During the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, I started seeing this wonderful ad from Dell, titled “Beginnings”:
Perhaps it caught my attention because I have my own story about the quiet beginnings for a new business:
Place: 10634, the cabin number of a cruise ship docked in Mykonos, Greece
Becoming an audiobook publisher has been a rough road, full of potholes, downed trees, and diverging paths that didn’t necessarily lead me in the direction I wanted to go. Only by trudging forward and refusing to give up was I able to eventually reach the destination.
I offer this post as a road map for becoming an audiobook publisher on ACX with a public domain book. If you want to publish a book still under copyright, you may want to skip down to the end for more information.
I recently wrote about how ideas love speed. I did take several immediate actions 7.5 years ago when I had the idea to create an audiobook publishing company. I read several books that hadn’t been made into audiobooks and contacted the authors about obtaining the audio rights.
One author was interested, but the idea seemed to be squelched by her agent’s lawyers, who were reluctant to be involved with a start-up. Another author wanted to narrate her book. It took her several more years, but I see on Audible that she did narrate her audiobook. A third author was someone rather famous. I didn’t receive a response to my inquiries, but I see that her book is now on Audible, too. Perhaps I gave her the idea.
Life intervened. With the loss of my mother and changes on my day job, I put my dream of becoming an audiobook publisher on the shelf. While ideas love speed, some ideas can’t be implemented immediately and often take years to develop.
All the forces in the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come.
— Victor Hugo
With the advent of ACX, I knew that I could finally see this idea through to fruition!
Rather than start with a book from a contemporary author as I originally envisioned, I decided to start Jewel Audiobooks with what I thought would be a simpler project: a book from the public domain (PD).
On 1 January 2013, I decided to publish the audiobook of The Heart of the New Thought by Ella Wheeler Wilcox, originally published in 1903. I wanted to produce a shorter work that would be new to audio and had a message I want to share. I often find myself in conversations about the power of our thoughts and words, so this little volume seemed perfect.
Detour: Public Domain Books Ahead!
Even though Audible has countless public domain titles on its site, I didn’t realize that Amazon/Audible/ACX had created procedures to discourage people from using public domain titles to create audiobooks.
They did have valid reasons for thwarting use of public domain texts. First, Audible’s customers have complained about paying for titles that are available for free elsewhere, such as on LibriVox. Also, sales — and therefore your royalty payments — may not be very high for a public domain work where multiple audio editions exist.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Before you start an audiobook project, you must exercise due diligence to determine whether a work is under copyright or in the public domain. The links I’ve compiled in this article will aid you in your research.
An outline of the steps I followed to publish my public domain audiobook through ACX is shown below.
1. First, I created a publisher account on ACX and tried to claim the free Kindle edition of the book.
ACX is set up with a connection to Amazon’s book database. The rights holder must have a print or ebook edition of the title already listed on Amazon.
For this reason, I might choose a different distributor than ACX if I were creating a new audiobook from a public domain text. I don’t want or need to be associated with ebook publishing; I only care about audio publishing. If a book is truly in the public domain, a narrator can record it without making any changes to it. The narrator then will hold the production copyright on that audio edition. You can learn about 2 other distribution options in this comment.
When I asked ACX to associate the free Kindle copy of my public domain book with my publisher account so I could upload the audiobook, ACX support responded::
In order for us to accept your public domain title, you must upload your version of the book on Amazon. The title needs to be uploaded by you with a distinct introduction or dedication in order to make it your own.
Since they are set up for this 1-to-1 match of print and audio editions between Audible and Amazon, I could see why they needed a different version. In addition to the reasons stated above, Amazon and Audible are adding WhisperSync technology so that customers can switch between the Kindle and Audible editions of the text. Therefore, the editions have to match.
2. I then spent considerable time in creating a new ebook edition of Wheeler’s book with a personal introduction and linked table of contents to make it different from the existing free version.
As I explain in this comment, you do not necessarily need to create your own edition! If you want to request permission from a rights holder of an existing edition, you can adapt my email template. I’ve found that providing too many details such as discussing audio rights or “claiming the book” only causes confusion. If the rights holder wants to license their audio rights to you or doesn’t respond, you can ask a different rights holder or create your own edition as I have done.
If you do create your own companion ebook, formatting the ebook and choosing the cover are beyond the scope of this article. Plenty of resources exist to help you with those tasks. In fact, fellow narrator Andrea Emmes has created this fantastic guide (PDF) that documents her approach and offers links to other resources.
2A. I narrated the audiobook from my ebook BEFORE uploading the ebook so I could fix any typos in the text that I found in the course of narration.
