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The Stationers' Company
The City of London Livery Company for the Communications and Content Industries



Lend Us Your Ears  webinar - 8 July 2021

Liveryman George Walkley and the Stationers' Company Events Manager, Lucie McCord, report:

On 8 July 2021, over 60 members and guests attended the ‘Lend Us Your Ears’ webinar, exploring the fast growing and dynamic world of audio publishing. Although we were sad not to be in the Hall, the Zoom format allowed us to reach guests from as far afield as the United States, Israel and India.

Court Assistant  Oliver Gadsby welcomed attendees and introduced Liveryman George Walkley, who set the scene for the evening by discussing recent growth in audio publishing: in 2020, audiobook sales in the UK grew by 37%, and podcasts by nearly 20%. It seems many of us chose to listen through lockdown. Small wonder that with this context and stellar, entrepreneurial panellists, the event attracted such attention.

George introduced the panel, who each made a short presentation on their business. Kelli Fairbrother is the founder and CEO of Xigxag, an innovative new audiobooks platform based in London and Cornwall, which she came to after a career path that started in the US Army. Hannah Russell had a more conventional start in media, having worked on ebooks in an earlier period of digital publishing, before founding podcast production studio Mags Creative in 2018. Finally, Jessica Tarrant applied her experience as a children’s books editor at Penguin, Random House and Hachette to the new challenge of children’s audio platform Yoto, where she is Content Director.

This led into a panel discussion touching on consumer behaviour over the last year, what sorts of audio content were most popular with listeners and the advice that the panel would offer publishers or brands looking to get started in this area. Despite the differences between the panellist’s businesses, many common threads emerged. There was a fascinating discussion of whether audio producers and distributors should focus on successful niches, as at Yoto and Mags Creative, or emulate Xigxag’s approach of seeking the broadest range of content.

Hannah Russell spoke vividly about the challenges of the last year, as an audience habituated to podcast listening on their commute dropped away precipitously in March 2020 as lockdown hit, only to come back later in the year at different times of day and with new forms of content.

Jessica Tarrant gave a fascinating perspective on Yoto, which is designed to give children a screen-free listening experience, something which notwithstanding the event format, all of us could probably do with! The product is based around high production values, and Jessica talked about the importance of production quality and narrators.

Xigxag has had the challenge of not only surviving the last year, but launching to consumers during it. Kelli Fairbrother’s candid perspective on that experience and working with publishers gave real insight into the challenges of an early-stage startup. 

As Stationers are both sociable and practical people, it was no surprise to see a splendid level of engagement from the audience in the Q&A and Zoom Chat, and that many of the questions were practical in nature. From those questions, the panel offered the following, collated advice:

  1. Hannah Russell explained that at the simplest level audio can be recorded on a normal computer with minimal cost, so there is no barrier to getting started.
  2. However, Hannah Russell went on to say that it is important not to underinvest, a point underlined by Jessica Tarrant, who discussed the importance of good production standards.
  3. In response to a question from Liveryman Steve Harrop, Hannah Russell said that niche podcasts with an audience in the hundreds rather than the thousands are completely viable: the most important thing is that the product has a reason to exist.
  4. Kelli Fairbrother emphasised that aspiring publishers should consider their distribution and channel strategy: the audio market is dominated by big players such as Audible for audiobooks and Spotify for podcasts, but there are many other ways to reach an audience.
  5. In terms of pricing and monetisation, the panel had slightly different business models and approaches. Kelli Fairbrother’s excellent advice was that there is no substitute for research and seeing how others are pricing similar products.

The discussion concluded with a question as to whether human actors and narrators will be supplanted by artificial, text-to-speech technology. Hannah Russell’s response was to watch this space: the technology is not ready yet, but might be in a year or so. Kelli Fairbrother agreed, citing her own experiments with the technology, but felt that any change was further off. Regardless of format, Jessica Tarrant emphasised how important narration is.

But on the question of whether technology will supplant actors, perhaps we should leave the last word to the Clerk, a man not unfamiliar with treading the boards, who gave an emphatic, Laconic response on the Zoom Chat: “NO!”

The event concluded with the newly-installed Master saying a few words about the Company for the benefit of our guests, and reflecting on the previous hour. As someone who had spent his career enabling the production of the physical book, he said that the panellists had opened his eyes – and ears – to the audio format, and he was very taken with Hannah Russell’s characterisation of the audience as “the headphone generation”.

The Master spoke for all of us in thanking the three remarkable creative entrepreneurs on the panel for sharing their perspectives so generously.

To watch the video click the image.