3 Things to Consider When Turning Your Non-Fiction Book into Audio

Listening to a audio book is an easy way to take the drudgery away from a commute to work, performing household chores and exercise.  So, it’s no surprise the audio book market is on a steady rise.

In an April 2019 report the Audio Publishers Association   found that 50% of Americans over the age of 12 had listened to an audio book. On average listeners who responded to the APA survey said they listen to more than six books per year. I know many people who listen to one or more audio books per week.

While novels help listeners escape, non-fiction books offer the listener an opportunity to grow and learn.   Whether it’s being a better parent, improving gardening skills or managing people, turning your non-fiction book into an audio book feeds this hungry, intelligent and sophisticated audience.

As a listener, I switch between fiction and non-fiction books every month. I’ve noticed that following the story (understanding the intended message) can be more challenging in non-fiction books because there aren’t characters to fill in the details. As a narrator of both fiction and non-fiction books, I’ve learned to “prep” for recording a non-fiction book by going through the book and asking the question, “Can I follow this with my eyes closed?”

Here’s a few of the “hazards” non-fiction writers really should consider if they want to create an audio version of their work that every consumer can enjoy and clearly understand.

It’s the format….  Not understanding the unique characteristics, and missing components of audio books (compared to print) reduces the enjoyment and understanding of the material.

Things to think about before going to audio:

  1. Is your material suited to audio?
  2. Recognize that audio books do not have visual cues
  3. Audio books are a form of entertainment for the ears

Is your material suited to audio?  If your book includes a few drawings, photographs or graphs these can be accommodated with a pdf available through the book’s provider or through a special link to your website. If a large portion of your book is filled with visual material (think cookbook, visual exercises, software tutorials) however, it is not suited to audio and will not likely sell well.

Recognize that audio books do not have visual clues. When a reader opens a non-fiction book one of the first thing s/he sees is the Table of Contents. This can help orient the reader and create a “map” for their journey.  It also serves as a reference during their reading experience if one is needed.

Successful non-fiction books help orient the listener early on by including more detailed introductions that include a “what to expect” in the book.   When referencing “parts” or “chapters” in a book, always include the name of those parts and chapters.  This is especially important because of the way audio books are currently electronically organized.  Chapter numbers are the only option apps provide the listener. So, if an audio book includes an Introduction, the app actually displays it as “Chapter 1” not “Introduction”. Chapter 1 of the book actually displays as “Chapter 2” in the app and so on. Note: ACX just announced that as of October 16, 2019 their future audio books will have an “Enhanced Listener Navigation” feature.  This allows the narrator and eBook author to label chapters with numbers as well as names.

When referencing a chapter in the beginning and throughout the book, the name and title assure the listener and easier time confirming they are in the right spot when they go searching for information.

Joanna Penn is a successful indie author with a long running author podcast called The Creative Penn Podcast. I highly recommend you check her out.   She recently interviewed Jules Horne, (podcast #453) the author of a new ebook called Writing for Audiobook: Audio-First for Flow and Impact  

In the podcast she discusses the challenge of helping the listener stay on track and comfortably engaged with non-fiction books.  Her background in radio suggests that repeating information helps keep listeners on track and clear as to where they are.  A book I’m currently listening to does a great job of this by helping you remember where you’ve been (if material is being referenced) and where you are going including chapter names and numbers. Sometimes I feel like the chapters are referenced too much. Other times I’m thankful they are mentioned.  So, overall I think erring on the side of more information is best rather than having your listener “lost.”

Lastly, the visual cues of bolded headings and italicized words are lost. Ms. Horne suggests that the author who is interested in audio STARTS with audio in mind.  Relying on bolded and special text should be avoided.  The book needs to be written to be understood in audio. I’ve come to agree.

Audio books are a form of entertainment for the ears It is wise for an author interested in audio book production to listen to audio books.  Apparent during the process will be the clarity that words and sentences are melodic.  Books written in a formal style, for example, do not sound as engaging as those written in the way that we speak.

Reading your book out loud is an important step and offers many benefits:

  1. You’ll find super long sentences. If there are long sentences, the narrator may have to pause to take a breath and create an emphasis in a spot other than you intended.
  2. Tongue Twisters will be discovered. While a professional narrator will continue to record until it’s right, if you are recording your own book you will quickly become exhausted dealing with too many of these.
  3. The melody or lack of melody in your writing will become evident. Audio, like a good poetry reading, can delight the ears. If, however the author has a repetitive pattern of writing, the narration will soon become irritating to the listener. (I often think of my sister when I’m prepping for a non-fiction book.  She called me about a book she’d recently listened to and was interested in learning from.  After two chapters, she called and said, “I wanted to put a fork in my eye it was so monotonous and dull.  I knew there was good content, but I couldn’t take the pain of listening to it.“)    So, I always remind myself the goal is listening for pleasure, not pain.

In addition to your writing considerations, the narrator you select for your book is also important to the book’s “sound” and success.  Professional narrators do more than read your book out loud. They can create an engaging experience for your listener.  Jane Friedman has written an interesting blog called 5 Steps to Creating a Great Audiobook that any author new to audio could benefit from reading

For another interesting author podcast about things to consider with audio books in general, see this link to Joanna Penn’s The Creative Penn podcast #449 with non-fiction narrator Sean Allen Pratt  

Joanna has also written a blog called Audiobooks: 5 Tips for Better Narration And Performance