Dr Katie Sparks is CEO of Cloudaloud, the children's audiobook subscription service. She has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UCL and has worked in fundraising, project and property management, academia, and the audio department at Pan Macmillan. She grew up in Texas.
For those who don't know, please could you explain what Cloudaloud is?
Cloudaloud is a streaming app for children’s audio, exclusively for children and for young adults. We designed it so that even very young children who don’t read could find audiobooks and listen to them independently. Our two buzz words are accessibility: making audiobooks more available and with intuitive icons that children could really understand; and discoverability: there are so many audiobooks out there which are languishing on existing platforms and we want to help those stories get to children.
Why is it so important for children to have access to audiobooks and do you think there’s a great difference between children reading books and listening to them?
Children need to have access to books, whether that’s physical books or audiobooks. It’s how children learn about the world and find their place in it; it’s essential for growth and development. I also think a crucial part, and one that’s often overlooked, is the element of escape. All children and people need that - especially in the last year and a half with the pandemic - and I think that is uniquely what stories can do. Non-fiction can also provide a sense of escape and it gives that window but it's informative, whereas a story is about escaping the daily, escaping problems - no matter how temporarily - and giving you an idea of how things can get better or get solved. That goes for kids who have difficulties or trouble at home or who just have active emotions and worry about things - maybe they worry about losing a parent or if their friends like them. To have stories to work through those issues is really helpful.
In terms of physical books vs audiobooks, I personally don’t enjoy reading ebooks and I like that when you open a physical book, you are opening this other world. For audio, it’s easy to be engulfed by the story because it is much more sensory. One of my favourite things that I heard a kid saying when we were doing the early market research was: “I like audiobooks because the pictures are better”. She enjoyed creating the visual landscape from the story in her mind and it really stimulates kids’ imaginations.
How do you select which books you produce and who reads them?
The vast majority of books we produce are from existing title lists from publishers. We have publishing partners like Nosy Crow, Pan Macmillan and Usborne who have their own lists so we take those assets and put them on our app. We also offer an additional service to smaller publishers and presses who don’t have enough resources to create their own list but have these wonderful books which really should be in audio.
I’ve had almost 10 years in audio, our founder Nic Jones has over 25 years running Strathmore studios and our content officer Marisa McGreevy-Rose has almost 20 years of working in audio with libraries primarily so we really know what will work and what won’t - especially with very young children's audio. We also know what kids will want to listen to and what can be beneficial to children, especially in non-fiction.
In terms of selecting readers, we have a big network through the studio and we go by voice. A lot of the time the author will have a particular reader or ethnicity of the reader in mind so that’s also a factor. If you look at voice agents’ websites, the way a person looks can be so different to their voice. We have a reader in his forties who has an incredibly youthful voice so we really go for energy and voice rather than age. It’s always the goal to match the right reader with the right book.
Which of your books do you find particularly beneficial for children?
We produce some books with Scallywag Press who have a really strong list about environmental issues, engaging with nature, learning challenges and children on the spectrum. We also have a lot of climate books with other publishers such as Old Barn Books who have a very strong climate change focus. With non-fiction, we’re looking for something really accessible. Non-fiction is tough to do in audio for children so you really have to make it engaging. We’re fortunate to have a great team doing the score and effects which gives us a chance to really bring the books to life. For non-fiction, it’s important to have topics that will catch children’s interest, such as books about dinosaurs, planet earth, weather, our values and different religions of the world. It can be a really helpful introduction for young children to hear about something interesting that they may not have this exposure to in any other way; and to use it as a resource for them so that they can find this information out themselves.
Are there any other genres you’re trying to break into or any new releases of audiobooks that you’ve got coming up?
At the moment we’re working really hard on non-fiction and history. Making history accessible for reluctant readers is so important and there’s this myth that only 8 year old boys are interested in history, which I know to be very untrue! We’re also investing in some really quality backlist titles. We work a lot with agents where audio rights have reverted from a publisher and they didn’t make the audio, but we think that these books are really relevant and should be on audio. We’re also starting something called Cloudaloud Classics where there will be a donation to the charity of the readers’ choice and we’ll get some celebrity readers for those books. These are the areas that we’re really investing in, especially for young children and those in early childhood. This comes largely from personal experience - my daughter is now five and a half and they used tablets at her nursery. The tech is there for them and I think rather than demonising the fact that children are using screens let’s try and make it productive.
What platforms can people find you on?
We’re currently on IOS in the app store but as of today we’ve kicked off our Android build, which is very exciting! The android build will be launched in January, so hopefully ready for all those kids with new devices. With that, we’ll also be building an education license to go into schools. There’s a huge space in the market to go into schools with audiobooks as a literacy tool, so we’re really looking forward to this launch.
How do you market yourselves and what do you find works best for you?
Now that we’re going to be on android, we’ll be marketing much more widely but we are a small team so we haven’t had many resources for marketing. It’s tough because we are a digital product rather than a physical product so we miss that gift market. But it’s really important to us that we’re accessible to every kid in terms of pricing, so we do make the most of social media marketing. Twitter tends to work best for us in terms of getting interest from the rest of the publishing community and from teachers. We get a lot more interaction with our audience and the clips we post on there than other platforms.
Finally, how do you think audio fits into the wider publishing industry and what opportunities are there?
Historically, what’s always been tricky with children’s audio is that it’s usually on tape and CD and if someone wants to play a CD they have to have a working CD player. Children’s audio hasn’t kept up with technology and a lot of people in publishing are waiting for a magic solution to appear to them but they actually need to go and find it. Audiobooks are available but you have to take a punt and try something new.
I think because parents have been listening to more podcasts and books, there’s an overall growth of listening culture which didn’t used to be there. Now that people are used to listening to shorter clips, it’s changed the way people engage with books. Parents are more fluent in their listening now so they think about it more for children.
From a publishing perspective, we are seeing increased investment in audio. One of the issues with audio is that it’s expensive to make but once made it reaches a different audience and it’s a great way to monetize your backlist. Audio is a great way of adding a digital asset and more people are listening because there is more content available.