What Does it Really Cost to Create a Fullcast Audio Book?

As many of you know, I have produced my Guild of the Cowry Catchers series as fullcast audio books with voice actors, music, and sound effects, and I release them as free podcasts. As of this writing, I have released four of the books and I still have one book to go. I also co-host a podcast about this kind of production called Fullcast Podcast with Bryan Lincoln.

You may have also heard me say, both on the podcast and elsewhere, that I have no plans to produce future full length novels in fullcast (aside from the final Cowry Catchers book, which I will produce later this year). I always intend to have audio versions of my books available, but not in fullcast and not necessarily read or produced by me. I have enjoyed working with my voice actors immensely, all of whom are volunteers, and the podcast has brought me many fans and launched my career as an author. However, Cowry Catchers is a staggering amount of work, specifically because it is a fullcast production. I could have written many more novels in the time I have spent producing Cowry Catchers. If you are an author, you probably know that various companies and individuals online offer to produce your book for you as a solo read, either for an upfront fee or for a royalty on your sales. However, there aren’t a lot of companies offering to produce fullcast versions of novels at any price. Why?

I had a fan ask me recently what it would cost to have Hunters Unlucky produced in fullcast the way I do Cowry Catchers. What kind of Kickstarter campaign would be necessary to make a fullcast production worth doing for me?

Hunters will probably be around 210,000 words once it’s polished. As a comparison, The Prophet of Panamindorah series (which I produced as a solo read) is about 150,000 words, and the entire Cowry Catchers series is about 300,000. So Hunters is a little longer than Prophet and not quite as long as Cowry Catchers.

A minute of audio = about 200 words. 210,000/200 = 1050 minutes/60 = 17.5 hours of audio.

Professional voice work is paid at about $200 per finished hour (which is quite reasonable considering it takes a lot more than an hour to produce that “finished” hour). $200 x 17.5 = $3,500. Cheap, no? That includes paying everybody, including the narrator, who may be the author.

Ah, but now we come to production. When newbies ask me how much time they should expect to spend creating fullcast audio, I tell them an hour per minute (as opposed to 10 minutes per minute for a solo read). That is an infinitely reasonable time-budget for someone starting out. This is assuming that the narrator is also the author who is also the producer, so some of that time involves recording narration, but that’s not the lion’s share of the time. It’s about 10%.

A slick, efficient, experienced producer who is not also recording narration (or at least not counting it against production time) might be able to cut that time in half. Let’s say that your producer can crank out 1 finished minute per 30 minutes of real time.  1050 minutes x 30 = 31,500/60 = 525 hours of production labor.

At 40 hours per week, that’s 13.125 weeks or about 3 months. But let’s say that your producer is willing to work week-ends and burn the midnight oil. If you worked 8 hours per day every day including week-ends and threw in a few 10 hour days here and there, you could get in 525 hours in 2 months.

How much should that cost? Well, I say your producer should at least not be worried about starving or getting kicked out of her home or not paying her taxes or missing major bills. For me, my monthly budget is $6,000. That’s $2,000 for taxes, $2,000 for student loans, and $2,000 for everything else (rent, utilities, food). So, for me to work like this for 2 months, I would need at least $12,000.

$12,000 is not excessive for this amount of labor (which, realistically, will exceed 525 hours for sure). If I was able to keep the project within time-budget, that’s only $22.86 per hour. If memory serves, that’s comparable to what I made in my first nursing job right out of college. I think that any sane person would charge more if that’s all the money they’re going to see, particularly if they’re expected to work nights and week-ends. The only way this makes sense is if the producer is the author and she will see more income trickling in over the life of the book.

Finally, you need a little cash for file hosting, some cover art, a few judiciously chosen sound effects, and a little paid music. You can get away with using mostly royalty-free music and sound effects, but a sprinkling of higher quality makes a much better product. Say $500 for all that.

$3,500 + $12,000 + $500 = $16,000 minimum Kickstarter campaign for a project the size of Hunters. Add in enough money for prizes and a more realistic production budget by someone other than the author, and you could easily be looking at $20,000.

For a single Cowry Catchers book (~60,000 words), it would be around $10,000. If I were to pay my voice actors, pay for all music (most of which is only free if I’m not charging for my book), and get paid for my time, the Cowry Catchers series would cost in the neighborhood of $50,000 just to get them off the ground, and that does not include illustration.

