How Does an Audiobook Work? Benefits, Formats, and Opportunities

It’s a fact that the amount of time people spend when commuting every day to work, enjoying free time at home, or working out in a gym can now be used to engage with a thrilling story or learn a new skill. Thus our current digital devices allow us to get the maximum benefit from this type of audio content. The great success of audiobooks relies on granting people the chance to do something else when listening.

In this post you will know:

  • How an audiobook works
  • Benefits of streaming or downloading for the user
  • Characteristics of the most common formats: MP3 and M4B
  • Why the audiobook industry can bring an outstanding business opportunity for authors who want to record their work themselves

How Does an Audiobook Work?

Current audiobooks are basically a set of voice recording files where a narrator reads aloud a book that has already been launched as a physical or digital book (eBook). It’s also common to launch the work simultaneously in those two formats.

As in any other physical book, an audiobook is presented and recorded in chapters, and definitely, the quality of the narration can have a huge impact on its success.

Not only well-positioned voice narrators and radio drama actors can captivate the listener’s attention but also authors who narrate their own work, opening up a great business opportunity for themselves.

Recording Stage Recommended FormatsEditing Stage Recommended (compression) Formats
WAV format (from 16-bit 44.1 Khz to 24 or 32-bit 48 Khz)
MP3 320 kbps format
MP3 minimum 192 Kbps
M4B (which is AAC plus bookmarking function)
This chart shows the most common formats used during the recording and edition stages

During the recording stage, the audio track is frequently recorded as a WAV file. This format provides a great deal of high-quality audio, as it can go from the standard (great) quality of CDs to even higher quality levels. 

Voice narration can do pretty well with a CD-quality rate (16-bit, 44.1 Khz). In case the audiobook provides a soundtrack and other sound FX, a higher quality rate (24 or 32-bit, 48 Khz) can provide a richer experience, especially when listening with headphones.

Once all the chapters have been recorded, they have to be edited in order to make sure the voice will sound at the same volume and that there won’t be any unwanted noises, such as the sound from the recording devices (laptops and desktop computers do generate a little bit of noise, or the microphone when it is a low budget item), as well as any indoor or outdoor noises.

This image shows an audio track seen from a digital workstation (or editing software)

After removing all the unwanted noises and making sure that the style of narration is optimum, those files can be rendered (making them available in the final format that the user will receive) in MP3 or M4B (Apple’s exclusive format that brings many other nice features). 

These types of format allow the compression of the original file sacrificing the least possible quality. The “magic” that carries out the compression is the coding format, also called codec: MP3 stands for MPEG-1 Audio Layer III or MPEG-2 Audio Layer III, whereas AAC stands for Advanced Audio Coding  MPEG-4, 3GPP, and 3GPP2. 

Taking good care of these details is pointed and demanded by the major distribution platforms, as these look forward to providing the user with a high-quality product.

When the audiobook is finished, it can be uploaded to these platforms that will allow the author to sell it as a download or rent it as a streaming service. The author will receive a cut of each sale or monthly earned fees. The author can also do this from his/her own website and get the full price of each sale.

A good strategy that I always like to share with authors is to launch the audiobook on their own website first. A balanced combination of organic and paid social media ads can provide the creator with some initial sales, and these can be seen as a positive sign by the major platforms, representing that there is an existing audience for the product.

The five main platforms are Audible, Google Audiobooks, Librivox, Kobo Audiobooks, and Downpour.

Benefits of Streaming or Downloading for the User

As with any audio product (audiobooks, podcasts, audio courses), these audio files can be available to the public on the author’s webpage or distribution platforms, so that they can be streamed online or downloaded. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of each of them:

Streaming will require the user to be logged in to an account and have a good connection, not lower than 4G on mobile devices or wi-fi in order to enjoy the audiobook with a nice smooth and crystal clear quality.

Therefore the user needs to take into account that listening to podcasts and audiobooks that do not make their episodes or chapters available to download, will consume an average of 30 MB per hour. 

Regarding downloading, in the majority of the cases, the distribution platforms and authors do allow their audio products to be downloaded; the memory usage is practically the same unless the user chooses a lower or higher definition file to download.

The benefit of downloading an audiobook is that the user will keep the file permanently. During commuting, working out in the gym, or when carrying out any other activity, downloading the audiobook in advance can be very convenient for the user as it can reduce the risk of distractions when walking, running, or driving.

Characteristics of the Most Common Formats: MP3 and M4B

There are many audio formats in the market, but mainly two of them dominate the scope. The reason for this privilege is that our current electronic devices (iPod, tablets, smartphones, computers) run a few major operative systems: Apple’s IOS, Windows, Android, and Linux.

