Audiobook audiences: an unexpected plot twist

banner image showing headphones, an ebook reader in a leather cover, a cup of coffee and some cookies

Listening and spoken-word storytelling is flourishing. It’s a powerful global media trend. In the publishing industry, digital audiobooks are one of the fastest-growing segments, expected to reach $15 billion globally by 2028 (LP 360 Report). This creates fantastic opportunities for publishers to attract new audiences to enjoy their books.

Listening is the first language skill that we acquire, and 85% of what we learn, we learn by listening. For those young learners who have difficulty reading, listening to audiobooks can make learning a much easier process. It also makes it inclusive and fun.

Audiobooks are immersive, educational, instructional and entertaining, and they’re perfect for the time-rich and the time-poor. According to the APA annual consumer research study, 40% of audiobook listeners agree that audiobooks help them get through more books, and 56% of those who both listen to audiobooks and read books agree that audiobooks are the preferred format to get through books quickly.

My audiobook experience

Listening certainly helps me enjoy more books, despite my busy life. Listening to an author read their own story in their own voice is more magical and intimate than reading. Brilliant narrators seamlessly differentiating ten different characters with regional accents is nothing short of heroic.

I was first introduced to audiobooks in the late nineties when I was living in Germany. This was before the days of global content platforms, and audiobooks were the only form of English language entertainment I could access. I remember being mesmerised by the stories, sitting in my car outside my house unwilling or unable to pause the story long enough to go inside.

I left Germany in 1999, and returned to the US just as the internet was taking off and there was no shortage of content to engage with. I fell out of my audiobook habit just as I discovered NPR (National Public Radio) and This American Life, an iconic Sunday night radio show that evolved into one of the early successful podcasts.

I only returned to audiobooks in 2018 to meet the demands of a boss that expected me to read, reflect and report back on a wide range of business books – nearly every two weeks. I was working too much, travelling the world and trying to raise two small children. Audiobooks were essential to my survival.

Coming back to audiobooks after nearly 20 years, I was genuinely surprised – and a bit disappointed – at how little the format had evolved. I spent most of those years working in consumer tech. I had seen so many technology leaps across platforms, in consumer formats and entertainment platforms. Why were audiobooks still stuck in the days of ‘books on tape’?

One of the best examples of this came as I was listening to the audiobook of Hans Rosling’s Factfulness. Rosling is famous for using clever infographics to tell a story and change people’s perceptions of the world. At one point, I’m sitting on the tube (with no wifi) only to hear the narrator tell me that in order to see all the brilliant infographics, I had to download a pdf from a desktop website.

The experience felt incomplete relative to what the author intended: beyond missing the illustrations, I couldn’t look up words I didn’t understand. I couldn’t see dialogue structure. I spent ages trying to get back to different parts to listen to a passage again, only to realise I would likely never find it without starting from the beginning. I couldn’t take any notes to share my reflections with my boss. (Luckily for me, he didn’t really want to hear them anyway.)

Nobody seemed to be competing for me: the Audible subscription model was so inflexible and all the à la carte offerings were inexplicably expensive. Perennial bestsellers were unavailable in digital audiobook format in the UK. I wanted alternatives to Amazon but they were all big tech. It seemed as if no one really cared about audiobooks as a format – or cared about what UK consumers like me really wanted from them.

Introducing xigxag

In 2019, my co-founder Mark Chaplin and I started xigxag, with the aim of revolutionising the audiobook user experience and making audiobooks more accessible.

Mark and I met at a company called Deluxe, one of the biggest content fulfilment partners to Netflix. Mark is an incredibly talented CTO and a former Director of Production Technology at ITV. He’s among the best in the world at digital media tech. He’s built one of the most technologically advanced content platforms in the industry. We publish and withdraw content within 4 hours, with fewer than 10% of titles requiring any human intervention.

We’ve developed a brand new format, which we call the x-book®, which maps the audiobook against the ebook supplied by the publisher. This brings together the best of audio and text formats through a combination of technical innovation and a publisher’s respect for high-quality content.

Our x-book® technology powers first-ever features for audiobook listeners in a market-leading app, including the ability to see illustrations, refer to the text, search, quote, share and look up words.

We offer the only reasonably priced à la carte audiobooks in the market, and reward our customers for listening more. And, perhaps quite obviously, customers buy more when they aren’t constrained by a 1-per-month subscription.

Audiobook audiences

I would love to say we amassed a wealth of powerful consumer insight and rigorously analysed the needs of all the different demographic groups in the market, but that wasn’t really our approach. We set out to build something that was, to us, better than anything in the market. We validated our ideas along the way with our own network – people like us. It wasn’t until we took the product to market that we would prove the extent to which a broader range of people felt as under-served by the dominant competitors as we did.

We had an instinct that we could create a fresh, modern concept that would attract new audiences: younger, perhaps more price-sensitive, with higher expectations for digital experiences, and more conscious of where they spent their money.

But what we found is that so many different audiences are under-served by the dominance of big tech in audiobooks. We’ve been approached by the visually impaired, keen to support our independent UK business, and expressing their own frustration at a lack of alternatives in the market. They challenged us to make our app more accessible. It seems obvious now, but this was an important learning for us early on. We responded with audio description enablement – and we still have more to do.

We have heard from parents of dyslexic children seeking our integrated listen-and-read x-book® as a solution to encourage their children to enjoy books independently. Our solution is not yet perfect for them, but it’s a start – and one of the only concepts that exists to enable reading along while listening.

 And one mum of a child with Down’s Syndrome who participated in our World Book Day trial was so enthusiastic about xigxag as a solution for her son:

‘xigxag is SUCH a great app, especially for Seb who is a visual learner as he can switch between reading and listening and follow the words. Great for the car, great for bedtime. Can’t recommend enough and delighted to have been involved and represented.’

Here you can see the video of all the lovely children who tested and reviewed our app for us to celebrate World Book Day.

We designed our app to allow proficient readers of all ages to enjoy more books – listening to and navigating books more efficiently – without missing anything the author intended. And we’re delighted to see that it is also now making reading more accessible to those who struggle with traditional reading.

It’s still early days for us, but the more we learn about listeners and their hopes and needs with audiobooks, the more confident we are in the potential of the format. Consumers benefit from better experiences enabled by innovation and healthy competition. There are countless stories to be told in audio. Surely there must be more than one way to enjoy them.

Kelli Fairbrother is co-founder and CEO of xigxag, an innovative new digital audiobook app.  She has worked for nearly 20 years in consumer technology at McKinsey, Whitbread, Deluxe Digital Media and Gelato.  Never without her headphones, she’s always listening to something interesting.