done it before and it'll probably take a long time to do and you might hate the book, so if you don't want to try, it's totally cool, I don't want to push you or anything, really. It was Maria's idea."

Bob surprised me by saying yes.

And that's the story of how I self-published RUM RUNNER, narrated by Bob Walkenhorst, whom I was listening to thirty years ago because I liked heavy metal.

Life is funny, isn't it?

Now, I'd really like to say that RUM RUNNER is easily the greatest audiobook ever recorded.

And I can say that, because it's true.

Bob nailed it. He hit the right notes for the humor, and for the suspense. His characterizations are up there with the best I've ever heard. His pace is impeccable. The whole things sounds great.

If you like my work, you'll love this. If you like audiobooks, you'll love this. If you have ears and a pulse and understand English, you'll love this. This will stand up to any audiobook produced by anyone.

And yes, that's me voicing my character, Harry McGlade.

I had expectations that were probably too high, and perhaps I’m still too much of a fanboy to be fully objective, but I really love how Bob has interpreted the work. His voice is terrific (obviously, the guy is a rock star), but he went above the call of duty to create specific voices and mannerisms for the different characters to make them all stand out. He’s got a very good sense of comic timing, he pours on the pathos during the emotional scenes, and he makes the book better.

I invited Bob to answer a few questions about the process.

Joe sez: So this is a first for you. Not reading aloud—I’m pretty sure you’ve done that before—but performing an audiobook. What are your initial thoughts?

Bob: It is a rather LARGE task. Fun, but large. Your books, and Rum Runner specifically, cover such a wide range of emotions and moods. From terror to love, graphic violence to painfully immature humor. You bring it all, and I've done my best to bring it to audio-life. From gangstas, to babies, to a damn parrot. Then there is the whole gigantic data management of keeping all the chapters and sections in order.

Joe: How does this compare to recording music?

Bob: LONGER, a lot LONGER! But the construction of mood is similar, in that you change tones and volume and tempo. The big difference being that is all has to be done with the spoken (or shouted!) voice, rather than all the infinite choices of instruments and effects in music.

Joe: You just finished recording WATCHED TOO LONG, and the scenes I’ve heard are hilarious. Are you up for doing more Konrath audiobooks? Or do you need a little break?

Bob: I have this suspicion that you can write them faster than I can record them. So keep 'em coming  -  I'll catch up. I really have enjoyed Rum Rummer immensely. I love the story, enjoy the dramatic challenge, and the big jigsaw puzzle of putting it all together.

Joe: Now that you’re a narrator on ACX, are you going to consider doing audiobooks for other authors?

Bob: Now that I know how much time and work it entails, I would hesitate to do an audiobook for a first time author. Just being honest. You were gracious and trusting enough to let me do it as I wanted - you told me from the start that you did not want to "direct" or edit it. I fear other authors might be very picky and have specific ideas about how characters should sound, how pacings should go. It could easily become a giant pain, and an endless job to finish it for a finicky author.

Joe: Stephen King used several Rainmakers lyric quotes in The Tommyknockers, and he even flew you guys to Maine to perform for him. What if he wanted you to read one of his? On the plus side, he probably pays better than I do. On the minus side, his books are 3700 pages long...

Bob:  Sure, I would entertain the idea of a King book. Again, I am trying to avoid high-pressure situations in my life, and a King book might be a "be-careful-what-you-wish-for" thing. Hey, you should write a book where an insane author chains his narrator in the basement and makes him keep recording it over and over and over . . .     Maybe that's already been done.

Joe: So, when can we expect a new album from you and/or your band?

Bob: I am currently working on a quickie album of solo acoustic versions of past Rainmakers tunes. I did one a few years ago called Spare. This will be Spare Vol. 2. I mostly sell these at my solo house concerts, kind of a souvenir of the evening. And always writing new songs for whatever happens down the road.

Thanks again Joe, for letting me take a crack at this. I think we made something damn good here.   Now, let's go drink beer.

Joe: I'm all for that.

