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Inside The Audiobook Boom: Kevin Stillwell Of Lantern Audio Talks Production On The Creating Better Books Podcast With Howard Lovy

Inside the Audiobook Boom: Kevin Stillwell of Lantern Audio Talks Production on the Creating Better Books Podcast with Howard Lovy

In the latest episode of the Creating Better Books podcast, ALLi News and Podcast Producer Howard Lovy interviews Kevin Stillwell, indie publishing producer for Lantern Audio. They explore the evolving landscape of audiobook creation, examining the options indie authors have, the costs involved, and how technology is reshaping the industry. Kevin shares expert insights on the essential decisions authors must navigate in audiobook production. Find more author advice, tips, and tools at our Self-publishing Author Advice Center, with a huge archive of 2,000+ blog posts, and a handy search box to find key info on the topic you need. We invite you to join our organization and become a self-publishing ally.

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Listen to the Podcast: Lantern Audio

On the Creating Better Books podcast, @howard_lovy interviews Kevin Stillwell, indie publishing producer for Lantern Audio. They discuss audiobook production, new technology, and the audio boom. Click To Tweet

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About the Host

Howard Lovy has been a journalist for more than 35 years, and now amplifies the voices of independent author-publishers and works with authors as a developmental editor. Find Howard at howardlovy.comLinkedIn, and X.

Read the Transcripts: Lantern Audio

Howard Lovy: My guest is Kevin Stillwell, indie book publishing producer for Lantern, which offers, among other things, audiobook production services.

Welcome to the show, Kevin.

Kevin Stillwell: Thank you very much for having me, I appreciate it.

Howard Lovy: Before we get into what Lantern does, tell me a little bit about your background and how is the company formed?

Kevin Stillwell: So, Lantern merged with John Marshall Media back in the end of 2023. I'll try to give you the briefest reader's digest version.

I've been an actor for about 40 years. I started working as a narrator when Lantern Audio was known as Listen Up Audiobooks. I've been a narrator since 2011, and I've narrated over a thousand titles.

Howard Lovy: Wow.

Kevin Stillwell: Almost three years ago, the owner of Lantern Audio, we changed our name to Lantern Audio in 2019. A few years ago, Chris Fog, who is the founder of Listen Up/Lantern Audio, asked me if I wanted to be a producer, and that very quickly evolved into me running the Self-Publishing Division, what's also known as the Indie Publishing Division. So, I produce and distribute audiobooks for self-published authors, and small and mid-size independent publishers, and hybrid publishers.

After the merger with John Marshall Media, I brought that division to the merger. So, that's my short bio. That's what I did. I started as an actor, became a narrator, went from a narrator to a producer, and then a producer to a division head. So, I run this division.

Howard Lovy: I can tell you have a very soothing narrator voice.

Like you said, Lantern has a dedicated team for indie authors and in our forum, we've been getting more and more questions about audiobook production. So, can you tell me what specific services you provide to self-published authors that they might not get elsewhere?

Kevin Stillwell: I absolutely can. One of the most important things that we do is personalized, hands-on, white glove treatment.

My authors range in genres, ages, experience in writing, etc, and it's important for me that they can pick up the phone. They have my cell phone number. I have conversations with them all the time that does not necessarily relate to the production of their audiobook or the distribution of their audiobook or their royalties. Sometimes, they just call to say hello, which is nice.

But the most important thing, I think, that we offer are really continuing relationships with self-published authors, that they get taken care of, that there's always someone to talk to.

I'm typically the 1st point of contact, and then I will bring other people into that conversation; my project managers, my mastering engineer, my administrative assistant, who's been a huge help for me with distribution. So, if they pick up the phone, somebody is going to answer. They're going to get taken care of. I think that's the most important thing.

The services that we offer, it's a one stop shop, and the reputations of both Lantern and John Marshall media precede us. We're the best in the business, and I can say that with a straight face. It's not being tongue in cheek, and it's not braggadocio. I know the quality of the work that we produce, and I know the quality of the talent that we have at our disposal.

We have two curated pools of talent, which is important for authors. We have a curated pool of voice talent and a curated pool of post-production talent. There are a lot of places that an author can go to have their audiobook produced, and I know that.

