Enthused by a 40 per cent increase in paid listening hours last year, the Amazon audio content subsidiary is collaborating with local partners to develop regional content that augments its English and Hindi catalogue
When Audible launched its Indian operations in November 2018, its content catalogue had 2 lakh titles. Doubling this in the past five years, last year, the online audiobook and podcast service's catalogue grew by 30 per cent, discounting the podcasts on RSS feeds.
"This is across audiobooks, original content and podcasts we create with our partners, which are exclusive to our platform," said Shailesh Sawlani, VP and country general manager of Audible India, excitedly in an exclusive interaction with Outlook Start-Up.
His excitement is palpable and understandable.
A December 2021 RedSeer Management Consulting report pegged India's monthly active users of podcasts at 95 million, registering 34 per cent year-on-year (y-o-y) growth. PwC's 'The Global Entertainment and Media Outlook 2020-2024' report more or less matched these figures—it believes that the monthly podcast listeners would grow by around 30.4 per cent over the next five years.
Low subscription rates on platforms like Audible, Spotify, Gaana, Kuku FM or Pocket FM would drive this growth. Moreover, the business models of these entities combine free offerings with paid subscriptions, which has helped introduce the concept of audio entertainment to a larger audience.
The report also estimates that revenues from the audiobooks and podcast segment in India would increase from $0.9 billion in 2020 to $1.7 billion in 2024. This is almost five times the global growth.
According to a report by Research and Markets, the global audiobook market is worth $5.36 billion and is expected to reach $35 billion by 2030. In 2021, 74,000 audiobooks were published, up 4 per cent from 2020 and 21 per cent from 2010.
Sawlani has witnessed this steady growth since his early days in Audible when the Amazon-backed producer and provider of audio storytelling launched in Indian operations with paid subscriptions starting at Rs 199. Back then, its Indian catalogue was derived majorly from its international marketplace, created 25 years ago, with predominantly English language offerings.
However, mindful of local customer preferences, the company quickly spun up a comprehensive Hindi language content library for its subscribers. It also introduced a free layer within a year, which is still active on its website and app. Incidentally, India, which remains one of the fastest-growing marketplaces for Audible globally, is the only country with a free offering.
The company's audio content genres are balanced on enrichment and entertainment. Sawlani stated that it saw a 40 per cent increase in paid listening hours last year.
Encouraged by this success of its paid offering, Audible has gained the confidence to go deeper to invest in collaborations in regional languages. This includes tying up with The Viral Fever for the Permanent Roommate web series, Dice Media for The Little Things and Balaji Telefilms for Darmiyaan.
In February, the company collaborated with Marvel Entertainment to bring its Wastelanders series in Hindi language podcasts, with actors Saif Ali Khan, Kareena Kapoor, Jaideep Ahlawat and Sharad Kelkar lending their voices to the characters. It has also partnered with Penguin Random House, Pan Macmillan, HarperCollins and Hachette, in addition to indigenous publishers like Srishti, Hind Yugm, Manjul, Rupa and Rajpal.
Recently, Audible entered into an agreement with digital storytelling start-up, Pratilipi, to adapt their titles to exclusively distribute their content across genres like romance, horror, thriller and mystery. These associations will help the audio streaming platform cash in on the popularity of existing media properties, making it easier for them to draw new users to the audio narration universe.
While the pandemic aided the discoverability of audiobooks and podcasts as a medium, producers like Audible are attempting to develop the ecosystem by bringing new creators into the mix and increasing content in local languages. Karen Wiggins, VP and Head of Content for Audible APAC, said, "Whilst local stories are really the focus of our Indian content strategy, we also have a fantastic selection of international titles that we can bring to Indian customers as well. That really complements that enrichment and entertainment pillar as well."
In addition to its English and Hindi offerings, it has been developing content in regional languages like Tamil and Bengali with creative partners. This will be the company's continual theme for the future.
Wiggins revealed that the company has an upcoming collaboration with authors Amish Tripathi and Chetan Bhagat. In the past, it has worked with leading talent, including actors Amitabh Bachchan, Tabu and Manoj Bajpayee in its Sandman original.
While collaboration with local talent is a vital part of the premium storytelling strategy, Audible also keeps its ears on the ground for ways to leverage technologies that make it an immersive experience. This includes incorporating binaural sound in its Marvel Wayfinders series and elements like soundscaping, Dolby technology and 3D sounds.
Apple recently launched a series of audiobooks where the narratives will be AI-based. This is likely to change the dynamics of the audiobook industry, given that human narrators are an expensive resource that increases the overall cost of audiobook production.
While side-stepping whether Audible will take a cue from Apple and introduce AI-based audio content, Sawlani did affirm that Audible continues to explore new technologies. "Many things are coming down the pike," he added, though he preferred not to get into the specifics.