A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
In the second of their audiobook publisher interviews, Vulpes Libris talk to Barnaby Edwards of new kid on the audio-block, Textbook Stuff.
VL: You’re an actor by trade – with many years of voice over work under your belt; so the first and most obvious question is therefore – why did you decide to move into audiobook publishing, effectively stepping from one side of the microphone to the other, particularly in such an uncertain financial climate?
BE: Well, thankfully it’s not quite such a monumental step. About ten years ago I moved into directing audio drama, and since then I’ve added writing, adapting, producing and casting to my audio credentials. With a decade’s worth of experience under my belt, I felt I was ready for the big commitment: playing with my own money! As for the financial climate, that’s actually worked in our favour. People are after a bargain in these straitened times, and in our field, bargains don’t come much better than two hours of top-quality unabridged audio, read by some of the finest readers in the business and enhanced with sound design and music – and all for under £10.
VL: Your choice of company title suggests that you’re aiming at a very specific market. – the educational one?
BE: That was the initial idea, certainly. All our authors are on the exam syllabuses for GCSE, GCE A-Level and degree-level English. With our Poetry range we’ve cross-referenced the three major UK exam boards – AQA, Edexcel and OCR – to make sure that every set-text poem is included in each collection. So whichever English course you’re studying, your revision is covered! Having said all that, the principal aim of Textbook Stuff is to bring literature to life, and all our titles are aimed just as squarely at the casual listener.
VL: I see that you’re offering downloads only – which seems to put you on a bit of a collision course with Audible/Amazon. Did you make the ‘downloads-only’ decision for reasons of cost, or because you think it’s the way the market is headed?
BE: It’s true that the cost of producing, storing and distributing CDs can double or even triple your production budget, but our reason for doing download-only titles wasn’t principally a financial one. We live in a digital age, and anyone who has a mobile phone or a computer has the necessary technology to download audio files. As of January 2010, one in eight audio purchases in the UK was a digital download and, according to the BBC, that figure is increasing by 50% a year. Whether we like it or not, CDs are in decline, especially in the world of the audiobook. Aside from saving you shelf space – you can carry the complete works of Dickens, Shakespeare and Trollope around on your mobile phone – digital audiobooks allow you to listen to an entire book without having to swap a CD or flip a cassette.
As for Audible and Amazon, we see them as partners, not rivals. Our titles are already available to buy on Amazon (as well as iTunes, Play.com and a dozen other outlets) and talks have begun with Audible. With all these companies, our sole requirement is that the sound quality be of the best. Most downloadable audiobooks are available at 64 or 128kbps (roughly equivalent to an FM radio transmission), whereas all Textbook Stuff titles are at 256 or 320kbps (as close to CD quality as is possible). After all, there’s no point in hiring the best sound designers and composers in the business and then muddying their work with cheap sound quality.
VL: I’ve been mooching around on your site and listening to some of the samples … and several things strike me, which we’ll take one at a time. The first is the impressive array of voice talent you’ve managed to round up – Miriam Margolyes, David Soul and even audiobook demi-god Martin Jarvis, to name only three. How did you manage that?
BE: Some of them I’d worked with before on other projects – Miriam Margolyes, John Sessions, Peter Guinness, Andrew Sachs and so on – and the rest I approached, armed with sound clips and copious demos. Happily, all the readers were enthused by the Textbook Stuff approach to enhancing an unabridged reading by adding music and sound design. In fact, David Soul phoned me up several times to tell me that this was the sort of audio he’d always wanted to do!
VL: Your choice of material interests me . There are only a few recordings available at the moment, obviously – but poetry is plainly going to feature prominently – and you have some impressive plans for future releases. How did you decide what to record first? Your own personal favourites? Or did you do some market research?
BE: A bit of both, really. A few years ago I wrote and directed an adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s original novel of ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ for BBC7. In the course of preparing the project, I did a lot of research into what other horror titles were already available both in the BBC archives and commercially – and I discovered some remarkable omissions. Textbook Stuff’s Horror range was born out of these researches. I think stories with a supernatural element really lend themselves to being enhanced with music and sound effects, and our sales figures seem to back this up. Unsurprisingly, we’re planning more titles in the New Year. Watch out for mummies and ghosts in 2011!
