Audiobooks or printed books: One better than the other?


The Audiobooks genre continues to grow by leaps and bounds. While printed book sales recently dropped for several years in a row (they’ve more recently picked up by a few percentage points, but not enough to have fully recovered), and e-book sales have fluctuated in inverse proportion, the audiobook market has been booming. Why? Because busy people like listening to audiobooks of all types – fiction, non-fiction, how-to, whatever. What does that say about us as a society? And does it say anything about our brains?

The Association of American Publishers (AAP) reports that audiobook downloads increased by more than 38% in 2015 -- about 2.9 million downloads. Membership at the audiobook publisher Audible.com grew 40% (year on year). That’s 1.6 billion hours of audio content (vs. 1.2 a year earlier), according to Tracey Markham, Audible’s country manager in an article by CNBC.

Globally, the audiobook industry is valued at 2.8 billion dollars. In 2015, 43,000 new audiobooks were released. Two years earlier, the number was just 20,000.

Distribution follows various models. The publisher of Scholastic Audio has said, “The traditional audio customer will find your titles wherever you offer them.” To target the non-traditional audio user and first-time audiobook customers, publishers have added new models, such as subscriptions, bundling, and sampling.

These numbers for the United States reflect the audiobook industry growth trend worldwide. The production of Spanish-language audiobooks promises to build, as publishers target markets in Mexico, Spain, and South America. (In 2015, only 300 audio titles were produced in Latin America.) The Swedish audiobook company Storytel (one of many) has 200,000 subscribers in Sweden, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands, who listened to 4 million audiobooks in 2015. Germany is a very large audiobook market, with 25,000 titles offered by 400 publishers, and nearly a thousand new titles being produced each year.

So it’s popular. But is it healthy? Is listening the same as reading?

Research suggests that mentally they are virtually the same, at least when taking what’s called “the simple view.” In terms of comprehension, there are essentially two considerations: One, “Decoding” the printed word, and two, “processing” the spoken word. The latter is more or less an inherent capability, as long as the vocabulary is known. The former involves an extra process in which humans are not fluent until later grades in school.

(In fact, possibly depending on training, habit, and amount of reading experience, some people “hear” a voice when reading silently, at least at times. And for all of us, if reading the words of a famous person, we’re inclined to hear that person’s voice in our head, at least for awhile.)

For adults, listening and reading are virtually the same, when it comes to simple comprehension.

When studying for a quiz or scouting for specific facts or passages, that’s a different matter. In some ways, the reason is obvious – for example, we can quickly scan page after page for the phrase “Here’s an example,” while it’s clearly not the same even with speeded-up audio. On the other hand, a narrator’s “prosody” (changes in pacing, pitch, and rhythm) can indicate a meaning that is not always apparent in the printed word. For example, “You’re such a master of irony,” might be intended as a compliment, or might be meant sarcastically ... or even ironically. In print, you might not catch on.

Prosody can also aid vocabulary comprehension – a common example is the Shakespearean line, “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” Commas being used or omitted very randomly in those days, a visual reader might not get the true meaning of Juliet’s question. She’s not asking “Where are you, Romeo”? She’s asking “Why are you named Romeo?” ... the author’s implication being that names should not matter. (She goes on to say “’'Tis but thy name that is my enemy;” and you’ll recall her “rose by another name would smell as sweet; So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd, retain that dear perfection ... .”) A novice reader misunderstanding “wherefore” might be thrown off-course in all that follows, whereas the prosody of a skillful actress or narrator can lead their listener in the correct direction.

Printed matter itself has functional differences. Tests show that taking notes in longhand is more conducive to remembering what you wrote, compared with typing.

So yes, there are differences. And no, it does not matter, it just depends. Listening to a book can be as rewarding as reading it, sometimes even more so.

Remember that before humankind began creating (hand-)printed books for even limited consumption, stories and lessons were distributed orally. Modern scholars assert that some authors, such as Henry James, are more comprehensible or enjoyable when read slowly, at almost a spoken-word speed.

And listening is infinitely more rewarding if it is the only way you have the time or capability. It’s like that old saying among professional photographers – “good or bad, the best camera is the one you have with you.”

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