In mid-April, a close friend told me that his grandmother, almost 85, was hooked to her audiobooks application. The friend said his father had already been using the application for a few months, and now both his father and his grandmother listened to the stories together which, as someone who works in the industry, gladdened me.

According to a recent BBC report, the COVID-19 lockdown has had a positive impact on OTT streaming services globally, with all platforms seeing sign ups in larger numbers than before. With limited options for leaving the house and families confined indoors, streaming services have inevitably afforded new experiences from within one’s home. And though there are a myriad number of options to choose from, it is difficult for any single service to have enough content to satisfy everyone. This, naturally, has given a fillip to all streaming services, including audiobooks.

Globally, the audiobook market is estimated at $ 4 billion in 2020, and is expected to grow to $ 20 billion by 2030. At present, the Indian trade book market (excluding educational titles) is estimated to be anywhere between $ 500 million and $ 1 billion. In the US, the revenue from audiobooks is almost 10 per cent of that of printed books. If the same trend continues in India, we could be looking at over a 10 per cent growth in revenue to the industry as it matures. Although it is difficult to predict how the audiobook industry will fare in India in the long run, I personally believe that it will contribute strongly to publishing in this country.

The history of audiobooks in India

Among the earliest instances of audiobooks in India were recordings played on popular Marathi radio channels. Books such as Bhalchandra Nemade’s path-breaking existentialist novel, Kosala, were aired on Marathi radio, as were some Hindi short stories on All India Radio. AS Murthy’s Kannada audio stories were popular for a while. But, overall, it is clear that adapting books into the audio format was not a common exercise. The National Association for Blind also has an extensive collection of books in the audio format, but these are outside the commercial domain.

The next real evolution in audiobooks was in the form of cassette tapes, again in Marathi, with Babasaheb Purandare’s short stories set in the Shivaji-era and the play Janata Raja. One of my earliest childhood memories was listening to both of them. The pioneer in this field, however, was Alurkar Music Studio, founded by Suresh Alurkar, who roped in well-known Marathi writers to record their stories and sold them as tapes. Some of them included VP Kale, PL Deshpande, and DM Mirasdar. These authors wrote humorous accounts of people and situations that translated very well to audio.

Fountain Music bought the rights to these books from Alurkar Music and continued the trend of audio stories for some time, until cassettes were replaced by CDs. Although older players migrated to CDs, the shift was slow and players lost momentum in the process. But the change in format brought a new player in the Indian audiobook landscape – Karadi Tales. The Chennai-based independent children’s publishing house popularised audio storytelling by using film stars for voiceovers, but they are no longer as active as they used to be.

In 2012, Reado audiobooks was launched with much fanfare in India with a catalogue of 2,000 books and strategic partnerships with Penguin, Hachette, and Audible, among others. Then there were some titles by DC Books in English and Kizhakku Padhippagam in Tamil. But the audiobooks industry failed to take off, afflicted with issues of technology and distribution. The industry moved quickly from CDs to DVDs, but the number of people with access to computers never matched those who had tape recorders.

We launched Storytel under more favourable conditions towards the end of 2017, when the mobile internet was being pushed aggressively by telecom companies at affordable prices, and streaming giants were making the country more receptive to the idea of subscriptions. By 2017, the number of users with access to smartphones was large enough for audiobooks to finally make their presence felt. More competitors entered the field and established the category, which has been constantly growing for the last two years.

Today, apps like Audible, KukuFm, and others have also been downloaded in sizeable numbers. Two major players, Storytel and Audible, both use a subscription model, albeit differently. On Storytel, subscribers pay a monthly fee for unlimited access to its library. On Audible, the user gets a credit system, where one credit is available per month that can be used to read any one title.

Both Storytel (through Audiobites by Storytel) and Amazon (through Audible Suno) have free or freemium options, most other homegrown services are offered totally free at this moment. Audiobites offers a small selection of the best of Storytel originals and classics in Hindi, Marathi, and English. A freemium service, it allows you to upgrade to unlimited listening options after an initial free trial.

There’s also confusion between podcasts and audiobooks. While there is an overlap when it comes to scripted podcasts, in general, they have their own, separate ecosystems. I would consider all unscripted episodic content as podcasts, while all scripted episodic content can be podcasts or audiobooks depending on how it is released – ie, at one go or in serialised form.

All content that is written first and then converted to audio is an audiobook. In the US, according to a recent report, over 32 per cent of adults listened to podcasts at least once a month. Even in our country, consumption of podcasts is growing steadily and it will be fascinating to see how the ecosystem develops here.

In India, the rise of audiobooks means different things for various stakeholders.

