“Audio is a popular shelf.” — Jim Seybert, nonfiction audiobook narrator

Jim Seybert, nonfiction audiobook narrator
Jim Seybert, nonfiction audiobook narrator

Jim Seybert is a nonfiction audiobook narrator.

We were recently connected through a mutual friend in the publishing profession.

After reviewing his site, I realized I’d seen his hilarious narration-blunder video before, which is embedded toward the end of this post.

I reached out to Jim for this quick interview and was rewarded with more than a few great takeaways for authors looking to publish an audiobook.

Why should an author consider having their book published as an audiobook?

Audiobooks are the fastest growing segment of the publishing industry.

They have made authored content available to a vast number of people who like to read but don’t have the time.

There’s also a growing number of people who, as they age, find it harder to focus on printed pages.

Research done by the Audio Publishers Association (APA) indicates that every demographic is attracted to audiobooks. Both ends of the age spectrum are attracted to audiobooks—younger consumers like the portability and digital availability, while older folks appreciate the benefits of being read to.

When you’re marketing a product, you want to be on as many “shelves” as possible. Audio is a popular shelf.

When you’re marketing a product, you want to be on as many 'shelves' as possible. Audio is a popular shelf.— @jimseybert Click To Tweet

How can an author best prepare their work for audiobook production?


That said, keep in mind that audiobook listeners do not have the luxury of seeing the page. Font changes, sidebars, bullets—all these things that look great on the printed page—create challenges for the narrator.

Good narrators will work with their authors to develop alternatives, such as a book I did recently where I wrote copy describing a couple of simple drawings. Many times, the chart or image is merely a repetition of what the author has already written, so it’s simply left out.

Also, and this is especially true for nonfiction books, narrators very rarely include footnotes. There are exceptions, but it is something to keep in mind.

Going back to my initial comment — write great content. Don’t worry about how your book will “sound.” There’s no need to “write FOR audio.” A good narrator will make minor adjustments to shape your work into an engaging and entertaining audiobook.

How can an author best prepare their work for audiobook production? WRITE GREAT CONTENT.— @jimseybert Click To Tweet

How did you get into audiobook narration?

Narration is a combination of experiences and skills I’ve gathered over forty-plus years of work around the marketing, entertainment, and publishing industry.

Four years ago, I had a job that required me to drive three to four hours every night from one city to the next. I started listening to audiobooks while I drove and, one evening, while listening to R.C. Bray’s performance of The Martian, the thought hit me that I might like to try doing what he did.

In the late-1990s I’d worked as a marketing exec for a group of retail bookstores and knew quite a few folks in the publishing industry, so I fired off a bunch of “what-should-I-do-to-get-into-audiobooks” emails. Of the thirty or so that went out, one guy responded with an introduction to a friend of his who was the president of an audiobook publishing and distribution company. After a couple of phone calls and a demo tape, he hired me to record five “b-level” titles.

That was the summer of 2016. By the end of 2018, I will have finished thirty books. One of my coaches will finish his 1,000th book by the end of the year. I have a long way to go.

Why do you mainly record nonfiction audiobooks?

Three reasons:

First, my voice is a classic baritone and, although there are some great fiction narrators with voices similar to mine, I find it difficult to do the various characters that fiction listeners often expect.

Also, it’s a branding thing. I would rather be known as an excellent nonfiction narrator than as a pretty good narrator in many genres.

Finally, and this is only partly a joke—I like being the smartest guy in the room. When I narrate nonfiction, for the length of the book, I am teaching the listener something they didn’t know. I like that feeling.

Aside from epistemological, what other words are your least favorite to pronounce?

Hah. That book actually had 187 “big words.” I hired an assistant to research all of them and provide me with a digital library of pronunciations. The cool thing is that Audiofile Magazine reviewed the book (Atheism on Trial) and called my work “a sparkling diamond.”

I struggle with the word asked. If I don’t pay attention, it comes out in the present tense without the hard T at the end. On any given day, my tongue can lift a picket sign and decide to not cooperate on even the simplest words. An experienced narrator can record one hour of “finished audio” in about two hours.

