5 Min Read
* Expanding into Russia, Spain, India and UAE this year
* Has spent about $46 mln on string of acquisitions
* Sales have doubled annually since 2009
* Shares up 130 pct in past year
By Helena Soderpalm
STOCKHOLM, June 15 (Reuters) - Fast-growing audio books company Storytel will expand into several new markets in the coming years while steering clear of English-speaking countries where rival Audible dominates, the Swedish company's chief executive said.
The 12-year-old company bought one of Sweden's most vaunted publishing houses, Norstedts, last year in what has been a string of deals for a business that has become a symbol of the rapid transformation of the sector.
The acquisition of Norstedts, founded in 1823 and the publisher of several Nobel Prize winners and Stieg Larsson's bestselling Millennium trilogy and sequels, was described by the Dagens Nyheter newspaper as one of the biggest changes ever for the Swedish book market.
"There was a great deal of fuss about it. But I still think people appreciated that someone who was into books and stories became the owner (of Norstedts)," CEO and founder Jonas Tellander, a former executive at Swiss drugmaker Roche, told Reuters.
Yet the deal might never have happened had Tellander not secured cash on TV show Dragons' Den, on which entrepreneurs seek financing from venture capitalists, effectively saving his budding business from bankruptcy.
While Amazon's Audible dominates markets such as the United States, Germany and Britain, Storytel is investing heavily to become the leader in countries and languages off the beaten track of its bigger competitor.
Having almost doubled sales annually since 2009, Storytel now has a market capitalisation of 3.5 billion Swedish crowns ($401 million) and its share price has jumped by 130 percent in the past year to 72.50 crowns.
Expectations are high, with Morningstar data showing the company has a price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio of 481.
Investors are betting that Storytel, which has spent about 400 million crowns on acquisitions, can replicate the success achieved in its current markets, where paying subscribers rose 40 percent to 380,000 in the first quarter.
Storytel has more than 6,000 audio book titles, compared with Audible's 180,000-plus, delivering its content to the mobile devices of customers in Scandinavia, the Netherlands and Poland.
Much like with music service Spotify, Storytel subscribers pay a monthly fee for unlimited access to streamed audio books, which can also be saved in offline mode on Apple or android devices.
Expansion into Spain, India and the United Arab Emirates will follow Russia this year, but without the financial of a heavyweight parent such as Amazon, Storytel faces the challenge of refilling cash coffers to fund its growth.
It raised 122 million crowns in financing last year.
"We are looking in all countries. We just need to find the right set-up and the right people," Tellander said.
The company also faces the challenge of taking on new languages and the need to find the right local entrepreneurs, said Erik Sprinchorn, fund manager at Swedbank Robur, which has close to a 5 percent stake in Storytel.
Tellander said that Storytel is seeking access to the rights of 4,000 existing titles in Russia but is also starting its own production of audio books for the Indian market as well as in Arabic and Spanish, with new stories from local authors.
Mirroring the strategy of movie streaming giant Netflix , both Storytel and Audible are betting that original content written exclusively for their platforms will attract more subscribers.
The company made an operating profit of 25.5 million crowns last year, though heavy expansion and high marketing costs pushed it into the red again in the first quarter.
Swedbank's Sprinchorn said it was nearly impossible to forecast market growth, but the global audiobook industry is currently valued at $3.5 billion, according to news website GoodEreader, referring to the Association of American Publishers.
A few years ago many people were unwilling to pay for something they couldn't hold in their hands, Tellander said. Spotify and Netflix have changed that.
"Once they succeed in a market, the likelihood that people will want to pay for Storytel increases. We are following their footsteps and eyeing their markets," he said. ($1 = 8.7185 Swedish crowns)
Editing by Niklas Pollard and David Goodman