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Swedish company hopes to trigger audiobook boom

Helena Gustafsson, head of global publishing at Sweden-based audiobook streaming service Storytel, speaks during a news conference for the launch of their service in Korea, at CGV Myeongdong in Seoul, Thursday. / Courtesy of Storytel
Helena Gustafsson, head of global publishing at Sweden-based audiobook streaming service Storytel, speaks during a news conference for the launch of their service in Korea, at CGV Myeongdong in Seoul, Thursday. / Courtesy of Storytel

By Kang Hyun-kyung

Storytel, a Swedish audiobook streaming service, kicked off its service in Korea Thursday amid a growing interest in audiobooks.

Helena Gustafsson, head of global publishing at Storytel, said the Swedish streaming service will create business opportunities for local publishers which were hit hard by sluggish book sales.

"(Our consumption trend data show that in all countries,) backlist titles are more consumed than newly released books," she said during a news conference for the launch of Storytel in Korea at CGV Myeongdong in Seoul. "I think backlist titles are more popular than new books probably because of our personalized services which recommend our customers books they should try. This is good for publishers because they can create revenue with their books."

Founded in 2005 by Jon Hauksson, the Swedish company has produced over 300,000 audiobooks in 20 languages. It now has over 1 million paid subscribers. Storytel South Korea LLC was established in February, months before it kicked off its streaming services.

In Sweden, Gustafsson said audiobook streaming services have made a positive impact on physical book sales.

"We've seen 22 percent of our customers have purchased physical books in the past three months, which is 6 percent higher than that of non-audiobook consumers. Such a positive impact of audiobooks on the sales of physical books is probably because our customers are inspired to read more books," she said.

Elin Torstensson, head of the Asia Pacific region of Storytel, concurred with Gustafsson, saying audiobook customers are encouraged to buy physical books as gifts because they want to share the joy of reading with their friends, family and relatives.

Audiobook sales have rapidly increased in the United States and Northern Europe.
The U.S.-based Audio Publishers Association unveiled audiobook sales for 2018 which showed audiobook revenue last year grew by 24.5 percent, compared to the previous year, and totaled $940 million.

Some experts present an optimistic view of audiobooks as technology advancement, such as self-driving cars, enable people to have more free time, and this in turn will encourage more people to listen to books, rather than read them, during their spare time.

Torstensson said "visual fatigue" caused by the increased amount of time people spend on the internet is another reason that she thinks will motivate people to download books to listen to.

She said Storytel considered various factors before they launched their service in Korea and visual fatigue is one of them.

"Koreans are tech-savvy, and their subscription rates of internet-based platforms are high. We also considered internet speed," she said when asked why they decided to jump in the Korean audiobook market in which already several homegrown platforms are competing to increase their market share.

Gustafsson said crime/ thriller and romance novels are two of the most popular genres of audiobooks in Sweden.

"I am curious if such genres will also be popular among Koreans," she said.
She noted narrators make or break audiobooks.

"I usually call narrators the heroes of books," she said. "They can actually make the stories come alive. By choosing the right narrators for the right texts, you can create magic and the success of audiobooks hinges on them. Seventy percent of our customers choose the next books they are to listen to, based on narrators, not by authors or titles."

Serena Park, country manager of Storytel in Seoul, said the genres of audiobooks that are popular in Korea could be slightly different from those of Sweden, because of cultural differences.

"Northern Europe has longer winter nights and people there have more time to read or listen to books. And the society is quite stable. So the people there appear to prefer content they rarely experience in the real world," she said. "Unlike Sweden, I think Koreans are very stressed out and live busier, tougher lives than Swedish people do, so I guess the genres or areas of audiobooks that will be popular in Korea could be different. I think Koreans may look for books that can give them comfort and healing."

Storytel will compete with several local platforms, including Millie, for market share in audiobooks. It remains to be seen whether its presence will help increase book sales in Korea. Koreans read an average of 8 books annually.

For a monthly fee of 11,900 won ($10), subscribers can have unlimited access to 50,000 books in Korean and English. Prior to its official launch, Storytel worked with several Korean publishers to produce their audiobooks. Best-selling books, books that have the most reviews on social media and web-based fiction were turned into audiobooks.


