Arab publishers could be sitting on a treasure trove of titles, just waiting to be converted to audiobooks.
This was one of the key takeaways from the International Congress of Arabic Publishing and Creative Industries on Sunday.
Organised by the Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Centre and held at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre, the event featured panel discussions exploring some of the latest trends in Arabic publishing.
In a session on the growth of audiobooks and podcasts, industry leaders encouraged regional publishers to accommodate the latest developments or risk being left behind.
“They should think about what titles they own because most are sitting on a back catalogue that can be potentially valuable as audiobooks which can be presented to a new audience,” said George Walkley, a publishing consultant and former group digital director at Hachette UK.
“It is also worth thinking about who listens to spoken word content.
“I did some work with an audio platform in the UK, for example, and we have seen that our biggest demographic were between 18 and 24.
“These are not segments that are historically high book spenders, so this shows how audio books can allow you to reach a new audience.”
A matter of fairness
This is a trend streaming platform Anghami has followed, according to vice president of product Mohammed Al Ogaily.
Headquartered in Abu Dhabi, Anghami expanded its audiobook catalogue last year through a partnership with Wajeez, a Saudi company home to more than 3,500 audio summaries of popular fiction and nonfiction titles.
“We do feel that this is a natural progression as consumers now want to go to one place which has all the content they want,” he says.
“They get annoyed that they have to subscribe to so many different platforms to get that.
“We have already reached that stage when it comes to music being available at one place and audio content, such as audiobooks and podcasts, should follow and be available at a one-stop shop.”
While ideal for customers, such streamlining raises new challenges.
With audiobook tracks longer in duration and fewer in number than music albums and singles, streaming platforms need to create a financially equitable system for audiobook content creators.
“Music is one thing and podcasts are something else,” Al Ogaily says.
“So the challenge is how do we put the content in the same place but still be fair to the creators and give them the value they need to keep them creating that content.”
Karim Beidoun, chief executive of Lebanese podcasting network Hakawati is confident that platforms will make the necessary shifts to accommodate audio content.
“Podcasting is talk radio 2.0 and it’s going to continue to grow exponentially alongside music streaming,” he says.
“Industry research has shown that when a listener adopts podcasts it doesn't eat into music streaming.
“They just adjust their listening habits to accommodate both mediums. So they end up spending more time on streaming apps which is great for the platform and for us.”
Will AI take over audiobook production?
Voice technology is also spurring the growth of audio content.
Helena Gustafsson, chief content officer of Swedish audiobook and eBook subscription service Storytel, is cautious of suggestions that AI will totally revolutionise the creation of audio content.
“When it comes to audiobooks we have found more success in fiction than nonfiction works.
“This is why I think AI-generated content is probably more suited to podcasts because they often deal with facts,” she says.
“But I do think AI does have the potential to help the industry in that it gives more options to consumers – they can hear several different voice recordings of the same book.”
Beidoun bristles at the suggestion that AI technology could potentially render audio production companies such as Hakawati obsolete.
“I think there is a lot overhyping happening right now when it comes to AI because that is how you get the investments pouring in,” he says.
“I feel that AI is nothing more than a tool that can help streamline production and minimise some of the obstacles that can get in the way of the creative process.
“If we are going to go forward as an industry then we have to solve the challenge of discoverability on platforms.
“There is a lot of content out there, so the issue is how do we set up the right algorithms to help us find the best content better. This is what we really need to look at.”