Audiobooks: Reading, or Cheating?

This is from a column last month in Slate:

For all the column inches downloaded to Kindles this year about how electronic books will someday replace traditional ones, little has been made of the steady rise of another rival to the printed word: audiobooks. Nearly $1 billion worth were sold last year, meaning 15 percent of all books sold these days are the kind that read themselves.

I started listening to audiobooks in 2005 when I trained for a triathlon and was doing cardio for a gazillion hours a week (In case you’re wondering, I came in dead last. Like, the officials having to put down their burgers and dig their stopwatches out of their duffel bags last. But that didn’t stop me from referring to myself as a “triathlete” for at least a full year afterwards.). During that period, I listened to all the Harry Potter books on audio, and if you’ve ever heard the Jim Dale recordings, you know they set the gold standard for audiobooks.

When I started reading romance in 2007, it seemed like the perfect genre to try on audio, and I have had some pretty good luck. There’s nothing sexier (to my ears, anyway) than a deep Scottish brogue, and the male narrators of Nora Roberts’ Born in Fire and Karen Marie Moning’s Beyond the Highland Mist certainly had it goin’ on, as they say (the latter winning the 2008 Audie Award for best romance. Here’s a TRR article on Audies in Romance). Anna Fields does a great job with Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s books. And the female narrators of Megan Hart’s Dirty and Broken were terrific, perfectly capturing Elle and Sadie’s modern voices. But the best has to be Johanna Parker’s southern gal Sookie Stackhouse in Dead Until Dark: she’s perfect!

On the other hand, female narrators can have a tough time with male voices. Dan in Dirty sounded like a raspy voiced perv, and vampire Bill Compton sounds like an emotionless sociopath. For their part, male narrators pitch their voices higher to sound feminine, which often makes the female characters sound angry or hysterical. Racial issues are even trickier. How does a white narrator determine what a black character sounds like? (For more on this topic, read the Slate article or listen to When Audiobooks Jar the Ear, from NPR, September 2008. And if you’re looking for a good list of reliable romance narrators, check out this AAR thread).

But putting aside the question of whether it is well done, I’m wondering if listening to a romance audiobook is as good as reading it, or is it second best, or something even worse?

I found it difficult to find much on audiobooks specifically addressing romance. If you’re curious, the top five bestselling audiobook genres are:
1. Mystery/Thriller/Suspense
2. General Fiction
3. Science Fiction/Fantasy
4. Biography/Memoir
5. Classic Fiction

I suppose romance can be found in any of those. And Booklist Online‘s list of top selling romance audiobooks from 2006-2008 includes authors like Nicholas Sparks, whom I don’t consider romance writers.

Laurie of AAR wrote in a Shelfari discussion: “I have this mental block that has so far kept me from doing audiobooks; it seems like ‘cheating’ to me”. Inspirational romance author Brenda Coulter, confessed she just doesn’t get audiobooks in a 2005 column on her blog. Their worries are very common.

A New York Times article from 2007 quotes Dan Katz, a longtime author and journalist who founded

“When I started Audible, I was generally greeted with a level of derision”, Mr. Katz said by phone from Audible’s headquarters in Newark. “Not only did I get flak from my publishing industry friends, but my wife’s book group in Montclair let it be known that they considered listening to books to be cheating.”

First of all, let’s dispense with one myth implied by Dan’s experience: the idea that only illiterate people listen to audiobooks. Here’s some data from a September 2008 Press Release from the Audio Publishers Association,

• According to the Consumer Survey, audiobook listeners are more likely than the general public to read and purchase printed books. 92 percent of audiobook listeners reported that they have read a printed book in the past year—a third of them have read 16 or more.
• Listeners are also most likely to be college-educated.The majority of audiobook listeners are college educated (88 percent), according to the Consumer Survey.

Still, even if audioboooks aren’t the last bastion of uneducated nonreaders, I think there are some legitimate worries. An older (2005) New York Times article articulates some of them, with the help of a famous author and a  literary critic:

“I think every writer would rather have people read books, committed as we are to the word,” said Frank McCourt, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his memoir, Angela’s Ashes. “But I’d rather have them listen to it than not at all.”

Some critics are dismayed at the migration to audio books. The virtue of reading, they say, lies in the communion between writer and reader, the ability to pause, to reread a sentence, and yes, read it out loud – to yourself. Listeners are opting for convenience, they say, at the expense of engaging the mind and imagination as only real reading can.

