Audio books: Reinventing the art of story-telling in the time of lockdown

Topics Coronavirus | e-book | Lockdown

Audiobooks are a part of pre-bed relaxation routine for some while others use it as a private, screen-free wind-down ritual at the end of the day. Picture Courtesy: Audible
Most of us would recall having listened to tales narrated by our grandmothers, with their expressions and tone of voice bringing alive the characters in the story. Fast-forward to the present times. You're stuck at home due to the lockdown and have to find new ways to keep yourself entertained and raise your spirits as you go about mopping the floor and doing the dishes and laundry. You love reading but simply don't have the bandwidth to pick up a book or pursue any other pasttime. And you're up to the neck with depresssingly repetitive news.

That's where the audio book comes handy. Unlike e-books such as Kindle, these are the kind that simply require you to put on a set of headphones, ear plugs or a high-quality speaker, and soak in on stories and other content delivered on Alexa or Echo, even as you multi-task.

"The primary audience for audiobooks consists of people who want to read more but aren't able to devote the time to it," says Arcopol Chaudhuri, Rights & Backlist Manager, HarperCollins. There is a huge section of people who read English, but are all at sea when it comes to their mother tongue.

 Chaudhuri says such people can now listen to audiobooks in multiple languages, as a whole new world of literature opens up for them. What makes audio effective over e-books is the act of 'passive listening' while travelling, walking or working out at the gym, cooking, or during other chores.

Author Reham Khan feels audio books are a Godsend because people simply skim read and often do not understand the expressions the writer wants to convey. Says Khan, “I come from a family surrounded by books. We are all, including my children, ardent readers of traditional hard copy books. But to keep up with today’s lifestyles, I love the idea of audio books because one can listen when driving or ironing. I read a lot on smart devices too, only because it’s convenient to carry a small phone around. However, to give the eyes some rest, audio books are preferred.”

The only tool that an audio book has apart from words, is voice to create the desired impact. Which is why audio book brands invest a lot in getting the best voiceover artists who can weave the imagery with voice modulation, expression and intonation. The likes of Boman Irani, Konkana Sen Sharma, Neelesh Misra are much sought after. 

"It is imperative that the pitch of the voiceover is in sync with the genre, says Kahanikaar Sudhanshu Rai, who has recorded some audio books. “For instance, in a thriller audiobook, the pitch and baritone need to be deep while in the case of a motivational audiobook, some softness is required. Tonality and voice modulation help in defining and describing characters in a story, and what works for a humorous character cannot work for one full of attitude.”

What's available in the market

India’s audiobook market is dominated by brands such as Amazon’s Audible, Google’s Audiobooks and StoryTel. Typically the books can cost anything between Rs 99 and 599, though they may even go higher in some cases, depending upon the publisher and the reader. Many are free of cost and then there are affordable monthly and annual plans and subscriptions.

Which are the bestsellers in India? At Audible, the current lot includes J K Rowling’s Ke, are quite popular with listeners. 

Creators such as Neelesh Misra, Rasika Dugal, Sorabh Pant and Om Swami have come together to create various shows to keep people active and engaged as they go about doing household chores and other tasks during these difficult circumstances. Audiobooks are also being viewed as a medium for enhancing learning, maintaining morale and motivation, during lockdown.

At StoryTel, the most read titles are Ikigai. Says Yogesh Dashrath, Country Manager, India StoryTel, “While the English listening audiences lean more towards themes of personal development, biographies and business, the most trending genre among Hindi listeners is fiction, romance and biographies.” 

Since StoryTel also creates stories under their Original series, in Hindi there is a great consumption of their original content - the most popular ones currently being Mardel (Storytel Original) being preferred.

When are audio books most used? 

Commuting is one of the most popular moments when customers around the world listen to audiobooks. However, with several office-goers now working from home, there are other moments in the day when they get to listen nowadays. Says Shailesh Sawlani, Country Head, Audible India: “Rather than concentrated listening during morning or evening commutes, more customers are listening to Audible nowadays for short mental health breaks during the workday or while exercising or walks, or even as a pre-bed relaxation routine or private, screen-free wind-down ritual at the end of the day.” 
They are getting an incredible response to Audible Stories, the new service that churns out titles in eight languages for children, free of charge. Says Sawlani: “We hope that Audible Stories will offer children and everyone else some respite during these unsettling times. For as long as schools are closed, we’re open.” Some of the titles available include Anne of Green Gables, narrated by Rachel McAdams.

The best way to listen 

The listener can decide the most effective way of listening -- it could be an immersive personal experience by plugging in earphones or a shared one through external speakers. Listeners can access the book library using any Alexa-enabled speakers or home audio systems. Sawlani says that the biggest gift audiobooks offer listeners is the “found time”, particularly when they can’t or don’t want to use their eyes to read. The experience of listening to a book is very different from reading one, and each genre, narrator and author lends something unique to the overall experience. India has a long-standing tradition of storytelling, and audiobooks and audio shows are a natural fit, he adds.

Audiobook consumption has risen in the lockdown period driven by non-delivery of hard copies by e-commerce portals, shutdown of retail bookstores and supply chain disruption. Says Prashanth Rao, Partner, Deloitte India: “Recently, some publishers released digital-first editions, with physical copies to become available post-lockdown. Major players in the audiobooks sector have launched audiobooks with targeted content and free usage offers focused towards the lockdown period. This is driven by the intention to acquire and expose the masses to audiobooks during this time when majority of the population is isolated.”

In India, HarperCollins India has so far released audiobooks under the licensing model with Storytel and Audible. Says Arcopol: "India is also one of the few markets in the world where books sales have shown consistent growth, year-on-year. Self-development, business and finance, career-growth, spiritual and wellness -- these are some genres that rule the chart in the physical and e-book space. Incidentally, they also have the highest listenership on audiobook apps. I feel audiobooks have immense potential in India.”

Some voracious readers of traditional hard copy find it difficult to transition to listening. Says Praveen Nagda, MD & CEO, Peregrine Public Relations: “It's a lot about our habits of last few decades and our minds are pretty tuned into reading the traditional books the way they are. Visual absorption of content and retention from traditional books is usually stronger when compared to long audio sequence, where the mind can drift away easily. Instead in the traditional books (even on Kindle) the focus remains much stronger. Referencing and back referencing is usually much better in traditional books.” 

However, on the upside he believes that audio books have the potential to inculcate listening and eventually reading habits among the younger audience who rely so much more on  technology.


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