Chris McKee: I hear what you're saying

Chris McKee: I hear what you're saying

When Audible UK m.d. Chris McKee talks about the audiobook sector he is many things: excited, passionate, articulate and thoughtful. Yet there is also the overriding impression of impatience— that he is chafing at the slow pace of audiobook take-up in the UK, the foot dragging of some publishers about getting audio to market and the unnecessary sparring between retailers.

"At the end of last year's Bookseller Audio Revolution seminar one of the panellists said, 'someone is going to have to do something to jump-start this market'," he says. "And I felt very frustrated because we are doing that. We are trying to drag this whole sector into more of a mass market offer with much broader appeal."

He gets more animated as he warms to the theme, praising the Audiobook Publishing Association's (APA) recent industry-wide Top 40 audio promotion: "The promotion was excellent because it brought a number of different stakeholders together to do something. We need to do more of that. Rather than people butting heads, why don't we work together to promote audio?"

The audiobook market could certainly use a more mass-market focus. Last year, Nielsen BookScan's Total Consumer Market showed the book trade had sales of £1.9bn; of that, only £72m was for audiobooks.

Niche within a niche

Audible is the unquestioned audiobook download leader, but McKee acknowledges that the company is still a "niche within a niche". Even as a niche, it is doing well. Headquartered in the US, Audible does not break out its UK numbers, but both the total UK and US operations currently have 400,000 subscribers and had a turnover last year of $100m. McKee does say that the US growth rate of about 30% year on year is roughly consistent with the UK's. The company was attractive enough for Amazon to shell out $300m to acquire the business in February.

An Amazon and Audible online link will be formed, but it is early days. McKee says: "Amazon has a huge site and its primary concern is building the best kind of user experience. Any type of integration has to be thought out very carefully and we are in very much the planning stages."

Audible operates "relatively independently" from Amazon, with McKee focusing on building the company and audio's profile. It has embarked on a number of marketing partnerships that target lifestyle pursuits which go along with audio, such as links with running and knitting magazines. A back-to-school promotion with Toshiba had a suite of education audiobook content on new laptops, and a partnership with Sat Nav makers such as TomTom is in the works.

"It's all about breaking out into new areas," McKee says. "Because we are marketing and generating new customers that is for the betterment of the audiobook industry."

The crucial issue for McKee in audio development is price reduction, with current r.r.p.s for both digital files and CDs far outpacing hardback books. In a digital world where production costs can be greatly reduced, publishers need to bring audio in line with print. He says: "If we are going to grow the sector we have to get prices down and volume up. The high price of audio is one of our intense frustrations."

Another frustration is getting the content to coincide with hardback release dates. Audible has 20,000 titles, a far greater audiobook range than Amazon, yet publishers only time a fraction of audiobooks to tie in with hardback release. McKee says: "We get our biggest sales when it is a hot title, unabridged, released at the same time as the print version."

Pirates and pricing

McKee hails from Buckinghamshire and throughout his career has focused on "bringing new technology into new markets". He worked for computer companies Wang and Interleaf before joining video gaming firm Creature Labs in the 1990s. When he was hired to start the Audible UK operation in 2005, he was a one-man band operating out of his London home. Audible now has 20 people working in its British offices.

He says: "There was a huge advantage at the start because Audible US had been established and there were some content deals already set up. But the biggest challenge was that downloading was new and nobody had heard of downloading audiobooks. I spent most of my time evangelising to people about why they should join us."

Of course, one of the worries in the digital world is piracy. McKee is adamant Audible will continue to use its own-brand DRM files to prevent piracy, despite some calls to go to unprotected MP3 formats to widen the market. He insists Audible's DRM is flexible for customer needs: "With our DRM you can move it between devices and you can download it again if you lose it. What it doesn't allow you to do is email files to your mates now. Is that such a bad thing?"

He is conscious, though, of the notion that in the digital world of web-savvy surfers au fait with peer-to-peer and file-sharing sites, that content can be obtained easily for free. He insists e-tailers can combat this with great service and range. But again, price comes into the equation. "This is our dilemma," he says. "We have free and at the other end, very expensive [audiobooks]. Where is the market going to be taken? It is going to be driven by consumers and they would prefer to be down the free-er end of the spectrum. Either we are going to be in a tiny niche with no growth, or we are going to have to shift."