Rajkummar, Radhika, Kalki: The book narrators

Apart from being brilliant actors, what do Rajkummar Rao, Radhika Apte, Kalki Koechlin and Leena Bhagat have in common? They are all book narrators as well—the three of them lent their voice to Mafia Queens of Mumbai, a short story collection by S. Hussain Zaidi and Jane Borges.

Audiobooks might sound relatively new in the market with Amazon’s audiobook provider, Audible, coming to India in November last year. However, audiobooks have been around for a while. The first to arrive in India were the Sweden-based audiobook firm Storytel in November 2017. Google introduced audiobooks in its Google Play Store in January 2018. With Audible’s introduction, however, the Indian audience seems to have woken up to audiobooks.

India has, in the recent past, seen a boom in audiobook sales. In times when the publishing industry is seeing a slump, but authors and writers are gaining celebrity status, what exactly has been driving the economics for audiobooks?

You can hear that answer. Yes, audiobooks are on the rise even though e-books and hard copies of books are showing a downward slide. There are numbers to support this claim as well. While the publishing industry trends have always looked West-ward to take cues, the listening trend in India is slightly different. It is partly due to the influx of these audiobook sellers, and partly due to our own cultural history of listening to stories.

And roping in known names makes the marketing of these books so much easier. While the ‘first-time’ tag can be exciting, having someone with experience never hurts. For example, Koechlin isn’t new to this. She has been the host to BBC Worldwide Services’ podcast, My Indian Life. Rao and Apte are versatile and critically acclaimed approved artistes whose acting chops have gotten them the required credential.

Says Yogesh Dashrath, country manager of Storytel India, “Having celebrities endorsing a category certainly sees an increase in awareness. More and more people want to experience and try what their favourite celebrity is talking about…similarly, great stories with an amazing voice is the key which drives people to the platform.”

Storytel India, which has audio content in four Indian languages — Hindi, Marathi, Urdu and Bengali — apart from English had recently roped in Marathi actress Leena Bhagat to narrate Maya Maha Thagni for its platform. Storytel, like Audible, has its own production unit to make audiobooks. The business model is simple enough — tie up with publications and publishing houses to produce, market and sell it on the platform.

While big publishing houses who, for their international titles, have audiobook production units — such as Penguin Audio (for Penguin Random House) and Harper Audio (for HarperCollins) — in India some publishing houses, like Rupa Publications have tied exclusively with Audible. About the trend of celebrities reading books, Kapeesh Mehra, Managing Director, Rupa Publications, explained that any strategy, if it works well, will have a hold on the market for a while. This explanation ties in with hypothesis that in India, because we have such a rich oral tradition, any story that is told by a powerful voice will be heard.

Rao, in his own words, says it has been a challenge to take up the mantle of narration. According to him, when he reads a book, he is living a character for the first time. “There is only my voice to ‘show’ the listener that character. I am reading entire stories, and there are many characters in those stories.  I have had to portray all of them through my voice and modulate it accordingly for different characters; it was fun and challenging.” Perhaps this voice is what attracts a listener to buy an audiobook rather than an e-book. Audible Inc. CEO Donald Katz, in an interview, had mentioned that India was a good market for audiobooks because of its growing economy and traffic snarls. It is true, too. During peak hours, wouldn’t we rather listen to a story than the incessant honking and screaming of vehicles?

Industry reports also support this massive shift in book buying sentiments. In 2017, total audiobook sales increased 22.7 percent, as reported by the Audio Publishers Association. Mehra and Dashrath, both, had similar opinion for this shift: the technology. Audiobooks no longer require CDs or any other physical copy — you can just stream them, download them through any of the numerous applications and websites available today.  And as mobile phones become an integral part of lives, and parents becoming concerned about the “screen time” for their children, audiobooks become more and more attractive. Storytel India has even utilised this on their app. They have a ‘Kids Mode’ on their app: all children’s book titles and none of the adult content for the children to browse through.

This correlates to the statistic that the audience for audiobooks is young: up to 54 percent of audiobook listeners are under the age of 45. Says Varun Hemanth, who produces audio dramas through his venture Diamond Brothers, “There are so many youngsters who cannot read in their native tongue but might want to listen to regional language stories. My kind of drama is much more than just book reading. I would like to dramatise these plots through sounds and voice for each of my listener.”

Audiobooks might work where podcasts failed in India because of discoverability. “While books, in any format, can be easily found on any of the online marketplaces, podcasts are more elusive. Even though there are a few apps in Android or iOS system that you can use to listen to podcasts, there is no one marketplace for all of them,” Hemanth explains.

Which is probably why not many know that Kalki Koechlin narrating stories in Mafia Queens was not her maiden ‘voice over’ venture. She has been hosting BBC Worldwide’s My Indian Life podcast since July 2018.

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