publishing trends

‘India has a rich oral tradition’: Why a new player in Indian publishing is bullish on audiobooks

Yogesh Dashrath of Storytel India talks about the rationale and plans for their launch of audiobooks in the country.

As the Kindle completes ten years of operation and digital publishing initiatives like Juggernaut Books and Pratham’s StoryWeaver gather steam, the digital space in publishing is finally beginning to look promising. On November 27, Storytel India entered the market with audiobooks of existing titles as well as exclusive content created specially for its users. In the process, it has trumped the entry of the Amazon-owned Audible, the audiobook giants. Yogesh Dashrath, Country Manager India at Storytel spoke to Scroll.in about the impetus behind the launch of their audiobook platform. Excerpts from the interview:

Storytel has launched in eight countries so far. How has the reception been?
Storytel is currently operational in Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Netherlands, Poland, Russia and Spain, in addition to India. It is the most popular streaming service in a majority of these countries. We have over half a million paying subscribers. People love our service, with 97% reporting to be satisfied. In Sweden this year, the total proportion of audiobooks listened to is getting close to 65% of total physical books sold. So overall, the response to Storytel has been immensely positive.

There have been attempts in the past to launch audiobooks in India but they haven’t borne fruit. Even podcasts are not a popular medium in India. Ebooks and mobile books haven’t really set the publishing scene on fire and print books continue to reign supreme. What makes you think that Indians will take to audiobooks?
In the last two years, smartphones have become ubiquitous and the high-speed mobile internet has become affordable to a significant number of Indians. In addition, people are commuting more and consuming more entertainment content while doing so. We see all these developments as positive. Storytel allows people to listen to books while they commute, while they exercise in the morning or as they do household work. Also, we have a good catalogue of regional language content – there is a significant young population today that consumes regional content on TV and still finds it difficult to read books in a regional language.

The advantage of audiobooks is that, at end of the day, they are stories told well by powerful voices. India has a rich oral tradition and Indians love listening to stories. We grow up listening to our parents or grandparents tell us stories. In fact, people start telling stories to their kids when they are still in their mothers’ wombs. I am 100% sure that the medium will work in India. That said, we are aware that it will take time to grow in India. We are patient and our plans take into account the learning curve.

I expect audiobooks to complement print publishing. To reach out to the audience that print might not be able to service. This includes people who do not have time to read or cannot read the language but can understand the spoken word.

What’s the rationale behind starting in three languages – English, Hindi and Marathi?
English is the top trade book language in India. Hindi is the most widely understood one. Those two were easy to choose. Marathi because it was the second most read language for leisure as per the 2009 National Youth Readership survey. In addition, if we consider Mumbai and Delhi as the top two cities in India, by launching in these three languages, we cover most of the population. Also, we plan to continue to add other regional languages as we grow in India.

The application is launching with 60 English titles. Are these foreign titles and out of print classics or books by Indian writers writing in English?
These are Indian titles. We have titles from Karadi Tales, a name synonymous with audiobooks in India, as well as titles from Harper Collins. We will soon have titles from Penguin Random House as well. There are more partners whose books are being converted to audio as we speak. Additionally we will launch thousands of English titles from most global publishers in the first quarter of 2018.

How easy or difficult has it been to figure out logistics such as audio rights, voiceover artists and quality of recordings?
It has been a mixed bag. It really helps that we have very strong audio production facilities, which produce thousands of audiobooks every year across all countries. This knowledge and established process has helped us immensely in being able to push up production.

Audio rights have presented a different challenge altogether. The clarity of rights and acquisition has meant that we have needed to use many different models. Overall though, we have found rights holders enthusiastic about working with us. They understand the value of getting the books converted to audio and making the stories accessible to a whole new audience.

Voice is key in an audiobook. A good storyteller can take stories to whole new levels. I must say that our storytellers have done an incredible job. They make the stories really come alive.

Tell us about your Storytel Original Series.
Storytel Original is a series of ten episodes that have been specifically written with an audio experience in mind. It is unique content that is exclusive to Storytel. We have a team of publishers that actively works with writers to craft contemporary series of international standards, taking it from conception to publication.

What are the key features of the Storytel app? Is the app tailored to specific countries or regions?
The app is the same across all countries. The only thing that differs is the content. Books from different publishers come with specific rights in terms of which countries we can make them available in, which the app ensures. Also, the app allows for unlimited downloads and these books cannot be copied. Users have an easy “reading” experience with features such as bookmarking, speed reading (slowing down or speeding up the audio), etc.

You have singled out the classics Mrutyunjay in Marathi and Raag Darbari in Hindi. Who read these books?
For Raag Darbari, it’s [actor] Trilok Patel.

For Mrutyunjay, we have used different narrators for every character. The main character of Karna has been voiced by Sanket Mhatre, who has done a wonderful job. Theatre artist Sharad Ponkshe has voiced Duryodhan, while Amruta Subhash has voiced Kunti. Aniruddha Dadke has voiced Krishna, Yashashree has voiced Vrushali, and Saurabh Gogate has voiced Shon. The first part of Mrutyunjay is live and we will release the remaining eight parts in the coming weeks.

What is your promotional strategy for these books going to be?
Online marketing is what we specialise in. Promotions will be targeted towards those who are searching for the books or have liked them. We are also considering offline events right now.

Can authors/copyright holders expect to be compensated adequately for the audio versions of their books released by Storytel?
We believe that we are the most considerate partner for publishers and writers. In fact, some of our authors have chosen to write a series for us instead of writing for television. All of our authors want to work with us again, and some of them are already writing their third series with us. It’s the same with our narrators.

It has been reported that Amazon is launching Audible in India sometime next year. How do you plan to distinguish yourself from it?
I expect our significantly large and always expanding catalogue will have books that will keep our audiences engaged. Our original series will be one of our key differentiators as we are tailoring it for an audio experience, and creating series that cater to today’s listeners.

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