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The Market for Audiobooks

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Abstract

Storytel is one of the world’s largest subscribed audiobook and ebook streaming services and offers unlimited listening and reading of more than 700 000 titles on a global scale. Its vision is to make the world a more empathetic and creative place with great stories to be shared and enjoyed by anyone, anywhere, and at anytime. Storytel operates in 25 markets around the globe and is headquartered in Stockholm. In summer 2021, Storytel launched a customized student discount offering in several of its markets, targeting audiences at universities and colleges. Logos seized the opportunity to talk to Storytel’s Chief Content Strategy Officer Helena Gustafsson – about stories, global expansion, the wave of audiotainment, and the evolution of literature in a digital era in which books are more accessible than ever.

Abstract

Storytel is one of the world’s largest subscribed audiobook and ebook streaming services and offers unlimited listening and reading of more than 700 000 titles on a global scale. Its vision is to make the world a more empathetic and creative place with great stories to be shared and enjoyed by anyone, anywhere, and at anytime. Storytel operates in 25 markets around the globe and is headquartered in Stockholm. In summer 2021, Storytel launched a customized student discount offering in several of its markets, targeting audiences at universities and colleges. Logos seized the opportunity to talk to Storytel’s Chief Content Strategy Officer Helena Gustafsson – about stories, global expansion, the wave of audiotainment, and the evolution of literature in a digital era in which books are more accessible than ever.

What have been the general trends in audio over the last few years?

The facts that most people today are aware of the audiobook trend, that the audiobook has a place in modern popular culture and entertainment, and that it is an integral part of the ecosystem of the book industry have revitalized ‘the oldest media concept’ – the book – and made it even more relevant in the digital era. In 2020 the volume of audiobook sales in Sweden was actually bigger than that of printed book sales.

My company has also seen that our Storytel Originals – stories written and produced directly for audio – are growing rapidly in popularity and that the number of audiobooks on the market is increasing. You cannot talk about trends in audio without mentioning podcasts, and I would say that the latest podcast trend is scripted podcasts; dramatized storytelling in the short episodic podcast format seems to be growing, especially in the US.

Why do you think audio has taken off?

One of the biggest drivers of the audio explosion around the world is the penetration of smartphones. If you think about it, it was very unusual to see people with headphones out in the streets just a few years ago; today it is quite usual. It will be interesting to see how smart speakers will contribute to driving this growth even further.

What rates of growth are you experiencing?

Storytel entered 2021 with the goal of reaching 2.1–2.2 million paying subscribers globally before the end of the year, corresponding to a growth rate of 43–50 per cent, and to growing streaming revenue by 28–33 per cent to BSEK 2.4–2.5 (billion Swedish Krona). The total global audiobook market is currently valued at BSEK 40. Storytel estimates that this figure will grow by 15 per cent annually until 2030. Our ambition is to take a large piece of this cake and to grow Storytel’s streaming revenues from today’s BSEK 2 to BSEK 30 by 2030.

We hear of different (and perhaps new) audiences for audio – can you tell us something about the typical listener?

Depending on the ‘audio maturity’ of a market, the range of listeners stretches from early adopters, mainly younger men, to women between 35 and 55. But we also see ‘unexpected’ groups, who have not been dedicated book readers before, entering the world of stories thanks to the accessibility, flexibility, and simplicity to adapt the listening to one’s own everyday life. That goes for academics as well as for truck drivers, painters, or assembly line workers.

According to our internal surveys, our users clearly indicate that they have read/listened to more books and that they have read/listened more often since becoming Storytel customers. In the survey, 87 per cent of our users in the Netherlands, 82 per cent in Sweden, 81 per cent in Spain, and 80 per cent in Russia state exactly that. Of the Russian customers in the survey 72 per cent say that Storytel has helped them broaden their general knowledge. Seventy-five per cent in Sweden, 66 per cent in Norway, and 69 per cent in Turkey and Spain state in the survey that they have read/listened to more books from different genres since subscribing to Storytel.

What are the links with podcasting and its growth?

Again, the smartphone plays its part, giving the opportunity to access an entertaining story soundtrack that adds to the quality of life – for example, while jogging, having a coffee, preparing dinner, working out in the gym, relaxing, cleaning, escaping from stress during the lunch hour, or winding down in the evening after a long day.

What kind of subject categories work well in audio?

The most popular audiobook segments are crime and feel-good/romance. It’s all about escapism and a way to give yourself a treat.

We are hearing more about audio-first projects – what kind of productions do you do?

