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Hearing stories: Audiobooks may become next big thing

By November 17, 2017No Comments

Source : The Asian Age

There is an interesting anecdote to the history of promoting audiobooks.


During my ritual morning walk in an increasingly polluted Delhi, I have been struck by the large number of headphones sported by my fellow walkers/joggers. Assuming that they are listening to music on their mobile phones or iPods, when not talking, I thought of the following: “I walk in the morning, with music in my ears, a song in my ears and a lilt in my gait”. Given my love for books and a passion for reading, could this possibly change to: “I walk in the morning, with words in my ears, a story in my heart, a picture in my mind and a spring in my step”!

What some of the walkers would now be doing is “listening” to books with an engrossing story, visualising the story as it unfolds and as a result, they would step sprightly. We are now talking of audiobooks, books that can be heard by readers turned into listeners. As in reading, the process of listening too creates visuals in the mind. It’s the visual experience that helps to sustain either reading or listening over long periods of time.

Visiting a niece who had twin boys recently in Mumbai, I was stuck by the “young” grandmother who immediately unwrapped the gift of a picture book with sound and started reading out loud. In the privacy of her home, she read with passion, verve and vigour. She also suited action to her words. The effect was startling. The twins listened completely transfixed, all thought of their evening nap forgotten!

I reflected on this on my return journey to the hotel. The art of storytelling has ancient origins in most societies. But the ability to hear and to listen without getting distracted, would depend primarily on the content of the story but also on the skill and ability of the narrator to hold the audience. Audiobooks, that is books or stories recorded in an audio format, seek to precisely do this.

But audiobooks have had a mixed reception in India and their promotion and marketing has left a lot to be desired. The reluctance in promotion has been partly due to the fact that the consumer listening experience is overwhelmingly for music . And as for books, reading is the preferred medium in either a print or the e-format. Now with books increasingly being treated as consumer products, with individual preferences being catered to, perhaps audiobooks too could have a niche market. What is needed is some heavy marketing and promotion muscle.

This has now happened with Amazon’s acquisition of Audible Books for $300 million. Although this acquisition happened a few years ago, Amazon spent its time in its promotion in the American market.

In the United States, it now sells digital audiobooks, radio and television programmes featuring books as well as audio versions of magazines and newspapers including the New York Times. In addition, Amazon has synced the Audible Books service to Kindle globally.  In the US, the Audible service is available free to users of Amazon Prime, while non-Prime users have to pay a subscription of $7 per month.

The price point for audio CDs of books at present is much higher than print or e-books. Therefore, there is little demand and thus almost no promotion. The high price inhibits demand and lack of demand inhibits lower pricing. A typical Catch-22 situation. Now, Amazon hopefully will change all this. For its India launch scheduled early next year, Amazon has prepared a special package of audible books, both current bestsellers and classics. In keeping with its policy of “testing the waters” beforehand, Amazon has offered its bouquet of audible books internally to its employees. Depending on the staff feedback, the promotion will be fine tuned for the Indian launch next year and subscription rates even lower than the US rate may be fixed.

There is an interesting anecdote to the history of promoting audiobooks. In the days when cassette players were the vogue in cars, the upmarket BMW decided it would provide an audiobook along with other noteworthy features to its buyers. The story selected was a Ruth Rendell mystery. It was gratifying to note that among all the luxury features of a BMW, a Ruth Rendell was an added attraction!

I recently experimented with an audiobook, The Pale Blue Dot, the classic by Carl Sagan. Along with the audio, I went even one better. While listening, I kept the print book open. It was an overwhelming experience.

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