Hear, hear! Digital devices turn virtual storytellers

July 04, 2021 1:30 AM

The emergence of innovative audio platforms and the digital shift necessitated by the pandemic have given a huge push to audiobooks, with readers and writers alike wholeheartedly embracing the medium. But what goes into the making of audiobooks and what makes them tick?

While a 70,000-word-long novel may take around a year to finish writing, an audio format, which is only 7,000 words, can be completed in a month’s time.While a 70,000-word-long novel may take around a year to finish writing, an audio format, which is only 7,000 words, can be completed in a month’s time.

By Reya Mehrotra

Once upon a time, grandma’s bedtime stories acted as instant sleep inducers. But today, in this hyper-virtual era where technology reigns supreme, grandma’s place has been taken by our digital devices, which turn into storytellers at the click of a button or the command of a voice. You just have to utter “Alexa, read to me” and the virtual assistant transforms into your grandmother, bringing to you a treasure trove of stories. The beauty? You can listen to them anywhere and while doing anything.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that audiobooks are becoming more and more popular, especially in the post-pandemic world, with even traditional book lovers making a beeline for them. Not just readers, authors, too, are taking to them like fish to water. While a 70,000-word-long novel may take around a year to finish writing, an audio format, which is only 7,000 words, can be completed in a month’s time.

“I don’t have to add any descriptors… the narrator and background sounds do the job. With eyes closed, you just have to listen to romance being played out, the tune of the guitar, the sound of birds chirping, a girl enveloped in a boy’s arm as they are about to kiss. But when I write about it, I not only have to describe the kiss scene, but shift to the background in the next paragraph, write about the sound of birds chirping, guitar playing in the background, and then again switch to the romantic scene between the boy and girl. It breaks the reader’s flow,” says author Ravinder Singh, describing the difference between writing for books and writing for audio. “In audiobooks, the reader doesn’t have to transition from the primary text to the background, they don’t have to keep their eyes open, but can dim the light, close their eyes, listen and leave everything else to their imagination,” he shares.

Singh’s first audiobook And We Met Again came out in 2019 on audiobook and e-book streaming service Storytel. He followed it up with Runaway Groom, his most recent audiobook for Storytel, which came out in 2020.

While a film adaptation of a book may or may not do justice to the work, in the audio medium, the essence remains intact—the power to imagine rests with the reader and is only enhanced. “Both books and audio versions cater to the imagination as one reads or listens, but when you watch a film, it steals your ability to imagine as it is played out for you,” Singh says.

For many, however, there’s nothing more addictive than owning books and displaying them on wooden shelves at home. This feeling superseded the digital invasion that first brought along e-books. But now, with the latest round of digital invasion post the pandemic, the trend of audiobooks has caught on, as one doesn’t need to sit in one place to read, but can listen to a book while doing other work.

Behind the scenes

Writing an audiobook is no different from writing a regular book apart from the fact that a few steps are added and a few eliminated. For instance, there’s no need for “he said”, “she fumed”, “he looked angry”. The need to express in words is replaced by the tone of the narrator’s voice and background sounds. Perhaps that’s why a number of writers are increasingly turning to audio as they can produce more content in a limited time span. These include authors such as Durjoy Datta and Anita Nair who recently started writing for audio.

Audiobook platforms, too, have an important role to play. Amazon’s audiobook and podcast service Audible assigns narrators, producers and directors that best suit a book/script once they receive it from the author/publisher. Each narrator prepares differently and is given the freedom to narrate the book in a way they best understand the character. The work goes through various stages of post-production to create a holistic listening experience for the user. The writer’s role, too, does not end after submitting the script, but extends to the production process, selection of voiceover artists, etc. At times, the author narrates himself/herself.

Often, audio platforms tie up with publishing houses to convert their books into audio. Over the last year, Audible has released numerous audiobooks that launched at the same time as the hard copies. These included Chetan Bhagat’s One Arranged Murder and Priyanka Chopra Jonas’ Unfinished.

Other popular books that have been adapted for the audio medium include Barack Obama’s A Promised Land, Trevor Noah’s Born A Crime: Stories From A South African Childhood, Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, etc.

