“Who, exactly, are you going to inspire to buy audio?”
“In 23 years, I’ve never heard anyone say, ‘Have you heard the new Zadie Smith?’”
A compelling, even moving appeal has come from Hannah Griffiths, Faber & Faber’s publishing director, at the weekend’s FutureBook Hack – the UK’s first industry-wide publishing hackathon. The event is presented by The Bookseller in association with publisher-partners, including Faber, as well as a host of sponsors.
Griffiths was speaking as one of about a dozen hackathon-kickoff commentators on Saturday. Their intention was motivational and informative, as she and her colleagues worked to get across to the gathering of 72 hackers what the industry needs from the wider world of technology.
“It’s a question of how we as publishers understand the value of audio,” she said. “Who, exactly, are you going to inspire to buy audio? And why might they do that?”
By way of example, she mentioned a family member with reading disabilities as one of her own first examples of an audiobook consumer.
“And then I had kids and saw another great need for audio – parents who don’t want to read stories at bedtime. They can put on an audiobook.
“And then two weeks ago, I was sitting at the Southbank listening to the readings by the shortlisted authors of the Baileys Prize, one of whom was a writer named Eimear McBride [A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, which Griffiths is publishing.
"When I heard Eimear McBride reading her stream-of-consciousness novel, a novel I love with a passion, something clicked about this book. If anyone heard Eimear McBride reading her ‘difficult’ novel…they would hear her intentions, they would hear these sentences, how they were meant to sound to the reader.
“So I can say that for the first time, I chased the audio rights and bought them the next day” to McBride’s book , which is being given a run of 25,000 copies in the wake of McBride’s Baileys win.
“Literally, in commercial terms,” Griffiths said, those audio rights “are worth very little right now…we’ll never make the money back, in one way.”
But McBride’s book, Griffiths said, “I believe will in 20 years’ time [McBride’s text] will be studied by students of literature who will be desperate to hear the author’s intention in this [audio] form. And I will own the author’s intention in this form.
“At the end of the day, publishers are going to have to invest” in audio and other digital forms, “and we’ll come to know that the consumers perceive a value in that.
“What I’ve asked you to do, from Faber’s point of view, when you look at our data,” then, offered at the hackathon, “is to look at our data instead of looking at it as a giant category, as yourself who it might mean something to?
“Might [audio] mean something to someone who can’t read? Might it mean something to parents who don’t want to read to their kids? Or might it mean something to students of literature who want to know what their authors’ intentions were?”
In making her comments – in a quiet, personally engaged tone -- Griffiths stressed practicality and audience-awareness. An edition of The Wasteland read by Alec Guiness, she told the group, “means something to my kids because Obi-Wan Kenobi is reading it.”
And the emphasis she put on that specificity of audience engagement was echoed by other publisher-providers of APIs and assets for the hackathon. Clearly, publishers are looking for commercial awareness as well as creativity in the exercise this weekend, and for hacker-participants to bring with them their own non-publishing sense for the consumer’s interests and needs.
"When you look at our data,” Griffiths said, “be incredibly specific about who it might be valuable to. Publishers are going to have to invest. We want to be sure that consumers see the value” in audio.
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Image by Porter Anderson: FutureBook Hack participants discuss ideas and form into teams at University College London. At right in black: Andrew Rhomberg of Jellybooks.