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Why Tamil audiobooks saw a surge in popularity during lockdown

Audiobook and ebook streaming service Storytel introduced its Tamil offering just before covid hit. Today it has a thousand titles

Deepika Arun of Storytel
Deepika Arun of Storytel

“My day starts and ends with stories,” says Chennai-based Indhu Bala, who works in the R&D unit of a software firm. She discovered the audiobook and e-book streaming service Storytel during last year’s lockdown and confesses to being in love with the stories on offer, especially those in Tamil. “I was reluctant to try it,” says Bala, who first heard about Storytel on a Facebook group. But she saw positive reviews and decided to take a month’s subscription.

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A year later, she is a firm fan of the audiobook and e-book. “The experience has been great,” says Bala, who was missing Tamil literature at the time. “I was based out of Pune back then and did not have access to Tamil literature. Storytel had a good collection of Tamil books, so I decided to try it out.” The range on offer includes classics penned by leading authors like Kalki, Sandilyan, T. Janakiraman, Ashokamitran and Perumal Murugan, as well as lighter crime, thriller and supernatural fiction audiobooks.

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Bala’s own story shows why the market for audiobooks and e-books is growing. The analyst and consultancy firm Omdia says the global audiobooks market has grown significantly over the last few years, with total revenue expected to grow to $9.3 billion (around 67,913 crores) by 2026, at a compound annual growth rate of 13.9%. Its report points to the factors that are propelling this growth: compelling offerings, an ever-increasing range of listening options (from smartphones to desktops and smart speakers), and last but not least, the lockdowns that forced consumers to look for new options to sustain themselves.

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In India, for instance, audiobook giant Audible, launched in 2018, has reported a huge surge, according to a 22 August report in The Free Press Journal. The British Council's digital library saw the number of customers grow by 104%, according to a 23 August Times of India report which notes the high demand for content formats like audiobooks and online newspapers and magazines.

“The number of people who opted for the service increased considerably during the lockdown,” agrees Yogesh Dashrath, country manager, India, at Storytel, which offers nearly 500,000 titles in 11 languages, including English, and is now one of the largest globally subscribed audiobook and e-book streaming. 

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Storytel recently came out with its 1,000th Tamil title. The initial number of listeners was very small, says Dashrath. Essentially, people who would tune in to listen to English books. Today, Tamil is among the top three languages on the platform. “We now have a huge Tamil listening base,” says Dashrath.

Omdia’s analysis is supported by their own experience. They launched in late 2019, with interest growing in early 2020 after the Chennai Book Fair, an annual event organised by the Booksellers and Publishers Association of South India. Deepika Arun, language manager, Tamil, Storytel, says the lockdowns that followed soon after saw more people exhibiting interest in Tamil audiobooks. “This was a screen-free source of entertainment that people could really use before bedtime,” she says. People almost felt that there was someone next to them telling them a story, she believes. “We began adding titles considerably since covid.” 

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Arun, the founder of Kadhai Osai, a podcast focused on Tamil literature, believes there is a demand for stories in that language. “The catalogue we have really resonated with the Tamil population,” she says. Tamil writer and activist, Sivasankari, who has over 10 books in audio, believes the shift is inevitable. “Audiobooks are good in a busy world where we are doing multiple things at the same time. Earlier, the village was the world; today the world has become a village.”

  • FIRST PUBLISHED
    07.09.2021 | 09:00 AM IST

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