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Audiobooks in Korea: Users and Service Providers

Service and Content Providers in Busy Days with Market’s Growing Interest in Audiobooks

 

2021.04.05

 

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In the previous March edition, we talked about the audiobook industry's current status in Korea and its prospects in 2021. Consumers and service providers play a pivotal role in expanding the market and business opportunities. Furthermore, it is meaningful to witness how they interact with each other in the audiobook ecosystem contributes to the industry’s healthy growth and maturity. In this April’s edition, let’s find what behaviors audiobook consumers have shown to the market.

 

Recently-made audio content enabling interaction among provider and users, providing a new-level of “experience”.

 

As the pandemic is not showing any signs of abating, more people are enjoying audiobooks at home instead of going to bookstores or libraries. In the previous edition, we introduced how “Welaaa,” a domestic audiobook company, recorded a more than 50% increase in sales on year during July and August 2020 when there was the second wave of COVID-19. One of the charming benefits of audiobooks is that apart from how people are choosing to stay at home, people can listen to audiobooks in the voice of the author or famous celebrities, while they can do other tasks at the same time. For example, you can listen to the short novel of Korea’s legendary female author, Park Wan-Seo, in the actress, Kim Hye-Soo’s voice, or lyric coloratura soprano Sumi Jo narrating her own biography. Also, you can listen to the famous novelist, Kim Young-Ha, narrating his novels. What’s more, recently-produced audio content supports interactive communication with the advancement of smart devices, which provides a new “experience” to its users who got tired of the existing photo and video content. In fact, “Kim Tae-Ri’s Recovery Book,” narrated by the actress, Kim Tae-Ri, has been drawing popularity with more than 140 thousand subscribers since she opened the channel on Naver Audio Clip in May 2020.

 

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Such a trend in audiobooks is spilling over to podcast channels with the theme of “audiobooks.” On “Podbbang,” a podcast platform, there were about 1,000 audiobook channels as of 2019. The amount of video content dealing with books is increasing on Youtube as well. For example, channels such as “Winter Bookstore,” “Chaeg-ilg-jjila (meaning I’m reading),” “Chaeg-geulim (meaning Book and illustration),” and “Diana’s Bookshelf” are providing an similar experience to audiobooks to their subscribers with book reviews, new book introductions, tips on how to choose good books, and book-reading videos.

 

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Winter Bookstore, Chaeg-ilg-jjila, Chaeg-geulim, Diana’s Bookshelf

 

 

The increase of audiobook users and its popularity can be seen through numbers as well. As of January 2021, “Millie” recorded 2.5 million subscribers since it launched the audiobook service in July 2018. Members in their 20s accounted for approximately 20% of the total content consumption. Also, “Welaaa” launched in January 2019 was showing steady growth, with 1.5 million subscribers, of which 135 thousand were in their 20s. Naver’s “Audio Clip” saw a 170% increase in the audiobook play counts in November 2020 compared to January in the same year ever since it launched the service in December 2019. In fact, the number of services utilizing audio content other than audiobooks is growing rapidly as well. For example, Spoon Radio which runs “Spoon,” an individual audio broadcast platform, recorded a 70% increase in sales compared to 40 billion Korean won in 2019. One official from Spoon said, “Accumulated playtime per user increased by 44% on year, and there are now 34 million live channels, which is an 82% increase compared to the same period.” More people are listening to the audio content of the platform “Podbbang.” The total playtime of Podbbang increased by fourfold from 40 million hours in 2017 to 174.46 million hours in 2019.

 

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As such, alongside the growth of audiobooks, audio content, and service platforms, audio-based Social Media “Clubhouse” began to surface with greater popularity since early 2021. Clubhouse in Korea is trending through the FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) marketing, being advertised as a must-have item for “insiders (people who actively participate in events or meetings and like hanging out with people).” Since around the time when the company’s value was reported to be 1 billion US dollars, the “insiders” in domestic IT and media industries, and start-up companies, have been jumping into the new trendy wave. Its popularity exploded among celebrities when Elon Musk publicly used the service. Meanwhile, Spotify has been building up its content in Korea, emphasizing “Korea is 6th largest market for streaming. And there’s plenty of room for further growth in the market.” While Spotify is cooperating with famous IPs to directly provide audiobooks and services as one of the strategies of presenting more different content to its subscribers, its audio content strategy and plan in Korea are highly anticipated.

