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Korea’s Audiobook Industry Ready to Fly in 2021

The ongoing rapid evolution and development of the audiobook industry in Korea

 

2021.03.08

 

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The most striking news in the new year was Influential, the operating company of an audiobook service platform ‘welaaa’, succeeding in winning 25 billion won worth of Series C sole investment from UTC Investment. This is after another mega-investment in 2020, where it attracted 13.5 billion won worth of Series B investment. Such a fast and massive investment implies that the future of the audiobook industry in Korea is rosy indeed. The domestic e-book industry says that the audiobook market's size has reached 30 billion won in 2020 and is likely to hit 60 billion won in 2021, which is nearly double the size. The audiobook market in Korea was formed in the early 2000s, but its size was trivial, with 10 billion won worth volume even until 2018. Given that situation, it is worth paying attention to the movement that has been taking place in the audiobook industry for the past 3 to 4 years when it began to gain growth momentum. 

 

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The audiobook market began to grow energetically around May 2017. This was when the favorable environment for audio content began to grow with the spread of A.I. speakers and connected vehicles. Korea’s largest web portal Naver of “Clova,” an A.I. speaker and KTB Network joined hands together and established a fund worth 30 billion won to develop audio content. After acquiring Audien, domestic audiobook service platform, Naver embarked on servicing “audio clip” for its audiobook and podcast service in July 2018. To secure an ample of quality content, Naver provided financial support for domestic publishers to produce audiobooks and rented out recording studios for free. Also, Google began audibook service in late 2017 with 10,000 audiobook titles by partnering with domestic audiobook companies. In 2018, Korea’s representative bookstore ‘Kyobok Book center’, domestic audiobook service platform ‘welaaa’, and an e-book subscription service platform ‘Millie’, began to provide a subscription-based audiobook service of their own. In addition, on “Podbbang,” Korea’s largest podcast service platform, approximately 1,000 podcast channels of audiobook were created, and in November 2019, global audiobook service from Sweden ‘Storytel’ began to provide its Korean audiobook service in Korea. At the time of Storytel’s launch into the Korean market, it propected the Korean audio content market to grow into a trillion-won market within 5 years.
Amid the gradual blooming of audiobook services as such, however, it has been hardly reported any of those made a profit until 2019.
Conversely, however, the popularity of audiobooks started soaring entering 2020, as people spent more time at home due to the pandemic. The audiobooks offer a new “experience” for those exhausted by massive photo-and-video content while it plays multiple roles from delivering information to easing the so-called “Corona Blue,” and enables users to do multitasking while listening audios. The phenomenon was proven in figures as follows; as of January 20th 2020, when the first case of the disease was reported in Korea, the weekly listening time rose by 36% and 7 weeks after, and the usage of ‘welaaa’ increased by 26% every month from February to August. In particular, in July and August, when the second wave of the pandemic hit the Korean peninsula, it exceeded 50% of growth rate. At ‘Millie’, the playtime of audiobooks for the two months rose by approximately 27%.
What’s more, the recent notable trend is the rising influx of millennial users to audiobook service platforms. Until early 2018 when audiobooks began to be revitalized, major users were those in their 30s and 40s who are dominant book consumers. This new trend implies that the millennials who are used to multitasking and multimedia have begun to choose audiobooks as one of their ways of reading books. This is good news to the domestic publishing market as it serves the opportunity to attract people who have not been close to books to start reading, thus it is highly expected to create a new reader base. 

 

Various types of audiobooks are made and experimented with as it is becoming more popular among the public.

 

Another factor to the spread of audiobooks along with the aforementioned A.I. speaker technology of the 4th Industrial Revolution and social and environmental factors are continuous production and distribution of audiobooks. In the 2000s, most of audiobooks in Korea were non-fiction categories such as self-development, liberal art, and economy, where playtime was within 2 hours providing summaries or excerpt from the original full books – with sound effects and the background music overly added. These audiobooks alone lacked the diversity of genres, and above all, it could not form a loyal audience of audiobooks who wanted to consume the entire book and ultimately serve the solid foundation of market growth. This, in turn, explains the Korean audiobook industry has not been in its golden age yet so far.
Reflecting such a situation while audiobooks began to gain popularity in 2018, various types of audiobooks are being produced and experimented with; for example, ‘welaaa’ and ‘Storytel’ produce full-length audiobooks that cover the entire volume of a book, and ‘Millie’ produces an audiobook called ‘Reading Book’ that introduces a book for about 30 minutes. Naver is servicing both types, an unabridged audiobook and a abridged audiobook that plays for around 2 hours. In particular, Naver invites famous celebrities to narrate books they service to attract the massive number of current users of its web portal to its new audio service from the beginning of the service launch. Millie’s ‘Reading Book’ also provides epic books where popular celebrities and authors read out the books, aiming to appeal to potential consumers who are not yet interested in reading books.

 

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As such, audiobook service platforms have been making bold investments to promote the production and distribution of audiobooks through close cooperation with domestic publishers. The government has also stood up to support the audiobook ecosystem and its development in Korea. As a statusquo, domestic publishers could not dare think of investing in producing audiobooks for themselves under the current production situation where it takes around 7-8 million won for a 400-page-long book to be produced as audio book by one narrator with no additional sound effects. This is why the Publication Industry Promotion Agency of Korea (KPIPA) of the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism opened Audio Book Center in 2019, to provides comprehensive audiobook production aid with 4 audiobook recording studios, 3 editing rooms, and equipment for sound and recording to anyone that pre-book to use the facility and system. Also, the agency has been supporting publishers to produce audiobooks of various high-quality books each year since 2019 through its subsidy that facilitates the production and distribution of 300 or more full-length audiobooks every year.
Today, Koreans are in a frenzy about the launch of ‘Spotify’, one of the global market leading audio streaming service and ‘Clubhouse’, a social networking app based on audio-chat in Korea market. This is evidence that people have already become more interested in audio content based services that will provide a new user experience in Korea. As Millennial generation is taking a great part in the user base of audiobook services along with the older generations. and the “contactless” culture has become the new normal in the COVID-19 era, shall we expect the prime time for audiobooks arrive in Korea this time? Korean audiobooks have now evolved into a variety of markets where not only web novels and webtoons can be listened to as audiobooks, but also meditation and ASMR contents as audio services. With on-going diverse audiobook content planning and innovative auduio production and service technologies, it is reasonable to trust Korea’s audiobook market will step up to new stages of market growth in the near future. 

 


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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