Why Audio Is Better Than Print

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

audiobooks, print booksI’m always surprised by the hesitancy with which some people approach audiobooks. Despite their ability to offer consumers a uniquely beneficial experience with the text, the format is frequently met with reservations.

Last month, Daniel Berkowitz discussed some of those misgivings in his piece “Audiobooks Make Me Feel Like I’m Cheating” for this publication. Berkowitz wonders if we can consider audiobooks on par with books; if the reading experience is still pure if you’re multitasking; if “reading” is an appropriate verb for consuming audiobooks; and if one can remain loyal to their love of books if they listen to audio.

My answer is yes—to all of the above. And it might come as no surprise that I actually think that reading is better in audio.

And yes, I call it “reading.” Consuming a book, whether you do that in hardcover, braille, tablet or audio, constitutes reading in my book. To suggest otherwise is discourteous to those who don’t have the choice. But what’s particularly exciting when you’re reading a book with your ears, rather than your eyes, is the whole world of possibility that instantly emerges.

1. Performance – Narrators bring a book to life in extraordinary ways. Whether it’s the theatrics of a full cast version complete with music and sound effects, or the intimacy of a celebrity reading you their memoir with the exact intonation they envisioned when they wrote it, there’s nothing more powerful than excellent narration. My appreciation for comedic timing, the rhythm of literary prose, and the eerie quality of mysteries and thrillers (there’s no reading ahead!) are all heightened through an auditory experience.

2. Retention – Numerous studies have refuted the commonly held idea that when it comes to learning and memory, listening to audio is inferior to reading print. In fact, both are equally great ways for your brain to absorb and comprehend information. But since audiobooks have to be intentionally paused (rather than your eyes wandering off the page), and you have the ability to speed up the narration, audiobooks lend themselves to more focused and efficient consumption of books.

3. Multitasking – You can’t read a paperback when you’re exercising, doing chores or are stuck in traffic. Average commute times in the United States are just shy of half an hour and are much steeper in urban centers, making audiobooks a flexible way to enjoy books that you just might not have the time for otherwise. I wouldn’t call this cheating, though—just making the best of our new reality: our lives are only going to keep getting busier.

And if you’re still not swayed, it’s worth reflecting on the fact that oral storytelling is the oldest format. Before humanity invented the written alphabet and Gutenberg pioneered the printing press, stories were told from one person to another, illustrated not by pieces of paper, but by the sound of their voice. Audiobooks are a remarkable fusion of the rich tradition of spoken stories and the innovations of modern technology.

And as the fastest growing format in its field, in which the customers are only getting younger, the future is bright for audiobooks. And even brighter for their readers.

Bonus Book List: Ian’s Picks for Better in Audio

1. Lucky Man, Michael J. Fox – This celebrity memoir is a perfect example of the intimacy that comes with an author narrating their own story. You can hear the tremor in his voice as he discusses his journey with Parkinson’s disease, and it is deeply moving.
2. A Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin – Roy Dotrice’s narration of 224 distinct characters actually earned him the Guinness World Record for most character voices for an audiobook by an individual. His marvelous storytelling makes it surprisingly easy to keep all those characters straight, and is my ideal way to consume Martin’s magnum opus.
3. Macbeth, William Shakespeare – The Bard’s plays were written to be heard, and are notoriously difficult to comprehend in print. Acclaimed actor Alan Cumming’s remarkable one-man interpretation of the play brings the lines to life and gave me a newfound appreciation for this masterwork.
4. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl – My kids love being told stories, and adore Douglas Hodge’s inspired narration of this children’s classic. I love turning this on when we’re all in the car together and hearing them cheer for Charlie Bucket. It never gets old.
5. Contagious: Why Things Catch On, Jonah Berger – As a thorough and fascinating look at modern marketing, this is one of my favorite business texts. And at just shy of seven hours, I was able to finish this in one week, entirely on my commute.

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10 thoughts on “Why Audio Is Better Than Print

  1. Scott Parker

    Some audiobook highlights for me, an avid audiobook listener for decades:

    Jim Dale reading the Harry Potter series. “So THAT’S how you pronounce Hermione!”

    Wil Wheaton reading Redshirts (you get an extra bit of snark in his voice)

    Scott Brick reading anything. He is my favorite narrator. Whether he’s reading the latest Clive Cussler adventure or narrating a non-fiction book, he brings grace and whimsy to anything he reads.

  2. Karen Wolfer

    Good article, Ian. Thank you for putting in words my feelings about the beauty of audiobooks, too.
    What you say about the incredible importance of a good narrator is ‘spot-on’.
    If I may, I would like to share your post on my Dog Ear Audio facebook page and another audiobook fan page.
    Well done!

  3. Sharon

    I agree that the reader makes or breaks the experience for me. I would choose to read rather than listen if I don’t connect with the voice immediately. Have enjoyed several of Dogear Audio’s authors reading their own books. People like Catherine Friend. Think of what George Guidall did for the Cat Who series. Or Rosenblatt for the series with Amelia Peabody!

  4. Sharon

    Agree with you about the implicit snobbery of suggesting reading print is inevitably better, but it is not inevitable that the narrator will enhance the experience. Often they can get in the way – either mispronouncing words, especially non-English words, or their voice is a mismatch with your mental image of the appropriate narrator. Also disagree that audio inevitably aids concentration – the mind is just as capable of wandering when listening, and it’s much harder to find your place again.

  5. Sharon

    For the avoidance of doubt, I (Sharon) only wrote the last one of the above quotes. I think there’s a gremlin in your program, as it also rejected my totally correct captcha code the first 4 times I tried it and I was about to give up.

  6. Joel Emmett

    I agree entirely! I’m working on an audiobook version of my book now, and hope to make it a rich experience.

    Is it (generally) okay for non-fiction authors to use audio clips from the news, films, etc., within their audiobooks?

    Are there any specific fair-use issues for books over online use?

  7. Ken

    Ian Small is a genius! He knows the value of “listening while doing”. Try “reading” while you walk the dog, work out, clean, commute, work in the garage. Your audiobook can be “read” anywhere. Do we miss anything? As Ian points out nothing is lost in consuming an audiobook and I believe it can make some big gains over the printed word. Listen On!!

  8. blindspot

    I’ve gone a step further and have begun listening to books (usually EPUB or PDF) via text-to-speech apps like Voice Dream Reader.

    Pros: All of the above for audio books, plus anything you can listen to just about anything ever written, you can read along with it if you like and use it just like an ereader, you can correct pronunciation on any words by training the app on how to say a given word in your favorite phonetic spelling equivalent, computer voices have gotten A LOT better in recent years, and paradoxically the more monotonous drone of the computer voice actually aids in a focus on the words because the computer reads more like you or I would read out loud if we weren’t trying to act but really just saying words.

    Cons: It’s a computer reading to you. It takes some getting used to and some may never enjoy it. But if you do get used to it, opens up a huge world of content for listening.

  9. fintain

    Good article, but I disagree on using the term reading instead of listening. Reading describes a certain action and to use it interchangeably with listening can cause confusion. Also to insist that they are the same makes it sound like you think that listening is inferior and trying to give it artificial weight.

    I’m an avid listener ever since discovering Radio 4 as a kid, I will admit that I prefer dramatisations to a single narration.



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