I interviewed Paul McGee, who founded Bibliophone, a not-for-profit enterprise offering authors the opportunity to record their audio books and readers the chance to listen to those recordings – all free.
Leslie: What is the story of Bibliophone? How did it begin, grow and develop as a business?
Paul: I started Bibliophone because like most writers, I’d been plugging away for years in an arena where the odds of success are stacked against you. Of course, success is a relative concept, but if you define it in terms of making a career out of writing, then it’s going to be a struggle. Even if you get a publishing deal in this day and age that doesn’t mean your path as a literary talent has reached its destination. So in other words: it’s hard to be a paid writer of fiction. That’s why I love the indie market – it gives everyone a fighting chance. But I knew there was a way to add to that, and I also knew that audiobooks have taken off stratospherically over the last decade. If people can make money posting content on YouTube, why shouldn’t they by posting audiobooks?
At least, that was the idea in the beginning – and to think it all sounded so simple! A place where users could just search through a library of audiobooks and click on whichever one took their fancy. All for free. And contributors, likewise, can upload their content without having to pay a subscription or membership fee. Authors would make money in the same way that video content producers do on other platforms. And that’s still the design for Bibliophone. But of course the reality is advertisers are tripping over themselves to get their brand on a giant platform like YouTube, but for a new player on the field that’s not the case. And without advertisers, we can’t pay our contributors. So at the start we put that on hold – something to revisit once we’d grown our content and visitors.
But there was a way we could make a revenue, and that was by running charity competitions. From the outset I’d always maintained that Bibliophone would be a force for the good or it wouldn’t be anything at all. It has to run ethically and it has to put giving first. So it was appropriate that the first money we made was charity money. That’s something people can hold us to in future because it’s our foundation now, rather than just a nice idea that we might put in place whenever.
If Bibliophone only ever makes money for charity causes, I will consider it a success. That being said, in order to grow and keep pace with technology, we’ll need a revenue source that can go towards investing in the platform and its team.
An audio-story by Bibliophone founder, Paul McGee
Leslie: What have been the successes and challenges of Bibliophone?
Paul: The main challenges are around time. Because we are a small team (mostly family in fact) and because we’re all volunteers, we have to hold down paid jobs and slot Bibliophone in where we can. That’s not too much trouble in itself, but when we run a competition, the workload skyrockets and we tend not to get much sleep! If you look at Bibliophone it appears to be a very simple platform – and indeed that’s the idea – but the site consists of hundreds of pages and countless pieces of code and tools that make it work the way it does. And because we don’t generate a revenue for ourselves, it all has to be done by us. The success, I guess, is that despite all of that it does work. Usually!
Leslie: What is your role, and what have you learned from your work at Bibliophone?
Paul: I am the founder here, and I built the platform. I’ve learned to ask for help, because people are kind. Especially in the writing and creative community. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been bowled over by someone agreeing to do something to support us, who expects nothing in return. That includes authors and actors in the main, but also some technical support. And that’s important because I’m not by nature technically gifted. It’s funny but when I tell people about Bibliophone, they invariably take from it the notion that I’m into ICT, web design, technology and so on. But to me that’s like saying the founder of Waterstones is into bricks and cement because their books are sold in buildings. I’ve also learned that the most important thing for any organisation is to be transparent. We should be proud of our values and if the day comes that we’re uncomfortable publicising something, then we’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere.
Leslie: How have staff been trained at Bibliophone? Is it an agile organisation where everyone shares the same goals? How do staff support each other?
Paul: Training is on the job! Essentially we’ve all had to hit the ground running and we learn every time an obstacle manifests itself in front of us. So yes, we’re incredibly agile because that’s how we’ve been since day one. But one of the most important assets we possess is tenacity; I can’t tell you how many times something has cropped up that’s caused us to say: this is impossible, we can’t overcome it. But we always find a way round and I suppose in that way we support each other. Plus we’re good at coping with pressure. I mean, given the closeness of our working relationships, no one takes me seriously – honestly if there’s a shred of respect for the founder, they hide it really well.
Leslie: How is Bibliophone connected to refugees?
