With an estimated value between 200 bn – 300 bn won ($167 m – $250 m) the Korean audiobook market pales beside the giants of the industry, China and the US, which Deloitte asserts controls 75% of the global ebook market.

Deloitte forecasts the global audiobook market will grow by 25% this year, to around $3.5 billion with a further $1 billion attributable to the podcasting sector.

Just how much Deloitte attributes that growth potential to the US and China rather than the smaller markets is not clear. But what we do know is that collectively the emerging markets show a lot of promise as publishers slowly get on board the digital audio bandwagon and make content available.

As always with digital it’s a chicken and egg problem, and often it takes a bold move by one or more players to make a show-of-faith investment to kickstart a new digital sector like this.

And lately that player has been the Sweden-based digital books subscription service Storytel, currently in 20 markets, and with ambitions to double that by 2023.

Storytel launched in South Korea, its third Asian market after India and Singapore, in late 2019.

This year it will launch in Thailand, followed by Indonesia in 2021.

Storytel KR told The Korea Herald:

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,

adding that following the Covid-19 outbreak in February, Storytel KR had seen a 2.5 times increase in subscribers from Q1 to Q2.

As reported by TNPS at end 2019, Naver’s Audio Clip took the Storytel KR launch as a vote of confidence in the Korean audiobook arena –

and AudioClip’s user-base jumped 72% from January to March, with downloads up 38%.

Audio Clip swallowed up Korea’s previously biggest audiobook outfit Audien in 2018 but that still leaves competition from Korea’s biggest bookstore Kyobo Book Center, ebook store Millie’s Library, Welaaa, and South Korea’s biggest podcast platform Podbbang. The National Library of Korea is to enter the audiobook arena this year. South Korea’s leading ebook store Ridibooks appears to be staying with ebooks, comics and webtoon.

Although the geographical outsider, Storytel KR has a perhaps surprising edge thanks to its 45,000 English-language audiobooks, which is something the mainstream Anglophone publishers might want to take heed of as they struggle to come to terms with the concept of a truly global digital books market.

Storytel KR told The Korea Herald:

We see that the content will especially appeal to workers in their 20-30s who want to listen to English contents.

For Anglophone publishers it’s likely little if any thought has been given to offering English-language content in markets like South Korea, and of course many Anglophone publishers are wary of the subscription model.

But pushing content to the Korean market through Storytel KR, for example (other services also carry English-language content), is effectively a chance to get x% of something as opposed to 100% of nothing.

Repeat for other emerging markets that in a pre-digital era offered no meaningfully cost-effective entry-point for English-language content.

And while the focus here is on audio, the same goes for ebooks.

Lest anyone be thinking this is a reading vs. listening issue for English-language content in non-English-speaking markets a quick reminder of the huge success story that is Big Bad Wolf, which took 2 million English-language print books to Seoul last July, for an 11-day 24/7 flash sale.

Globally Big Bad Wolf has attracted 3 million visitors and shipped 25 million English-language books to over 25 cities across eleven countries, most of which do not speak English.

But let’s here return our focus to South Korea, where Storytel offers 5,000 Korean titles, with plans to almost double that this year, employing local professional voice artists to do the job.

Storytel KR explained:

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.”

For details about Audio Clip’s celebrity narrators, checkout The Korea Herald post.

With 49 million people online South Korea shares with Egypt the coveted position of 20th largest country on the planet by internet users.