RUM RUNNER is available as a digital audio download on Audible, Amazon, and iTunes. You can find Bob at his Facebook page, or if you're in the Kansas City area, catch him at a gig. It's some of the best rock n' roll you'll ever hear. Guaranteed.

But don't take my word for it. Download a few of his shows for yourself, for free.


Andrea said...

That was a fun read! And his narrating skills are excellent. Did he study up on it after you asked him to narrate Rum Runner? Because he sounds like he's done it a thousand times. I'm really impressed.

And yay for great music to listen to! Long Gone Long is going to be a favorite.

Back to YouTube until my cd comes in the mail. (Yeah, I still like cds. :-))

JA Konrath said...

Bob listened to many audiobooks before giving this a go. Since he's also a recording artist, he really paid a lot of attention to how the book sounds; in a car, with headphones, on speakers, etc.

I couldn't be happier with the final product.

Andrea said...

Yeah, no kidding.

I'm going back and forth on whether or not to take the dive into audio. Amazon and other companies are putting a lot of money towards programs and devices that read out loud, and I'm sure that in a few years, something will be available that can do nearly as well as a human can... Different voices and everything. The cost and amount of time it takes an actual human to produce an audiobook makes me wonder if human narrators will become obsolete. Will I be better off waiting and putting that money elsewhere?

On the other hand, audiobooks are super hot right now, and I know I'm missing out on a huge audience.

I'd love to hear what other authors think. Wait for technology to catch up or dive in now? If money weren't an issue (we're saving up to build a house), we'd dive in now. But our money is slotted for other things as soon as it comes in.

Michelle said...

This is the best story I've heard in a long time - what a ride! I do in fact live in the KC area, so I'll keep an eye out for his gigs. Man has been making music as long as I've been alive, and he's still writing new songs? Respect. That's the kind of person I want to be.

Unknown said...

Thanks again for your valued inputs, Joe. Reading travels through your eyes as a music crazed youth into today as mentor to us all, priceless. It's next phase for add-on profits for us in your fan club. Must learn more.

Patrice Fitzgerald said...

Did anyone ever tell you that you're good at telling a story, Joe? Thanks for sharing this; it's more inspiration for me to finally get into audio myself.

P.S. I'm kicking myself that I didn't get over to BEA while I was in Chicago for the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America and the Nebula Awards! If I'd known you were there I would have made sure to do it...

Bo Thunboe said...

Thanks for sharing that cool story.

antares said...

Wow! I have never liked audio-books, because I do not like having stories read to me. But I enjoyed the sample. I suppose that is because Bob did not 'read' the book; he 'performed' the book. Bought the book and the audio. (That's the way this is supposed to work, right?)

I agree, Joe. IMO this is the best audio-book ever. All others will have to up their game to match it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Joe! Did you set up a home recording studio for this? Paul

JA Konrath said...

@ Anon. Bob is a rock star. He's got everything he needs in his home to record, and brought a mic, sound board, and digital recorder over to my house to capture the McGlade scenes.

JA Konrath said...

@ Andrea - You can make deals on ACX to split royalties with narrators rather than pay them, so the only upfront cost is cover art, and even then some people just stretch their Amazon book cover into a square.


Great post Joe. I'm picking up my audio RUM RUNNER tomorrow and will listen this weekend. Have a great Memorial day, and drink to much!

Ben Rehder said...

I've used ACX for about a dozen books now, and it's turned out great. I prefer to pay the producer/narrator up front, so it takes a while to get my money back, but in the long run, it's been the best choice for me. Added benefit is that my audiobook sales always jump after I've had a BookBub ad.

Anonymous said...

This is funny because for my next series I'm selling the audiobook rights. I got offers for my first series but turned them down. In fact the reason I decided to do audiobooks in the first place was because I got two offers for the rights a week apart and decided to self-pub it. They're all in profit but it hasn't been as lucrative as I had hoped, though to be honest I've done exactly zero marking for it. I think if I had sold the rights I would have made twice as much -- the advance and royalties. I'd love to hear about your results in 6 months or so from now, Joe -- between the self-pub audio and the ones you sold the rights to in terms of revenue. Audible was one of those companies that asked to buy the rights and they don't come any bigger. Heck, they OWN, so you can imagine how easier/better/more effective they could have pushed the series.

