In the never-ending quest to multitask, Chinese book lovers are making the jump from e-books to audiobooks.
But where the foreign audiobook industry has a history dating back to cassettes and an established pool of professional readers, China’s late arrival has put it on a different path.
The Audio Publishers Association recorded the legal publishing of 7,237 audiobooks in the US in 2011, an increase of 17 percent from the previous year. The growth marks the tail end of an audiobook boom that began in 2009.
In China, the boom is just beginning.
There are more than 200 websites and 200 apps offering audiobooks to 130 million Chinese listeners, according to The Paper. Himalayan FM, China’s biggest platform for audio file sharing, predicted the audiobook industry could be valued at 300 billion yuan within the next few years.
But that promising future hinges on how the fledgling industry manages to control its audio quality and weave around legal pitfalls.
The late arrival of audiobooks to China has left many popular texts unrecorded: the first round of apps made up for missing books by using the text-to-speech technology present in popular smart devices.
But beyond that crude robotic speech, app makers have been cultivating new pools of user-contributed readings and professional recordings.
Himalayan FM and Litchi FM have been especially active in recruiting fledgling authors to contribute both their own original works as well as corresponding recordings made with common software.
Kting, a competing platform, focuses on the professional model and pays authors to pen and record custom stories for its users.
The competition between free, crowd-sourced content and professionally made content is an old one last fought in the streaming video arena. But unlike in video – where sound troubles can be forgiven in audiobooks sound is paramount.
The poor quality of many user-submitted readings left early listeners disappointed. Finding a way to weed out poor quality recordings before they reach users remains a daunting task for sites that rely on the crowd-sourcing model.
But even professional recordings fall short, as most users are no longer content to be passive consumers of content. Many users aspire to be a broadcaster, reciting either their own articles of famous literary works.
Poor user retention and growing demand has led the industry to splinter into some 200 apps that attempt to combine the models and improve the audiobook experience. Taking a few pointers from Old Time Radio shows, Kting has started to hire multiple readers for each book to play the different roles in its recordings.
But while the search for the perfect platform continues, copyright problems loom ever closers.
Content is king, even in the world of audiobooks. No one wants to spend hours listening to a bad story.
Most of the public domain works worth recording have been recorded: now audiobook platform operators must battle for the rights to modern literature.
Kting recently purchased recording rights from dozens of writers to release its own versions of Yan Geling’s The Flowers of War, Liu Heping’s All Quiet in Peking, and Rao Xueman’s The Left Ear.
But with the country’s less-than-enthusiastic approach to copyright protection, finding a way to protect each platform’s recordings from its competitors will prove difficult.
In a recent case, Tencent was sued by Jinjiang Corp for distributing its recording of The Journey of Flower on Penguin FM. The case is currently being heard, but Jinjiang is seeking 7 million yuan in damages.
To combat such theft, Oxygen Tingshu launched an audiobook anti-piracy alliance last year. But fears of such cases have led many audiobook site operators to pursue the cheaper option of producing their own material.
It’s as hard to imagine audiobook platform operators charging for their materials as it is to imagine Chinese listeners paying for access.
While foreign bookstores have long dedicated shelf space to audiobooks, in China digital materials are still expected “to be free.”
Sina.com said only 19 percent of the users it polled would be willing to pay for audiobooks, and even then they would never consider paying more than 10 yuan.
Kting’s solution has been to charge its exclusive content and to give out user-generated content for free. While it appears to be working for now, it’s hard to say how its business will survive the arrival of more companies to the industry.
If the development of China’s streaming media industry is any indicator, the Chinese audiobook landscape of 2020 will look quite different from the one that users see today.