Accessing English audiobooks is easy, with scores of audiobook platforms lying in wait at the tip of your fingers. But if you are a reader of Bangla literature, you are out of luck.
If you are a book lover, you know how challenging it has become to carve out some time to sit down and read a book, amidst busy schedules and the constant distractions of modern life.
Some of your peers may have turned to audiobooks as an occasional substitute for good-old reading.
They are, however, most certainly readers of English books. Accessing English audiobooks is easy, with scores of audiobook platforms lying in wait at the tip of your fingers. But if you are a reader of Bangla literature, you are out of luck.
While there were some scattered sources for audiobooks created through personal initiatives, there were hardly any with dedicated studios, professional narrators, and thousands of copyrighted books. That is, until ShunBoi came along.
Packed with more than a thousand audiobooks, the ShunBoi application is available for smartphones. The platform can be an endearing companion on the go when you have little time to spare but would love to immerse yourself in your favourite story with all your favourite characters. In an interview with The Business Standard, Shahariar Hridoy, co-founder and CEO of Shunboi, discussed the story behind the founding of his platform and the direction in which it is headed. “During the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, my friend Bitul Boishnob [the other co-founder and COO] and I became interested in audiobooks and podcasts. We dug deep and found that audiobooks are vastly popular in English speaking countries. I was particularly devouring audiobooks during those lazy days of the pandemic. That is when the idea of a Bangla application was born,” said Shahariar.
As he listened to audiobooks in English, he noticed the gap in the market for high-quality, professionally narrated Bangla audiobooks. He felt the urge to do something to fill this gap and make literature more accessible to Bangla speakers.
Shahariar studied in the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Department at Daffodil University. Despite being from a non-tech background, his passion for UI/UX design and product design ultimately encouraged him to found a startup.
“As a UI/UX designer, I had a sense for product management, about how to deal with coders, and how to respond to customers’ needs. I have had the opportunity to work in close contact with people in the tech industry as well. Being well connected with tech people made it easier to build a startup.”
In April 2021, the duo officially launched their services through a beta app on the Google Play Store. The beginning was quite humble though; with only 10 books, a little more than 20 book summaries, and a couple of amateur narrators who mostly recorded audios on the phone.
Among the first books available through the app were “Deshe Bideshe” by Syed Mujtaba Ali and “Komolakanter Doptor” by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee.
Shahariar said, “Initially, we had a few narrators who only recorded with their phones from home, which to be frank, were of passable quality. But we thought, without much expectation, it was the best move at the time as people kept spending more time at home.
“But within three months of our debut, we had listeners from 45 countries, with an engagement rate of 12 minutes and 33 seconds per session. The most popular books were ‘Komolakanter Doptor’ by Bamkim Chandra, ‘Moyal’ by Munir Hasan, and some help-self books such as ‘Dopamine Detox’ by Thibaut Meurisse, ‘Zero to One’ by Peter Thiel, etc.,” he added.
At present, ShunBoi commands the copyrights of about a thousand books. According to Shahariar, new books are being added every week with the hundreds of existing short stories, summaries, and novels. Books of every kind can be found on the app. And so far, 20,000 Bangla listeners have tuned to ShunBoi from 75 countries.
Interestingly, while not intended originally that way, they found out that most of ShunBoi’s listeners are from outside the country. In fact, more than 70% of them are expatriate Bangalis living mostly in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and the Middle East. In addition, Bangalis in West Bengal also form a significant portion of its customer base. “We have found our strong customer base outside Bangladesh. Naturally, our target and business model has shifted towards the expatriates. The biggest reason is that while they want to read Bangla books, they do not have easy and inexpensive access to them. Hardcovers are costly in the West and sometimes take weeks to be delivered. And in many countries, most notably in the Middle East, they probably don’t have any access to Bangla books at all. With our platform, they can easily have the audio version of books ready for them to enjoy,” the founder said.
In November 2022, ShunBoi revamped its business model by incorporating monthly and yearly subscription options. The monthly subscription costs Tk399 and the yearly subscription fee is Tk4,069. Earlier, it was completely free to use from its inception in April 2021. Nevertheless, one could still listen to a few complementary books for free. Anyone can subscribe to ShunBoi with Visa or Mastercard. The process is handled by SSLCOMMERZ — a payment gateway facilitator.
ShunBoi wants to create an alternative income source platform for writers, publishers, and narrators. And compensating all the people involved in the making of an audiobook requires financial resources. However, he admitted that Bangladeshi customers are not used to subscribing to services for an app.
“We are on a journey to create a different market. As we share revenue with all of our writers, publishers, and narrators, a subscription model was necessary to sustain our business.”
One official from Sheba Prokashoni said, “The audiobook industry in Bangladesh still has a long way to go. It’s in the very early stages. While there is not much profit to be gained at the moment, in the future, it could be a viable sector. Initially we had some reservations, then we wanted to be part of the change, part of the future.”
The good news is that in the last two months, more than 400 people have subscribed to ShunBoi, said Shahariar. Just like their core audience base, most of the subscribers too are from outside Bangladesh.
Presently, ShunBoi employs a pool of 45 narrators who are compensated, based on the reach of their content. On average, they pay a few thousand taka per content every month, depending on the reach. Some of them are professional voice artists, bringing new flair to storytelling and adding new depth in characterising the world they inhabit.
“We emphasise on characterisation [different voices for different characters]. For some books, one voice is enough, but for others, multiple narrators are needed. After initial planning, we choose narrators for that particular character from our pool. We assign them appropriate roles. Then they record voices in our studio according to schedule,” Shahariar explained.
“All of our books have copyrights; unlike other similar platforms that have appeared in the meantime. We also share analytics — listener numbers, location, reviews, feedback, and preferences — with our writers, publishers and narrators,” he further said.
Shahariar also shared how difficult it was to convince people in the book industry to give them permission to make audiobooks. Publishers and writers were very reluctant at first, he said. While technological adoption is slow, it is progressing and Shahariar hopes for the best of the future of audiobooks.
For a long time, all the costs pertaining to running the startup were carried out by the two co-founders. Around six months ago, they got their first funding from Turtle Venture Studio, a startup accelerator and incubator. Turtle also provided ShunBoi with a dedicated place and setup for the studio, and provided other technical assistance.
In addition, ShunBoi managed to obtain a small pre-seed funding two weeks ago. In the coming days, ShunBoi hopes to raise more funds from other investors.