Why audiobooks are sometimes better than books

With the constant growth in the popularity of audio content, the concept of reading has changed.

What’s more, the entire concept of publishing and value chain has changed due to the ability to do more with less or existing digital real estate.

Nowhere is that more evident than in the audiobook industry. Audiobook listening habits solidified in 2020, with revenue growing 12% to $1.3 billion, the ninth straight year of double-digit growth.

Yes, this newfound craze of listening doesn’t hold its power because it’s better than reading, as many are quick to point out.

It’s not always, and neither is clearly superior.

But – there are instances where listening edges reading, such as:

Easier engagement

How we read and how we listen is tied to each individual, with one clear difference engagement-wise:

reading is a deliberate effort, where listening is more of an experience.

Therein lies one of the biggest differences for me, and a major reason why eardrums are my preferred intake method over eyeballs.

What I mean by listening being an experience is that it happens to you. It doesn’t require active involvement on our part, and it progresses with or without it. We are free to wander in our minds, tune in and out. The forward motion of the story will still be there.

It helps that audio is among the most immersive media formats that triggers memorability, trust, and connection. It’s certainly far more immersive than text, where reading requires you to actively participate and read the words that are laid out in front of your eyes. They aren’t going to read themselves, as opposed to an audiobook in which that is literally true.

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Audio adds in a dynamic that just isn’t possible in the same form with written content. Various inflections or intonations add nuances that can only be communicated via audio. 

If someone says “Ron, I really like your writing”, it can either be a sincere compliment or a sarcastic comment. On a screen, they both look the same but the inflection of spoken language would communicate the intended meaning.

When you factor in the immediacy and raw emotion of the medium into the core experience, no wonder people are listening so much these days, effectively coming full circle from the early days of radio.

Speaking of radio, that’s how my love for audio started. Every Friday at 7 PM, I’d learn about history by listening to the radio show “Sha’a Historit” (Historical Hour) hosted by the late prof. Michael Har Segor. 

I’ll always remember with great fondness how I felt listening and experiencing those stories, along with the emotions they evoked. None of these things would be more valid or impactful in any way if I read them from a physical book or an ebook (fine, there were no such things when I was growing up, but roll with me) – it’s just not the same. 

More accessibility and in some cases, comprehension

Listening takes a big win here, particularly because it helps a massive segment of the world population: the visually impaired and blind.

According to WHO, at least 2.2 billion people across the globe have some form of vision impairment. What’s more, continual population growth and aging are expected to increase the risk of more people acquiring vision impairment. 

Vision impairment severely impacts the quality of life among every demographic. 

For young children, there is a high probability of delayed motor, language, emotional, social, and cognitive development, which can result in lifelong consequences. 

Adults with vision impairment often exhibit lower rates of workforce participation and productivity, while simultaneously showing higher rates of depression, anxiety, and social isolation.

It’s important to note that reading is not just a difficult activity for some, it’s entirely impossible for a massive chunk of people. Leveraging any form of audio to transform or complement textual content into a more accessible audio version of it helps mitigate these effects to a large degree.

There is another segment of the population that benefits from listening: people who are illiterate and/or have low reading skills or learning disabilities. 

For them, audio is an excellent bridge between decoding and comprehension for struggling readers. Simply put, some things are more easily communicated via audio than text.

Research has shown that audio can be the tool necessary to automatize the decoding process while providing reinforcement when it comes to reading. In other words: hearing a text read aloud while following along its printed version benefits people who are either reluctant to read or have a low rate of fluency.

For instance, when children are able to hear the words and phrases, they pick up on the speed and prosody (changes in pacing, pitch, and rhythm in speech) and are able to accurately identify more words. As such, the audiobook serves as a positive fluency model for the reader to link word recognition and comprehension.

Headphone hanging on a text book | 💾 Marco Verch is a Profe… | Flickr

During reading, two things happen: decoding and language processing. Decoding is figuring out words from a combination of letters. Language processing is understanding those words. 

Now, I have no intention of debating whether understanding is any different depending on reading or listening because a lot of it depends on the context (more on that later).

Still, the fact is that audiobooks remove the decoding element of reading. One study showed that if you’re listening to a story, you’re obtaining the same understanding of it as if you’re reading it. It proved that there is a common core of comprehension processes that underlie both listening and skilled reading.

Now, you may ask what is the big deal here. It’s not big at all if you are a skilled reader because it’s not much of an effort for you. 

But not everybody is. For someone with reading difficulty, decoding can seriously impact the time it takes to get to the comprehension stage. This not only removes any joy of a story but turns it into hard work, which nobody wants.

With listening, both comprehension and cognition are going simultaneously, thus reducing the gap between lower-level reading processes on one side and comprehension and content mastery on the other.

The bottom line is that accessibility in the era of audio and voice revolution is changing for the better. There is a huge opportunity to make sure nobody is left behind, particularly a significant portion of the population.

I always say to look at listening from another perspective, especially if you are loaded with content. That content had to come from somewhere, meaning you put a certain amount of effort into it. So, why not have it available in more, perhaps even all formats and channels?

More convenience

Besides having a hugely important social role for the two aforementioned categories of the world population, having content accessible in an audio form is always welcome. 

For starters, screen fatigue is real. Even before the pandemic, more than half of Gen Z and Millennials, two of the most media-savvy generations, said there was too much visual stimulation.

Then, we started staring at a screen even more with Zoom, Netflix binging, and whatnot. For the vast majority of people, staring at a screen after staring at a screen for the better part of the day is hardly the thing they want. 

And yes, good old print books aren’t a screen, but for the sake of this article I’m comparing the experience of reading via an electronic reader such as Kindle to the experience of listening to an audiobook. Obviously, reading a “regular” book doesn’t apply to this point.

