In praise of audiobooks

I love audiobooks. Here are a few thoughts about consuming them, and creating them.

Audio occupies the mind when the body is doing something else

I don’t listen to music much. (Yeah, I know, that makes me a psycho.)

I’ve listened to business books, light nonfiction, heavy analytical nonfiction, and fiction books. I’m listening to James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse series right now, narrated by Jefferson Mays, and it is awesome.

I just finished a solo five-and-a-half hour car ride with The Expanse, and I’ll soon be driving back, another seven-plus hours. I honestly don’t know how that would be tolerable without an audiobook. I use Waze for directions, and it helpfully pauses the audio when it gives driving instructions. If I’m entering a confusing area for driving, I’ll pause the audio so I can concentrate on it.

I also listen to audiobooks while walking. I walk or hike about 12 miles a week. I only listen to audiobooks when walking on streets. When I’m hiking in the woods, I prefer to concentrate on the experience of being in nature rather than plugging my ears and entering an imaginary world that competes with the real one.

For nonfiction, the best audiobooks are ones where the narration is clear and uses pauses to allow you to understand concepts. For fiction, a little more drama is warranted. Jefferson Mays does accents and subtle voice shifts, which are perfect for The Expanse. When my kids were small, we listened to Jim Dale’s amazing performance of Harry Potter books while we were on long car trips. (This was before everyone of every age had their own mobile device to sedate them.)

If you listened to an audiobook, did you actually “read” it?

Of course you did. Anyone who has listened to one of my books gets the same chance to understand it as someone who reads them in print.

I am assuming people are paying attention, of course. You could listen to an audiobook and not really hear it if you were doing something that required active attention, like doing math problems. But who would do that?

Should the author read the audiobook?

If the author is any good at all as a narrator and has the time to record, they should read the audiobook. The author understands subtle things about the text and why it’s written the way it is that no narrator could ever know. As an author, you can put that into your performance of the book. This is a way to add nuance to your communication with the reader: emphasizing passages, slowing down to allow for understanding of complex material, or just communicating what is fun and what is serious.

There are good reasons not to do this, as well. It typically takes twice as long to narrate a book as the eventual length of the audiobook, because of mistakes that you need re-record and other issues of overhead. So you might take 14 hours to record an average book, typically over several days. Many author don’t have the time or concentration to do that.

And if you don’t like your speaking voice, have a distracting accent, can’t spend hours reading aloud for physical or emotional reasons, or just don’t feel like it, don’t narrate. There are plenty of excellent narrators.

An experienced audio producer is essential. (I work with Kenny Pappaconstantinou of Elephant Audiobooks — I was actually his first audiobook client in 2008, and now he does hundreds of books.) The producer listens to you work and points out problems, from loudness and sound quality to missed words to inconsistencies in pronunciation.

I recorded at Kenny’s studio, but now I gather that you can record at home working with a producer remotely. But you’ll still need a quality microphone and good coaching. You don’t just sit down with an iPhone and start talking.

Business audiobooks are essential

Many authors now tell me that audiobooks are significant portion of their revenue. People are listening, whether it’s on a commute, on an airplane, while exercising, or some other way.

Audiobooks should be part of your negotiation with the publisher. Some publishers insist on audio rights and taking their cut; this is fine, but when comparing offers from different publishers, you need to account for it. If you self-publish, your audiobook producer can likely help you set up the audio version to be accessible online alongside your print version.

For my next book, I’ll be working without a traditional publisher and recording my own book with the help of a producer. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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  1. Agree – I’m an avid reader but I probably consume more audio books than hard copy ones. I love hearing the different voices and inflections plus they make a long boring drive pass in a flash. There’s an ongoing debate in my book club where some people say listening to audio books doesn’t count since they’re “not real books”. Pffft to that!!

  2. Like Josh, I don’t listen to music; when I want to hear a song or an orchestral piece, I play it in my head. It’s odd, given that I’ve written 41 original songs for two musical plays.
    My taste in books aligns with Josh’s, too, but without any fiction.
    I used to strongly favor books narrated by professional voice actors. But over the years, I’ve overcome that bias. I still prefer voice actors for their timing, inflection, timbre, and pronunciation of foreign words and phrases. And if you had asked me five years ago, I’d have ranked authors’ readings only 80 percent as good. Today I’d rate authors’ readings 90 to 95 percent as good. Either more authors are taking the time to study voicing, I’m more appreciative of their personal feel for the material, or I’m less bothered by their real or imagined shortcomings.

  3. At your recommendation we listened to Paul Simon/Malcolm Gladwell book which was amazing. We were sorry to hear it end.

    I would like to recommend the delightful “Uncommon Type” written and read by Tom Hanks. As good an actor as he is, he is also a very good writer. As someone who has read a lot of bad [student] writing, I confess I had modest expectations. Hanks surprised me with his skill, storytelling, character development and of course, entertainment value as the writer/reader.