  • MP3 (Android, Windows)

This type of format allows the original WAV file to be compressed in several levels, but to make things practical, let’s talk about light, medium, and heavy compression. 

The light compression will be equivalent to 320 kbps or 192 kbps. With this resolution, the audiobook (voice narration only) will sound perfectly clear. 192 kbps is the minimum requirement of the major distribution platforms.

The medium compression would be equivalent to 128 kbps, and a little awkward sound may be perceived, especially in audio products that do involve voice narration, soundtrack, and sound effects. This level of sound quality is not accepted by the major distribution platforms.

The heavy compression is not recommended at all for audiobooks neither on the author’s website nor on any platform that distributes audio products. It will be equivalent to 96 kbps, 32 kbps, and 16 kbps

Authors who narrate their own work must be careful about this, as it is not only the reputation of the work but also the commercial reputation of the author and narrator that can suffer severely.

From 320 kbps to 192 kbps Audiobooks (voice narration)
Audiobooks (voice narration, soundtrack, sound FX)
192 kbpsAudiobooks (voice narration)
Podcasts (stereo)
Podcasts (Mono)
128 kbpsPodcasts (Mono)
Lower than 128 kbpsNot recommended for professional use
Some free podcast accounts will apply heavy compression to the original file
This chart shows the recommended rendering (compressed) formats I use for professional purposes

For podcasts, the situation can be a little less strict, as there is no priority on providing a STEREO picture or surround sound effect like in a movie or episode of a series. Therefore this type of voice file can be recorded and rendered in MONO and 192 kbps minimum, as the platform that will host the file will apply a medium compression. 

Platforms that offer free accounts to host audio files tend to use medium compression, whereas paid accounts will make the file available at the highest possible quality but with the small file size possible.

  • M4B (Apple IOS)

Apple launched this format as a way to provide the best comfort possible to the listener. This format allows bookmarking and offers a high-quality sound

This type of compressed format really uses AAC codecs, which is pretty similar to the way MP3 works, except that ACC does allow a much higher sound quality in smaller file sizes. Thus a 192 kbps AAC file will sound like a 320 kbps MP3 file.  

MP3 files can also be played in Apple’s IOS. The player is the piece of software that allows listening to audio tracks from different formats and on different operative systems. But definitely, the selected software is the tool that can also offer the option of bookmarking MP3 audiobook files.

  • Linux (MP3, AAC, FLAC, and many others)

In general terms, the operative system is not a restriction for any format to be reproduced in the user’s device. The player or app is the tool that will allow the user to enable bookmarking and compatibility with almost all the bunch of compression formats in which audiobooks and podcasts are offered.

You can type this in any internet browser: audiobook player for Linux / Android / IOS / Windows

There will be dozens of options available. Make sure the version of the app or software you download is completely compatible with the operative system on your device.

Business Opportunities for Authors Who Narrate Their Work

The technological advances in this century have been opening doors to many people who can share their talent in different ways. Thus authors can nowadays create their work without depending on a publishing house or record company, and also without getting into financial debt.

This is the list of signs that I like to share to show if an author has the potential of being the narrator, and producer of his/her own work:

  1. Feeling confident reading aloud and enjoying applying that nice fluctuation of intonation that captives the listeners’ attention.
  2. Being patient when noticing that sometimes it’s necessary to repeat certain sections that have already been recorded.
  3. Being aware that narrating an audiobook is not the same as just reading it aloud; audiobooks should sound slower than normal speech.
  4. Not being afraid of using electronic devices: It is not mandatory to own fancy and hyper-professional equipment, although it is necessary to be patient and get practice using basic recording gear.
  5. Being organized and recognizing that recording and producing an audiobook is like any other formal project: it has several stages, it requires using timetables, and program tasks.
  6. Being aware that hosting and making the audiobook available for sale requires some steps which do need some time but are not complicated (uploading the files to a safe server like AS3, setting an e-commerce shop to receive payments, and enabling the customers to download their purchases, or upload the files to the main distribution platforms after complying all of their quality requirements
  7. Being patient when setting up a marketing campaign on social media to attract organic or paid traffic (the potential listeners that may buy the audiobooks). Receiving the full price of each sale is very encouraging.
  8. Keeping in mind that if the author is in charge of the recording stage, then outsourcing mixing and mastering services can reduce the overall budget assigned.
  9. As in the last sign, keep in mind that if the author gets in charge of all the stages, from recording, mixing, mastering, hosting, and marketing, the budget can be very low. The real investment in this case is a good amount of time.

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