It is well established that Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan’s baritone has a persona of its own, independent from his on-screen charisma that has seen him rule the silver screen for over half a century. While the septuagenarian actor’s rendition of popular songs like Rabindranath Tagore’s Ekla Cholo Re has been featured in a movie, his version of the Ganesh mantra and aarti wafts through the air across Mumbai during Ganeshotsav, a religious festival that celebrates the Hindu god Ganesh.
If you are a Bachchan fan, you will be thrilled to know that Audible, the world’s largest audiobooks producer, is bringing to you a podcast-streaming app, where you can tune into a 10-episode psychological thriller brought to life in Bachchan’s own voice. And that’s not all.
Audible, founded in 1995 in the U.S. and acquired by Amazon in 2008, is launching a new service called Audible Suno exclusively for its Indian audience. The app, which will only be available on Android to begin with, will offer users access to audio entertainment, enlightenment and learning content in the voices of several well-known Indian celebrities including Bachchan, Katrina Kaif, Karan Johar, Anil Kapoor, Farhan Akhtar, Tabu, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and others. The best part: It is totally free and ad-free. The gamut of fiction and non-fiction audio series in Audible Suno’s library cuts across genres like romance, comedy, suspense, intimate interviews with celebrities, sex education, and mental health. The service launched its premium content offering in India in 2008 and says that the Indian market’s response to its audiobooks has been encouraging.
In an interview with Fortune India, Don Katz, Audible’s founder and chief executive officer, and Shailesh Sawlani, vice president and country manager, India, said that the new product was a first-of-its-kind experiment that would serve many purposes. Katz, who has also been a journalist and author, says Audible Suno will help popularise the power of the spoken word in India, which has seen an explosion of music and video streaming services but where audiobooks and podcasts are still a fairly nascent concept.
Second, it will help create content that Audible could potentially monetise on its paid platforms globally in markets like the U.S., U.K., Germany, Australia and Canada. Third, it can serve as a test case for Audible to diversify its content library, which rich in audio versions of great English books narrated by famous storytellers like Mahershala Ali and Emma Thompson, into short-form vernacular content.
Katz also spoke of Audible’s genesis and life after Amazon acquired his company. Edited excerpts:
From being a relatively unknown concept when you started out, audiobooks are quite popular today. How did Audible gain such traction with users?
Katz: We made the market for audiobooks. When we started, there were only 3,000 audiobooks out there. In the last 12 months, our paying customers downloaded 3.5 billion hours of content. We began by simply inviting people to consider the time in a day when they couldn’t read or look at a screen and consider what real value were they creating in that time. When we started, 96 million Americans drove to work alone and spent 600 million hours a week in traffic. What they did with their time was to listen to terrestrial radio, which didn’t offer them much value. So the question was would they be happier if they had more books in their heads during this time? The answer was almost always yes.
Most businesses that use technology are about leveraging time to some extent. Along with that, Audible was about unleashing the power of the spoken word. I always believed that well-composed words refracted through a performance, is one of the most powerful art forms. It was just underdeveloped and underappreciated at the time.
So we spent years repositioning the book as a script and then get the greatest actors to give nuanced performances in converting these books into audiobooks.
How has life changed since Amazon’s acquisition of Audible?
Audible is considered to be one of the more successful subsidiaries (of Amazon) across businesses at this point. The main reason for that is we were a sophisticated company when we got bought. We had done a lot in 10 years and after a while I realised that my basic passion was more for stakeholders that helped us earn money like our customers, employees and creative talent, than those who were making money (like investors).
I had known Jeff (Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon) since 1996. And this (the acquisition of Audible by Amazon) seemed like a marriage that could work. The marriage was based on us maintaining our own business model, culture and brand, while inventing together with Amazon and having access to their customers in a way that we could directly make them aware of Audible’s services. So it was an incredible successful M&A (merger and acquisition) experience that wasn’t the same as many traditional M&A experiences where the company getting acquired gets sucked into the culture of the acquirer.
There were some negatives as well, especially when it comes to the reputational element of big technology due to what has gone on in society. But anyone who knows our company understands the reality of our culture, which is focussed on people. I believe that a company can pursue meaning in a way that transcends what it does. And when you do that you make money as well.
How has Audible’s experience in India been since it launched its premium services in the country in 2018?
Sawlani: I think our entry into the market was quite timely. Whether it is audiobooks, or audio learning, or infotainment, it is all quite new. Anyone who does anything in this space will only improve the awareness and adoption of such services. As a policy, we do not share numbers. But I can tell you that our experience of users continuing to engage with our services month-on-month is at par with some of the more established marketplaces where we are present like the U.S., U.K., and Germany. Some of the more engaged customers listen to our audiobooks for 40-45 minutes a day.
So far we only had English audiobooks in our content library in India. But along with Audible Suno, we are also launching 250 new titles in Hindi and Urdu. Even as we launched our premium services in India, we were planning on what the next stages of expansion for us should be. And that’s where Audible Suno comes in.
What was the idea behind launching a free service like Audible Suno along with your existing paid service? And given that you are spending quite a bit in producing this content along with top celebrities, how will you monetise this content?
Sawlani: The awareness of audiobooks and podcasts is extremely low in India. From our perspective, we were thinking of what was the best way to produce high-quality content featuring great writing to go along with getting great talent. And how do we get people to know about it? The only way was to offer it as a free service.
On your question of how do we monetise this, there are different business and revenue model that are evolving and we don’t know how these models will look like a year or two from now. At present, we are focussed on getting people to engage with and adopt our content.
Katz: Audible Suno was a way for us to learn new things from a deeply professional, creative society in India when it comes to engaging with talent, understanding customers’ habits and deploying these learnings in other markets. As programming evolves, we can globalise a lot of this content in other paid environments and it will be good for the creators since their voices will be heard more internationally.