What we try to do is offer all the services in one place with good client care and lots of different services at their disposal, and we modify things to suit each author's needs.

Some authors want to use a professional narrator, a lot of my authors want to narrate themselves. So, I spend time with them doing what I call celebrity care before they're going to go somewhere. I have a lot of partner studios all over the nation. So, I can set them up in a studio. I have a really diverse pool of directors that guide them through that process. They work with them intimately to help them in each recording session, to help them produce the best story they can in audio format.

Howard Lovy: Do you recommend that authors narrate their own audiobooks, or does it take a case by case?

Kevin Stillwell: It's definitely case by case. I don't ever really say, no, you can't, but what I do is point out the logistics of it.

Let me go back to your other question about the services that we offer, because one of the things that's important, Howard, is I think that over time the term self-published was unfairly stigmatized. That somehow meant that it was a lower quality author or a lesser quality book, and that's just not true. These people have just as much grit and determination, and they've poured their blood, sweat, and tears into writing their story, whether it's fiction or nonfiction, and they dig deep into their own pockets to make sure that it gets published in print and eBook and audiobook format.

So, I think they deserve as much, if not more credit than people who signed with Hachette or Harper or Penguin Random House.

I've tried to create a home for self-published authors that want to have their audiobooks produced and distributed. It's important to me that they have a home to go to where they're going to be taken care of, and all the services that they need are in one place that they can pick and choose what they want.

So, on to the question about whether or not I discourage it on a case-by-case basis. A good number of my authors are businesspeople, CEOs, gurus, Zen masters that have some kind of public speaking experience, and I don't discourage them from doing it, but I do take them through the paces, and I can get a pretty good idea of whether or not they're going to be able to get through the process.

The biggest challenge ultimately is not whether they're locally capable, because I can put a director in there with them and I do personalized coaching with them using my narrator and director experience to help them get ready. The biggest challenge is, do they have time to be in the studio to do it?

Howard Lovy: It's a long process.

Kevin Stillwell: It is.

Howard Lovy: In addition to producing podcasts, I produce some audiobooks as well.

Kevin Stillwell: Great. We operate on a two-to-one ratio with a professional narrator. In other words, it takes two hours to produce one hour of audio in the studio. With authors, it can be 2.5 or three-to-one, depending on how adept they are at reading off of a tablet and going through a punch record and learning the mechanics and the method of narrating.

If it's a 10-hour book, that may take them 25 or 30 hours, and that's the real challenge. Do you have 30 hours to spare in the next week or two weeks at the same time of day because we want vocal consistency for four hours a day? That tends to be the biggest challenge, but I do my best to accommodate those folks wherever they may be and whatever their schedule may be.

The ones that really want to do it and are eager to do it, they get it done, and I make sure that they have the tools and the people around them to make sure that their experience is pleasant and that it creates good audio, because ultimately I have a very candid conversation with them, and you can probably edit some of this out, because I'll say you can go through that process, I'm honest with them, diplomatically honest with them. You can go through that process, but what if you go through that process and you get to the end of it, and it's unlistenable? What if it's terrible? Then you have to start all over again, and you've wasted all that money.

That happens very rarely, because most of the folks that I deal with, most of my authors, certainly for non-fiction, they have some kind of public speaking experience. That's key.

I really will discourage someone from narrating if they wrote fiction. I very rarely have anyone that says, I really want to narrate my fiction book, but everybody says, all my friends tell me, I have a great voice, I should narrate my own book.

I'm like, I'm sure they did say that, because they're your friends. It's not going to help you. So, we navigate those awkward waters as best we can, and it's all, then it's all okay.

Howard Lovy: How much is cost a consideration though when hiring an actor or a narrator to do it or doing it yourself? Maybe you can go over the main factors that determine the cost of producing an audiobook.

Kevin Stillwell: Sure. That's one of the other benefits of having it produced by us and using a professional narrator is that it's more cost effective. It's a lower cost because we have an all-in-one package. Our per finished hour rate includes casting and some pre-production, preparing the script and getting that ready, marking it accordingly, the casting process, recording, and the levels of post-production, which is editing, quality control, and mastering, and creating retail ready audio for distribution.

