Venture Stories

Books as an Experience: How Author Narration Drives Listener Engagement

09/19/2023

VOOX is a platform that offers a curated collection of bite-sized audio content for lifelong learning. Content is narrated by the author in order to accurately convey and express what they intend. This can sometimes be quite difficult to achieve when read by someone other than the author themselves. Founder Hong Guihua shares why she decided to create VOOX and the impact her company is looking to create.

In this blog:

  • “I like books but I’m unable to read them.”
  • Right plan, wrong content
  • Keeping authors authentic
  • Connecting authors, editors, and publishers
  • Bringing authors and readers together

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Hong Guihua launched VOOX in May 2020 and released the application in 2021.
 

“I like books but I’m unable to read them.”

I have always been interested in audio services for two main reasons:

  1. While I like books and think they are important, I found myself unable to read them. Especially difficult books; if it is a classic or a book with complex content, it is very difficult to read, let alone understand.
  2. When I was stationed in Indonesia back in 2016, I had to drive to work for two years. I had spent a lot of time driving and audio content was a crucial means of consuming information for me.
    I had always used different forms of audio content, including radio, and I had a strong interest in audio services such as audiobooks, news delivered by voice, audio lectures on economics at Peking University, and so on.
     

However, compared to the U.S. and China, Japan had hardly any audio content other than radio. The only thing that existed were podcasts for learning English. There were so few options! 
I thought that offering a variety of audio content in a different format would grow in Japan. When I had learned about Moon's open call for new business ideas, I started thinking about my idea and how I might commercialize it. I refined my idea, pitched it to Moon and upon acceptance was transferred to Moon where I had launched the VOOX website in the summer of 2020.

 

Right plan, wrong content

At first, there were only three people on the VOOX team and we didn't have any background knowledge on how to create content. But the important things we wanted to do back then are the same as what we want to do now: provide content that could be listened to within 10-minutes, organize the information so that it’s easy to navigate, and make learning easier and more accessible to everyone. 


Initially, we tried to create 100 10-minute segments of content focused on the theme of economics, something we thought everyone would like to learn more about. But it turned out that it wasn't interesting content for listeners. Our planning was right, but the content itself just wasn’t interesting enough. It proved impossible to listen to such long content all the way through.


I decided to look for an editor. Then I met Fumio Iwasa, the current editor-in-chief of VOOX, who has 30 years of experience in book editing and is also a former editor-in-chief of the Harvard Business Review.
Together, we reviewed the world view and editorial policy at VOOX and arrived at the current format, a series of six 10-minute episodes, which allows us to offer a variety of topics.

 

Keeping authors authentic

At first, we tried to make 100 episodes, but we soon learned that even if we divided the episodes into 10 series, the content would start to overlap in the middle of the series. For this reason, we decided to limit the number of episodes to six. 


We prepared a landing page and recruited about 120 users to test it out. On that page, we provided three recorded samples: 

  1. A narrator reads the trend summary articles published by VC.
  2. A narrator reads their own summary of the book BLITZSCALING.
  3. The book The Science of Entrepreneurship: Startup Science is explained by the author himself.

The recordings with commentary by the authors themselves achieved the best results, much more than the others. 


Option 3 was originally listed as "commentary by the author," whether the content was read by a third-party narrator or by the author. But after qualitative interviews with users about their impressions and the extent to which they remembered the audio content, we learned that the users who chose “commentary by the author themself" were the ones who reportedly retained the most information.


When creating audio content, our goal is to try and preserve the author's authenticity as much as possible. We prepare a simple bulleted list of questions for the author to address at the time of recording instead of providing a script for them to read. We don’t edit the recordings, although we sometimes re-record any mistakes. This method seems to work well for not only the user, but also the author. 


It really helps the authors to organize their thoughts. As a matter of fact, there is even a newly published book based on the content of a VOOX talk. The author, who had no intention of writing a book, realized that he could turn his audio content into a book after talking about it at VOOX. We connected the author with a publishing company, which eventually led to the publication of his book.


With an increase in such cases, we have come to realize that VOOX is beginning to produce new benefits not just for authors and listeners, but also for editors and publishers.

 

Connecting authors, editors, and publishers

Originally, the main objective of VOOX was to have authors read and comment on their own content in audio form. However, every time we spoke with the authors, they would digress and tell stories that went beyond the books in discussion. Then I tried asking authors to not only talk about the applicable book, but also about the entire topic or subject. By doing so, we developed brand-new audio content, which further developed into new publications.


One time, an author was writing a book and got a little stumped, so he decided to try and overcome his writer’s block by talking about it on VOOX. That author happened to be our editor-in-chief, but we used VOOX as a place to reinvigorate his inspiration and perspective.

 
Sometimes an author will use it in that way, and other times, they'll have a topic that they've been trying to write a book on, but have neglected it for a long time. So, they'll talk about it on VOOX as a way to refresh their ideas. 


When you think about it, there are a number of advantages for editors to work with VOOX – it’s a place to learn about authors who are not yet widely known. It’s a place to relieve authors of stumbling blocks and dead-ends and a place to stimulate planning and ideas. It’s a place to discover new authors. And, of course, a place to promote books.


In fact, more and more people are contacting us organically. When we find a good book and contact the publisher, the publisher, in turn, contacts us to ask what we think about the book. We are also hearing more from people who are interested in the books that have been published on VOOX. I am very happy to say that in our third year, we are gradually expanding our relationships not only with authors and editors, but with publishers as well.

I was happy to hear one of our editors say, "I wasn't sure where I could transfer my book editing skills, but now I know that I can use them in this kind of situation.” I was excited to hear that he thought VOOX could be a new way to apply his skills.

Bringing authors and readers together

Nowadays, the number of people who read books is decreasing rapidly. I don't want this to continue, so I hope VOOX can become a service that can create synergy with books.
We did not set out to replace books, but to introduce them. On top of that, we are trying to create a deeper connection between readers and authors.


We are currently reaching more people by making VOOX content available on Amazon’s Audible. On the other hand, we think that for fans and listeners of a particular author, even 60 minutes of content isn’t enough, so we are trying to create more ways to deepen the communication between authors and readers.


The "pre-publication book club" was one of the ideas we came up with to address that issue. Learn more in the video below (in Japanese).

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, we had never been able to hold an offline event before. But when we held our first in-person event to meet authors, it was more exciting than we had ever imagined. I remember that the authors were very lively because readers came to the events. We plan to do more of these events in the future.


Since audio content is a niche market, we are always thinking about ways to make it more widely known. With a Japanese magazine, if 50,000 people know about your business, you can say that everyone knows about it to some extent. Or if the book is on the shelves of a bookstore, you can feel a sense of response. We are still creating content one by one, thinking about how we can create a similar outcome with VOOX.

 

*This article was originally written in Japanese and has been translated and edited for clarity.


VOOX launched its website in 2020, followed by its app (iOS, Android) in 2021. A book’s worth of knowledge is narrated directly from leading experts from various fields, including Taizo Son, Dai Tamesue, Ken Kusunoki, Shu Yamaguchi, and others. New series are available for free for two weeks after its release.


In June 2023, VOOX began providing content to Audible, the world's largest audiobook and audio content production and distribution service. On June 27, an event was held to celebrate the publication of Surrender Theory with former professional baseball player and current business coach, Yuhki Takamori. In July, VOOX also held a pre-publication reading of Maturity Theory with Dai Tamesue.


Follow VOOX on X (formerly Twitter) for the latest news and useful knowledge from each series.
 

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