A month ago Bangalore-based Ranjita Bhagwan, a researcher with Microsoft Research India, was thrilled to discover Shonakatha , a website set up in 2010 that sells Bengali audiobooks. “I didn’t know this kind of a website existed. This is great for people like me who understand the language but cannot read the script,” she says. Bhagwan is a Tamilian but grew up in Kolkata, where she learnt to speak Bengali. “Unfortunately, though I can read the script, it happens only at a snail’s pace,” she says, adding that this takes away the charm of reading Bengali books. “Somebody should do this for Hindi as well. I’d love to hear Munshi Premchand in an audiobook, rather than plod through a book.”
Hearing is easy
Vidyanand Vartak, a software developer based in London, launched a blog called BoltiPustake in 2008 that offers free, downloadable Marathi audiobooks in MP3 format. “One day, I came across a site for English audiobooks where volunteers read books for free and started listening to them,” says Vartak, “That’s where I thought of doing something similar in Marathi.”
For Vartak, the blog is a way to revive his mother tongue. Currently, he’s recording a 100-year-old Marathi adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice called Aaj Pasun 50 Varshanni (50 Years From Today), which was written as a futuristic novel at the time.
“This whole narration business is nothing new in India,” says Jai Madhukar Zende, co-founder, BooksTALK, an year-old audiobook publisher. “We have a rich tradition of oral storytelling in all languages in India and have been a listening culture historically.” Zende remembers how he grew up hearing audiobooks on cassettes, narrated on Bombay Doordarshan and then some years later, on CDs.
“Even today if you go to a music shop you can pick up Katha audiobooks on CDs,” he says. With a funky website and a subhead “Story telling is back... Just listen”, BooksTALK aims to introduce about 100 audiobooks in three languages—English, Kannada and Bengali—in the market by year-end. “While in Kannada and Bengali audiobooks we stick to classics only, in English we are bringing out all kinds of titles, non-fiction, classics, fiction etc.,” says Zende.
New Horizon Media Pvt. Ltd (NHM), established in 2004, is one of the earliest ventures in audiobooks in Tamil and has uploaded over 100 audiobooks in the language since 2006. It sells CDs through its website for Rs 99-199 and on Audible for approximately $10 (or Rs 555) each on a revenue-sharing basis. “It is the people who do not like to read much but like to know things that go for these titles. These listeners prefer non-fiction titles such as biographies, political histories, self-improvement and history. Fiction sells less,” says Badri Seshadri, publisher and managing director, NHM.
Recording is tough
Even though most regional publishers in languages ranging from Marathi, Oriya, Bengali and Hindi to Tamil, Kannada and others are considering and trying out the audiobook space, the number of books in the market remains low. One reason is that it takes a lot of time to make one. Since its inception in 2008, Vartak has uploaded only 14 audiobooks on his blog BoltiPustake.
Even this number is an achievement if you consider that a 400-page book takes at least 200 days to record and edit before it can be uploaded. For a commercial publisher like BooksTALK or NHM, converting a 200-page book into a master CD of an audiobook takes about four weeks, which includes studio recording, editing, designing and printing.
A quicker option is using a text-to-speech or TTS software, something like Dhvani, which can auto-read Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam, Oriya, Punjabi, Tamil and Telugu. But though it’s free and offers instantaneous results, this software is not used by audiobook makers. The reason is that people get completely turned off by the mechanical sound. “Have you ever heard a text-to-speech? It’s boring with a capital B,” says Zende, “Audiobooks have to be narrated interestingly, else a listener will be distracted or bored and switch it off.”
Voice intonation, according to most publishers, is very important to make a good quality audiobook. BooksTALK chooses its storytellers carefully, and shuns voice artistes. “Voice artistes have two types of voices, either bubbly happy or a corporate style of speaking. Both are unsuitable for a book,” says Zende, who prefers theatre artistes as narrators.
Voices of celebrities are used too. Karadi Tales Company, one of the earliest publishers in India to venture into the commercial audiobook space for children, has created a niche in the industry by bringing in actors, film directors and lyricists, such as Naseeruddin Shah, Nandita Das, Shekhar Kapur, Vidya Balan, Boman Irani and Gulzar.