These numbers are optimistic. In truth, no producer can work at maximum efficiency all the time. Some finished minutes take the full hour, and you hit snares, both human and technical, that cause delays and eat up time. For instance, this plan assumes that your voice actors get you their lines without delay during those two months. That would never happen. You’d have some lagging behind, slowing down the whole thing. When you involve a large number of people, that happens.

Returning to the larger question—is fullcast worth what it really costs?

Financially, no! I think that most authors and most readers would say that, as fun and entertaining as fullcast production is, it’s not worth the cost. I am certain that I would not succeed in a $16,000 Kickstarter campaign. I have lovely fans, but only a fraction of them would be interested, and it’s not enough to carry that kind of campaign. I am also certain that, if I shouldered the whole financial burden myself, I would not make back my investment for many years, perhaps a decade or more. I’m not sure that I would ever truly make it back, because most people who would have bought the fullcast production would also have bought a much less labor-intensive solo read. In that case, you’re looking at maybe $5,000 to do a pro job.

To put it another way: Fullcast costs 3-4x as much to produce as a solo read, but 3-4x as many people will not buy it. For the most part, exactly the same people will buy it either way, and they’ll expect fullcast to cost the same as any audio book. You cannot charge them 4x as much. If you do, you won’t sell many books.

All of us have had the experience of seeing some piece of art or furniture or clothing and *wanting* it sooo badly…and then getting a look at the price tag and realizing, regretfully, that we don’t want it to the tune of $X. That is how most listeners feel when you truly present them with the price of fullcast audio.

For me, it’s also relevant that I make $92-$100 per hour in the operating room. That’s my point of reference. I would never spend 525 hours in the operating room in a 2 month span. I would find that soul-destroying, and it would prevent me from writing novels. However, you can see how it makes more sense for me to work part time in the OR and spend the rest of my time writing, rather than setting aside giant chunks of time to produce audio that my fans don’t truly want to pay for.

I hesitated to write this post, because I’m afraid the people who enjoy my fullcast audio will think that I’m bitter or that I regret producing books that they have loved. Neither of these things are true! I could never put a price tag on the friends I’ve made while producing Cowry Catchers, and fullcast audio has helped me stand out because so few authors are willing to go that extra thousand miles. However, that doesn’t mean I should keep doing it for every book. That certainly would make me bitter, because I would end up writing far fewer books in my lifetime and possibly going broke.

There may come a point in my career when I have the size of audience that could pay for fullcast books (and wants to). It’s not impossible, but it’s not true right now. Authors reading this post may have audiences who could foot the bill for this kind of production. If that’s you, I hope this post gives you an idea of the budget you would need. Fullcast is a truly unique art form.

Edit 4/7/16: This post from 3 years ago gets a lot of hits, so I thought I'd give an update. First, if this was useful to you, you might appreciate the follow-post from a year later: How Long Does it Take to Create a Fullcast Audiobook?

Second, Cowry Catchers went on sale at Audible.com via ACX on 6/23/14 as a single-shot 32 hour download. I paid all the voice actors and licensed all the music. I remastered the first three books, which sound much better in the paid version. At this point, two years later, the series has just about made back its costs of production (assuming you only count actual monetary investment and not my time). The audio book sells steadily and will make a profit for many years to come. However, I don't think most people buy it because it's fullcast. I think they buy it because it's a good story. That said, some people do tell me that they find the fullcast production more immersive. Other people arrive at the book because they are fans of one of the voice actors (generally Norm Sherman or Nathan Lowell). Whether this translates into better sales than a solo read is impossible to say. It's also impossible to say what sales would have been like if I had written 5 additional novels instead of producing Cowry Catchers in fullcast. I'm not sorry about this one, but I still have no plans to produce future novels in fullcast.

The big epic that I finished after Cowry Catchers, Hunters Unlike, was a solo read by Rish Outfield, and it gets excellent reviews on Audible. That book is 24 hours long. I paid Rish a pro rate. And it made back its costs of production within 8 months of release.

My upcoming novel, The Scarlet Albatross, is related to Cowry Catchers, and I chose to produce that with two voice actors - Lauren Harris for the female parts, and Rish Outfield for the male parts. I think this is a nice compromise between solo read and fullcast, and is only slightly more difficult to produce than solo read. That audio book should hit Audible within the month.

Edit 12/16 - The Scarlet Albatross is here on Audible.