So, many readers find audio as a nice escape from the everyday visual bombardment. Listening not only has the ability to reach people in situations where most visual media can’t, but it also adds a welcome pinch of creativity when it comes to various activities such as working out, listening with kids, improving mental health, staying informed, and multitasking in general.

People want access to quality content and screen-free time, and audio fits in beautifully in that regard. With audiobooks, people don’t listen just to distract themselves. They do it because it’s convenient for a multitude of reasons, including effectively navigating around all the screen exhaustion and visual saturation. It is an attempt to find extra time for themselves.

In addition, storytelling has been one of the pillars of human nature since the dawn of time. Listening offers a unique personal perception of a story as it relies on audio’s capacity to convey emotion. In turn, that power of emotion transcends social, cultural, and racial differences, and forms an almost visceral connection with deeply personal emotional moments.

It’s a work of art, especially if the experience is happening while doing a mundane task. 

Effective listening depends on the context, though

It’s important to note that both reading and listening are better suited to different purposes. One may be a better option than the other due to the content at hand.

It also depends on the person consuming the content. Generally, listening to an audiobook takes less effort and is more convenient for the average person but reading can be just as effective.

Research shows that the brain processes information the same way whether we listen to an audiobook, read an ebook, or do both. Listening activates the brain network specialized for auditory processing, while reading activates the network for visual processing, thus engaging different brain pathways that lead to the same level of comparable comprehension and retention.

However, the research used non-fiction text material that was more narrative in style, which isn’t always the case with content. Hence, the topic’s complexity affects brain processes and resulting comprehension.

For instance, light topics such as entertainment require less mental machinery for the brain to comprehend. For more complex topics and technical texts, it has to work harder to understand information, which favors reading because of the way we process said information.

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Understanding dense material often necessitates going back and forth with it. So, it’s much easier to flip or swipe between pages of a book than it is to go through an audio playback. It’s more difficult to pick up on every nuance laid down.

From a purely sentimental side, listening also has another drawback. Experiences such as getting the feel of the paper, sniffing a new book, or appreciating the font face are hard to beat. Books are tangible and as a species, we like tangible things. 

In the end, it’s safe to say that audiobooks count as reading, for the better part. There is really no clear-cut answer here as going for one medium over the other depends on what and why you’re consuming, as well as your own preferences.

Audiobook creation is expensive – but there is a solution

These days, books have multiple streams of revenue (in case of audio and ebooks), making publishing an attractive business.

Yet, making audiobooks remains expensive.

In general, there are two standard ways book publishers are producing audiobooks:

  1. Doing it in-house
  2. Hiring a dedicated production company

For an audiobook containing between around 60k words, in-house production would require:

  • Minimum of 16 hours of recording studio time;
  • Minimum two weeks of post-recording editing;
  • $500 on average for every hour spent in a professional studio.

The math behind these numbers is punishing. 

A 60k word book, on average, requires slightly under 7 hours of recording time, start to finish. 

This doesn’t include breaks, rerecording mistakes, discussions of potentially problematic areas of the book, and so on. This is a highly variable process so the number of studio hours will be greater than the hours of finished audio, meaning the cost is higher if the book is longer.

In fact, online data suggests it takes between 2.5 hours and 3.5 hours of recording and editing to produce 1 hour of finished audio.

The more conservative estimate is that it takes more than $8,000 and 100 hours to self-produce an audiobook.

If you opt to hire an audiobook production company, you typically have two business models to choose from:

  • Pay 50% of the earnings for the next 7 years
  • Pay $1500 + 20% of the earnings. 

Again, there are a lot of variables here such as the length of your book, speech rate, recording experience, genre, and so on. It’s difficult to provide an average cost but it’s a good indicator of how cost-effective the entire operation is, or more likely – isn’t.

So what is the answer here?

Three simple words: audio AI solutions.

The ongoing growth in audiobooks forms a larger trend of audio content growth. There is a potentially huge role for AI in book publishing to radically change the audiobook production process, significantly cutting down on production costs and offering high scalability. 

Translated into numbers, an average 60k word book would cost less than $300 per book and take less than an hour of audio creation time.

This process not only augments but is much quicker than the standard way book publishers have been making audiobooks. That means people can now access a much wider range of books faster than before.

It’s all thanks to text-to-speech technology that plays an important role in the audio and voice revolution.

Thanks to deep learning models, there are speaking styles specifically created for long-form audio content. This enables a speech that has more natural pauses between paragraphs, as well as dialogs between different characters.

Technology is advancing at a fast pace, coming up with new ways to refine the listening experience. It’s possible to pair text with audio and follow the text while listening to the content, synchronize highlighting for people with disabilities, set different voices, styles, and reading speeds for different parts of the content, convert it to multiple languages, and so on. 

There is no shortage of options to make listening more pleasant and accessible. Voice technology such as text-to-speech is an evolving medium that represents exciting opportunities to innovate, especially when it comes to narration and storytelling.

Two sides of the same coin

For most books and for most purposes, listening and reading are more or less the same thing. They are different forms of the same work and as such, which one you engage with depends on how much time you are willing to give to it and what you hope to get out of it.

Still, it’s important to note that a growing part of the publishing industry is now identifying audio and specific products as key drivers of subscription growth. Audiobooks have a considerable role in this audio renaissance, becoming one of the go-to modes for entertainment that promotes multitasking. 

For publishers and content creators, the best user experiences will come from treating both reading and listening as equals, understanding the nuances between the two and figuring out how to use them interchangeably.

Smooth transition from existing textual materials to AI-driven audio content may spur growth, supported with easy integration and access on smart devices. There is something that will always be enthralling about being read to, with a tight emotional grip that only intimate listening can provide.

As long as there is an audience, there will be a need for audio storytelling.

Right now, it’s a pretty big audience.


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