“The advantage of working with well-known actors is that they come with the experience of using their voices theatrically and creatively,” explains Manasi Subramaniam, commissioning editor, Karadi Tales Company. And it helps. The theme of telling a story runs so deep that Karadi Tales puts background scores in audiobooks even though that makes production costlier.
Costs are high
Karadi Tales spends up to Rs 2 lakh on creating one audiobook. For BooksTALK, the cost is about Rs 60,000, including voice artiste costs, studio hiring, editing, production, designing and background music.
Yet as an industry average, audiobook sales are usually just 10-15% of print book sales, says Zende. “If there’s a customer for Tamil audiobooks out there, all of us will cater to them, but the sales are just not high enough to make a profit,” says Gandhi Kannadasan, owner, Kannadasan Pathippagam, a small, Chennai-based Tamil book publisher who has taken a tentative step with audiobooks online by introducing audio CDs of Tamil poet Kannadasan, who also happens to be his father. “I had these CDs in my father’s voice ready, so I didn’t have any production costs. If I had to make an audiobook from scratch, I would have never ventured into it.”
Pathippagam’s cautiousness doesn’t seem misplaced. Even a well-selling Kannada print book sells only 3,000-5,000 copies, at Rs 100 a book, according to Zende. “The price is low and sales are low for print, which means audiobook sales will be lower still. If I were to convert a Kannada book into an audiobook, how would I break even?” asks Zende. This is the reason that of the 100 titles BooksTALK plans to launch, only six are in Indian languages.
It’s the same story with Karadi Tales. Since 1996, Karadi Tales has launched over 70 audiobook titles but only four of these are bilingual (English/Tamil); six others are in Hindi and Tamil. The rest are all in English. “The English language reader is our primary market,” agrees Subramaniam, “because unlike other Indian languages, English readership is constantly on the increase.”
Is anyone listening?
Though the English audiobook market has once again begun to pick up in India, with new titles coming out for apps like Audible (owned by Amazon, and the biggest seller of audiobooks in the world) and iTunes, there aren’t enough takers for Indian language audiobooks. “The English-speaking market is more tech savvy and ready to experiment with different formats, which is why there are more takers in those markets,” says Seshadri. Since the new wave of demand is coming from readers who use the online space, that is people who read these books and are tech savvy, and not from people who don’t or can’t read, it’s the English language audiobooks that are thriving more than other languages.
“Why would I listen to an audiobook when I can buy the same from a book store near me and read it?” asks Kannadasan. “It’s only the people who can’t get print books that listen to audiobooks.” Agrees Subramaniam, who feels audiobooks are a secondary or alternate medium. “For people with limited time, audiobooks might offer an easier alternative, as they may be able to listen to a story while driving to work, but reading is always the primary mode of consumption of a book,” she says. Or, adds Zende, “It’s people like ourselves who haven’t been able to enjoy their language as much and who are moderately open to technology that pick up these audiobooks.”
Turn it on!
Get an audiobook in your mother tongue online
A start-up, booksTALK has just launched four books in Kannada and two in Bengali. All are classics, like Rabindranath Tagore and Chandrashekhara Kambara. They will launch more books soon.
Languages: Kannada, Bengali
Format: CD, Direct Download, Audible and iTunes
Price: Rs 125 per audiobook
A collection of children’s audiobooks, Karadi Tales also publishes audiobooks for adults and young adults under its imprint Charkha.
Languages: Hindi, Tamil
Format: CD, Direct Download, Audible and iTunes
Price: Rs 125 onwards
One of the biggest publishers of audiobooks in Tamil Nadu, New Horizon Media (NHM) has over 100 classics as well as non-fiction titles.
Format: CD, Audible, iTunes
Price: Rs 99 onwards
It’s an online retail space for audiobooks in different languages.
Languages: Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi
Price: Rs 295 per audiobook
Dramatized audiobooks from authors such as Rabindranath Tagore, Sarat Chandra Chatterjee and Bibhutibhushan Bannerjee.
Price: Rs 50 onwards
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