Interview with Kelli Fairbrother, Co-Founder & CEO, xigxag
According to GrandView Research, the global audiobooks market size was valued at $2.67 billion in 2019 and is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate of 24.4% from 2020 to 2027. With an anticipated rise in e-reader sales and new brands such as Xiaomi entering the market, it should mean good times ahead for the authors of the fiction and non-fiction books consumed by millions of people. Not necessarily.
Much like artist revenue on music platforms such as Spotify, the creator can often end up with a very small percentage of royalties generated by listens. xigxag is a new audiobook platform that wants to provide a more ethical service to both users and authors.
I caught up with Co-Founder, Kelli Fairbrother, to hear more about xigxag’s plans to bring better to the industry and deliver some genuine innovations for audiobook fans.
Your journey to xigxag has been an interesting one. Tell us about how you went from serving in the army to running a tech startup?
Funny, it’s been so long, but the army is part of our story. I was not a great reader as a child. My love of books didn’t develop until I was in the army. We had so much downtime, and I was far from home. Reading was a revelation to me and it really expanded my horizons. It made me realise how little I knew. When I was stationed in Germany, I got into audiobooks on the recommendation of a friend. It was really the only form of English-language entertainment I could access in the days before global content platforms. After 3 years, I left Germany, left the Army and fell out of the habit of audiobooks.
In 2018, I came back to audiobooks as a means of reinvigorating my reading habit. I had worked for twenty years in consumer technology. I was just shocked at how little the experience had changed since the days of books on tape: it was available on my phone, but all the limitations of early audiobooks remained. I couldn’t see illustrations, find my place, see dialogue, lookup words, or take notes and share. Chapters were still called tracks and still indexed to minutes and seconds. And they were expensive – overpriced and yet incomplete relative to other formats. I felt forced to sign up to Audible's inflexible subscription to get a good price and I wanted an alternative to Amazon. So, I reached out to my co-founder Mark Chaplin. We’d worked together twice before and he’s among the best in the world at digital media tech. He said he was up for it, so we started xigxag in 2019 with the ambition of revolutionising and democratising audiobooks.
How is xigxag’s approach better for customers? Do you have a different subscription service or pricing structure on offer?
Our approach is better because listeners get more out of every audiobook. For the first time, audiobook listeners can see illustrations in an integrated way, search in the book, take notes, share quotes, refer to the text, lookup words, switch to reading or read along with our exclusive x-book® format.
Our pricing is also better. Users don’t have to sign up to an inflexible subscription model, or pay a lot of money up front to get the flexibility to listen when they want. Our prices start at £7.99. We reward customers for listening, with discounts after every five books, up to £3.99, resetting annually. More info can be found here
What is the demographic of your current users?
We’ve been delighted by the broad interest we see in xigxag. We attract both women and men across a remarkably broad range of ages. There are so many reasons why people love audiobooks. It helps busy people finish more books. It helps the visually impaired. It allows those who struggle with reading to enjoy more books. And listening to an author tell you their own story in their own voice is magical. We’re thrilled to be able to offer so many people an independent, local alternative to Audible.
Does the xigxag platform offer more than just an ethical alternative to competitors such as Audible? Are there any innovations that set you apart?
Our innovations do set us apart. We offer customers no interrupt navigation – we index the audio by chapter, paragraph and sentence, so when a user is skipping back, they won’t get dropped in the middle of a thought. This helps users find their way back more easily.
Our technology takes audiobooks and indexes them to the ebook, creating a first-ever integrated format which we call the x-book®. For the first time, audiobook listeners can see illustrations in an integrated way, search in the book, take notes, share quotes, refer to the text, lookup words, switch to reading or read along.
We have also built the most technologically advanced content platform in the publishing industry, based on the Netflix model. We apply automation to ensure quality and completeness, allowing us to publish c. 90% of titles without human intervention.
But we also pride ourselves on being more human than big tech competitors. It’s who we are, and we think that comes through in the way we engage with our customers, our publishers and our authors.
What do you feel is not working in the publishing industry?
Well, we certainly don’t think audiobook innovation was working, which is why we started xigxag. But we also don’t think the industry is being ambitious enough on sustainability. Big publishers are so dependent on the sale of unsustainable physical books, they will always struggle to invest in innovation that competes, even if it is dramatically more sustainable.