Audible honored a group of narrators this year with entry into the first-ever Audiobook Narrators Hall of Fame. At the ceremony, one of the inductees said, “We revere the spoken word.” I really liked that. I like being part of a small group of professional people who are dedicated to taking authored content and meticulously performing it for a new audience.

If you’re interested in discussing how to turn your nonfiction book into an accessible and compelling audiobook, contact nonfiction audiobook narrator Jim Seybert.

The Problem with Memoir

In “Why Your Memoir Won’t Sell,” Jane Friedman offers seven reasons why a memoir won’t move copies. To paraphrase:

  • It’s the first “legit” writing you’ve ever attempted.
  • It’s an act of catharsis (a. k. a. emotional vomit).
  • It’s a glorified diary.
  • It’s a chronological autobiography.
  • It’s a series of unrelated anecdotes from your life.
  • It’s someone else’s memoir.
  • It’s been done.
  • I’ve come close to making almost every one of those mistakes.

After a significantly distressing period of my life, I considered writing a memoir about that time. Had I followed through, I would have committed sins #1, 2, 3, and 7 from that list.

Egregious memoir error #7 deserves more explanation. Jane writes, “This is the hardest thing to tell a writer: ‘Sorry, but your story of addiction or cancer survival or loss of a child just doesn’t seem that special.’” That’s a brutal publishing truth, but the reason it’s true is not that the story isn’t meaningful in itself; it’s that hundreds if not thousands of those kinds of stories are submitted to publishers every year.

However, I would still argue that it can be good to write those stories and self-publish for family, friends, and posterity, but don’t pin your bestselling hopes on such a memoir (unless you’re famous or an extremely talented writer who knows how to craft a compelling memoir).

Jane states the problem with memoir so well: “People have a hard time achieving any distance between the meaning and importance of their life’s events and the commercial market that might exist for it.”

So, write your memoir. Let your writing be cathartic. Record your life story. Commit every sin on this list. Just don’t expect more than what’s realistic if you choose to seek an agent or self-publish. (And if you’re serious about writing a memoir, definitely read Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir.)

Have you committed any of this memoir mistakes?
Or, what’s the best memoir you’ve ever read?

How Long Should My Book Be?

“My memoir is 270,000 words long.”

I heard these words during a breakout session I led at a local writers conference.

An editor friend of mine, Shayla Eaton with Curiouser Editing, was sitting in on the breakout. We gave each other knowing glances, and because I didn’t want to break this poor memoirist’s literary heart, I nodded at Shayla to take the lead.

As nicely but as directly as she could, she explained to the memoirist that a 270,000-word memoir was excessive. Even if she self-publishes, the cost per copy would be high, and few readers would slog through such a tome — particularly for someone who’s not famous.

And no agents or publishers would even look past that number.

The prose could be as fleet-footed as Fitzgerald’s. The life story could be as compelling as Lincoln’s. The platform could be as broad as Oprah’s. But no agent would get to know that because they’d see “Memoir: 270,000 words” and hit delete before reading any further.

So, how long should a memoir be?

For that matter, how long should any book be?

The short answer, and the long answer, are found in “A Word Count Guide for 18 Different Book Genres,” my recent column for TheWriteLife.com.

Is Backstory Necessary?

“So when my students ask me how much backstory they’re permitted to include in a story, I say, ‘How about none?'”

That’s Benjamin Percy in Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction, an excellent book on writing fiction.

He expands on his backstory bashing: “None is a good start. Because it’s so often unnecessary. A reader intuits the history of a character by observing them acting in the present.”

It’s as if I were to tell you that I’m writing this post because I made a promise to myself a few weeks ago to blog more often, to have fun with it, and to use what I’m reading and listening to as launchpads for creating content.

Does that make you care any more about this post’s actual topic?

While I’m not a developmental editor for fiction (yet), I have read enough nonfiction works-in-progress (including my own) where the first 10 to 20 percent needed to be cut. It was the author warming up to what they really wanted to write about.
Backstory is like that. You may need to write it so you know what your story is about and why your characters do what they do, but you don’t need to publish it.