Listening: For readers

Those who love stories are able to consume more. Unlike print or e-books, audiobooks can be listened to while driving or during a morning walk and that increases the opportunity to consume more books. Our internal surveys of global subscribers report that 75 per cent of all subscribers have consumed more books after subscribing in all formats. This doesn’t necessarily mean that subscribers of a relatively new format like audiobooks are switching from print books to audio, but just that overall people are reading more than before.

In India, many of us tend to miss out on great literature owing to our schooling, since we are more comfortable with our mother tongue in the spoken version than in the written one. For instance, one may be able to speak fluently in Marathi, but may not read in the language, especially if one has studied at an English-medium school. The advent of audiobooks means that a larger audience can now enjoy stories irrespective of being able to read the language, allowing them access to books they may have heard of but not had the pleasure to read.

According to our internal surveys, those who listen to audiobooks in English are more drawn towards international bestsellers, especially in the personal development genre. The listeners of Hindi audiobooks prefer listening to mass market romance and crime novels; classics are preferred by listeners in other languages.

This could also have something to do with how English has been adopted in our country. I have observed that most of my family watch Netflix shows with subtitles on. It just shows that while most Indians are good readers, listening to English, especially in foreign accents doesn’t come very naturally to them. That’s one of the main reasons personal development books, in their simple and accessible style and language, appeal to audiobook listeners in India.

Writing: For authors

Writing for audiobooks is a specialised skill and not all writing translates well to audio. While listening to audiobooks, one is typically engaged in some physical activity like commuting. Also, given that it is a story being listened to, the number of characters in a scene becomes important. The more effective stories on audio have a limited set of characters, are conversation-driven, and have the ability to keep people hooked. Books replete with complex plot lines, long descriptive passages, numbers or charts do not typically work well on audio.

Authors now have the option to write directly for audio. Apps like Storytel produce original series in Hindi and Marathi. A full series for us is about 75,000 words or more, and can take anywhere between 6 and 12 months to finish. So the process is akin to writing a novel but in terms of timeline, closer to a TV series season. An original series is usually around 10 episodes per season. Though challenging, it creates a new medium for writers to experiment and find new readers.

The lockdown has seen greater acceptance of the medium among Indian writers, including celebrities and bestselling names, some of whom have started writing directly for audio. As in the west, many Indian celebrities have begun lending their voices to such books, and the last few months have seen the Konkana Sen Sharma, Prakash Raj and Anupam Kher, among others, narrate books.

Bringing titles out: For publishers

In India, it always helps to draw a distinction between English-language publishing and Indian-language publishing, as each is distinct enough to merit its own analysis. ELP in India is by far the most organised, with a strong distribution channel. For such publishers, audio has the potential to become an important additional source of revenue. Their audio market, however, is currently dominated by international titles and not local ones.

For local language publishers, where distribution has always been a challenge and print-runs are not as large as those of English, audiobooks could become an important source of revenue by offering a wide distribution platform as well as an opportunity to monetise the backlist. At Storytel, we have released as many as 88 Hindi audio books already in 2020, of which 74 were released after the nationwide lockdown was announced in March.

We will be publishing 1000 books across all Indian languages this year including our Storytel audio originals. During the lockdown, we managed to acquire rights to many notable books in Hindi, Malayalam, Bengali, Marathi and other Indian languages. It will be exciting to see how audiobooks will impact regional languages publishing in India, since publishers have multiple options, such as licensing audio rights or investing in audiobooks themselves.

For newer titles, audiobooks can now be released together with print books. Storytel has experimented with partners like HarperCollins India. In 2019, Storytel and HCI released The Story of a Long-Distance Marriage by Siddhesh Inamdar simultaneously in audio and print format. This resulted in more people listening to the audiobook on the Storytel app.

The impact on e-books and print books

In 2019, adult book sales in the US fell 2.7%, while audiobook sales grew by 23.2%. A similar trend has been observed in other countries too. However, in the longer run, audio and print will support each other. In my view, audiobooks have limited, if any, impact on print or e-book sales, and their growth is beneficial for the industry as a whole. In a country like India, with a relatively small number of people who buy books, the key challenge for all of us in publishing will be to get more people to read books irrespective of the format.

The recent lockdown allowed readers to explore the world of audiobooks, as is indicated by the growing number of new sign-ups on audiobook platforms. Writers were able to use this time to focus on their projects and explore different mediums to share their work.

The publishing industry, the most affected by the shuttered markets, were able to revisit their catalogues, see what works and what doesn’t, and find ways to incorporate audiobooks in their publishing programme. The hope is to figure out ways in which we can work together to make audio an integral part of the overall publishing industry.

All the views expressed in this article are personal. The writer is the country manager of Storytel, an audiobooks application.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.