Anirban Roy Choudhury

Amazon Audible, Audiobooks and the challenges for non-music audio: An analysis

"India is one of the fastest-growing marketplaces within Audible in terms of subscribers," says Shailesh Sawlani, country head, Audible India.

Somewhere in Bihar, a radio jockey (RJ) is talking about a possible deal with Amazon being the best thing for him this year (2020). But a Bhojpuri-speaking RJ talking with Amazon? Well, 'Suno' - the answer.

E-commerce giant Amazon had acquired audiobooks service provider Audible in 2008 for a reported $300 million. Back then, Amazon was preparing to take on Apple's iTunes in the audio world.

Amazon Audible marked its presence in India in November 2018, with a huge library of international titles and a handful of books authored by Indian origin authors. Today, "India is one of the fastest-growing marketplaces within Audible, in terms of the number of subscribers," says Shailesh Sawlani, country head, Audible India.

But the Rs 199 per month membership plan is not the only service that Amazon Audible offers in India. Last year (2019), the company launched an India-specific service Audible Suno. It is a free to stream platform which offers original non-music audio content.

Amazon has made an investment to launch Audible Originals, featuring the likes of Neelesh Mishra ('Bhoot Kaal') and Harsha Bhogle ('What a Match'). Right now, Suno has Hindi and Hinglish content, but going forward, it intends to expand to other local languages too. Though Sawlani did not give a time frame, he did say, "There is an appetite." This explains the Bihar RJ's excitement. 

Shailesh Sawlani
Shailesh Sawlani

"It's been a multi-year plan because of which we were able to launch Suno in December 2019," says Sawlani. He adds that the team at Amazon Audible India started working on an India-specific offering right after the launch of Audible in the country. The experienced members were wise enough to understand that to win in India, Audible will have to have content that can win India.

"The rich entertainment culture, creative and talented creator community, and the local studios within established infrastructure" encouraged Audible India to go ahead with Suno, informs Sawlani. 

The global audiobooks service has two lakh international titles, and 2,000 Indian origin English and Hindi titles at this stage, according to Sawlani. In the last one year, the number of subscribers and minutes consumed have both grown multifold, asserts Sawlani.

But where are they (the subscribers) coming from? "It's the content that brings the customer," says Sawlani, adding, "The business model in there, the revenue or service or subscription model… is what also determines your target audience. For example, on the premium and audiobook side, because it has primarily been international (English audiobooks) so it is naturally skewed towards bigger, Tier-I cities."

However, on Suno, Amazon Audible has seen a bigger spread and diversity. Another factor that plays a role in Suno's penetration is the fan following of the content creator, believes Sawlani. Suno is a great tool for Amazon... "Thriller, horror, self-learning, devotional/mythology" are the genres that "clearly work", he says. 

The non-music audio content, like 'podcasts', have become quite popular in India. "Increased penetration of the Internet and the availability of digital content has given the consumers a plethora of choices at any given time. One small, but fast emerging segment is podcasts, which also witnessed an uptake of 292 per cent in its consumption, post the COVID-19 pandemic," shares the leading global consulting firm KPMG. 

India is already the third-largest podcast listening market and is expected to be valued at Rs 176 million by 2023, growing at a steady CAGR of 34.5 per cent. "Podcasts offer an effective value proposition in the streaming industry and help increase user engagement. Podcasts have also opened new avenues for brand collaborations, in turn, boosting advertisement revenue. This leads to increased listenership, paving the way for the transition from freemium to premium in the long run," adds a KPMG India's analyst.

It is not only Amazon that is gunning for a share of the podcast listeners' pie. There are platforms like Gaana owned by Times Internet, international audio streaming platform Spotify, YouTube Music, Reliance Jio acquired JioSaavn... 

"There's a growing need for screen-free time. Now more than ever, listeners everywhere are turning to audio for information, entertainment, or simply lifting their spirits," shares Vinodh Bhatt, co-founder and chief strategy officer, JioSaavn.

He adds, "Work-from-home playlists are replacing commuting tunes, relaxation is taking priority over party anthems, and podcasts are inspiring new learning and discovery. Throughout this upheaval, digital audio has remained a constant in sound-tracking our new lifestyles."

The genres that Sawlani said are garnering popularity, are popular within JioSaavn too. Apart from that, Bhatt says, there has been a 245 per cent growth in news podcast consumption on Jio, which rolled out shows like 'All About Corona' when the pandemic was at its peak.

With all the competition around, Amazon has its eyes set on the top spot. A year from now, Sawlani says, "I would definitely like to be within the top digital entertainment services in India. There's no reason why it can't be. What we want to do is ensure that the widest mass of customers are using our service."

The critical challenge, he believes, will be awareness and monetisation. "When you say something like audiobooks or podcasts, the majority of the population don't fully understand what it means, or what the experience is actually like. It's grown rapidly in the last two years, and specifically in the last year. But still, this is a growing thing versus something that's extremely established already." The kind of advertisements the company rolls out, etc., will play a vital role in generating awareness, Sawlani feels. 

About monetisation, he says that he is "extremely happy" with the growth in paid subscribers but, like other paid services, Audible has also barely scratched the surface, considering the depth of India. "Monetisation is something that will evolve over the next couple of years," concludes Sawlani.