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Spiracle is turning niche literary fiction into audiobooks

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Kate Bland shot for the Financial Times by Alastair Levy

Kate Bland has described Spiracle as a “bookshop” so many times that people sometimes get confused and think she’s talking about a real place. In fact, the company operates from a basement office in north London and its product is digital: an audiobook subscription platform with an emphasis on indie titles.

Spiracle, which launched as a web app earlier this year, wants to act like an old-fashioned bookseller for audiobooks, the sort you might trust to sell you something unheard of and unusual. “There is an audience who want really good quality selected material,” Bland says when we sit down to talk in the recording studio, coffees perched carefully among the microphones. (Spiracle does not create the audiobooks itself but subcontracts production.) For £12 a month (or £120 a year), users can choose two audiobooks from a list of six to 12 titles. The selection refreshes every month and is bolstered by podcasts, newsletters and author interviews introducing the books and the themes that bind them. Other titles are available to buy as one-off purchases but the selection is slim: a catalogue of 500 rather than the infinite scroll of Audible, Amazon’s market-leading audiobook platform.

The cover for Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett

What became Spiracle began as a 2019 collaboration between Bland and co-founder Leigh Wilson, a University of Westminster literature professor interested in contemporary small-press publishing. Bland, who runs the audio production company Cast Iron Radio, joined with Wilson to raise funds to subsidise the production of audiobooks too niche to be courted by the big players. Working with Fitzcarraldo Editions they recorded Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond and Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. “I think publishers were beginning to think, ‘Well, we’re crazy if we’re not making audiobooks,’” says Bland. Industry growth has been immense. In the UK, audiobook income rose 71 per cent between 2019 and 2021 compared to 6 per cent for consumer print (albeit it’s still one-tenth the level of print). Spotify is rolling out a competitor to Audible; it launched in the US in September with a library of 300,000 titles.

But Bland and Wilson soon realised that getting audiobooks made was only half the challenge. Literary fiction was not well suited to algorithm-governed platforms where genre fiction dominated and audiobooks were often left unfinished or half-remembered, treated less as books than as podcasts that wouldn’t run out on a long car journey. “With digital stuff, if you don’t want it you can have a bit of it and decide not to and move on,” says Bland. “That might be the consequence of having a sort of deluge.” 

The two decided to build an audiobook subscription service that would do better by readers and small publishers. Neither had a “hardcore” digital background, Bland says, so they found a third co-founder with tech expertise, Jon Wilkinson, who led development of an audio player nicknamed “the machine”. This was helped by £70,000 in funding from Arts Council England but the founders have also paid in considerably; Bland estimates that software and design development alone has cost £200,000 to date. They are now seeking private investment for the first time. “We have to grow pretty quick,” says Bland. She points out that the less-but-better model has worked for film companies competing with the digital content giants.

She doesn’t feel daunted by the entrepreneurial turn her life has taken. “It feels to me as if everything is breaking open and the corporate style of doing things has left people quite miserable,” she says. Anecdotally, she says many friends in their fifties are turning away from “soldierlike” salaried jobs in the pursuit of something a bit more interesting, even if it means they live on less. “I have a bit more courage because we have to do something to stop everything feeling the same and being run by the four horsemen of the internet.”

Bland agrees with many principles of what makes a good audiobook: strong voice, gripping narrative. One of the first books Spiracle promoted heavily was Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project — a murderous thriller, yes, but one that was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

The cover for The Mariner by Talen Alrefai

Central to Spiracle is the thought that challenging books work well in audio too. Every month the team co-publishes an audiobook with an independent publisher that would otherwise struggle to do so and promotes it heavily. In November it was poet Joseph Fasano’s debut novel The Dark Heart of Every Wild Thing, a parable about a man’s pursuit of a mountain lion from Platypus Press. This month it’s The Mariner from Banipal Books, a translation of Taleb Alrefai’s Kuwaiti history novel. These are chewy books designed for long walks rather than distracted commutes. “With Spiracle, the effect is to say, ‘Persevere, because this has got something,’” says Bland.

For small presses, having a company that’s willing to pull niche titles from their back catalogue and turn them into audiobooks makes a daunting process seem easy. “There are barriers to entry,” says Sam Jordison, who co-founded publishing house Galley Beggar Press and has published two audiobooks with Spiracle: Alex Pheby’s Playthings and James Clammer’s Insignificance. The rough cost of producing an hour of finished audio is £250 and that doesn’t include paying the narrator. Given many literary novels sell hundreds, rather than thousands, of print copies, it’s not feasible for publishers to go DIY, and big production outfits aren’t interested.

While publishers are grateful for Spiracle, it won’t be right for every book. It is what Jordinson describes, without malice, as a “walled garden”. Publishers convinced they are sitting on a surprise bestseller are unlikely to want to cordon it off to a subscriber base that still numbers in the hundreds.

Tamara Sampey-Jawad, associate publisher of Fitzcarraldo Editions, says the best future for independent publishers is a diverse marketplace. They have worked with Audible and Spiracle and several others: the distributor Zebralution, the app Xigxag and the direct to consumer sales platform Glassboxx. “If you’ve only got one thing, then that’s never really good for the literary landscape,” she says. “Hopefully all these new platforms that are coming up are going to mean that we’ll see more variety in the types of audiobooks being produced.”

For Spiracle, the challenge now is to convince enough readers (or listeners, no one is quite sure what to call them) that its founders’ taste is worth investing in. People who love books mostly love books — their smell, the crack of the spine, the understated but sophisticated covers that indie presses seem to excel in. Not much of this culture translates to audio. Instead, Spiracle will have to rely on the strength of the stories and “marketing, marketing, marketing”, says Bland. After all, she points out, despite all the bookshop analogies, “nobody is going to walk past you and think, ‘What a nice shop window!’”

spiracleaudiobooks.com

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