It may be hard to believe, but the team behind Nusantara Audiobooks originally had no plans to go into the business of audiobooks.
In 2015, entrepreneurs Fikri Fisal and Ady Faizal decided to start Think By Us, a multidisciplinary company with three other friends. As most of them had experience in finance, it was assumed that would be the company’s main focus. Fate, however, had other plans.
“I had never heard of audiobooks when I was here (in Malaysia), but they were a big thing when I was studying in the United States. Amazon.com had a very large audiobook section called Audible, and we were very interested in this platform, ” says Fikri during an interview at Melodiya Studios in Subang Jaya, where the company records its audiobooks.
“In 2016, we toyed with the idea, realising that there was no audiobook platform in Malaysia. And people told us we should propose the idea to one of the state institutions, ” he adds.
Fikri and partners approached the Selangor State Library (PPAS) in 2016 to discuss how the format could work in Malaysia and a collaboration was drawn up.
In 2017, Nusantara Audiobooks, the pioneering audiobook platform in Malaysia, was born. The company has since produced over 60 audiobooks, both fiction and non-fiction, in English, Bahasa Malaysia and Bahasa Indonesia.
“Our main focus is on creating appreciation for local literature on a different platform, namely audiobooks. We engage with local publishers and authors to get the rights to produce their works from a written format to an audio format, ” says Ady, Nusantara Audiobooks’ project manager.
Nusantara creates the audiobooks, which are read on an app developed in-house. According to Fikri, the company faced many challenges in the beginning since most Malaysian readers were not familiar with audiobooks.
“When we started, our first priority was to explain what audiobooks were to the public. We had to do a lot of Facebook posts about how to consume them, their benefits, and so on. It was very much a public awareness campaign!
“But over time, the public realised that audiobooks had benefits for them. We also promoted ourselves a lot during events such as the KL International Book Fair, ” says Fikri, who is now Nusantara Audiobooks’ strategy coordinator.
With the rise of podcasts, and more people being technologically savvy, the company has grown steadily. While it is primarily based in Malaysia, Nusantara’s operations has also extended to Indonesia, Singapore and Brunei.
Currently, Nusantara Audiobooks offers titles in genres such as biographies, history, literature, politics and Young Adult. The prices usually range from RM20 to RM30, but some books do cost as much as RM60. Many children’s books, on the other hand, are priced at RM12.
Nusantara Audiobooks has also produced podcasts of last year’s George Town Literary Festival (GTLF) programmes and talks, which can be heard on Spotify.
Most audiobooks take about half a month to complete, with Nusantara Audiobooks relying on 10 regular readers to help record its products. Local celebrities are also commissioned to narrate certain titles.
Nusantara’s most popular titles, Fikri reveals, are classic Malaysian works read by celebrity narrators.
One of its most downloaded audiobooks is Sejarah Melayu, read by legendary singer/composer/producer M. Nasir. The star power continues with veteran actor Wan Hanafi Su reading Hikayat Abdullah, Indonesian poet and novelist Oka Rusmini reading her book Tarian Bumi, and actress Adibah Noor reading No Harvest But A Thorn (Adibah Amin's English translation of Shahnon Ahmad's Ranjau Sepanjang Jalan). No shortage of fine literary selections.
Other popular titles are pulp novels, such as those published by Fixi, as well as modern literature such as National Laureate A. Samad Said’s classic novel Salina.
Nusantara’s most popular English title, on the other hand, is A Doctor In The House, the biography of former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, read by actor Tony Eusoff.
Recordings by the late Emeritus Professor Tan Sri Dr Khoo Kay Kim (I, KKK) and Mahadzir Lokman (Imam Di Kota Paris, Risalah Tentang Toleransi) have now also become an invaluable archive series of Malaysians who are no longer with us.
Unlike physical bookstores, Nusantara Audiobooks did not have to worry about issues such as stock, which meant it was not as affected by the pandemic as some other businesses were.
In the coming months, Ady reveals plans to increase and diversify Nusantara’s library of audiobooks. More audio-based products, such as podcasts and spoken word poetry, are also in the pipeline.
“We are always looking for new categories. We want to be an ‘audio house’ of content,” says Ady.
Both Fikri and Ady agree that audiobooks are not meant to replace physical books. Instead, audiobooks are an extension and are complementary to them.
“Audiobooks were first used to help those with sight difficulties. But through the development of smartphones and new technologies, people realised they can be useful to everyone. If you’re busy in the kitchen, or stuck in traffic, for example, those can be great times to listen to an audiobook, ” says Faisal.
“Having said that, however, there are some people who have really fallen in love with audiobooks, to the point that they love them more than physical books. Audiobooks are a totally new experience, ” Faisal concludes.
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