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What is the Appeal of Audiobooks?

Last week’s launch of Bookbub’s new audiobook deals site, Chirp, inspired me to give audiobooks another try. I love deals (who doesn’t) and I wanted to give the new service a careful test so I could warn readers of any potential problems.

Alas, I came away from the experience more frustrated than informed or satisfied. Neither of the audiobooks I bought were intended to be read aloud.  They had rare and unusual words, as well as made up words that (assuming the narrators got them right) I had trouble understanding. And frankly, the narrators just weren’t that appealing.

This made me feel much more interested in reading what happened next rather than listening to it, and it made me wonder why I couldn’t see what so many did.

I initially asked this question on Facebook, or rather, I made a casual off-hand remark that I couldn’t understand the appeal. That post received almost a hundred responses, which told me that people have really strong opinions on this topic.

So tell me, what is the appeal of audiobooks?

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Jim Heskett March 11, 2019 um 9:57 am

For me, simple and direct books work best in audio. I wouldn’t want to listen to an epic fantasy with a giant cast or a complexly-plotted spy novel. Stephen King books work great in audio because his stories are generally easy to follow.

Michelle March 11, 2019 um 10:39 am

I can be doing something else while listening, knitting or weaving for example. Plus I have found that I get more out of the book by listening. I am not reading for just to see what happens next.

Mike Hall March 11, 2019 um 10:40 am

I used to listen to audio books, originally on cassette tapes, later on mp3 files ripped from CDs. Then I retired and stopped my car commutes and stopped listening to books.

The appeal to me was that they are the perfect accompaniment to a regular drive and so, in particular, to commuting. Even with a shortish drive if you do it "there and back" five or six times a week even something like the complete and unabridged Lord of the Rings doesn’t take too long to get through.

The reason I gave up audio books is that there are too many distractions when I’m out of the car so I always find I’ve missed something, plus actually reading the book is much quicker and pretty much distraction proof.

Quasar March 11, 2019 um 10:55 am

Well, a strong element for me probably is fondness for childhood story time with stories being read to me. Multitasking is another element. I’d say it’s my preferred format for fiction, though I don’t really listen to audio non fiction. The one issue is that if I don’t like the reader it’s impossible to consume.

Louise March 11, 2019 um 11:48 am

Don’t forget about the populations for whom audiobooks serve as the best or only bridge to reading.

Shout out to the Library of Congress' National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped who provide an OUTSTANDING service to US citizens. (note that although they say "blind," one does not need to be fully blind, that "physically handicapped" covers anything that may make manipulating a physical book difficult, and that reading or cognitive impairments make one eligible as well).

Dustin Hollis March 11, 2019 um 12:29 pm

Commute. I don’t want to drive an hour without a story. I can’t stand the local radio noise, so podcasts and audiobooks are the way to go. I used to fly a lot as well, and there were sanity savers.

Harmon March 11, 2019 um 12:33 pm

I’m 71 & retired. I try to take a 3 mile walk every day. That’s when I listen to audiobooks. Once I’ve started one, I will also listen to it while driving, or taking shorter walks on errands. I tend to like mysteries, popular history, biography & science, novels & short stories. I’ve also listened to a lot of Teaching Company courses on my walks.

Aside from that, my wife & I listen to them on road trips. (They were great for trips with kids – there are some good kid books out there.) Our tastes converge on popular history.

If it weren’t for these two situations I likely would not listen to them. When I’m sitting still, I prefer books. Interestingly, my ebook preferences are the same as for my audiobooks.

My paper book preferences cover other things that don’t translate well to audio – things with maps & pictures or diagrams. Oddly, that includes poetry, which might seem well suited to audiobooks but turns out to not fit for some reason. Maybe it helps to see the format of short poems, particularly these days when the structure of the poem seems to rely so much on the visual word placement on the page. And maybe the bites are usually too small – I do listen to epic poetry on my walks.

Robin Brooker March 11, 2019 um 1:27 pm

The last audiobook I listened to (5 or 6 years ago) was Richard Dawkins "The God Delusion" narrated by the author. I had read a number of his books previously. But, his narration of the book showed me the measure of the man and I haven’t read or listened to any of his diatribes since.

I rarely read fiction. When I read non-fiction I often pause to consider the last idea that the author has written, trying to fit it into my own world view. I never skim-read as it often leads to misinterpretation. It takes all the words in a book to understand what ideas are being represented.

Amy March 11, 2019 um 1:33 pm

Many patrons tell me that they love them for longer commutes.
I had one tell me she had reading issues and the audiobooks allowed her to access the information and stories in a way that reading did not. She even found over time that her reading comprehension improved form listening and she was so happy.

I keep books on my devices that I read with my eyes and some that I read with my ears. I prefer lighter novels and some non-fiction that I can listen to while doing things around the house, riding a bike, walking, driving to work or for errands. I basically feel I can "read" more by having someone read to me while I am doing other things.