“Deep reading really demands the inner ear as well as the outer ear,” said Harold Bloom, the literary critic. “You need the whole cognitive process, that part of you which is open to wisdom. You need the text in front of you.”

Mr. Hamburg, a screenwriter, says he limits his audio habit to biography, eschewing fiction out of respect for authors whom he imagines did not intend for their creative work to be read “when you’re doing 30 minutes on your elliptical trainer.”

It’s true that audiobooks allow the listener to multitask: drive, workout, do the dishes, walk. But do audiobook listeners pay less attention than traditional book readers? I often also multitask when reading: have the presidential debate on TV, the music playing, wait at the doctor’s office, keep an eye on my kids in the back yard, etc. And I have been known to skim ahead when reading, something I never do when listening: listening to an audiobook always takes longer than reading one.

We all know about different learning styles: some of us are aural/auditory while others are better suited to print/visual media. There’s an immediacy to the audio that I love: I am more in the moment when I listen, than when I read. That may be due in part to the “enhanced” features of the audiobook: the performance aspect.

On the other hand, that performance locks the listener in, not just to a specific voice, but to a certain way of saying things. The narrator is constantly making choices, choosing one interpretation of the material, that may not be what I would have chosen. S/he speaks quickly or slowly, loudly or softly, in anger or exasperation or anxiousness, emphasizes certain words.

Here’s some great insight into the process from the point of view of narrator Wanda McCaddon from a March 2008 post at Word Wenches:

Some narrators (and some publishers) prefer a straight read without voicing the characters (in the trade, “unvoiced reading”). I’m in the other camp.  To begin with, in an audiobook something has to take the place of visual cues the reader would see on the page– paragraph breaks, quotation marks etc.– to alert them to who is speaking. And luckily, I can’t help it – when I read a work of fiction I hear different voices.

The narrator’s job is to interpret to the ear all the author has packed into the words – what I call “teasing out the nuances.” It’s collaborative, and largely non-intellectual, and when the writer and narrator are in synch it can be astonishing.”

If the narrator is making these choices for the listener, I guess I can see why some would think of it as being “spoon fed” and requiring less imagination on the listener’s part.

The audiobook constrains listeners in another way: it’s either forward moving or stopped. You can’t reread and savor particularly moving or important or confusing passages. You can’t even bookmark to go back to them later. That’s actually my biggest irritation with them. In that sense, it’s more like a performance, like going to see a play or a poetry slam.

The engagement may be more intense in some ways, but it’s a one off. I never re-listen to audiobooks.  If I really love an audiobook, I go out and buy the book. I can’t say the reverse is true.

But maybe we are not intellectually shortchanging ourselves after all. Here’s what a neuroscientist had to say in the 2007 NY Times article quoted above:

“If the goal is to appreciate the aesthetic of the writing and understand the story,” said Daniel T. Willingham, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Virginia, then there won’t be much difference between listening and reading. “The basic architecture of how we understand language is much more similar between reading and listening than it is different.”

We know that oral narration is much older than the written word. Can we view audiobooks as a continuation of that venerable tradition? Or, because audiobooks are recordings of printed text read aloud, are they merely derivatives of their pure form? Does it matter that the creator isn’t the storyteller?

And are there genre-specific concerns? For example, most romances focus heavily on a heterosexual relationship, and most audiobooks have one narrator of one gender. Is that a built-in problem?

Specifically, what about the sex? On the one hand, steamy scenes on the printed page are squirm inducing enough — either because they are very poorly written or very, ahem, well written — without adding a female narrator grunting in sotto voce or a male narrator keening in falsetto.

On the other, we’ve all talked about how romance, in every subgenre, has become more explicit, and how the sexier the book the better it seems to sell. Apparently, this is true for audiobooks as well. In another New York Times article (this one from 2007), which — brace yourself — refers to romance novels as “bodice rippers” (yeah, cause there are so many bodices in the contemporary Harlequin to which the article refers, Carly Phillips’s Simply Sexy) the popularity of audible erotica is highlighted. According to an spokesperson quoted in the article, there’s a hidden benefit to audible erotica: “One of the things that makes erotica sell better for us than other places is that when you’re on the subway listening to your iPod, no one knows whether you’re listening to The Wall Street Journal or a Penthouse book.”

A final issue, although one not really relevant to quality, is cost: until the advent of the MP3, audiobooks, on cassettes or CD cost way more than their paper counterparts. Even now, audio downloads tend to be more costly than printed books: Megan Hart’s Dirty is $17.95 at Audible and $11.16 at Amazon, for example.