As Percy writes, “The impulse to explain will insult the reader. That’s their job—part of the pleasure of reading a story is inference, filling in the blanks and becoming a participant in the narrative, a coauthor.”

So let your coauthor do the work they may not even know they want to do.

Kill your little darling of a backstory.


The Art of Author Branding with Mary DeMuth

In preparation for her talk tomorrow, May 25, at 7 p.m. at Deep Vellum Books near downtown Dallas for the monthly meeting of the Dallas Nonfiction Authors Association, I interviewed Mary DeMuth about “The Art of Author Branding.”

As an experienced and prolific author of more than thirty fiction and nonfiction books, she has keen insight into what it means to be a working writer.

In this short interview, Mary offers one helpful tip from her talk, describes her new site, BookLaunchMentor.com, invites listeners to Rockwall or Geneva for a book mentoring intensive, and lets us know what her favorite read of the year has been so far.

If you’re in the Dallas area, please consider joining us this Thursday at Deep Vellum Books. First-time attendees are free and can show up at the door.

Learn more about the meetup here.

And don’t forget to check out Mary’s most recent release:

The New Author’s Conundrum: My Woeful Platform

“Start with the actual and build a bridge to the potential.”

That’s lit agent Sharon Pelletier during her session, “The 10 Best Secrets for a Winning Nonfiction Book Proposal,” at DFWCon 2017.
But before we get to what she’s talking about, let’s discuss the elephant in the publishing house: PLATFORM.

Michael Hyatt didn’t coin the term, but his book, Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World, certainly elevated its importance in the minds of authors. And as publishers consolidated, self-publishing skyrocketed, and agents and editors learned how to tread water in the deluge of queries and proposals they receive, a majority of the job of selling a book fell onto the shoulders of the author.

For better or worse, every author needs a platform.

But it’s almost a chicken-and-egg conundrum: How is a new author supposed to build a platform before releasing their first book?

Well, here’s the good news: At DFWCon and elsewhere, I’ve heard from industry pros that platform doesn’t matter as much for fiction as it does for nonfiction. For fiction, you need a good pitch/query and proposal, a compelling story, and writing that sings. The words, more than the person, sell the book. (Of course, having a platform certainly won’t hurt your chances of being published or selling books.)

But it’s almost the opposite for nonfiction authors: platform rules. To be taken seriously by agents and traditional publishers, you need to be the go-to person in your field and with the numbers to prove it. You need to have an established platform that reveals how invaluable your words are to your specific tribe.

So what if you don’t have a platform?

First, start working on it today. If you’re serious about seeing your nonfiction book published, or you’ll be self-publishing and want to accrue healthy sales, you need to establish yourself as an expert whom people listen to. (Read Hyatt’s “Why You Need a Platform to Succeed” and consider buying his book.)

Secondly, and this gets back to Sharon’s excellent point about the platform section of a nonfiction book proposal, “build a bridge to the potential.”

In a book proposal, don’t lie about your current platform. If you have 127 Twitter followers, own it. But if you believe that a healthy Twitter following is beneficial, tell the agent/publisher how you plan to grow your following. (For what it’s worth, I’ve heard that agents like to see upwards of 5,000 to 10,000 followers on any given social media platform.)

And don’t forget that “platform” isn’t synonymous with social media. Platform encompasses everyone you could conceivably reach. Do you have an email newsletter? Do you take part in speaking engagements? Do you teach? Do you belong to an alumni association, nonprofit, community organization, etc.? If you don’t, what places could you start knocking on doors?

I hate to say this, but gone are the days of the Walden writer. You can’t just sit in a cabin by a lake, write a book, and hope it sells. You have to be a salesperson, and the truth is, you’re not selling your book—you’re selling yourself.

So if your platform isn’t what you think it should be, sell yourself on what it will be.

The Tone of Your Book Proposal

“Match the tone of your proposal to the tone of your book.”

That’s lit agent Sharon Pelletier during her session, “The 10 Best Secrets for a Winning Nonfiction Book Proposal,” at DFWCon 2017.