Amy March 11, 2019 um 1:35 pm

I love that you said "when I am sitting still." That sums it up for me – when I am sitting still I am more likely to read with my eyes. When I am active, I like an audiobook.

S. J. Pajonas March 11, 2019 um 3:35 pm

I answered on Facebook but I love that they accompany on walks and while I’m doing errands or crafting at home. I do listen to science fiction and fantasy books with made-up names, but I prefer them in audio. When I read them, I often stumble over them constantly (I mispronounced Hermione for YEARS). But listening to them, they become second nature. I recently listened to Veronica Roth’s CARVE THE MARK, and I have NO IDEA how to spell any of the names in the book. Lol. But I know how to pronounce them all!

Angela Korra’ti March 11, 2019 um 3:51 pm

I don’t do audiobooks often, but when I do, the narration is _key_. I listened to the audiobook version of comedian Eddie Izzard’s recent memoir, and that was utterly delightful since he did the reading himself. AND he kept tossing in a bunch of amusing asides that weren’t actually in the text.

I also had great fun listening to a couple of Tenth Doctor/Doctor Who audiobooks that were read by David Tennant. He read the narrative in his natural Scottish accent, but immediately switched into Doctor Voice every time he got a line of the Doctor’s dialogue. And since he did of course have extensive experience with the rest of the cast, he did pretty credible imitations of them for their lines too. 🙂

Commenters above have already mentioned that some folks _can’t_ easily read text and to this I’d like to note that this includes dyslexic folks. I’ve had at least one reader tell me she prefers audiobooks because of that.

Joseph Sanchez March 11, 2019 um 3:58 pm

Hi Nate, This is Joseph Sanchez formerly of Colorado, now University Librarian for University of Hawaii Hilo. I couldn’t agree more. I find only a small portion of audio books appeal to me, and it is almost always books I am already familiar with or have read. The bottom line is that the narrator has to be good. Try David Clarke on LibriVox- he has read all of Conan Doyle’s stuff and its free. Good luck.

Dilsia March 11, 2019 um 4:11 pm

Audiobooks are pricey and some of the best deals are in electronic books. Of course nothing like a physical book but ebooks are portable and can be read almost anywhere.

Ana March 11, 2019 um 6:27 pm

I have also failed to find the appeal on audiobooks, probably because mostly I have tried them while doing other things at work, and while the radio works for me because I get the idea, but I don’t usually stay fully tuned to what they are saying, with audiobooks that doesn’t work because I miss part of the story then, while if I read I get the whole story (or keep reading the same paragraph once and again because I’m not paying full attention)
That’s why I also can’t find the appeal to podcasts, I prefer reading blogs about the theme I’m interested or I’m researching, with podcasts I can’t do a search for a certain concept or paragraph I want to delve in.
I have used audiobooks sometimes to improve my English (in fact I should be doing it more often), but then I normally I’m reading at the same time, or I listen first, and then I read and repeat to try to improve my pronunciation. And yes, the narrator is almost as important as the story for an audiobook.

Frank March 11, 2019 um 10:45 pm

It is really nice to listen if you have a commute.

DaveMich March 12, 2019 um 10:19 am

It’s been a mixed bag for me. I used to have a 1.5 hour commute via bus and walking and I listened to a number of Terry Pratchett books (good narrator), but a shorter commute means not enough time to really immerse in a book. Podcasts are doing it for me, both for the short commute, walking for exercise, and while cooking or gardening. You can give audiobooks yet another chance by looking at your library’s overdrive collection. If you’re not committed to the medium that’s a good way to dip in and out.

Kathleen March 12, 2019 um 8:09 pm

I’d like to reinforce a comment that someone mentioned earlier. I walk for an hour or more every morning and listen to audio books at the same time. In the cold months I do this at an indoor mall with dozens of other people. They are going around and around, again and again, just staring at the stores. I’m listening to audio books. It relieves the boredom and makes the time go fast. I download my books from the library via Overdrive, and listen to almost one book a week. They make my exercise a pleasure.

Chris Syme March 13, 2019 um 9:06 am

For me, audio books are great. I don’t buy everything in audio, but I usually purchase nonfiction books I am reading for research there. I am on the treadmill every day and this allows me to kill two birds as they say. I do have one fiction author I listen to in audio as well. Not sure it’s good for every genre but they are definitely accessible and convenient for people who have a lot of drive time.

MuranoBlue April 13, 2019 um 8:42 am

I use them to manage my insomnia. I buy the audio version of a book that I’ve already read and enjoyed. And I find that I’m most happy with books read by professional actors. I let them run all night and when I wake up I focus on listening to the book rather than worrying about not sleeping. I drop-off again quite soon. So they’re useful to me, although not exactly as intended by the authors, I’m sure.

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