That's all contained in our per finished hour rate.

When an author wants to narrate themselves, there's a per hour studio charge, depending on location. Someone that records in Des Moines, Iowa, is going to pay less for a studio charge than someone who's recording in L.A. There's the director's fee on top of that, which is per hour. Then the post-production cost, which is per finished hour.

A 10-hour book for an author that wants to narrate themselves, and it takes 25 or 30 hours in the studio, and 25 or 30 hours of a director, and then 10 hours of post-production, it ends up being about 35 or 40 percent more expensive than having a narrator do it.

Howard Lovy: Oh, really? Okay. I think the assumption among many authors is that it's the opposite, that hiring an actor or a narrator is more expensive, but that's not the case?

Kevin Stillwell: No, it is not the case, because of the studio and director charge.

There are some authors that opt out of having a director, but what that means is that they have to go back into the studio for pickups, for corrections, usually more than once. But our process is designed in such a way as to minimize return time to the studio for the author. We get two rounds of quality control and there are pickups that go along with that.

So, having a director in the studio with you ends up being cost effective because it takes less time in post-production, and you don't have to go back in for as many pickups.

Howard Lovy: Now, are there any other costs considerations that people don't think about going into it?

Kevin Stillwell: I don't know if cost is as important as time management, because a lot of my authors came to me after they explored things like ACX or Findaway Voices or Fiverr, or something like that, where you're not guaranteed the quality that you would get from someone like us, and you have to stop being an author and doing the things to promote your writing, or just writing every day, which is what authors do, to becoming a project manager.

You have to manage your audiobook production. That means you have to make sure that the narrator is on time and meeting deadlines. Who's going to edit and do the quality control and who's going to do the mastering? Because there's no one person that can do all that stuff.

I am a narrator. I can narrate and self-engineer, and I can do a little bit of editing, but I don't have the time for that, and I don't have the expertise for that.

Cost consideration is important, but time consideration, I think, is more important, because if you come to us, Howard, you've written a book, you want me to narrate it. I'm going to tell you that it's a 10-hour book, this is how much it's going to cost, and I'm going to have a finished product for you in six to eight weeks.

You get a pass at reviewing the audio to make sure that it's up to your standards and that we haven't missed anything, because if we have, we'll fix it in post.

The only other real cost considerations are if they want any add-ons. Sound effects throughout, soundscape, music in the credits or music throughout the book. That really is a case-by-case basis as well, and it's all optional.

But for an audiobook that's going to be produced, narrated and produced professionally, I don't think there's a better place to go, honestly, and when you compare the time that's involved doing it yourself as a self-published author and then having to manage that project, you're going to end up spending three months pulling your hair out.

Howard Lovy: Once you have the finished audiobook, how do you assist authors with distribution and what are the benefits of using you as compared to uploading it to Audible yourself?

Kevin Stillwell: There are a couple of advantages. One, and it's something that I've spent the last 15 months dedicating a lot of my time to, which is expanding our distribution network.

So, I have direct relationships with companies all over the world, and that means that now we're on over 100 platforms for retail and library outlets globally.

There's an advantage and a disadvantage to going with Audible. You self-publish, you go through ACX, and you can go exclusively through them, which means you're locked into a 7-year contract, and you're only on Apple, amazon and Audible, and Amazon and Audible are the same thing.

If you go through us, that means that, again, we're going to manage that project and distribution. We aggregate and manage the royalties from those 100 plus platforms for you on a quarterly basis, and we offer more availability.

In other words, what's important, sales are important. You want to sell your book, but how many people do you want to be aware that your book is for sale? Because Audible accounts for between 54 and 59 percent of the market.

So, this is the scenario that I offer up. If you have a hundred copies of your audiobook to sell and you only want to go through Audible, what are you going to do with the other 40 or 45 copies that you don't sell?

I'm going to put them in all the other places where they will sell so that you can sell all 100 instead of just 50 or 55 of them. So, the advantage to going with Audible is that you don't have to worry about it. You're just going to send it to Audible and they're going to take 60% of your money and that's it, and then you're going to get lost in the shuffle.

