80 Hours

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Stark Reflections

I once wrote a book that was predicated on the idea of describing how the world might feel if the people in it did not need any money. In other words, a world where everyone’s basic needs were always met, and cash was never a concern. You can find it here. I think it’s pretty good.

It is unfortunate that we do not live in that kind of world. Not, yet, anyway.

Instead, we live in a capitalistic world in which the acquisition of at least a little bit of money is important to our ability to live healthy lives.

I’m thinking about this today because I’ve just listened to the latest episode of Mark Leslie Lefebvre’s Stark Reflections podcast. It’s a good one, as they pretty much all are. Today he has on Jeff Adams and Michele Lucchini to talk about their new book CONTENT FOR EVERYONE: A Practical Guide for Creative Entrepreneurs to Produce Accessible and Usable Web Content. At the episode’s core sits the idea of accessibility, and the very concept of what it means to be “wide.”

In other words, it’s a very good conversation.

I need to do better at this myself. I’m so far behind, though, and one of the things I appreciated about the conversation was the concept of small bites. I may not be able to support all things at once, but I know I can do things one at a time. So, yeah, I need to grab the book and do some thinking.

At one point, though, Michele kind of gives Mark what feels like a bit of schooling after Mark notes how much effort it is to put out an audio version of a book as narrated by the author. He suggests that’s some 80 hours of work, and—having narrated one of my own books now—I figure that’s a fair assessment. This part of the conversation comes after discussion about how AI-generated audiobooks cut that labor intensely. Michele kindly notes however that, rather than consider audio as an extra, Mark might be better served to consider creating audio as just a normal part of business, and that putting out audio serves the rights of people who need an audio version. As in, a person has a right to have an audio version. That word “right” stuck with me. It left the feeling that, as independent publishers, we are indebted to spend those 80 hours, or we’re doing something morally wrong.

At the end of the podcast, as is Mark’s standard practice, he reflected on that part of the conversation, essentially doing a great mea culpa, as Mark is so good at. I have met Mark—as I would guess has just about everyone involved in independent publishing. One of the best things about him (and hence the podcast), beyond his love for the band Rush, is his ability to see the world from so many perspectives.

And, yes, I agree with the basic sentiment of working harder to make our material more accessible.

But, no. While I fully want to support people with various disabilities, and I fully plan to do so as best as I can (and as my level of success goes up, my ability to make it happen increases), I don’t think it’s correct to feel like I have to make this happen in order to be a good person.

I say that with the thought in mind that I doubt there exists a writer anywhere in existence who would not love to have everything they write available to every person on the planet.

We live in a capitalistic world, though, and independent writers, especially ones coming up the chain, however, are often living on shoestring budgets at best. Once spent, time, unlike dollars, can never be regained.

If said writer takes 80 hours to narrate an audio version of their book, that’s 80 hours they cannot be writing a new one (or promoting an old one, or designing a new release, or …). For these writers, it is completely fair for them to ask if spending 80 hours to create an author-narrated audio book is worth the effort—specifically meaning worth it financially. Bottom line: it is completely fair for a new or struggling writer to look at everything they are doing from the lens of “what is the ROI for this?” Or, as Scott Carter famously said, “Would I be better off writing?”

In my mind, the better argument for pushing new or struggling writers to take steps to make their work accessible is the same argument one makes to go wide in the first place (and one Mark hammered home several times in his podcast). Financially, it should open new markets, and add stability in the form of additional streams of income. The right equation, though (again, for those struggling writers for whom our capitalistic world is making the act of scratching out a decent life difficult), is “will my 80-hour audiobook feed me better than writing a new book?” (which can literally be done in 80 hours if one is diligent and practiced). Or, taken a different way, and using Dean Wesley Smith’s $50/hour valuation on time, will that 80-hour audiobook make me $4K? And over how much time?

If the answer is yes, and quickly (enough*), then by all means we’ll use that 80-hours to make an audio.

>> * Aside: that “quickly enough” there represents a lot of complexity. In the early days of a writer’s existence they are unlikely to be able to afford current day expenses to reap the returns of a long tail audio stream. But once a writer’s business gets its sea legs, the situation can change.

That’s why Mark’s story in the conversation about AI audio was actually so important. The background for that story was that he was approached by a fan who, for accessibility reasons, needed an audio version of Mark’s work. Mark asked if an AI version was good enough, and when told it was, spent two or three hours making a Google-AI version. When he made it available for this fan, they loved it. The important thing here is that the use of an AI narrator made the result of that financial/labor equation change. If it takes three or four hours to make something that a few people need, that’s a lot easier and a lot more workable, than 80 hours. In Dean’s framework, then, an author needs to make only (say) $150 from that audio version to make it a thing that will help him eat his dinners (or drink his craft beers … see, I really have met Mark).

The second important thing here, though, which perhaps goes better to Michele’s admonition, is that us writers do benefit if we break our preconceived notions and do our best to serve all people. In this case, the notion that AI audio is somehow a bad idea seems prevalent in and around parts of the writer community. This is wrong. AI audio is AI audio. It serves several purposes. Lots of people find it valuable. If you, as a writer, want to serve those people (or put it another way, if you want and value those people as your readers), you owe it to yourself to change your preconceived notions.

Anyway. This is a great conversation. And the podcast is highly recommended.

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