Audiobooks are a big hit especially in the kids’ category, as young readers love to hear stories being narrated to them. Ruskin Bond released his chapter books for children in audio last year. Amar Chitra Katha, too, introduced audiobooks for children in 2020, while Juggernaut launched an audio storytelling show by actor Soha Ali Khan.

Wide appeal

Audiobooks date back to the 1930s when The American Foundation for the Blind created recordings of books. In recent times, however, the emergence of audio platforms like Storytel, Audible, Google Books, etc, has given a huge push to audiobooks. The digital shift necessitated by the pandemic has also made authors and readers turn to the medium. The biggest push came during the lockdown when many publishing houses went the digital way. Fantasy media franchise Wizarding World and JK Rowling announced Harry Potter At Home to help bring Harry Potter to children, parents and caregivers. Various celebrities took turns recording the first book’s 17 chapters on video with a chapter being released each week. The videos were available on Harrypotterathome.com, a part of Wizarding World. The audio was accessible exclusively on Spotify. Closer home, Roli Books introduced its digital arm Roli Pulse in April 2020.

Author Ravinder Singh says he, too, thought of leveraging the technology of audio to churn out content during the lockdown owing to high demand. “I have been working from home for seven years, but the lockdown helped me think out of the box and I realised the full potential of the audio platform as there was high demand,” he says.

Today, many audiobook platforms like Audible India have rolled out exclusive features like ‘written for audio’ content. “Audio opens up a unique avenue for authors by allowing them to explore a new format that brings their stories alive. It also allows them to reach a whole new audience, potentially even one that might not read in the language they write in, but are happy to listen to it. At Audible, we work with production houses, authors and leading English and regional language publishers to create ‘Written for Audio’ content that has wide appeal,” says Shailesh Sawlani, country head, Audible India.

In May, Swedish audio streaming and media services provider Spotify, too, announced its partnership with Storytel to bring the latter’s entire library of audiobooks on Spotify, offering users more than five lakh audiobooks across 25 markets.

New market

Though the potential of the medium is being realised, publishing houses in India still earn their major revenue from printed books. Interestingly, it’s the opposite in most other countries. Simon & Schuster India does not have any audio titles, but its counterparts in other countries do. While Penguin Random House has audio original titles and audio versions of books in other countries, in India, there are only audio versions of books that have been published.

For HarperCollins, a large chunk of the revenue abroad comes from audiobooks. But in India, there are only about 100 titles in the audio-cum-book category, available on platforms like Storytel, Audible, etc. As per the publishing house, India as a market is still new and that’s why they have a small number of audiobooks.

Storytel India’s country manager Yogesh Dashrath, however, believes that publishing houses will eventually venture into audiobooks. “This is a classic case of a battle between the incumbent and new technology. Publishing houses like Penguin or HarperCollins have big print businesses, while the audio section is small but growing fast. So they will eventually tap into the market and are already doing so. We have licences from HarperCollins and Juggernaut to distribute their books into audio,” he says, adding that in the last three years, a number of people have tried audio, especially during the lockdowns. “In Sweden last year, total consumption of audio was more than print. India is still at the beginning of that curve.”

Singh believes audiobooks will become bigger. “Audiobooks are just the tip of the iceberg. There is much more to be explored and it will only become bigger and better,” the author says.

lnterview: Durjoy Datta, author

‘Audiobooks make the writing process easier’

In author Durjoy Datta’s dystopian post-pandemic world, women reign supreme. The Last Girl to Fall in Love, Datta’s second title written exclusively for Audible, has been narrated by actors Rasika Dugal and Prateik Babbar. The author, who is known for his romance novels, has written a rare fantasy thriller. In an exclusive interview with Reya Mehrotra, Datta talks about the transition from the romance genre, writing for audio and his pandemic experience. Edited excerpts:

As a writer, how has the experience of the lockdown been for you?

I used to joke around that I have always been in quarantine, always staying at home for days on end. But then when everyone was home, things became a little unpleasant. Before the lockdown, it was much easier to write as I had a lot of free time. With everyone around, I had to find a schedule. Earlier, I used to be very unstructured, but now, I get up early and write, and get the rest of the day free.

