Amazon launched Audible, its subscription-driven audiobook service, in India towards the end of 2018 — at a time when audio consumption had begun to record an upward curve. Audible had over half a million subscribers then and was one of the largest players in audiobooks. But a price-sensitive and language-rich market like India was always going to be a unique challenge.
In the 20 months that Audible has operated in India, several audio streaming services — both local and global — have mushroomed. Primarily a big-city phenomenon even today, smaller towns are slowly warming up to audiobooks, audio series, podcasts, talk shows, music, and entertainment across genres, formats, and languages.
Audiobooks, as a segment, may still be nascent compared to music-streaming but India is ‘listening’ to books more than ever before. Drawing users from small towns too, the trend is accentuated by the wide availability of local language content.
To appeal to hordes of such first-time listeners, who are still in the “exploration phase” for audio, Amazon launched Audible Suno, a free India-first app, in December 2019. For the tech giant, it was a rare departure from paid streaming services.
But the move may have borne fruit.
Audible Suno, an Android-only app, has racked up over five million downloads in just nine months, with much of its growth coming during the lockdown that triggered a rise in audio consumption across the board.
While Amazon is infamous for not sharing numbers, it is no secret that Audible Suno is Audible’s growth engine in India, where users are usually averse to paying for apps. Besides the cost advantage, Amazon has also managed to hook desi listeners with a heady cocktail of locally popular content featuring top celebrities, from film stars to comedians and authors.
The main Audible app, meanwhile, continues to expand its library of over 200,000 titles, and counts over 100 million downloads globally.
In an exclusive interview with YourStory, Shailesh Sawlani, Country Head, Audible India, talks about both the apps and their journey in India. He also sheds light on Audible’s India plans and partnerships, what kind of content flies on the platform, and how it added value to people’s lives in the lockdown.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
YourStory [YS]: How has Audible grown in India since its launch?
Shailesh Sawlani [SS]: When we launched our audiobooks service in India, we knew that there was a huge opportunity for category creation.
We kept our ears close to the ground to understand the pulse of the users, and insights from these observations guided us to build Audible Suno – a unique, India-first offering that was free, ad-free, and loaded with local content featuring celebrities, bestselling authors, and narrators from India.
Since the launch of both Audible.in and Audible Suno, our growth has been strong and rapid but we believe there is still a lot of ground to cover. The expanse and diversity of India and its love for stories makes it one of the fastest-growing markets for us, globally.
From offering global bestsellers to launching marquee content to co-creating customer focused initiatives like Audible Stories, which is free for all to address the need of the hour [lockdown] through our Audible Sleep (free for our members in India), to working with the best Indian talent for Audible Suno shows like Permanent Roommates, Thriller Factory (Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Anurag Kashyap and Tabu), etc., the journey has been exciting and fulfilling so far.
YS: How has the lockdown impacted streaming on Audible? Have downloads, time spent, etc., gone up? Have any preferences changed?
SS: Screen fatigue has led a lot of people to proactively explore audio content. Through these times, we saw how Audible could support people and we worked doubly hard to figure out initiatives and content that could add value.
This effort also witnessed a positive impact on the overall listenership; customers came back to tell us how they enjoyed audiobooks and audio shows during different times in their daily routine — whether they were doing household chores, cooking, exercising, or simply relaxing.
Demand has not dipped on any genre, but we customised a lot of our content towards health and wellness. Audible Sleep, for instance, is a collection of specially curated titles that offer bedtime stories, autonomous sensory meridian responses, and sound baths [that use repetitive notes at different frequencies] to help listeners stay calm and stress-free.
We also introduced Audible Stories, a web-based, log-in free library for the world’s bestselling children’s audiobooks. On Audible Suno, we launched shows across genres like Neelesh Misra’s Qisse Lockdown Ke, Suno Mahabharata by Devdutt Pattanaik, Din Ki Shuruaat by Om Swami, and Simple Recipes by Sanjeev Kapoor.
YS: How big is Audible India’s content library? Who are you partnering with to grow local content?
SS: On Audible.in, we have over 200,000 titles, including some of the best works of Indian authors made available in partnership with leading English and Hindi publishers. We’ve found that customers are continuing to embrace the diversity of genres we offer in both fiction and non-fiction content across categories and formats.
