Listening In

Yesterday was a day of traveling, and today I’m pretty wiped out (we didn’t get home until late). But I was reading Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales on the plane, and something interesting occurred to me.

Universal literacy (or anything close to it) has only been a goal for the last couple hundred years, if that. Previously, and certainly before the printing press, books were scarce and so were the people who could read them. Reading out loud to an audience was a fairly normal activity in a lot of households, and stories were composed with the intention of being read out loud.

And we, the reading public, are coming back to this idea. For a long time, reading was a silent, private activity, but now audio books are becoming a thing, and changing the way people consume stories.

Full disclosure: I rarely listen to audio books. I can read faster than the narrator can talk, and I like to go back and look at details that I might have missed on the first read-through. It’s possible to rewind an audio book, but it takes a little bit of work and I’m lazy.

Even if I don’t listen to audio books, other people do, and as a writer, I can see a market for them. A growing market, which leads me to make a prediction: In the future, we’ll see a rise in poetry and other works purposely written to be made into audio books. Writing styles will change to accommodate this, though I still think traditional written prose will continue to be a large section of a writer’s product.

When I floated this idea to my Better Half, he pointed out that The Canterbury Tales, which have a rhyming style, seem childish to us, because most Western adults grew up listening to nursery rhymes and songs. This is true, but not all epic poetry has to rhyme. It has to have rhythm, and be easily spoken. Repeated phrases are common in some epics, like the ‘wine-dark sea’ in the Odyssey or Helen ‘of the white arms’ in the Iliad. These techniques were useful when the poet had to remember thousands of lines, and may or may not still be used in writing audio books. They’re familiar to readers, especially classically educated ones, but the impetus of using them as a memory aid isn’t as necessary nowadays. And repetitive phrases are more obvious in audio than in print.

Audio books tend to be faster paced and shorter than written ones, and most audio book readers are commuters, so I foresee a market for books that can be listened to in set amounts of time- half an hour to an hour. As a writer, you want your readers to get to their destination and have to wait in their cars for a few minutes until the story/chapter/scene is over, but making your reader late to work might not be such a good thing. Short stories and poetry are ideal in that case.

This is a time of tremendous upheaval in the writing world, and I’m very curious to see how things change in the next decade or so, and how non-traditional media factors in to that.

But in the meantime, I need to unpack and make sure there’s food in the house. Talk among yourselves- do you prefer audio or written books? Have you produced books specifically for audio? Does your writing style change when you have audio in mind? What tips would you give to a curious but clueless author trying to get into the market?


  1. Like you I read much faster than people speak so I don’t listen to audio books, they always seem too drawn out and an aggravating test of my patience to me. However I have a good reading voice and have been asked to read for Books for the Blind and a couple of other organizations. I can’t even listen to my own reading since it seems too slow to me. 🙂

    I find the same applies to websites that have video instead of text, I just can’t hang in long enough for their annoyingly slow attempt to get their message across.

    1. I’m with you on preferring website text to videos. I really need to get a second screen for my computer so I can do something undemanding on one screen while documentaries play on the other. Because they’re useful for research, yet I can’t stick around long enough to watch to the end.

    2. I’m working on some qualification certifications right now at work, and they are all video/audio based, with no text file work around. Incredibly frustrating, and incredibly long. I just let them run in the background, and then click “next” when it is ready, and continue doing whatever else I am doing. The problem is, I can’t then listen to music at the same time, or try to drown out my workmates who like to all play videos and music without headphones, and talk loudly and boisterously about inane things. Can’t wait to be done with the stupid things.

  2. ehh, never really been thrilled with audiobooks, and well, you don’t want me paying attention to the audiobook narrator instead of my driving.

  3. I can’t stand the medium, personally… which meant when we got offers to license Peter’s westerns for audiobook, it very much became a matter of “Is this person 1.) technically good, 2.) invested emotionally in the project?”