Storytel Originals, our in-house audio-first concept of attractive high-quality audiobooks tailored for the listening audience, are rapidly gaining popularity and appreciation – and climbing up our toplists. To give a recent example: when Christmas shopping kicked off in 2020, the number one title in more than a third of our markets was a Storytel Original.

What are the different kinds of productions (single narrator, more theatrical performances)?

Most audiobooks are narrated by a single actor or other well-loved voice artist. The production mirrors the current demand from the audience, whose preferences are constantly developing. For example, we’re seeing indications that audiodramas, featuring two or more voices, are picking up more interest. The production of an audiobook needs to fit the narrative, and the ear and the audio preferences of the listener. Some productions provide a more dramatic and detailed soundscape and others leave more to the listener to interpret. Casting voice talent is one of the most important parts of audiobook creation. The goal is to try to mirror the tone and feel of the text. When you combine the right text with the right narrator you can create magic and even give new life to a story.

The goal is to try to mirror the tone and feel of the text. When you combine the right text with the right narrator you can create magic and even give new life to a story.

What kind of percentage penetration is audio achieving? (We hear high numbers for the Nordic countries, for example)

The Nordic market is currently the most developed audiobook market in the world. It is becoming increasingly obvious in this region that the audiobook is not just growing rapidly in popularity among users, but also gaining ground as a pop cultural phenomenon. The annual Storytel Awards Galas attract hundreds of thousands of story lovers across the Nordic countries to vote for their favourite audiobooks and narrators, and audiobook coverage in the mainstream media has multiplied dramatically over the past two years. According to recent statistics from the Swedish Publishers’ Association, audiobooks represented 57 per cent of the total volume of books sold in Sweden in 2020. This in a market where total sales increased by 8.7 per cent, thanks to digital and subscription audiobook services, which grew by 32.3 per cent compared with 2019. In the fiction segment of the Swedish book industry, the majority of sales revenue is now in digital formats, of which audiobooks account for more than 90 per cent.

Your users tend to buy on subscription models? This contrasts with some other models that exist in the global audiobook market?

Modern entertainment consumers are clearly embracing unlimited subscription models, sometimes described as ‘all-you-can-eat’. You could say that access, to some extent, has become the new ‘owning’ and that it gives the customer more freedom of choice and flexibility. It also democratizes the story experience by significantly enhancing people’s access to literature, and most certainly makes the audiobook – and the book – more able to compete with other potent entertainment offerings like Netflix, Spotify, YouTube, and social media.

What have been your bestselling titles?

Several of our Storytel Originals have been extremely successful. As a rule, printed bestsellers – local as well as international – also become audiobook bestsellers. Most surprising is that we sometimes see older books making the way to the toplists when released as an audiobook, which indicates that old and modern classics can certainly obtain new life in audio.

Has the global pandemic affected sales – and what kinds of titles have done well?

We do not see any clear-cut connection between our growth and the pandemic. In some markets there has been increased consumption, in some a decrease. What we do know is that markets with weaker online sales infrastructure were likely to experience an overall decline in book sales. The Nordics have come out among the winners, and here audiobook subscription services have been the main drivers of growth. We have not seen a big change in consumption patterns regarding genre preference, but we have seen slight changes in the times of day when people read and listen to books. This demonstrates that Storytel is an integral part of our customers’ lives. We will be there to give people quality stories and experiences – in good times as well as challenging ones.

What is your international coverage? Do you have plans for new markets?

Storytel has over 1.5 million global subscribers and is currently present in 25 markets. We have announced that that number will exceed 40 by the end of 2023. So, yes, we are expanding rapidly.

What trends can you predict in audio over the next five years?

The audio trend will spread even wider across the globe. Artificial intelligence and advanced synthetic voices will become more and more common, which will broaden the audio catalogues. I am also convinced that non-fiction will grow as a genre. People are curious and want to learn new things, and the audiobook and podcast formats are perfect sources of knowledge for people on the go. Storytel’s vision is a more creative and empathetic world with great stories to be shared and enjoyed anytime, anywhere, and by anyone, and that means satisfying people’s curiosity, not least regarding new knowledge and innovative thoughts that widen our perspectives.

Helena Gustafssond

Helena Gustafsson is Chief Content Strategy Officer, Storytel. Since joining the company in 2013 as CEO of Storytel’s fully owned audiobook publisher StorySide, she has been a key player in establishing Storytel’s industry-leading presence and strategic acquisitions and partnerships and in building the company’s production of original audiobooks.

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