When people learn that I spend 15-20 hours each week reading books, they tell me “That’s unbelievable.” When I tell them that more than half of the time is spent listening to audiobooks, they tell me “That’s not reading.”
According to the Audio Publishers’Association, audiobook customers are frequent book readers who leverage audiobooks to “read” while pursuing other lifestyle activities. They are well educated tend to be older (30+) and are attuned to book trends through reviews and bestseller lists.Children’s audiobooks are also a formidable part of the market, as many families choose them for in-car entertainment or an at-home hobby, as well as many teachers and schools using them for educational tools.
Like most listeners, I use audiobooks while traveling, commuting and during lifestyle activities such as exercising, relaxing, cooking, cleaning, gardening, crafting, walking the dog, etc.
During the past 10 years, I’ve spend more than 5,000 hours listening to nearly 600 audiobooks. I discovered audible.com five years before Amazon and I’ve been a dedicated listener ever since. I’ve exhausted the fictional works of Ben Bova, Orson Scott Card, George R. Martin, Robert Jordan, Stephen King, Joe Ambercrombie, Dean Kootz, Christopher Moore, Kevin Hearne, Christopher Paolini, Jim Butcher, Patrick Rothfuss, Jonathan Stroud, S.M. Stirling, Angie Sage, Ken Follette, Dan Brown, Robert Heinlein and lesser-known fiction writers. I’ve also explored physics, history, and foreign language and other non-fiction offerings.
What I learned is this: I enjoy (always unabridged) fiction in audiobook format. Non-fiction is better on paper.
Blessed are the Storytellers
With the right narrator, audiobooks are a good replacement for reading fiction for attentive listeners. It’s the real deal. Sometimes, it’s better. Unabridged fiction can be far superior to the printed page with the right narrator. Audiobook publishers look for professional narrators or actors and actresses that have voice and dramatic training, are able to use dialects and accents, can respond to direction, have the stamina that being in a closed studio for many hours requires, and ultimately deliver the feeling behind the author’s intent of the book or project. Frequently, the author approves the choice of narrator. The role of the narrator is ‘cast’ as it would be for many other forms of drama, only in most audiobooks, the performer usually plays all of the parts (although there are also books performed by multiple narrators or a full cast). Once a narrator begins working on a specific series, it’s unusual for them to be replaced.
There’s nothing worse (or more disruptive) than having a ‘change of narrators’ part-way through a series. I nearly abandoned Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series for this reason. After listening to 100s of hours, a new narrator took . His cadence, characterization and affinity for pronouncing names differently than his predecessor made the hand off almost intolerable.
It’s common to for audiobook readers to discover new authors by following the works of narrators they enjoy. I’m as committed to the narrative works of Scott Brick, Roy Dotrice, Kay Reading, John Lee, Stefan Rudnicki, Stephen Hoye, and Luke Daniels as I am by the authors they represent — sometimes more so. A good narrator can soften the rough edges of a new writer — and a bad narrator can destroy the best works. That is why authors and narrators tend to pair themselves off — at least by book series — to ensure a consistent experience for their listeners, aka ‘readers’.
For fictional works, I think unabridged audiobooks are akin to reading. Although, I often purchase hard copies of my favorite audiobook experiences. I do this to experience the books as intended. I also like to collected signed books — and to support the author.
Just the Facts
When it comes to nonfiction works, audiobooks are only a good supplement to the real deal. Without the ability to review, underline, lookup, skip, write notes, or easily cross reference, I’ve had limited success listening to nonfiction books despite 100s of hours trying. History books seem to be the easiest nonfiction works to digest. Books on physics, math, foreign languages and work-related concepts that you want to revisit aren’t ideal. In the past 10 years, there has been only one audiobook, Re-Imagine, by Tom Peters, where the audiobook was better than the printed copy. In this rare case, it was because the book was over-designed to the point where it became unreadable and the audiobook alternative provided the consistency and structure that the printed version lacked.
The Real Deal
Still having doubts about whether an audiobook can be a better experience than the printed original? Experience this audiobook, as narrated by Samuel L. Jackson.
Credit: cartoon by Doug Savage of Savage Chickens.