Why a Swedish Company Wants to Make Hebrew Audio Books

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A bookshop owner sorts books at her shop. Storytel, a Swedish company, wants to make Hebrew audio books a thing in Israel
A bookshop owner sorts books at her shop. Storytel, a Swedish company, wants to make Hebrew audio books a thing in IsraelCredit: GUGLIELMO MANGIAPANE/ REUTERS

Hebrew reader will finally be able to join the audio book craze, but it's not because one of the big players in the Israeli book market is shifting to audio. In fact, it’s a Swedish audiobook company that has decided to give Hebrew literature a digital voice.

The company, Storytel, announced this week the official launch of its activities in Israel. Its app, which is now available for download at app stores, offers tens of thousands of audiobooks, along with ebooks for digital reading - in English, Russian and now Hebrew

The readings are done by the authors themselves, or by professional voice actors.

According to a company spokesman, the catalog of Storytel audiobooks in Hebrew includes books for adults, children and teens. Among the writers are Yuval Noah Harari, A.B. Yehoshua, Savyon Leibrecht, Ram Oren, Yehoshua Kenaz, Michal Shalev, Dan Ariely and more. One can find the book “The Last Interview” by Eshkol Nevo, read by actor Tomer Sharon, and the book “Borderlife” by Dorit Rabinyan, read by Riki Blich. 

Yuval Noah Harari is one of the Hebrew authors that Storytel's service provides titles from - read in Hebrew by Israeli voice actors Credit: DENIS BALIBOUSE/ REUTERS

Storytel, which last year acquired the Israeli audiobook company iCast, is active in more than 20 countries and offers access to more than half a million titles in 30 languages. It has 1.5 million subscribers. A local subscription costs 49.90 shekels (about $15) a month (the first two weeks are free), which gives free access to their content library. 

The company also offers offline access for those who want to read without an active internet connection. Storytel’s price is 10 shekels higher than what iCast had charged, but it offers unlimited reading and listening, while iCast had limited subscribers to 80 hours of access a month.

Storytel purchased iCast in September for several million dollars. Moti Lippmann, who was CEO and one of iCast’s founders, is now publishing manager for Storytel Israel. ICast is still available in app stores, but not for much longer. The goal is to eventually phase out iCast in favor of Storytel.

Audiobooks are books that are read out loud, that can be listened to online or through an app running on a user’s phone. This allows books to be consumed much like podcasts are – while a reader is driving, doing housework, sports and more. While the concept has been around for years, audiobooks, like podcasts and music streaming, have been flourishing in recent years due to the increase in digital consumption online, certainly during the past year of the coronavirus pandemic. 

In its last financial report, Storytel estimates the audiobook market as being worth $4.5 billion, and projects 15 percent annual growth until 2030. The biggest player in this market is Audible, owned by Amazon, which has 25 million subscribers.

In Israel this market has been rather neglected; iCast was the sole player. It had 2,500 books recorded but its app was obsolete and was criticized for its limited technological capabilities and poor user interface. Users said they had abandoned the service because of problems and a bad user experience – and because of its relatively limited catalog. It also got complaints about its revenue sharing model, which paid the authors and publishers only a modest sum. 

Storytel is now trying to replicate the success of Spotify – also a Swedish company – which upon entering Israel gained control of a considerable amount of the market for local music streaming. 

Storytel identified an opportunity to inexpensively enter relatively virgin territory without competition. Storytel acquired iCast primarily for its database of titles and access to its subscribers.  Some of the authors had signed exclusive contracts with iCast, so their books cannot be uploaded to a competing service in the future. 

So for now, Storytel does not have any noteworthy competition, although the digital book company owned by Yedioth Aharonoth is looking to launch a competing audiobook service later this year. 

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