Every morning, Paroma Verma fills the heavy silence of lockdown with voices from audiobooks.
Last week it was Meryl Streep narrating Charlotte’s Web, today it is Pene Herman Smith reading out A Cosy Christmas in Cornwall — stirring up festive winter feels bang in the middle of the Delhi summer. On Monday it will probably be Benedict Cumberbatch reading Sherlock Holmes.
“I am used to having breakfast with my parents. But because of the pandemic we are stuck in different cities. Having these voices for company takes away the misery of starting the day in an empty house and eating by myself,” says the 36-year-old.
There are many like her.
Ever since the pandemic-induced lockdown came into effect last March, the concentrated listening of audiobooks that usually took place during morning and evening commutes began to spread across the day. People now listen to them while cooking, exercising or simply relaxing, says Shailesh Sawlani, country head, Audible India.
“Night time in particular remains popular, with people wanting to listen to a book before they turn in for the day,” he observes. (Audible’s subscription is priced at ₹199 where the member gets one credit to tune into a book.)
Rahul Dixit, sales director of Harper Collins India, says he finished listening to Like a Monk by Jay Shetty while washing vessels. “I didn’t realise I was doing chores,” he says. Harper Collins, a US-based publishing house got into audiobook territory around seven years back.
In 2018, the trend caught on in India, says Rahul adding that India has always been a promising market. “Look at our history, a panditji would preach and everybody would sit around and listen. So India was a natural market for audio,” he adds.
Even though print sales are way ahead, he says digital sales amount to 5% of the overall consumption. “In terms of audio, the global revenue of publishers has significantly gone up. In India, the revenue has doubled.”
Readers too have grown three times in number and India is not an exception. Harper Collins India, which publishes 250 print books in a year, has so far brought out 50 in audiobook format and, in the future, plans to make more new titles available simultaneously in audio, ebook and print format.
Yogesh Dashrath, country manager Storytel India, provides additional figures. (Headquartered in Sweden, this northern Europe-based entity launched in India in 2017). “Globally it is estimated that the audiobook market is approximately $4 billion in 2020. And it is expected to grow to $20 billion in the next 10 years,” he says.
Yogesh is bullish about the future. “At present, the trade book market (exclusive educational titles) in India is estimated to be anywhere from $500 million to $750 million. And if we imagine that even if 10% of the users also get used to audiobooks, we are looking for audio to add 10%-20% to the industry,” he explains.
The idea is to also delight the customer with the story format, says Rahul. The voice, style, intonation of the person reading out the book adds to the experience. Stories with diverse characters may also have as many people reading them out. There are big names such as Barack Obama who reads aloud his own memoir A Promised Land on Audible. A host of celebrities such as Anupam Kher, Konkona Sen Sharma, Prakash Raj, Rahul Bose, Soha Ali Khan, and Annu Aggarwal have also lent their voice to recording, using their skills to make the story come alive.
This novelty factor of having a well-known personality reading out bedtime stories, or a daily dose of inspiration, is a bonus for this segment.
“The hands-free nature adds to the appeal as one does not have to set aside time for it. You can discover a new story on the go,” adds Yogesh, who has noticed more people signing up for trials with them. “Storytel has seen a doubling of subscriptions,” he says.
With people stuck within the confines of four walls and with more time in hand, the last year has been about catching up on books that they missed out on over the years. “Listening to books has become a good way to relax and reduce anxiety,” says Yogesh.
Additionally, with screen time at an all-time high, screen fatigue has become common and people are proactively exploring audio content and turning to audiobooks, offers Shailesh. Plus, it is more inclusive as it makes it easier on those with dyslexia or reading difficulties to enjoy literature.
While Shailesh sees an increase in the Hindi-speaking audience lapping up their growing selection of Hindi content that features top authors such as Devdutt Patnaik, Amish Tripathi; chefs such as Sanjeev Kapur; and television personalities like Neelesh Mishra, Yogesh notices a sharp rise in consumption of regional content especially in Marathi, Tamil and Malayalam. “There is a sizeable number of young adults who consume regional content via OTT or television but still struggle when it comes to reading a book in a regional language. That’s where audiobooks come into the picture,” he says.
Spiralling demands for regional language content has led Storytel to come up with Select, a new subscription plan starting today (May 20). “Customers can access unlimited audiobooks and e-books in 11 regional languages including Hindi, Marathi, Urdu, Bengali, Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu, Assamese, Gujarati, Odia and Kannada at ₹149 per month,” he says.
In terms of what rules consumption across genres, Yogesh says, in English personal development, business and biographies rule the roost. In regional languages, classics and thrillers are most popular, while there is an increasing consumption of crime and romance across all languages.
To match the voracious listener’s appetite, platforms are constantly creating original content, across languages and categories. “These are written exclusively to be made into audio, unlike the books, which makes the narration much more interesting and gripping,” says Yogesh.
A recent and positive trend to this effect is the interest shown by authors in writing exclusive audio content. The progressive list includes Anita Nair, Shobha De, Ravinder Singh and Nikita Singh.
Ravinder Singh, sees a demand for audio and short content that is around 45 minutes to an hour. Keeping that in mind, over the last year, he worked on half a dozen stories for Stoytel that were released in the audio format first and then were adapted into ebooks. Around the same time, he too started listening to books, more of non fiction.
As an author, Ravinder wants readers to consume his books in every available form. “I can adapt,” he says, adding, “I think of myself as a content curator. It’s a good thing that more formats are coming up for my content.” He believes that in the audio format, the writer has the narrator’s voice to play with and convey to the reader.
“[In the future] I imagine there will be books with theatrical music and drama in the background,” says Ravinder adding, “The only negative from a reader’s perspective is I cannot mark a brilliant line [as one would in a physical book].”