Was it exhausting for you in any way?

I think it has been exhausting for everyone. But I personally got time to consume things. I was just sharing a few statistics from my Audible platform on my Instagram and I found that in 2020 and 2021, I read 68 books on Audible. I was surprised. But every morning when I go out for a walk, I listen to audiobooks. So for me, it has been about consuming content rather than creating. I relieved myself of that pressure of continuously creating.

How did you conceive the idea of The Last Girl to Fall in Love?

The first book The Last Boy to Fall in Love came out in 2008 and it was about a virus, which wipes out an entire population, leaving just one boy and one girl! Then the pandemic hit and, naturally, I wanted the sequel to be a cure. But then I thought, what if the cure was effective for only one gender and the rest would be confined at home… how will societal structure change? That is what excited me… that’s what forms the bedrock of this story.

You mostly write romances, but this is a dystopian fantasy thriller. Are you experimenting with new genres?

I have been trying to make a conscious shift for the past three years now. At 34, I can’t write college romances authentically any more. If I write about 18-year-olds falling in love, I don’t know what their lives are like in 2021. Secondly, I feel I have started repeating myself. I am now 20-21 books old, so I tend to go back to the same old tropes. I have grown up reading thrillers and fantasies, and I have been waiting to write that. Now, since I have a slightly better command over the language, I can experiment with genres.

Does a writer’s personal life and experiences impact his writings?

When I started writing, most of my books were derived from my personal life or things happening around me, but as I matured, I realised that’s not necessary. While personal experiences are important, you can move out of that and write about characters you don’t know.

How was your experience of writing an audiobook?

There’s always a gateway book that introduces you to something and for me it was James Clear’s Atomic Habits. Buying and finishing books on Audible then became a natural instinct. I think it makes my writing process easier as you can visualise the entire story because you have a hero in place. When I knew Prateik Babbar was going to narrate The Last Girl to Fall in Love, I already had his voice in my head. So there are a lot of things you can leave upto the actor. This book is brilliantly produced and you can visualise the entire story. For the longest time, I did not have the language to tell those things, but with audiobooks there is support from actors and other Foley effects. You don’t have to explain expressions because the narrator does that job. When writing for audio, I read it aloud to hear how it sounds. All my audiobooks are in first person as it makes the listening process personal.

So you can focus on the story more as you don’t have to explain the background…

Yes and on the characters too. I treat the central character as the narrator. That’s the best way of telling a story. It also hinders you because when there’s a narrator, they can tell the story from different perspectives, but when there’s a single narrator telling their own story, I think it becomes more pointed.

Any more audiobooks in progress?

I have written another one. It is being edited right now, but I am not sure if it will come out this year. I am going to keep writing for audio now.

What about your usual books and screenplays?

That will also happen simultaneously. My last one came out in January. I have not started writing another one. As for screenplays, I wrote a few shows before the lockdown. The sequel of Never Kiss Your Best Friend will be out later this year.

Whose works do you look upto?

I get obsessed with a writer, read all their books and then move on to the next writer, but some like Ruskin Bond, Roald Dahl, Jhumpa Lahiri, Stephen King, Salman Rushdie, Tom Clancy are my constant favourites.

Your wife Avantika Mohan has often been your muse. Do you plan to introduce your daughter as a character in one of your stories too?

I have used Avantika’s name in my works, but maybe not Rayna’s (his daughter). But there’s no way out of it because when I am writing about a kid and have to give a personality to the child, I will be inspired by how she thinks, but would stay away from making her the central character as she doesn’t have an opinion right now. When I write a character inspired by Avantika, I can ask for her opinion. With Rayna, I can’t do that.

Do you plan to write for kids?

I have tried, but realised you don’t write for children, but for parents as when I buy a book for my daughter, I don’t ask her if she likes it, I buy because I like the book. I wrote something for children a year ago, but it became irrelevant to me very quickly, so I don’t know how to tackle that market. I would love to write for children, so that Rayna can say that I grew up reading my father’s works. Otherwise when she reads my romances as a teen, it’s going to be very embarrassing!

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