Paul: We’re connected – or aim to be – to anyone and anything ethical. Our first competition was in support of a charity called INARA, who provide medical assistance to children in war-torn countries. Our second competition was for the Scottish Refugee Council. We’re not based in Scotland, but the Council supports refugees from all over the world, so we all have a reason, in turn, to support them. Also our guest narrator for this competition was Katie Leung – she plays Cho in the Harry Potter films, among many other on-screen characters – and it’s a charity close to her heart. She was very keen to work with them, we were equally keen to, so it all fell into place. We haven’t looked at our next charity yet, but it could be one of many. It might not always be refugees – it might be for an environmental cause or some element of the natural world. I’d like to do something for everyone and everything, but it’s not possible of course. Still, if we can chip away and if other platforms can lend their weight, real change can be achieved.
Bibliophone 1000 Heard Words Competition winner
Leslie: What’s different about Bibliophone compared with the ‘bottom line’ expansionist kind of businesses that ignore ecological limits and greenwash their carbon footprints?
Paul: I think it comes down to simplicity you know? While Bibliophone can be incredibly complicated from an operational perspective, that shouldn’t affect our values. And it never needs to. I suppose as an organisation grows, they use that growth as an excuse to step away from their original aims. I suspect even the most damaging businesses in the world were, for the most part, founded by one person with one dream that was about doing some good. As the money rolled in and they expanded, sacrifices were made. And always, those sacrifices are ethics. And I ask myself, how will we avoid this? I’m convinced the answer, as I said before, is transparency. So our model for growth is as follows: let’s assume we get to the stage where we have paying advertisers and we’re generating a revenue. So every time one of our audio stories gets a play, that advertiser contributes. The plan is to split it four ways. A quarter goes to the platform to pay for staff, technology, marketing, and general investment in the operation. A quarter goes to the author of the story. A quarter goes to the narrator of the story. And a quarter goes to charity. We’ll come up with some punchy term for it like the rule of four or four’s company or whatever, and that will be featured on our homepage and will go to every contributor and client. We think the four-way split is a good balance. Because authors and narrators can earn a much higher proportion of the revenue than they would on other platforms, so it follows we’ll attract more of them. And the selected charity gets a good split too.
As for our ecological values: I want to make sure we tell the world what we’re doing right, and what we’re doing wrong. I think as a business, you shouldn’t be ashamed of the areas you need to improve on. Instead you should shout it from the rooftops because then instead of facing constant criticism, you’ll encourage solutions. And that’s what we all need. We don’t have a large carbon footprint, but what about in future? What happens if we need banks of storage, running day and night and consuming power? That’s something we’re going to have to deal with and ensure we don’t start contributing to climate change. And that in turn means we need the technology to measure our impact, as well as remove it. Of course the obvious answer is solar and wind power, but there will be unforeseen obstacles along the way, I’m quite certain of it. In my mind I see our headquarters as a building made from recycled plastic waste and bedecked with trees and climbing plants, powered entirely from renewable sources. That may or may not come to fruition, but wherever the journey takes us, we have to make sure we’re not doing harm, and we have to make sure we’re putting something good into the world. It isn’t enough to pour thousands of tonnes of carbon into the air, but run the odd charity competition or plant a few trees. You have to do zero damage and contribute positively. And the fact is, that has to come before profit.
Next week I interview Blandine Martin whose deeply-psychological artwork has been exhibited in several metropolitan galleries in the UK and France.
ABOUT LESLIE TATE’S BOOKS:
- Love’s Register tells the story of romantic love and climate change over four UK generations. Beginning with ‘climate children’ Joe, Mia and Cass and ending with Hereiti’s night sea journey across Oceania, the book’s voices take us through family conflicts in the 1920s, the pressures of the ‘free-love 60s’, open relationships in the feminist 80s/90s and a contemporary late-life love affair. Love’s Register is a family saga and a modern psychological novel that explores the way we live now.
- Heaven’s Rage is a memoir that explores addiction, cross-dressing, bullying and the hidden sides of families, discovering at their core the transformative power of words to rewire the brain and reconnect with life. “A Robin Red breast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage” – William Blake. You can read more about/buy Heaven’s Rage here.
- The Dream Speaks Back, written by Sue Hampton, Cy Henty and Leslie Tate, is a joint autobiography exploring imagination and the adult search for the inner child. The book looks at gender difference, growing up in unusual families and mental health issues. It’s also a very funny portrait of working in the arts, full of crazy characters, their ups and downs, and their stories. You can buy a signed copy of The Dream Speaks Back here.