The industry seems satisfied that incremental changes, like FSC-certified paper and mass distribution by trains rather than trucks, is sufficiently ambitious. We see it differently: digital formats are the future of sustainable book consumption. And we intend to lead the way. Our titles on average have 0.21% of the carbon footprint of a paperback book.
We recently submitted our application for B Corp certification to allow us to start a conversation about the importance of digital innovation to sustainable book consumption, backed by the credibility of a globally recognised standard.
There’s some interesting stuff happening with music NFTs that has the potential to give artists more control over their content and generate more revenue. Could you envisage a similar trend in publishing?
I think NFTs are absolutely an opportunity in publishing. But innovation doesn’t come so quickly to the industry, so it might be some time before people understand it well enough to embrace it. And, given recent events (OpenSea hacked and $1.7m in NFTs stolen), it feels like the technology still has a way to develop before value can be securely preserved once acquired. But, we are definitely keeping an eye on the space.
It’s great to see some sustainability and environmental titles from authors such as Jane Fonda, Madeleine Olivia & Georgina Wilson-Powell on your platform. Are you seeing an increase in demand for sustainable content?
Last year, we were delighted to add to our list of xigxag publishers. Chelsea Green is a brilliant example of a focused indie publisher leading on sustainable living content, which helped us build out our catalogue of sustainable lifestyle titles. We’re also encouraged that major publishers already on xigxag are adding sustainability content to their lists. So, yes, this type of content continues to do well for us and we’re excited to play a small part in supporting the sustainability agenda by giving these authors a platform.
What does xigxag have in the pipeline for 2022?
We are always working to expand our catalogue, so we are excited to be adding more publishers, including at least one major, plus more self-published authors in the next few weeks. We have a design revamp ongoing to address early customer feedback and improve the app user experience. We plan to enable more social and community features, and improve the catalogue display for our growing base of international users. As always, there will be a combination of our own ambition for what we want to see in the app, whilst also listening carefully and responding to what our customers are asking for.
When you have time away from work, what sort of books do you like to read?
I confess I am quite a non-fiction junkie. For me, books have always been about learning and expanding my horizons. I love memoirs, business books, listening to experts impart their wisdom, or just for a bit of fun. I recently adventured into crime thrillers, which I thoroughly enjoyed, but I found totally addictive. And my new years’ resolution is to challenge myself to explore some new genres this year.
What book(s) have made an impact on you (work and business) and why?
Probably the most important audiobook for me was Hans Rosling’s Factfulness. Rosling is famous for using data and brilliant infographics to change people’s perspectives on the world. In 2018, I was sitting on the London underground listening to the audiobook on Audible. At one point, the narrator said “to see these [brilliant infographics], please download the accompanying pdf from a desktop website.” I just thought to myself – it’s 2018. How ridiculous that I can’t just see the illustrations in an integrated way. So, the seed of the idea for xigxag was planted in my head. It would take a few more months to germinate, but by July 2019, Mark and I had established xigxag with the aim of revolutionising and democratising audiobook.
How have your reading / listening habits changed since starting up xigxag?
In my last job, my boss would regularly ‘assign’ us books to read, expecting us to book time with him in two weeks to share our reflections. There were a lot of books I might not have read myself, but it got me back into audiobooks and reinvigorated my ‘reading’ habit. But, it was additional work, and quite stressful given I was already working long hours, trying to raise two small children, and no audiobooks allowed any note taking! Listening was therefore more transactional, sucking much of the joy out of listening for me.
Now, it’s the opposite. Listening is a pleasure. It’s aligned with how I want to spend my time. I feel less guilty about enjoying audiobooks at any time. And, since Covid and the lockdown, it creates an opportunity to escape. It’s a brilliant excuse to get outside and go for a walk, all with the goal of ‘testing out the app.’ And, the sharing capability in the xigxag app makes it easy to take notes and share the thoughts with others. I love that I can see and lookup words I don’t understand. I love that I can see the illustrations, just as the author intended. I explore a broader range of content, and learn about new, interesting authors. So it’s better in basically every way. 💜
The xigxag app is available on both Google and Apple stores.
For more information about xigxag click here