Helena Gustafsson, head of global publishing at Sweden-based audiobook streaming service Storytel, speaks during a news conference for the launch of their service in Korea, at CGV Myeongdong in Seoul, Thursday. / Courtesy of Storytel
Helena Gustafsson, head of global publishing at Sweden-based audiobook streaming service Storytel, speaks during a news conference for the launch of their service in Korea, at CGV Myeongdong in Seoul, Thursday. / Courtesy of Storytel

By Kang Hyun-kyung

Storytel, a Swedish audiobook streaming service, kicked off its service in Korea Thursday amid a growing interest in audiobooks.

Helena Gustafsson, head of global publishing at Storytel, said the Swedish streaming service will create business opportunities for local publishers which were hit hard by sluggish book sales.

"(Our consumption trend data show that in all countries,) backlist titles are more consumed than newly released books," she said during a news conference for the launch of Storytel in Korea at CGV Myeongdong in Seoul. "I think backlist titles are more popular than new books probably because of our personalized services which recommend our customers books they should try. This is good for publishers because they can create revenue with their books."

Founded in 2005 by Jon Hauksson, the Swedish company has produced over 300,000 audiobooks in 20 languages. It now has over 1 million paid subscribers. Storytel South Korea LLC was established in February, months before it kicked off its streaming services.

In Sweden, Gustafsson said audiobook streaming services have made a positive impact on physical book sales.

"We've seen 22 percent of our customers have purchased physical books in the past three months, which is 6 percent higher than that of non-audiobook consumers. Such a positive impact of audiobooks on the sales of physical books is probably because our customers are inspired to read more books," she said.

Elin Torstensson, head of the Asia Pacific region of Storytel, concurred with Gustafsson, saying audiobook customers are encouraged to buy physical books as gifts because they want to share the joy of reading with their friends, family and relatives.

Audiobook sales have rapidly increased in the United States and Northern Europe.
The U.S.-based Audio Publishers Association unveiled audiobook sales for 2018 which showed audiobook revenue last year grew by 24.5 percent, compared to the previous year, and totaled $940 million.

Some experts present an optimistic view of audiobooks as technology advancement, such as self-driving cars, enable people to have more free time, and this in turn will encourage more people to listen to books, rather than read them, during their spare time.

Torstensson said "visual fatigue" caused by the increased amount of time people spend on the internet is another reason that she thinks will motivate people to download books to listen to.

She said Storytel considered various factors before they launched their service in Korea and visual fatigue is one of them.

"Koreans are tech-savvy, and their subscription rates of internet-based platforms are high. We also considered internet speed," she said when asked why they decided to jump in the Korean audiobook market in which already several homegrown platforms are competing to increase their market share.

Gustafsson said crime/ thriller and romance novels are two of the most popular genres of audiobooks in Sweden.

"I am curious if such genres will also be popular among Koreans," she said.
She noted narrators make or break audiobooks.

"I usually call narrators the heroes of books," she said. "They can actually make the stories come alive. By choosing the right narrators for the right texts, you can create magic and the success of audiobooks hinges on them. Seventy percent of our customers choose the next books they are to listen to, based on narrators, not by authors or titles."

Serena Park, country manager of Storytel in Seoul, said the genres of audiobooks that are popular in Korea could be slightly different from those of Sweden, because of cultural differences.

"Northern Europe has longer winter nights and people there have more time to read or listen to books. And the society is quite stable. So the people there appear to prefer content they rarely experience in the real world," she said. "Unlike Sweden, I think Koreans are very stressed out and live busier, tougher lives than Swedish people do, so I guess the genres or areas of audiobooks that will be popular in Korea could be different. I think Koreans may look for books that can give them comfort and healing."

Storytel will compete with several local platforms, including Millie, for market share in audiobooks. It remains to be seen whether its presence will help increase book sales in Korea. Koreans read an average of 8 books annually.

For a monthly fee of 11,900 won ($10), subscribers can have unlimited access to 50,000 books in Korean and English. Prior to its official launch, Storytel worked with several Korean publishers to produce their audiobooks. Best-selling books, books that have the most reviews on social media and web-based fiction were turned into audiobooks.


Kang Hyun-kyung hkang@koreatimes.co.kr


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