In February, we announced a partnership with publisher Rajpal & Sons for Hindi translations of titles such as The Alchemist and Adultery by Paulo Coelho. We also signed exclusive Hindi titles from Manjul Publications, a leader in the self-development space, with translations of books such as The Power of Your Subconscious Mind and Sapiens, both of which have been received well by consumers.
At Audible Suno, we offer thousands of hours of free audio content across different genres, from thriller and horror, comedy and romance to self-development and spirituality. For this, we are partnering with India’s leading production houses to offer high-quality content.
YS: With the surge in podcast and other audio content consumption in India, where you stand in terms of competition?
SS: We are committed to the spoken word format and our rich library of audio content across services is a testament to that. While the industry is still at a nascent stage, it is growing at a fast pace and we want to make sure that we play a crucial role in fuelling this growth.
At present, our focus is to drive more awareness about the format with as many unique audio experiences as possible. This has resulted in a healthy mix of different kinds of audio formats, including audiobooks, audio-series, talk-shows, meditative sounds, and techniques etc., on our platform.
While we are unable to share exact numbers, we can confidently say that Audible is one of the leading players in the spoken word category in India.
YS: What is the audience demographic of Audible India users? Is language content more popular on the platform?
SS: Our services appeal to a wide audience – book lovers, those who aspire to read more, and anyone who wants to learn more while being entertained. We have great content for kids, young adults, thrill seekers, and even for niche segments like budding cooks, entrepreneurs and expecting mothers.
From a language point of view, we are seeing a lot of demand for our Hindi content. Since we cater to both English and Hindi speakers, we are constantly working towards offering popular Hindi content in the spoken word format, as well as creating new Hindi content with top authors and translating some popular English titles.
YS: Is user conversion a challenge in India, given the availability of a free app in the Audible portfolio?
SS: Our intent with Suno was to get people to experience the power of the spoken word with minimum friction, which is why the service was launched with best-in-class content, made available for free and ad-free.
This is a global first for Audible. We are quite happy with the number of customers who are getting to experience our service on Suno and equally pleased with the number of customers trying and continuing on Audible.in.
YS: With increasing competition from local and global players, how do you plan to differentiate yourself in a cluttered market?
SS: Our strategy is simple — we listen to our customers and give them the content experiences they’re looking for.
Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, we are grateful that more people are turning to audio content to meet their daily entertainment, enrichment, and engagement needs.
Inspiring personalities, celebrities, and well-known authors are very popular with our listeners, so we will continue to create content that our listeners love and resonate with, and offer the Indian creative community new avenues to explore and experiment with their craft.
YS: Any pricing innovation ahead? Does Audible plan to introduce pocket-friendly plans to drive user growth like your peers have?
SS: Our subscription model is fairly straightforward: for a monthly fee of Rs 199, the user receives one credit for purchasing a title along with several ‘free for members’ benefits. For first-time users, we offer a 30-day free trial. This free trial allows users to experience the power of storytelling before deciding to become a member.
We also have one, six, and 12-month prepaid subscription options in addition to the monthly recurring subscription model. Offerings like Audible Stories (free for all) and Audible Sleep (free for Audible members) have been well-received by listeners globally. Apart from this, we have special offers on leading titles on a regular basis.
YS: What are the defining trends in India’s audio consumption? How unique is it compared to other markets where Audible operates?
SS: Indian consumers are still in the exploration phase in audio, and there is an appetite for all genres. At this stage of category creation, there’s a lot of opportunity for growth and learning. Storytelling is entrenched in the very fabric of our country, which gives us more creative avenues to explore unique formats and narratives.
Adding to this is the diverse creative community – there’s just so much talent and so many stories in every part of the country. An interesting trend we are witnessing is the demand for classics like Alif Laila (a story told over centuries but still enjoys a captive audience) and Suno Mahabharata (which captures key aspects of the epic is just six hours).
There's an appetite for both local and global content. A lot of global marquee titles witness the same kind of excitement in India, which is quite encouraging to see.
YS: In terms of monetisation, will we see ads on Audible Suno? How does a free app with so many hours of content make business sense?
SS: At present, we are not focused on monetising Audible Suno as our aim is to provide as much audio content to as many people as possible. The response we have received has been overwhelming, and it only encourages us to find new ways to create compelling content that is relevant to our growing Audible family in India.
Edited by Saheli Sen Gupta