Anonymous said...

@Ben Rehder,

Yes, this is true. A Bookbub ad is usually good for 500 audiobook sales without fail (at least for me). But of course, getting a Bookbub is as tough as they come, so...

Unknown said...

Very cool story, Joe. It's remarkable how occurrences from our youth can sometimes come around and enrich our lives so many years later.

We discussed self-publishing an audio edition of LADY 52, but I'm glad we didn't. This should be your first. :)

Walter Knight said...

I never noticed you mention selling audio rights to Brilliance Audio before. How does that work?

I did go to the ACX site, but could not figure out how to create an audio book online. I pounded on my keys and nothing would happen. It's impossible to find someone to talk to at ACX if you're computer challenged.


Walter I've used ACX twice with great results. Normally what you do is create a profile and then you search for audiobook producers who might fit your project. You send them a request with the profile of your book project. They accept or deny it. You can either go 50/50 on the royalties or you can pay the producer up front. I've gone 50/50 with my great audiobook producer Bryant Sullivan. He produced The OzValt Grant Collection and its prequel Acorpsepile with great results. Good luck!

Broken Yogi said...

Great work, Joe. Maybe at some point you could write an article on all the practical points of how you did this, including the economics of it, the royalty structure, how to upload it, etc. Is this something self-published authors can do on the cheap, or does it take considerable money to produce a salable product?

TeriB said...

Joe, I never thought we'd have this in common, but I too had my first job at Burger King in 1986. My first paycheck was $75. I was getting minimum wage of $3.25 an hour. I worked the fry-rack. They put me there hoping I wouldn't screw that up, because frankly I wasn't very good. At the new staff orientation we watched a lame video video that finished by telling us that we had 'graduated from BKU - Burger King University!'
I lasted 6 weeks, and was left with a lingering hatred of people who insist on asking for fries with no salt.

Hannah Steenbock said...

Wow. This is an awesome story - I couldn't stop reading. Love how such a random connection turned into something beautiful and wonderful.

And it's a perfect example of selling a product through a story. Thank you, I just learned a LOT.

Denise Baer said...

I'm new to your site, and I really enjoyed this post. A great trip down memory lane... I'm talking about the 80s. "I grew up when John Hughes was making movies for my age group, and he was correct that the music you listened to in high school imprinted on you strongly." This is so true. Music got me through the tough times, and I still listen to those artists today.

Thanks for discussing your audio experience. Audio is an expensive route to go. Glad to see it worked out for you through the years... and through the friendship.

S.W. Hubbard said...

I'm getting ready to plunge into audio. I'd be interested in hearing how others feel about the 50/50 split with narrators vs. the upfront payment. It seems like a lot of work for narrators with no guarantee of profit, so it seems that if you go that route, you're not going to get the best talent....more likely someone looking to break in. Some of the audiobooks of self-pubbed authors sound like they're narrated by bad community theatre actors. OTOH, my most popular book is about 100K words, which I think would require a $2-3K payment if I went the upfront route. Any thoughts on which is best? I've had several successful BookBub promos, so I do have an audience.

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

I've been having some success with audiobooks - my own Granny Smith Investigates is performed by the very talented Fiona Thraill and she really brings the story to life. I did this on a profit share basis and consider myself lucky to get Fionna

Unknown said...

Can I just say this is the best fan boy story ever. The audiobook resolution is a plus :) I'll save you the story of how I wanted Hulk Hogan to come hang with my die hard WWW kid years ago until I looked at his prices. My husband and I had quite the laugh about how that would never happen with my day job or writing income. It was nice to dream though. Glad your dream came true. Pretty awesome :)

Scott Dyson said...

I loved The Rainmakers back in the day. My favorite song was "The Wages Of Sin," I think. Thanks for the memory!