    Because it was like trying to homebrew beer when you can’t stand the taste of hops… very much a matter of being careful on the inputs and having trust in the people doing the process, because I can’t tell what’s good on the output. Fortunately, the readers (listeners?) seem to like it, so yay!

  4. Audiobooks were okay when I was working an office job, and TBH they’d probably be nice for doing housework if I bothered to check one out – but I’ve never yet bought one, because I almost always prefer to read at my own pace, with the ability to go back and reread a bit of I feel like I missed something.

    All of that said, I know a guy who’s working on an AI to help indie authors cheaply produce audiobooks. Using deep learning to train the program, which (last I heard) was sounding fairly natural but had some odd accent artifacts.

  5. Ditto on reading faster than audio so I’m not much interested but I know lots of people who use audio on long commutes and I gotta tell you, according to them, Dickens is great because he’s long and was written as a serial. The Three Musketeers, 24 cassette tapes (remember those?), fabulous!

  6. I suspect the MGC readers aren’t a good focus group for audio books 🙂

    Like everyone else so far, I much prefer to read silently. However, I might look at audio books for my commute time, except it’s fairly short (typically 10 min), but there’s very little worth listening to on the radio (best is non-commercial classical or jazz).

    OTOH, I do think that telling stories or reading stories does have a dimension that silent quick reading doesn’t have. When I was growing up, we listened to a lot of records (we had no TV, but my parents had a multi-record turntable), so we heard Let’s Pretend, and a lot else. And I heard The Thirteen Clocks on the radio before I read it. With my kids, I have done a fair amount reading out loud – and have had a lot of fun trying to make appropriate voices.

  7. I’ve only tried to listen to audio books in my car and have concluded that my car is far more noisy than I suspect and my stereo and speakers profoundly suck. But I have trouble listening to the television, too. Issues with background noise or something.

    I will probably try listening while exercising at some point, and hopefully have better luck.

    One thing that I think Larry Correia said was that the sorts of things that disappear on the written page “he said, she said” etc., don’t work well in audio because instead of disappearing they stand out so it’s best to find other ways to show who’s talking. Well… if it wasn’t him that said that, it was someone who did. Seems legit to me anyway.

  8. I like and use a lot of audiobooks. I might NOT be the average user though. I use them while cleaning. They provide just enough stimulus to keep the ADHD down so I can clean without wandering off to do something more interesting. And mostly I prefer audio books of books I’ve already read. That is, I treat it as a performance. I can read faster, but I can appreciate nuances another voice gives to it that I can’t. And for works meant to be performed, like, say, the Iliad, it adds a new dimension, so Blake might be right on that.

    1. The performance comment reminded me… When my mother read Emily Dickinson aloud to people they understood it, so much so that they wanted her to tape her readings. (This was twenty or more years ago.) I wish we had done it. However if I had listened to a tape like that in the car I would have had an accident.

  9. I listen to audio books at work. I’ve got a job that frequently involves a lot of repetitive work that engages hands and eyes, but only a small portion of the brain. Audiobooks and music (spotify and audible are my friends.) take the edge off and let me concentrate enough to get through the work. I know a fair few people who do similarly. I could definitely see a market for poetry, or at least poetic tales. I’d be interested in seeing how something like Kipling’s short stories did as an audio book.

  10. Prefer? Written.

    Consume? Half to two thirds audio, because my work and daily affairs give me several to many hours a day where I can listen to audiobooks, but opportunities to for normal reading are much more limited.

    Snot Man, Sneerboy, and Mumbly Dude still seem to dominate the genres I listen to. They either have the “in” with the big publishers, work cheap, or both. Even Yoyutube’s Gay Computer Voice is better than some of the people who perform audio books.

  11. Y’all are missing out on a lot of fun. I bow to nobody in speed of visual reading, but I like the performative quality of audio. Many older books have chapter lengths that are perfect for reading out loud, and it is the only way I can deal with Plato.or Aristotle. It is great when you are too sick to read, or need to listen to something to fall asleep. It teaches you how weird British placenames are pronounced.

