For a country that spends hours listening to music, India has yet to discover the potential of audiobooks. Frankly, there is no organised audiobook market in India, except some productions like Karadi Tales targeted at young audiences. In popular fiction or non-fiction categories, however, we don’t have any audiobook versions.
Globally, audiobooks are believed to be the fastest-growing segment in the industry. In 2015, the audiobook market was valued at USD 2.8 billion.
In the west, all major books, whether popular books like Harry Potter or Game of Thrones, or books by celebrity authors, come with an audiobook version, along with its printed and digital versions. There are three ways these books are produced. One, the author of the books reads the text. Two, a voice actor reads the text. Three, a full cast production, akin to a radio play, where the dialogues are recorded by different voice actors corresponding to the characters in the text, whereas a voice actor reads the narrative segments.
In the case of a celebrity authors, for example, Hilary Clinton’s What Happened, the text is read by the author. This invariably adds to the selling point.
Audio books come in two formats, Audio CD and Audiobook file, available in the sites like Audible, iTune and others, from where a buyer can download the file after making the purchase.
In India, however, we don’t have such availability of options. There are several reasons for this. One, audio CDs have become almost obsolete in India. As for songs, most Indian listeners depend on illegal downloads. Besides, there are the numerous radio stations. On the other hand, audiobook files are expensive. For example, the audiobook file for Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness read by the author is priced at 22.05 dollars in Audible.com. This is a lot of money in terms of rupee for an audio file.
On the bright side, the fact that the audio versions of Indian books exist is itself a tremendous achievement. With Amazon, the parent company of Audible, aggressively looking at the Indian publishing market (few years back, it acquired Westland), chances are that there will be more book in this format.
Even other publishers are trying their hands. One of them is Penguin Random House. We recently saw the audiobook version of the Rishi Kapoor autobiography Khullam Khulla, read by Shalmin Sheriff being released, among other books.
Talking to Live Mint in January 2018, Markus Dohle, global chief executive, Penguin Random House, said, “The good news is that people are listening to books while doing something else. And that goes across all demographics and all activities. So while there is growing competition from other media categories and electronic devices, audiobooks present a huge growth opportunity for us as publishers.”
Coming to independent players, we have Storytel India, which started in November 2017, with 60 titles. Talking to Scroll.in Yogesh Dashrath, country manager India, Storytel, said, “In the last two years, smartphones have become ubiquitous and the high-speed mobile internet has become affordable to a significant number of Indians. In addition, people are commuting more and consuming more entertainment content while doing so. We see all these developments as positive.”
On the positive side, audiobooks allow for multitasking — you can listen to an audiobook while doing almost any other activity, all you need is a smartphone and a pair of headphones. On the downside, the cost of owning an audiobook remains high to persuade the Indian audiences who are used to buying pirated books off the footpath and download songs free of cost.
As an independent publisher, I am a believer of print. I don’t event do eBooks. So my experience of listening to audiobooks has mostly been as a freeloader (discounting for the audio cassettes that appeared in 1990s, like Kaifi Azmi’s Kaifiyat and Javed Akhtar’s Tarkash; those I paid for).
I came to audiobooks via the internet, through the free download sites, before discovering dedicated sites like Librivox.org or Open Culture. It started with listening to poetry read by the author and then I focused on books that I could not find in India or books that were beyond my reach to purchase. There was some experimentation as well. I downloaded and listened to Spanish for Dummies for one whole month; not sure it helped.
Sure, it has its advantages, for example, you can listen to it on the go, and you don’t need to carry a book, but I am not a convert yet. I believe the retention level is far too low in audiobooks. When they announced a TV series on Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, I wanted to read the book first. But I didn’t have it, but soon found an audiobook. It’s read by Gaiman himself and he has a soothing voice. I got the gist of the narrative, but it did not give me the same pleasure as reading other Gaiman books. A few months later, I acquired the book and reading the physical book was a different experience altogether. The aesthetic pleasure of holding a book, looking at the lines, words, is something else.
Like all technology, audiobooks are no-fuss, efficient alternative. It gets the job done. It doesn’t concern itself with individual experiences. It’s for mass consumption, to disseminate information. So if you are listening to an audiobook for information, it’s a great invention, but I don’t think it’s a viable alternative to reading a physical book.
However, I have discovered that audiobooks are a great way to revisit your favourite works. I am a die-hard fan of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. So when his new Book of Dust came out last year, I found an excerpt of the audiobook in YouTube. The reading could hardly hold my interest. Then I searched for the His Dark Materials; they were there, and I listened to them, the whole 15 hours of it with renewed vigour. Because I knew the books; it was like visiting an old friend.
Today, I find my audiobooks in YouTube, which are mostly from Audible, therefore, the production quality, voices are pitch-perfect. For random books, LibriVox is the best. Here the files are in public domain, therefore free. But the quality is often a suspect, as the books are read by enthusiasts, not professionals. However, for beginners, this is a great place to explore.
PS. I wrote this while listening to George RR Martin’s The World of Ice & Fire, in YouTube, because I cannot afford to buy the book yet.
(Based in New Delhi Dibyajyoti Sarma runs an independent publishing venture called Red River)
(Parts of this first appeared in Sakal Times.)