When I uploaded my perfect Kindle version to Kindle Direct Publishing, it was immediately rejected because it was not differentiated enough from the free version! The KDP form letter response stated:
We offer our customers free editions of public domain titles in the Kindle Store. In order to provide an optimal customer experience, it’s our policy to only offer differentiated versions of these freely available books…
We consider works to be differentiated when one or more of the following criteria are met:
• (Translated) – A unique translation
• (Annotated) – Contains annotations (unique, hand-crafted additional content including study guides, literary critiques, detailed biographies, or detailed historical context)
• (Illustrated) – Includes 10 or more unique illustrations relevant to the book
….While it’s possible that other features may make books unique, we only consider the criteria noted above to be differentiated. Examples of some features we do not consider to be differentiated include a linked table of contents, formatting improvements, collections, sales rank, price, and freely available Internet content. Please note it is considered misleading to customers to have your title claim differentiation when your book is not sufficiently differentiated.
3. I wrote to both ACX and KDP multiple times asking for a 4th way to differentiate a text — as the companion to the audiobook.
Neither organization offered any accommodation. I also suggested that ACX allow the first publisher to claim the free Kindle version. That suggestion wasn’t adopted, either.
4. I found and bought 10 (count ’em, 10!) lovely vintage images from iStockPhoto to illustrate my ebook.
It took some thought and time to find appropriate images that could be inserted throughout the book and in places where they logically should appear. Simply putting 10 images in one place would not differentiate the book. Also, you don’t want them all at the front because that’s all a prospective buyer would get in the preview. I didn’t mind buying the images as I will re-purpose these illustrations to create a video to promote the audiobook.
5. I uploaded my ILLUSTRATED Kindle edition to KDP and was thrilled when it was accepted for publication!
I had to note the manner of differentiation from the free text in both the title and the first line of the description.
My ebook is now available for sale in the Kindle store. Yay!
6. I logged in to my ACX publisher account and claimed my edition, which was still flagged on ACX as being a known public domain book.
I clicked the link to claim the book and wrote the message explaining that I had created a different Kindle version.
If I had bought the audio rights to a contemporary book, I believe I would start with this step on ACX. All of the steps before now to create and publish a Kindle version were required only because I published from a public domain text.
7. WAIT for the email from ACX stating that your edition has been added to ACX.
This step is very important! I didn’t do this step and claimed my book as soon as I saw it on ACX. If I had waited, I would have known about the next step and saved myself some aggravation and a few days’ delay.
8. Fill out the title profile carefully. Choose whether to use exclusive or non-exclusive distribution.
I updated this paragraph on 8/19/22 because ACX has removed the requirement for non-exclusive distribution. You can choose either one.
When I published the book and wrote this article in 2014, ACX didn’t allow RHs of public domain works to choose exclusive distribution. In order to change my contract, ACX had to remove my title from the system and add it back, so, of course, everything I did had to be re-done, further delaying me by several days.
You also will need to choose your territories of distribution and enter information such as the name of the narrator, name of the publisher, and print and production copyright dates.
ACX provided some additional guidelines about public domain audiobooks:
• You can’t post the title for audition or contract a narrator to create the audiobook. The audiobook must be recorded outside of ACX. See this ACX help article for details.
• You can upload the audiobook to ACX and use it for distribution as long as your audiobook meets the ACX Audio Submission Requirements.
9. Upload the audio files chapter by chapter in the ACX interface, and click “I’m Done” when you are satisfied.
10. REJOICE when you receive the email from ACX stating that your audiobook is now available on Audible, and start marketing it!
When I started Jewel Audiobooks, it didn’t have a web site. It still doesn’t have business cards. I imagine many of the companies profiled in the Dell ad also didn’t have those things when they started. I look forward to the same sort of exponential growth in my publishing empire as Dell has had in computers!
Now that Jewel Audiobooks is a dream come true, I’m already planning the publication of my next couple of public domain titles. I’m also planning a follow-up contact about obtaining the audio rights to the first author in my previous search because I still would love to narrate her book. I think it’s another idea whose time has come!
Bonus info about publishing contemporary books:
In August 2016, I held a webinar so narrators could learn about acquiring audio rights for books still under copyright. My guest speaker was Jessica Kaye, who has over 25 years of audiobook and publishing experience as a Grammy-award winning audiobook producer, director, and distributor. She’s also an attorney in the firm Kaye & Mills and specializes in intellectual property, publishing law, and licensing. I wrote this article to inspire and encourage other narrators to license the audio rights to favorite books. If you’re interested in this topic, you can purchase the webinar recording, complete with sample licensing agreement and an exclusive list of links, on my Shop page.
In the 7 years since this article was published, I’ve learned a LOT about producing and publishing audiobooks of public domain works! I distilled much of that knowledge in a video course called Create Your Own Path that I developed exclusively for members of my NarratorsRoadmap.com site. In the first module, I show how to find good books that may be in the public domain and research their copyright status. I discuss publishing options in module 3. As you might expect from the Queen of Links, I’ve added lists of specialized resources to accompany each module.
In addition to the changes to paragraph 8 above regarding distribution, I want to add a link to my Public Domain Narration Headquarters. I link to my other articles about publishing PD works and answer Q&As in the comments.