This piece of advice fell under her fourth point, that everything an author writes should display their ability to write. What did she mean by that?
Essentially, your book proposal is your business plan for your book. You need to show why the book ought to exist, why you’re the right person to have written it, and how your publisher can sell them by the truckloads. You’re selling yourself and your book, which effectively means you’re selling your ability to write.

And if I had to hazard a guess (because I’m guilty of it too), many authors lovingly take their time to craft their books but slap together a proposal in the hopes that their sample chapters (or full manuscript) will be what ultimately causes an agent to say yes.

But Sharon’s advice about matching the tone of your proposal to the tone of your book is so smart.

An agent likely won’t look at your writing sample first. They’ll read your synopsis or look at your platform (particularly for nonfiction). They want to know who’s behind the words and whether that person’s platform can sustain worthwhile book sales. They also want to know if the author can write.

So showcase your skills throughout your proposal.

Don’t go overboard, and be sure to follow recommended guidelines, but never forget that you’re a writer who writes and wants to be paid to do so.

To be specific about setting the tone of your proposal, don’t write a funny proposal if your book is serious. Don’t write a serious proposal if your book is funny. In other words, don’t propose a book you haven’t actually written. If the agent gets whiplash between reading your proposal and reading your sample chapters, you’ve done something wrong.

Although you’ll be tempted to breeze through your proposal because you want to get to “the real work” of writing your book or being published, writing a compelling proposal is part of that “real work.” In fact, being able to sell yourself through what can often be a staid document will showcase just how seriously you’re taking your job as a writer.

So set the tone of your proposal from your very first sentence, and make it as enticing as your book.

For more help on writing a book proposal, consider Michael Larsen’s How to Write a Book Proposal.

P.S. My latest column for The Write Life was published today: “What It’s Actually Like to Work With a Book Editor

The Brutal Truth about Earning Out

“Seventy percent of authors don’t earn out.”

That’s publishing guru Jane Friedman during her excellent and information-laden workshop, “How to Get Your Book Traditionally Published” at DFWCon 2017.

What does earning out mean?

When an author signs a book deal with a publisher, the publisher pays the author in the form of an advance on future sales, aka an advance against royalties, aka an advance.

Let’s be optimistic and say that your literary agent sold your book to a publisher for $100,000. That means that prior to your book having gone on sale, you will have made $85,000. Don’t forget: your lit agent gets 15 percent of what you earn. That number isn’t always the same for every agent, but 15 percent is typical.

That advance money may be paid in a lump sum, but it may also be doled out to you at specific publishing milestones, e.g., when you sign the contract, when you submit your manuscript to the publisher, and when the book is published. Let’s assume that it takes approximately two years for those three events to happen. At that rate, you’re paid $28,333 three times over two years.

Can you already see how even a sizable advance may not mean an author can quit their day job? We haven’t even accounted for taxes yet!

To “earn out” means that a publisher sells enough of that author’s book so that the publisher recoups their investment in the author.

In other words, the publisher needs to earn $100,000 before the author will ever see more money as a result of sales of their book.
Considering that an author stands to earn maybe $2.50 per hardcover book and less for other editions, at best, the publisher will have to sell 40,000 books for the author to earn out their $100,000 advance.

For a more detailed look at advances, see Chip MacGregor’s “Ask the Agent: What Does an Average First Book Pay?

According to Jane Friedman, seventy percent of authors don’t earn out their advance. In other words, a majority of authors are paid anywhere between $5,000 and $1,000,000 in an advance and their book sales never match how many the publisher thought they could sell.

Fortunately for these authors, they don’t have to pay the advance back to the publisher. The advance is a calculated financial risk that publishers take on their authors. As far as I know, they can do this because of the small group of experienced authors who can’t help but to sell books, e.g.,

Stephen King, J. K. Rowling, etc.

