Don’t give up on the audio experiment

Don’t give up on the audio experiment

Wow. What an amazing week it has been in the world of audio publishing! First, Spotify bought Findaway, then just as we were all making sense of that news, Storytel acquired Audiobooks.com. Nielsen's Understanding the Audiobook Consumer report was also a stonking read for those of us placing our bets on the future of audio: the UK audiobook market is tipping £200m (we think this is still understated) and the number of new audiobook consumers continues to rise, with 45% entering the market in the past 12 months.  

In the face of these developments, The Bookseller editor Philip Jones’ editorial on audiobooks last week seemed terribly bleak. Don’t get me wrong—so much of what he wrote was spot on. As a long-time consumer, I share his disappointment at Audible’s dominance of the UK market, Apple’s lack of ambition for audio, and the force-feeding of subscription models to consumers. And to that list of woes, I would add how inaccessible audio is for many price-sensitive consumers and how dismal the user experience remains: it’s 2021—why can’t I see integrated illustrations? Why should my experience be less complete than a print or e-book? Why can’t I search or navigate intuitively? Why is the prevailing pricing model based around one credit per month, when some months I might not use it, and in others, I might want to buy several books?

And yet, I am far more optimistic about the potential of audio to transform publishing. We co-founded xigxag (a new audiobook business, shortlisted for Startup of the Year at the Futurebook Awards this week) because we felt totally underserved as consumers. Any time a market is not being served well, it creates an opportunity for someone else to do it better. 

The lack of competition in the UK is palpable. This is why the developments last week could be good for the market as a whole. If publishers have access to new listeners and additional routes to market, perhaps over time we might see fewer examples of bestselling books from major publishers being tied up in what are effectively channel-exclusive audio deals. That would be good news for the audiobook market as a whole.  

We are in the process of closing our second investment round this year, including a crowdfunding campaign on Seedrs. As I talk to our investors, the sense is that the developments last week are a sign of an attractive market, one in which the industry could be participating more broadly, rather than giving up on the experiment.  

It’s not just a case of encouraging competition, but more importantly, innovation—beyond just subscription models. We believe innovation in channel, messaging and especially format has the potential to attract new audiences to books, not just those who have historically preferred print. New ideas can make books more accessible to more people, and drive reading efficiency and book consumption for both proficient and reluctant readers. 

We are one of a number of companies out there trying to help the industry make the stretch to realise the full potential of audio as an opportunity. Chirp, the audiobook venture created by BookBub, is a brilliant example of innovation aimed at broadening audiences and making reading more accessible by offering subscription-free, time-bound daily audiobook deals for stream or download. And LibroFM, like its partner bookshop.org, is allowing listeners in the United States to enjoy audiobooks while supporting their local bookseller.   

But none of these innovators have yet managed to crack the UK market, and globally no one is really innovating the user experience, which is why we started xigxag.  

xigxag is an independent business based in Cornwall. We come at the problem as consumers; as readers and listeners. I have worked in consumer technology for 20 years and my co-founder Mark Chaplin has worked in film and TV technology for even longer than that. 

Just think of how good the best digital media experiences are today versus both audiobooks and e-books. Experiences need to be more engaging to compete for readers’ and listeners' attention in this busy world. This is exactly what we are aiming to do at xigxag: improve the experience of audiobooks with unique features and functionality. For example, we allow listeners to see illustrations from the e-book, offering a more complete experience, just as the author intended. We offer the only reasonably priced a la carte audiobooks in the market, and reward our customers for listening more. Finally, we offer everyone a local, independent alternative to big tech. It’s early days for us, but our FutureBook shortlisting is the capstone on a year of great progress for a small team.

In doing this, we are constantly inspired and challenged by the other businesses proving that it is possible to compete with big tech. Four or five years ago, the received wisdom was that big players had an almost unassailable lead in online book sales, and GoodReads was the only game in town for social reading, even if the user experience was poor. In the last couple of years, bookshop.org has shown thousands of readers around the world that there is an e-commerce alternative. And at The Storygraph, Nadia Odunayo and Rob Frelow have shown that a strong concept and nimble development can attract hundreds of thousands of users. 

In the world of print books, publishers have always embraced multiple channels, from big tech to local bookstores. We would like to see a world where the same principle of channel diversity is embraced in the audio space, and digital innovation is met with the same fanfare from the trade as a new independent bookshop. We have not given up on the experiment, and neither should publishers. Come and talk to us at FutureBook to find out more. 

Kelli Fairbrother is the co-founder and c.e.o. of xigxag, a new UK indie audiobook app offering titles from HarperCollins, Faber and other publishers. FutureBook 2021 is taking place this Friday (19th November) in Bishopsgate, London; you can buy an in-person or digital pass here.