    And if you hear George Guidall read Homer, or Wanda McCaddon read Ngaio Marsh’s Colour Scheme, you will never hate audiobooks again.

    The people who speed up audiobooks to get through them faster — they are nuts. But speed up or slowdown recordings to your taste.

    The he said, she said stuff is unnoticeable, if the reader is good.

    1. Defects in how I process sound mean that getting meaning from voices takes a toll. After a long day of that, I often need to spend time overwriting some of the buggy buffers with music.

      TV and movies have a place, and so might cutscene games and audio books, maybe even theater, but I have fairly hard limits.

  12. I need a visual component to keep me engaged in a story. If audio is the only thing, my mind just goes to the store for milk and I have to rewind the story.

  13. I also prefer written but I do listen to audiobooks (and old radio shows…) when doing other things. Thus I don’t really care to have really heavy material in audiobook form. But entertainment, and lighter education? Sure.

  14. I can read faster than the narrator can talk, and I like to go back and look at details that I might have missed on the first read-through. It’s possible to rewind an audio book, but it takes a little bit of work and I’m lazy.

    This apparently irritated my son in English class; they have an audio book to which they’re supposed to read a physical book along to.

    He blew through the book, ahead of everyone in class. Then came home to tell me his teacher got annoyed he went ahead of everyone else. XD

    1. Only change is that the kids aren’t assigned to read aloud. . . in my day, the teacher expected me to keep track of where they were and read from there.

  15. My difficulty with audio-books is that I focus on them to the exclusion of everything else, just as I do vocal music. Not good when you are driving or trying to do other things. I think if comes from locking on in college lectures, when 100% focus was needed for survival.

  16. It’s interesting how the merits of audio books can become almost a “religious” argument.

    Audio book readers are (intentionally I assume) relatively slow. But modern technology has an answer. Any good audio book app will have a playback speed control, so the book can be sped up to a more normal reading speed. I average about 1.8x when listening to audio books. I tend toward about 1.4x for podcasts and speeches, people speak faster than audio book readers in real life.

    Different people have different preferences regarding audiobooks. I find audiobooks particularly good for non-fiction. I have too much tendency for my mind to wander while reading something non-fiction (whether thinking about what I read, arguing with the author, or something else). An audio book keeps me focused. I can listen to a 300 odd page non-fiction book in a few days while it would take me months reading a print book.

    And yes, I’ve heard the argument that comprehension isn’t as good for an audio book. All I can say is that depends on the person, in some cases it’s better with audio, and regardless I’d rather listen to 5-10 books with perhaps slightly less comprehension than read one print book in the same time period.

    Again, different people have different preferences. I like when there are options for print or audio rather than an author deciding which is better based on his/her own preferences.

    1. I’m not particularly audio-oriented, but it is a lot easier to remember the order of things from an audiobook, or to remember certain kinds of comments. I finally have the Egyptian history timeline in my head, for instance. Makes me happy.

  17. The greatest feature of Youtube is the Speed setting. It is common for me to play videos on history, writing, etc. at 2x speed. If I have to really study, I turn on the captions and read them at the same time. I have found some audiobooks on Youtube. I wonder if Audible has a speed settings?

    1. The Audible Android app has speed settings. Kindle Fire also (since it’s Android). The web player on the Audible site also has speed adjustments.

      I haven’t been able to vary playback speed of downloaded Audible books through Windows Media Player though that may just mean I don’t know how to do it.

    2. YouTube has a speed setting? Where?

      Yes, Audible has a speed setting. Lots and lots of them. Ever since the standard Audible speed was increased to something like 1.5 or 2.0, but called 1.0, I keep having to turn books slow again. 0.7 is not bad, but it still makes everything sound crappy. I want the book at the speed it was recorded!

      That said, I cannot stand-duh the people who over-enunciate-tuh. Nothing helps them sound better.

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