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[Weekender] Audiobook market expands in Korea, buoyed by COVID-19

Users have greater choice of titles, unique content as competition for market share grows

(123rf)
(123rf)

“I used to checkout sets of Harry Potter audiobook tapes from the public library and listen to it with my brother when I was in elementary school. Now I listen to audiobooks while commuting to work by bus and sometimes it reminds me of my childhood,” Kim Jung-yeon, a 34-year-old office worker, said.

For Kim, who spent most of her childhood in Canada, audiobooks are a familiar form of content that she has enjoyed since she was young, but for many Koreans, this is not the case.

“I did watch actor Kim Hye-soo’s TV commercials about audiobook app but I don’t think I will use it. It’s too different from reading books. Also, I usually write little notes about my thoughts in my book while reading. You cannot do that with audio,” Son Ki-yeon, a 28-year-old university student, said.

“I do not even read e-books. I think books should be read in an old fashion way,” Min Soo-yeon, a 29-year-old working for a marketing company, said.

The local audiobook market is currently estimated to be worth between 200 billion and 300 billion won ($166.9 million and $250.3 million), which is small compared to the global audio market.

International consulting firm Deloitte predicts that the global audiobook market will grow by 25 percent to $3.5 billion this year. It also said that the US and China account for around 75 percent of the global audiobook market.

Despite some existing hurdles, many companies still see that Korea’s audiobook market has high growth potential.

Global audiobook company Storytel launched in Korea last November for this reason.

“Korea is Storytel’s third country that it entered in Asia, after Singapore and India. It is the first non-English speaking country. We decided to enter Korea because Koreans have a high understanding of using subscription-based services on apps. Also, although the rate of people reading books is low here, they do have a high will to read more books,” a Storytel Korea spokesperson told The Korea Herald.

The local audiobook market has been showing signs of further growth ever since COVID-19 broke out in late February, which led to an increase in the amount of time people spend indoors.

According to Storytel, its number of users increased by 2.5 times during the second quarter of this year compared to the first quarter.

In March, the number of users for IT giant Naver’s audio content service Audio Clip jumped 72 percent compared to the number of users of the service in January. The number of book contents that were played in March also increased by 38 percent.

As competition in the audiobook market is growing with companies like Korea’s biggest bookstore Kyobo Book Center and e-book startup Millie’s Library also entering the market, firms are coming up with different strategies to become the market leader.

Storytel’s competitive edge is its collection of over 45,000 English audiobooks, which it compiled to appeal to users in Europe.

“We see that the content will especially appeal to workers in their 20-30s who want to listen to English contents,” the Storytel spokesperson added.

The Swedish company also provides around 5,000 Korean contents and plans to add 2,000 to 3,000 more Korean audiobooks by the end of this year.

Storytel added that its other competitive advantage is that its books are recorded by professional voice actors.

“Many companies use celebrities but we see that the quality of the content is better when they are recorded by professional voice actors. Also, we provide the entire book, while some local companies only provide some parts of the book.”

Naver’s Audio Clip is one of Storytel’s competitors presents some of its contents jointly with celebrities.

Actor Kim Tae-ri recorded the classic Korean modern literature “The Wings” by Yi Sang. Over 64,000 people have listened to this content, according to Naver. Actor Seo Yi-suk also recorded “Kyonghui” written by Na Hye-seok and more than 1,200 audiobooks were listened in the first week of its release.

“We are not only focusing on providing content with celebrities. We also have content recorded by professional voice actors as well. We make our decision during the planning stage through discussing with publishers and writers,” Naver spokesperson Yang Ha-na said.

However, Naver admitted that contents recorded by celebrities, especially K-pop stars, sell well. “We have audiobook recorded by K-pop boy band Got 7’s member Jinyoung and it was popular among the group’s fans,” Yang added.

Korean audiobook startup Welaaa is also marketing its brand aggressively through a commercial featuring the popular Korean actor Kim Hye-soo. The startup said it selected Kim for her image as an avid reader. Kim also recorded Park Wan-suh‘s book “My Beautiful Neighbor.”

Providing exclusive content is also another strategy for differentiation. Naver is introducing new novels exclusively through Audio Clip. Kim Yeon-su’s new serial novel was first released as an audiobook. The complete book was published afterward.

Moreover, Naver also introduced an audio series based on classic titles called “Kim Tae-ri’s Recover Book.” Kim introduces classic Western novels through a brief summary of the content.

“The series selects classic novels that are difficult to read on my own. Kim Tae-ri reads a summary of the novel and also some impressive parts in the book. She also adds a brief review of the book. It is educational,” Park Yoo-jin, a listener, said. Park said she usually listens to the series while doing household chores.

“Also, Kim’s voice sounds really nice and there is also peaceful background music. It is very comforting,” Park added.

Meanwhile, the National Library of Korea is also preparing to provide special audiobook content in collaboration with EBS this year.

“We plan to produce 30 audiobooks on Korean short novels and broadcast them through EBS’s radio channel during the second half of 2020,” a?National Library official said. “We will also provide these contents through our library website at the end of the year.”

By Song Seung-hyun (ssh@heraldcorp.com)
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