If I cut audiobooks out of my life, I would read about about 1/3 fewer books a month. While the format has its shortcomings, I think I’m leaning towards the view that listening to books is different — but not necessarily inferior — to reading them on the printed page.

Published in: on October 17, 2008 at 7:34 am  Comments (5)  
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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I adore audiobooks, but cannot listen to romance. I feel like a dirty pervert listening to the sex scenes. Oh sure, I’ll read the raunchiest sex scene ever written, but to have someone read it to me? I can’t go there. I cannot imagine listening to Megan Hart on audio! LOL

    Audiobooks are my savior to a certain extent. I listen to books I know I’ll never get around to reading (prime example: White Oleander by Janet Fitch, the Recorded Books unabridged edition is spectacular!), and it’s how I keep up with a lot of my mystery series reading. Can’t remember the last time I actually “read” a Sue Grafton novel and I’ve never “read” Janet Evanovich…only listened.

    And for the record….I don’t see it as cheating. Your brain is actively engaged in the story, just as it would be if you were reading it. It’s just a different experience, that’s all.

    Audiobooks are expensive, especially if you’re not the type of person who “re-listens.” So people should scope out your local library! Honestly, as a librarian? I would say 95% of what I check out from work are audiobooks. I love ’em, but dang – I’m too cheap to buy ’em for myself.

  2. I’ll be honest and say I do not like audiobooks. I had one once (albeit nonfiction) and listened while I drove a long commute. It didn’t make my brain engage the way listening to talk radio does.

    That said, we ( B10 Mediaworx ) looked into doing an audiobook version of my book because we know that a lot of people like and buy them–but wow, the cost! We might in the future, but right now, no. We simply can’t afford to.

    And I sound like a 12-year-old redneck who ate a dictionary, so I am certainly not going to voice it myself. 😉

  3. I’ve had an account with Audible since 1999 – I’m a diehard audiobook listener…and I download some from my public library also. I’ve listened to many books and then I bought the print book too, though I have no rational reason for this. I listen to all genres of books…just like I read all types of books and there are some favorite narrators that I would listen read just about anything. I do seem to prefer audio – just his week Michael Connelly’s new Harry Bosch book was released, it’s available on my Kindle but I preferred to get the audio version from Audible.

    I do wonder how I managed to do housework, laundry, yard work, etc. before audiobooks – I (almost)look forward to long stretches of some tedious tasks so I can finish my current book!

    I do also re-listen to some audiobooks…sometimes there is a certain comfort in a familiar voice telling a story I’ve already enjoyed, late at night when I’m trying to get back to sleep – not so different from a comfort re-read.

    I’ve found that a good book is a good book and that a talented writer’s words have the same meaning and impact no matter how I have them delivered to me. I don’t think I concentrate less on an audiobook than an actual read. Of course, the fastest way to devour a book is to read it but sometimes it seems I listen harder because I can’t control the pace, I can’t skip a too descriptive paragraph or flip through a long rehash of some plot point and so I pay attention to all of the words – which is what the author wanted me to do along anyway.

  4. I am very, very curious to find out if my novel will be on audiobook. The method by which they choose Spice novels for audio is opaque to me, so I have no idea whether it will happen or not. Or, if it did, if I could make myself listen!

  5. Wendy,

    I was hoping a librarian would pitch in. I did come across some data that suggests that audiobooks are growing faster in lending than print books. My own hometown library is a bit behind the curve on this, but I believe we will have audio downloads early in 09.

    I think lending would be the perfect solution to the cost problem for us customers.

    As for the ick factor… I guess it’s like everything else in the narration: it can be done well or badly.

    And there are other things besides sex that would be hard for me to hear, like torture or other violence. I remember once listening to Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy years and years ago and I about ran my car off the road on my way to school. Nothing like female genital cutting to wake you up in the morning!

    As for authors, like Mojo and Victoria, I can see the issue of cost. I would love to know whether publishers now put aside money for audio for more books than before. I can tell you that I would never have begun reading Harlequin Spice if they were not on audio. But a 12 year old who swallowed a dictionary? I think Mojo may have a career in narration if this writer thing doesn’t work out!


    I agree completely about being forced to take your time. You cannot gulp an audiobook, and this is actually excruciating when it’s a thriller or suspense. You want to turn those pages faster and you can’t!

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