Kim Williams: How to write a book for audio

PUP’s International Rights Director Kim Williams shares her top tips for writing for audio format.

The audio book sector is the fastest growing area of book publishing right now, and chances are you’ve noticed people beginning to talk about listening to audio books, seen advertisements for audio, or you’re one of the 67 million audio book listeners in the US (5.5 million in the UK). Audible now has over 200,000 audio books available for download on its retail platform, while Google Play has just launched the format in 45 countries and nine languages. Looking at library lending statistics, Overdrive have just announced that there were 68 million audio books borrowed worldwide using their library app in 2017, a 24% increase on the previous year.

PUP has been working with audio publishers for ten years to produce some of our books in audio format. In that time, around two hundred of our books have been recorded and published in a digital audio edition. Some of our most successful audio books have sold more than ten thousand copies, and one book has sold over 40,000 copies; we are certain that audio sales are a meaningful way to bring our scholarly ideas to the world, and industry statistics seem to agree.

I took on responsibility for audio book licensing in 2017. Here are my top tips for writing nonfiction books that will succeed as audio books.

Write for listeners. When you’re crafting your book, can you imagine a reader (narrator/voice actor) speaking the words you’re typing? Avoid overcomplicated sentences, sub-clauses, and excessive length. Your reader will need to breathe, and wants to record the book without too many takes.

If visual data is necessary, describe it. If your book relies on charts, tables, or photographs, it’s not an automatic barrier to producing an audio book, but some adaptations will need to be made for the audio book. Publishers can provide a PDF of the visual data for buyers, but listeners respond well to a brief description. This can be added in for the audio edition alone, or carefully built into the text with your editor’s guidance.

Listeners are faithful to narrators. Opinions vary on who is best placed to voice non-fiction books, but increasingly buyers of audio books are aware of who is reading the edition, and will buy books because they like the reader’s voice.  Recording is fast-paced, handled best by production professionals and sound engineers (the unsung heroes of the audio world), and it’s rare for our authors to record their own books.

Long books can be great for audio. One feature that makes some of our finest scholarship perfect for audio is that long books can work well in audio. Subscribers like to get lots of listening hours for their membership fee and will often happily listen to books that are 20-30 hours long. (Rights Director note – there are competing pressures for translated books, so for now let’s assume that there’s no substitute for rigorous editing and revision!)

Narrators need pronunciation guides. Both publishers and scholars can be guilty of a bewildering array of acronyms and abbreviations, which become normalized when you use them every day. Lots of this will be addressed for the book itself, but it’s surprising how unfamiliar acronyms, place and people names, scientific names and other phrasing can suddenly be if you’re forced to say them out loud rather than merely read them. If it seems likely that the book will be produced in audio, you could write pronunciations into a glossary or a separate pronunciation guide to save time when the book is recorded.

I hope these tips are a helpful starter and we welcome your suggestions, too. If you’re new to audio books, you can download one free audio book from Audible, get 50% off your first audio book purchase from Google Play, borrow CDs from your local library, or use your library download service. Let us know if you #LoveAudiobooks!