Anirban Roy Choudhury

"After multiple trials, one becomes a loyal subscriber to audiobooks": Storytel's Yogesh Dashrath

The country manager India at Storytel, which competes with the likes of Amazon's Audible, Scribd, etc., talks about the growth of his platform and the industry.

Landmark and Crossword bookstores across India have remained shut for the most part of 2020 and 2021. Declared "non-essential" by the government, the country's book publishing industry saw players finding different ways of selling.

In an interview with the Press Trust of India (PTI), Ananth Padmanabhan, CEO, HarperCollins Publishers India, said that 2020 was an unprecedented year, with zero sales for over three months.

"This did teach us all many valuable lessons about the way we conduct our business. But even more importantly, about the way readers will buy books in the future - formats, retail, genres and how often too," Padmanabhan was quoted as saying last year. "We continued our publishing programme - beginning with digital-first, e-books through April and May. By late June, our new books in print had also started to go out - depending on how unlock rules impacted retail."

The second COVID wave hit the country earlier this year. Yet another Tsunami hit the publishing industry. About 70 per cent of the book publishing space is led by educational books, and the remaining 30 per cent is sold mostly in top metro cities, which witnessed partial, or full lockdown. The disruption saw an uptake in the consumption of audiobooks.

According to various surveys, Indians, who were stuck indoors, started spending around "17 hours" a week interacting with books. "Leaps and bounds," is how Yogesh Dashrath, country manager India at Storytel, describes the growth of the audiobook industry in the country. Yet, it is still not anywhere close to being a significant part of the Indian publishing industry, which is where he sees an opportunity.

Storytel is a Stockholm, Sweden-headquartered audiobook giant that operates in more than 23 markets across the globe, and claims to have over 14 lakh paid subscribers. Launched in India with a few Indian titles in 2017, Dashrath recalls that the audiobook industry then wasn't even worth a crore (rupees).

"People used to ask what it is and how it is going to work," but the heavy lifting of introducing the industry to the Indian publishers and readers is no longer necessary. Today, it is about attaining subscribers and building a content catalogue in different Indian languages. 

In an interview with afaqs!, Dashrath talks about the growth of his platform and the industry. Storytel competes with the likes of Amazon's Audible, Scribd, etc.

How much has the audio industry changed since November 2017, when Storytel was launched in India?

When we launched in India, audio was not really a known quantity. We had Reado, which came into existence in 2011 but was not really operational. So, whenever we used to go to the market, be it to a publisher for acquiring books or to ask people to share their books on the platform or even ask them to try Storytel, we had to explain everything. Starting from what an audiobook is to how we are going to place it in the platform, and why we believe it is here to stay.

How has the conversation changed in the last four years?

The people in the industry now have at least tried audiobooks once. They have heard about it. They have worked with us, or someone else in the space. So, the initial heavy lifting of explaining everything to everyone is not needed anymore.

Some participants have started to get into the audio space wholeheartedly. Not just audiobooks, but podcasts have also grown. The discussion has now shifted to what sort of business models will help in the long run, and individual platforms are chalking out their own plans. Everybody has started believing that this has a future. Audiobooks are now a significant part of the book publishing industry.

"Audiobooks as an industry is in a trial phase,"
Yogesh Dashrath

In terms of size, how has it evolved?

When we entered the scene in 2017, I doubt if audiobooks was even a single-digit crore industry. There are hardly any conclusive reports on the size of the industry, but my vague estimate would be that it is hundreds of crores today. We have gone through a phase where the industry has grown very well.

The next phase is to see if it can be a meaningful part of the publishing industry, and how soon it can get there. The fiction book publishing industry across all languages in India is now worth thousands of crores. The question is: how soon can audiobooks get to the Rs 1,000 crore mark. We see that happening sooner, rather than later.

Where is Storytel positioned in the market?

We are very strongly positioned in making English content available to Indian audiences. We have a catalogue of Indian languages today that any book lover will enjoy, if I get them to try it. Then, we have the Originals, which we do in English, Hindi and Marathi... We have seen a good number of people responding to it.

Our business model is one where we provide unlimited access to the subscriber for a fee and not pay-per-title. After the efforts we have put in the industry in the last four years, we find ourselves in a comfortable position.

You operate in multiple countries, but for India, is it essential to have an India-specific plan?

In a sense, India is multiple countries in one country. It is all about different languages, with very little overlap. If you take Scandinavia, Norway is Norwegian and Sweden is Swedish. In India, you have Hindi, Marathi, Bengali, Tamil, Malayalam... and rarely, someone listens to multiple languages. Maybe Hindi, English and one more language, but they primarily stick to one language.

So, it becomes critical for us to work hard on each language. At the same time, it is a maturing market. So, you have more people trying it for the first time than the number of people returning to the platform.

At the price point you operate in, who is your target audience?

Select costs Rs 149 and Unlimited is priced at Rs 299 per month. This would be equivalent to the cost of a book in Indian and English language, respectively. When we talk about audiobooks and that too in a subscription model, it is by definition targeted to the 20-40 age group...

While it is the beginning, we do not want to stop there. The nice thing about audio and listening on a smartphone is that you can do it while doing other things. The aim is to continue to broaden the audience, and we are open to experimenting with more pricing.

"Each language market in India is like an independent business unit that needs a broad and deep catalogue of content,"
Yogesh Dashrath

From which regions in India do you get most of your subscribers today?

We have subscribers in 1,000-plus cities across India. But it the metro cities that form the bulk of our subscribers. People who can speak in Marathi, but can't read the language, enjoy Storytel. We have similar use cases across different languages.

Which languages are popular within the platform?

Though we operate in a lot of languages, not all languages have a broad enough catalogue yet. You need to have breadth and at least a little depth in each language, which you can only get if you have few hundred titles. Only then can you understand if people are really interested in listening to audiobooks in that particular language.

We are not there yet when it comes to most of our languages. In terms of response, I would say it mirrors the publishing industry.

What is driving your subscription? Indian languages, or does your target group look for English titles?

It is a mix at this stage. I would say people are looking for English plus Indian languages. A good proportion is also interested in only Indian languages.

"Globally, Storytel intends to turn profitable within five years of its launch in the market. We complete five years in 2022 and we are not yet profitable,"
Yogesh Dashrath

Where are you spending the most amount of money today? Acquiring content, or customer, or is it in marketing the platform to attain scale?

We have started to see a slight shift now. In the beginning, it was about creating a catalogue. So, we were heavily spending on the publishing part. But now, we have attained a balance between marketing and content acquisition. We would like to retain the balance. We are a listed company. So, we have to keep a check on the numbers constantly and maintain a balance.

Is retention the biggest challenge today?

Churn is a challenge all across the subscription industry, and audiobook is no different. After multiple trials, one becomes a loyal subscriber to audiobooks. The consumer's journey is try, drop and try again. Drop and try something else. Then eventually decide which one to subscribe to and stay on. At this stage, the audiobook industry is in a trial phase, and the challenge is to get more people to try it.

How far is Storytel from turning profitable in India?

Globally, Storytel intends to turn profitable within five years of its launch in the market. We complete five years in 2022 and we are not yet profitable. However, India has its unique challenges and one of them is that each language is like an independent business unit. So, we are at an investment stage and we see merit in continuing our investments in the market.