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Audible says ‘India has massively taken to the audiobook service’, Kindle ‘not a competition’

‘Audiobooks sitting next to eBooks and videos complement each other.’

Audible
Audible India story started only recently, in 2018. (Photo credit: Saurabh Singh/Financial Express)

In the mid-1990s, writer and journalist, Don Katz, had an idea to deliver audiobooks over a network. But it was easier said than done. There were no portable digital audio players, no Wi-Fi or broadband, or any website that sold digital goods. Just an idea—Audible.

In the coming years, Don and Co. would go on to build the first portable digital audio player (before the iPod), file format (AA), digital rights management system (the term DRM wasn’t even coined yet), and retail site to sell audiobooks legally. Listening to books when you couldn’t read them, started becoming commonplace. Microsoft wanted it on its devices. So did Apple. Amazon would go on to acquire it in 2008.

Fast forward to 2022, Audible serves millions of listeners globally and offers more than 200,000 downloadable audiobooks, podcasts, and originals, accessible across smartphones, tablets, PC, and even smart speakers. Its India story started only recently, in 2018. In an exclusive interview with Saurabh Singh, Audible India VP and Country GM Shailesh Sawlani takes us through the journey so far.

Excerpts.

— How do you differentiate yourself in India?

We’ve done a few things that are unique to the India marketplace, seeing the great opportunity that exists for digital media content here. We launched a free experience in the form of a separate app, called Audible Suno, in 2019. In 2021, we brought it into the core Audible app. Around the same time, we also enhanced the offering for our paying members. Earlier, we had a one credit per month system. But as of October 2021, we have 15,000 all-you-can-listen titles available for our members.

— What is Audible’s belief system and core philosophy? How does it align with Amazon?

We’re equally as customer obsessed as Amazon. That’s something common, but in addition to that, Audible also has its own unique people principles: to be able to build and innovate in this category. We’re very focused on local culture, local collaboration and content creation, which is why you’ll see us heavily investing into local language content and working with local authors, studio partners, and voice talent. We care deeply about the community. We participated heavily in COVID relief efforts in Q2 last year, and even integrated that with a product called Audible Stories, which was accessible for free and had hundreds of audiobooks for kids and family listening. This offered an education and escape opportunity.

Audible
Audible India VP and Country GM Shailesh Sawlani

— How has the response been so far?

Our customers in India have massively taken to Audible. We’ve seen tremendous response in terms of people coming out and trying the service, even from a paid service perspective, and you know how that is still an evolving landscape in India where people are increasingly becoming more comfortable with transacting online. Even in that sort of landscape and backdrop, India for a while was one of the fastest growing marketplaces for Audible globally. Then when we launched the free service (with an expansive slate where we partnered with authors like Devdutt Pattanaik and Neelesh Misra, and came out with series like Thriller Factory, where we worked with Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Tabu, and Anurag Kashyap) things just went out of the roof in terms of usage. We’ve been very pleased with what we’ve seen, which is why we’ve been continuing to invest both in the product and in the content.

— Tell us a bit about some of these investments.

When we talk about the free tier for instance—over 150 titles between originals and exclusive podcasts—these are things we have created in a short span of time that we’ve been operational in India. In addition, there are thousands of audiobooks that we’ve created, recorded in India, gone about licensing with authors and publishing houses. That output gives you a sense of the kind of investments we’re making. We also have product experiences that are customised for India. The free tier and Alexa experience (with over 100 free audiobooks available with the voice assistant) are exclusive to India.

— Do you see Kindle as a competition?

No. Rather, they complement each other. We firmly believe that audiobooks sitting next to eBooks and videos complement each other. Audiobooks tend to grow even while eBooks are growing as a category in every marketplace. Customers take to them in unique ways. The advantage that audiobooks and audio as a category has over video, and even reading, is that it can go with you wherever you go.

What is your success metric?

For us, what matters is whether listening is constantly growing between and across our free users and paid users. We’re then able to craft, design and enhance the offering based on those usage statistics. Self-development titles are probably the most popular category for us. People look for very nuanced, very researched points of view and audiobooks do that well. There are some opinion leaders and very popular personalities that focus on self-development topics, too, through podcasts. Through Audible, people have the benefit of having all these different formats in one service. We are keen on building this spoken word category and doing our bit to do it in any way in India.

— What are some of the challenges?

There’s still a lot more awareness and a lot more content that needs to be made available to cater to the wide range of people across different languages. That’s the journey that we’re on. As we put out more content that resonates with the broader audience, the awareness will also improve. We’re happy with how fast we’ve been growing, but of course, building a category takes time.

— Does Netflix’s fall in subscriber growth ring any alarm bells for services like Audible?

At the moment, we are not seeing that. There is still a lot of headroom to grow. Ultimately, we’re talking about a category that is in a very nascent stage. It’s not something that we have seen or felt yet, but of course I think as adoption grows, so will it flatline after a period of time. So, we’ll see when we get there.

— Are you looking at launching more plans, affordable or otherwise?

Having many different offerings also brings challenges in areas like UX, comprehension and so on. People, then, need to understand the differences between each of them. We see and learn from the various experiments and rollouts in all the different marketplaces that came before us. It’s a matter of keeping an eye out on the usage and what customers are looking for. We’re going to continue to innovate for sure.

— Your plans for 2022 and beyond?

We’ve just collaborated with Dice Media, TVF and Wattpad. You’ll see us focusing on more unique content formats, working with some of the most popular IPs in entertainment and brands, and probably bringing some of the most popular characters and franchises to audio in localised languages.

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