Digital audiobook service launches

A new subscription-based digital audiobook service has launched with ambitions to double the audiobook market in the UK and revolutionise the way book-lovers pay for digital content.

Bardowl, a Bath-based start-up and previous winner of a FutureBook Innovation Award, offers a "Spotify" model costing users £9.99 a month for unlimited access to audiobooks available via a streaming service: it is available via a free iOS app, designed for iPhones or the iPad.

The company launches with about 100 business-related titles and with the aim of quickly broadening the range. Titles at launch include Luke Johnson's The Maverick, Felix Dennis' How to Get Rich, and Karren Brady's Playing to Win, as well as business and management classics from authors such as Stephen J Levitt, Michael Lewis and John Adair.  

The service is the brainchild of mobile tech innovators Chris Book and Neil Chapman, who met at Orange, and were joined in 2010 by former Virgin Publishing m.d. Rob Shreeve as a shareholder and publishing director. The business has seed-funding from an anonymous investor, and will look to bring in up to £1m in venture capital funding post launch. Publishers with content ready for launch include Penguin, Macmillan, AudioGo, Wiley, and specialist audio publishers Summersdale and Creative Content. Bardowl is offering publishers a 50:50 share of net receipts, and will provide full reporting on how their titles are used and for how long they are listened to.

Bardowl was founded conceptually more than three years ago, and actually pre-dates Spotify, but has struggled to convince publishers to adopt a subscription model. Shreeve said: "They were nervous about subscription, because it is a completely different to the 'per-book' model, and I get that. But actually it has allowed us to evolve the technology. A lot of people, publishers and investors, will be watching the launch and once they see what we can do we expect to broaden the range significantly." Shreeve said he expected to be able to offer 1,000 general titles before the summer.

Book said the growth of smartphones meant that nearly everybody has a mobile audiobook player in their pocket 24 hours a day. "It is now obvious to all that streamed content and the subscription model is the future of content services. You only have to look at the success of services such as Spotify, BBC iPlayer and SkyGo and the battle for streamed films going on between LoveFilm and Netflix, to see that. As a huge audiobook fan myself I wanted a platform that would give me unlimited access to content which I could stream directly to my phone, eliminating lengthy download times – it didn’t exist, so we decided to build it ourselves."

Shreeve said he expected the service to quickly grow the audiobook market, which he estimated was worth about £15m to £20m in the UK, and to push sales in other formats through sampling. "It's difficult to see a downside here. The market size, relative to the number of devices out there, shows the enormous untapped potential of the market, and we expect to see it double in size, possibly considerably more," he said.

Bardowl’s streaming service is designed to work over 3G or wifi, but the app also caches up to three hours of audio content, meaning that it can continue to be listened to offline, or when on a plane or tube. The app also offers user the ability to capture a 30-second quote from any book they are listening to and post that quote, with their personal comments, to social networks such as Facebook, Linked-In or Twitter.

Shreeve said the environment for making deals with publishers was "very nervous" given the digital growth seen in e-books, and the Department of Justice suit into publishing, but added that he had seen a sea-change in publishers' attitudes since the London Book Fair, which saw Amazon subsidiary Audible announce that it was to begin sending authors an "honorarium" for promoting their audiobooks on Audible. "You can't have it both ways, if you want competition from companies such as us, you need to back them".

The app is available from the app store or via iTunes.