 

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Now, let’s go back to domestic audiobook service providers. Welaaa has been a popular service among people who are highly interested in self-development. It provides famous online lecture videos by experts in various fields such as liberal arts, economy, and business through Welaaa Class, which has been offered alongside audiobooks. In February 2021, it was designated as the “non-contact” service voucher provider organized by the Ministry of Small and Medium-sized Enterprises, thus expanding its consumer base in the business market. One of the representative podcast providers in Korea “Podbbang” launched “Quiet Life,” an audio magazine where the well-known author, Han Kang, appeared in February edition, adding an innovative format of paodcast to its existing audiobook service. Unlike the podcast service it mainly provides, “Quiet Life” is a service where people can enjoy “visual” media such as photos and illustrations along with the audio clip once a month through a total of 12 episodes with 15 hours of runtime. As such, Podbbang is making attempts to update high-quality audio magazines to satisfy its listeners.
Meanwhile, audiobook streaming service “Storytel” has released adapted format of audio with Forest of the Blue Moon, a popular romance web-novel written by Kim Ji-Yoo in July 2020, by turning it into a abridged and multi-casted audiobook series. Also, Naver Audio Clip showcased three episodes of audio cinema for the first time in Korea in June 2020. The concept of audio cinema puts its base on “listening,” as a reproduction of famous webtoons and web-novels serialized on Naver into “audio-movies.” In short, this is an audio-drama-styled audiobook that we are familiar with.

 

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Web-novel Forest of the Blue Moon

 

 

Another industry player attempting to produce various content as much as audiobook service providers is the publishing houses. For example, the domestic publisher, Communication Books, which is well-known for its project where 100 actors and actresses representing the contemporary time of Korea narrated 100 major short and medium-length novels from Korea’s modern history, has once again launched an audiobook series where the top 100 actors and actresses in Korea narrated the world classics. The entire runtime is 98 hours 45 minutes and 55 seconds. You can now listen to 100 world classics in the voices of 100 Korean actors and actresses.
Meanwhile, another domestic publisher, Golden Bough, published the 12 best episodes of Agatha Christie in July 2019 as audiobooks. It accompanied 53 top-tier voice actors and actresses and added sound effects and music for a more lively delivery. The overall runtime is a whopping 100 hours. It took more than a year for production and cost 200 million Korean won. The publisher said that it planned for the investment in collaboration with Naver to actively respond to the changing market while the audiobook market hadn’t been activated yet in 2019.

 

The increase in audiobook users led to more people reading paper books and e-books, creating a virtuous cycle.

 

As such, while witnessing some publishers that make bold attempts and plans in the audiobook industry, there are many other publishers that still do not have the capabilities to join the competition due to a lack of budget. As the paper book market is diminishing in sales volume, the publishers interested in digital business to raise profits are welcoming the following survey result and new trend. According to Audible, about 39% of overall audiobook users began to read more e-books and paper books. Also, Storytel reported a similar research result, where 75% of its subscribers began to read or listen to more books. This implies that a virtuous cycle of reading is likely to settle where audiobook listeners move on to purchasing e-books or paper books once they find the books they are listening to are interesting.
It is expected that throughout the year 2021, the expanded governmental support program of the Publication Industry Promotion Agency of Korea (KPIPA) for audiobook production will breathe life into more publishers producing existing paper books into audiobooks. The consistent investment of audio content providers is also expected to lead to the creation of new and fresh content to the audiences. With audiobook catalogs both increasing quantitatively and qualitatively, and new-and-innovative audiobook content based on consumer’s needs, we foresee that the audiobook market should continue to grow sustainably by attracting new audience from teenage users along with those in their 20s who experienced the audio service ahead of them through podcast and audio services based on Social Media while it keep entertaining the existing user base in their 30s and after.

 


Written by Beatrice YongIn Lin (Publisher of Storytel South Korea)

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Beatrice YongIn Lin (Publisher of Storytel South Korea)

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