As for our Poetry range, that came about largely because I was dismayed to find that I couldn’t get audiobooks of some of my favourite poets’ works. Anthologies abounded, but no one seemed to be doing collections by individual poets. Also, I liked the idea of harnessing the technology created for iTunes and giving customers the freedom to buy an entire collection or just the individual poems they particularly took a fancy to, just as you can do with the tracks on a music album. As with the Horror range, more Poetry titles will be coming out in 2011. I’m delighted to report that Miriam Margolyes and Martin Jarvis are both coming back!
With regard to the choice of material, that’s mainly down to what’s not available elsewhere, what’s on the English syllabuses, and what I personally fancy hearing on audio. After all, it’s my company!
VL: Now then – to the thorny question of sound effects … First of all I have to say that the sounds you add to the recordings – music, echoes, birds, a door shutting, etc – are pretty low key, but I can hear the purists saying “Andrew Marvell doesn’t need any help …”. What would you say to them – and why did you take the decision to add them?
BE: Funnily enough, the sound effects are our biggest selling point. Not a single person, from schoolchildren to university professors (yes, we have several of them on our forums!), has expressed anything but praise for them. I think that’s because we’re using them carefully, sparingly, judiciously and always in the service of the material, rather than imposing them willy-nilly. For example, the First World War poet Edward Thomas wrote a dazzlingly brilliant poem called ‘Rain’ about a lone soldier trapped in a hut in No Man’s Land in the middle of a downpour. By the simple addition of the appropriate sound effects, the poem is transformed and the bleakness of the soldier’s predicament brought home to you in a way that an unadorned reading might perhaps not have done. But Thomas also wrote a poem called ‘Roads’ which explores the journey, both physical and spiritual, upon which the poet has embarked. Underscoring the poem with trudging feet would reduce the emblematic nature of these ‘roads’ to absolute bathos, so the poem is read without any sound effects. In the end, it all depends on the nature of each individual poem. The same applies to Andrew Marvell and the other releases: some poems have a careful sprinkling of effects, while others are left to speak for themselves, but always the integrity of the poem comes first.
VL: How do you decide who reads what? Or put it another way – which do you decide on first? The book or the reader? Did you, for instance, get Peter Guinness signed up and think to yourself “Now then, what would suit his voice/delivery?” or did you decide on Bram Stoker’s short stories and then look for the voice to fit?
BE: Always the book first. Once I know the material, I make a list of who I can best hear reading it and then go for the person at the top of the list. So far I’ve always got my number one choice!
VL: Do you direct the recordings yourself?
BE: I’ve directed all but two. Rosalind Ayres directed ‘Robert Browning – Selected Poems’ and Nicholas Pegg handled ‘Andrew Marvell – Selected Poems’. They’re both very experienced audiobook directors, so I was delighted to have them on board. And, of course, I was closely involved during the post-production phase.
VL: Is the audiobook road proving rockier than you expected, or smoother? And what sort of reaction – if any – have you had from the other audiobook publishers?
BE: It’s proving both rockier and smoother than I’d imagined! Financially it’s been quite an undertaking to get something like this up and running, but the customer response has been better than anything I’ve experienced before. As for other audiobook publishers, I’ve yet to hear from any. What Textbook Stuff is doing is extremely labour-intensive, and can’t readily be reproduced by the audio giants. We’re a nimble mouse and they’re the venerable elephants – and the world has room for us both, I hope.
VL: What’s been the biggest challenge (so far!) of setting up and running ‘Textbook Stuff’- and the biggest reward?
BE: Simply getting the company in place has been a real challenge, not to mention setting up TextbookStuff.com. I was never worried about producing the actual audiobooks – that I knew I could do – it’s everything else that’s proved to be a bit of a mountain to climb. Hearing from the customers is the greatest reward, though: their comments and reviews are the carrot which drives me on.
VL: It’s early days yet, I know – and I appreciate that you don’t want to go into detail about sales – but are the signs auspicious for Textbook Stuff? If – as I suspect we will – we decide to run another ‘Talking Book’ event this time next year – do you expect to still be around so we can check back with you to see how you’re doing?
BE: Oh, we’ll still be around. We’ve already got releases planned well into 2011.
VL: Good! We’ll be keeping an eye on you. And thank you for your time – I know you have a ridiculously full schedule at the moment.
You can read Rosy’s interview with Nicolas Soames of Naxos AudioBooks HERE.