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The Sound of the Underground

Hazel Beevers

Audiobook sales continue to soar, yet big tech’s dominance of the market prevails. We meet Kelli Fairbrother, co-founder of xigxag, an upstart audio startup that blurs the lines between audio, visual and community.

In 2021, audiobooks were the fastest growing format in publishing, leaving others in the dust. Yes, we were in a pandemic and people were reaching for the sound of other humans through tech, via voice notes or social media). But as sales continue to rise, the market continues to be dominated by a small number of the usual tech giants. And as with any market dominated by a few big-hitters, it can leave consumers unhappy with the experience, and smaller platforms can struggle to be heard. We meet Kelli Fairbrother, co-founder of xigxag, an audio platform that aims to offer “an alternative to big tech” by creating a “revolutionary”, more accessible, listening experience. And with 15 publishers on board (“including four of the big five and two major indies” according to Kelli), people are clearly listening to what they have to say.

How did xigxag come about?

I was an early audiobook listener. In the late ‘90s I was living in Germany and there were no global content platforms at the time, so my only access to English language entertainment was audiobooks. I left Germany and didn’t come back to audiobooks again until 2018, when I was working for a boss who would regularly say, ‘read this book and come back to me in two weeks time and tell me everything about it.’ I was working 55-hour work weeks trying to raise two children. The only way I was going to meet that was by listening.

The moment when I realised, I was on the tube. And the narrator says, ‘in order to see all these brilliant infographics, please download a PDF from a desktop website’. My first thought was ‘this is 2018!’ Just think of your favourite digital news app, and how much better it is than audiobooks and ebooks. Why?

So I reached out to my co-founder Mark [Chaplin], and said ‘Hey, I’ve got this crazy idea, are you up for it?’ He is also a reader and a listener, and then he just started building it on a farm down in Cornwall!

Why do you think there has been this recent rise in audio?

Human storytelling is oral, right? It was only written down thousands of years ago, but for the most part, stories were told by humans to humans. What makes us human is telling stories.

But also, we’re on screens all the time. And, there’s just this escape of actually allowing your imagination to flow, whilst listening. There’s also the rise of smart speakers. We’re surprised by how many people are just listening in the home. We thought that the audiobook market was a kind of a commuting thing, but most people are streaming at home.

“What makes us human is telling stories.”

Is there anything else that you’ve learned since starting, that you didn’t know about? How do people interact with audio when they’re listening?

As a customer, one of my frustrations was having to sign up to a really inflexible subscription model from the dominant player in order to get a good price. It felt constraining. If they were trying to unlock demand, they would be encouraging you to listen as much as you want. Our data shows that our customers on average are buying almost twice as many books as a ‘one per month’ subscription model. That shows the inflexibility, because nobody reads linearly. Some books are longer, some books are shorter, you have time when you can read and binge, and then you have time when you’re busier…

Also, 90% of our customers are using our ‘refer to text’ feature, which is, again, part of our hypothesis. We really did believe that part of the thing that’s missing from an audiobook, in terms of the experience that the author intended, was your ability to see words, to see illustrations, to look up words and actually search in the audio book if you need to search. We’re seeing tremendous usage of some of those features.

The ambition was always to help people enjoy more books, because it allows you to read more efficiently. You don’t have to stop to go and look something up, you can look it up right there. It’s maybe also helping people who struggle to read. So bringing together reading and listening for kids with dyslexia as an example. Why is nobody working to make reading more accessible? That’s a big question we keep asking, and something we’re trying to solve.

“The ambition was always to help people enjoy more books”

I can see how that accessibility fits your brand ethos about democratising audiobooks. What was the thinking behind that, just personal experience?

​​Mark and I are both kind of egalitarian, we believe in helping other people. I think our view has always been that the [audiobook] experience isn’t good enough. And actually, it’s also overpriced for what it is. And so the idea was that we’re going to make the experience better, and make pricing more accessible. And both of those things lead to accessibility. For us it was just always obvious that we were going to solve these two things.

Can you explain a bit about how you offer “an exciting alternative to big tech?”

Happy to.  We find that big tech audiobook offerings are great for big tech incumbents, but not always great for consumers. The audiobook format hasn’t really been innovated in decades, audiobooks are priced at a premium to other formats, or consumers have to sign up to inflexible, one-per-month subscriptions to get a good price. There is no sense of community or humanity: it all feels very transactional.

We think our innovations are designed with consumers in mind – we’re improving the audiobook format with our exclusive x-book®, allowing listeners to see illustrations, take notes, search in the audiobook, and lookup words.  We’ve made our experience more social too, with more sharing features than any other digital reading app.

Can you talk a little bit about your next steps?

I think we need to do more to enable more social recommendations, for example. We think algorithms and computers are never as good as your friends at knowing what you want to listen to, or read. So how do you create networks in which you’re enabling that to happen? That’s a big theme for the year.

And then just community features…why can’t you build book club features into the core experience of the app? Because then you let more people enjoy it. That’s one of our aims. And you make it easier for people to co-curate lists, for example, lists that you recommend with a group of people. I think we’re probably on ‘version one’ of social. You can take notes, and you can share quotes at the moment. We’re trying to expand on that, because we do think that reading is brilliant when you share it with other people. When you finish a book, the first thing you want to do, if you really enjoyed it, is pass it on and get someone else to enjoy it. How do we harness that? Could you make that more public for people to say, for example, ‘these are the quotes that really inspire me.’ There’s just a tonne of possibility.

I think gradually we’re trying to change people’s opinions about audio. It’s not cheating! And you can get as rich an experience with audio, in some ways even more rich, because the author could be telling you their story in their own voice. And what’s more magical than that?

Find out more about xigxag here.

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