You go through us; we have a pretty expansive network. I have marketing tools on some of those platforms so I can feature some of that stuff, and we manage all that data and money for you on a quarterly basis.

We make it available in more places for more people. That's the advantage to going with us.

Howard Lovy: This wouldn't be a podcast in 2024 about indie publishing if I didn't ask about AI.

We're seeing more companies offering AI narrators that sound increasingly realistic. So, how do you view this trend and what are your thoughts on the use of AI narrators versus human narrators?

Kevin Stillwell: I think there's a place for it, I do. I think there's a place for it. I don't think the technology is where it should be, and I don't know if it ever will be in our lifetime, because the thing that's missing is what you and I are doing right now. I can change my mood, my delivery, my attitude in mid thought, in mid-sentence, in mid word. AI can't do that.

You can have a conversation with AI, but it lacks nuance and human meaning. There are some people that, when they narrate, that are really good at non-fiction, really good at it, and there are others that aren't. Just listen to a politician speak at the podium, and that's how most people read.

A lot of people that narrate, they're really good at nonfiction, and they are really good at fiction, and they have to develop transferring that skill to nonfiction.

I don't think AI really has that ability yet. It may one day.

I think it does have a place, and I think that has to do with what's your budget, and how much do you care about the quality?

Those are the questions that I would ask when it comes to AI.

Howard Lovy: Audiobooks have been a consistent bright spot in the publishing industry, with sales increasing every year.

What do you attribute this growth to, and how is Lantern positioning itself to take advantage of these trends?

Kevin Stillwell: What I attribute it to, I think a lot of it has to do with just the way people spend their time. How we consume media has shifted a lot, and audiobooks, I think the growth has a lot to do with that, with people's consumption habits and that you can multitask.

You can do your gardening and listen to an audiobook. You can be driving and listen to an audiobook. It's not the same as sitting on the beach and reading the actual book. So, I think that the increase in sales is a direct reflection of consumer habits, that they want the material, whether it's fiction or nonfiction, and they want it in a way that's convenient for them to consume it, and audiobooks offer that convenience.

There's an abundance of it available and on more and more platforms. So, that too is indicative of it.

I think more importantly, though, is the folks that may be moving away from traditional print still want to “read” a book. They just want to read it through their ears. So, I think the growth in the marketplace has a lot to do with an alternative to traditional print publishing for certain sectors of the population, and also our consumption habits.

Howard Lovy: I think the stigma is going away, too. It used to be somewhat embarrassing to admit that you listened to an audiobook rather than read it, but I listen to a lot of audiobooks.

Like you say, I'm on the road a lot, I do a lot of running as exercise, and it's great to get some reading in while you do these things.

Kevin Stillwell: Yeah, absolutely.

Howard Lovy: I don't see any difference between taking in information through your ears as opposed to your eyes.

Kevin Stillwell: I think people that listen to audiobooks, certainly the initial audience, were ones that were avid readers anyway.

Howard Lovy: Looking ahead, what are some new developments or services that authors can expect?

Kevin Stillwell: Oh, that's good. We're partnering with a couple of different companies. One is going to help create some NFTs, our author's original cover art, and help them generate some revenue that way.

We're expanding more into partnering podcasts with authors to help promote their books, and our production process is always being streamlined.

We have a really great marriage of personalized treatment, but with scalability. So, nobody ever gets lost in the shuffle, and I think some of the exciting stuff is that the technology that we use to produce an audiobook is always being refined, which makes our time management a lot smoother.

Howard Lovy: Wonderful. Thank you, Kevin. I appreciate you appearing on the Creating Better Books podcast, and best of luck.

Kevin Stillwell: It's been my pleasure, and you're welcome, and thank you for having me on here.

Howard Lovy: Thank you.

Author: Howard Lovy

Howard Lovy is an author, book editor, and journalist. He is also the Content and Communications Manager for the Alliance of Independent Authors, where he hosts and produces podcasts and keeps the blog updated. You can find more of his work at https://howardlovy.com/

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