As part of the Nonfiction Writers Conference, literary agent Jeff Kleinman shared an apt visual for advances and royalties:

Imagine a jar filled with 100,000 marbles. When you sign a book deal, you and your agent are given those 100,000 marbles. The publisher takes the jar back. Once they fill it back up with 100,000 marbles made through book sales, then the jar overflows and the author (and agent) “earn out” and begin to see royalty checks on top of what they’ve already been paid through the advance.

But that only happens 30 percent of the time.


The Book Has to be Good

“The self-publishing craze has made people forget that the book has to be good.”

That’s literary agent Eric Ruben during the “Bad Marketing Advice” session of DFWCon.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of truth in Eric’s words. For all the benefits of self-publishing—I’m a fan, to a point—its most egregious drawback is also its most appealing aspect: no gatekeepers.

In self-publishing parlance, the gatekeepers are literary agents like Eric and acquisitions editors at publishing houses. They wield the literary power from on high as to who makes it to the Big Dance of traditional publishing. 

If you clear the first hurdle of landing an agent, you have to clear multiple hurdles after that. The process is challenging, time-consuming, and requires at least a little bit of luck in that your book has to find the right person at the right time looking for just your kind of book.

I understand why it can be frustrating to pitch your work and experience rejection after rejection. Why go that route when you can just self-publish?

Because maybe the “gatekeepers” have seen thousands of ideas in just the last month and have a better lay of the literary land? Because maybe their expertise is worth listening to? Because maybe their feedback can help hone your book into something publishable?

Of course, receiving helpful feedback can be a rarity, but even a lack of feedback is feedback. (Hint: it means your query, proposal, or book likely needs more work.)

When I have clients who aren’t sure of the differences between traditional publishing and self-publishing, first we have The Talk. If they’re still unsure about which path to choose and I think their idea might be viable for a wide audience (and they have time to play the waiting game), I pitch this suggestion:

  1. Let’s create a proposal and pitch it to a few agents.
  2. Consider their feedback. If the client doesn’t receive feedback, I suggest self-publishing, so long as they can invest in an editor, a proper cover design, and correct interior formatting.

Some self-published books are good, but only because their authors put in the necessary work to make them so. They attended critique groups. They didn’t publish first drafts (or second of third or tenth drafts). They hired a qualified developmental editor and made the requested changes. They sent their book to beta readers who offered kind but unvarnished feedback. They paid for a cover designer and interior designer.

In other words, they put in as much time and effort into self-publishing their book as any multi-person team at a publishing house would.

Self-publishing shouldn’t be considered as a shortcut to “being published.” If you really want that to stick with you, remember this: Amazon has a long memory. Even if you pull your self-published book from its digital shelves, third-party copies will likely live on. And because Amazon is Amazon, its pages—with your name and your book—will sit high in every search ranking for your name.

So consider wisely the book you put into the universe.

If you’ve self-published, why did you decided to do so?

The (Dreaded) Query Letter, Part 2

“Find a stranger and have them read your query. Ask them what they think your book is about.”

That’s literary agent Abby Saul at the end of “Ask an Agent,” the first session I attended at DFWCon 2017.

Doesn’t she know that asking strangers to read our work is terrifying?

I’m kidding—but only a little.

The terrifying aspect of this approach isn’t, What will they think of my baby? (That comes when you release your book on Amazon and start garnering reviews.)

The terrifying aspect is hearing that your query is pitching a book you didn’t write.

It’s hearing a stranger mangle your intentions.

It’s seeing that brief moment of confusion flash across their face as they tell you what they think your book is about.

It’s being forced to redo your query letter for the tenth time, or the fifty-seventh time.

But if your query isn’t clear and compelling to a stranger, how do you expect it to grab the attention of someone who reads query letters for a living?

For as challenging as this advice could be to some writers (including me), I thought this was excellent advice. Plus, if you’re going to be published, you’ll need to get used to strangers reading your work and hearing them describe what they think you wrote.

Have you ever enlisted strangers to review your query or synopsis? What happened?

Don’t forget to read this post’s companion, “The (Dreaded) Query Letter.” And if you need help with writing a query, read Jane Friedman’s “The Complete Guide to Query Letters.”

Photo Credit: FootMassagez Flickr via Compfight cc