Audible books not so listenable

By Peter Griffin 29/09/2009

A few weeks back, succumbing to a barrage of advertising on my favourite tech podcast TWiT, I signed up to, the talking book service run out of the US.

audibleAudible has been plugging away with digital book downloads for ten years now, but seems to really have taken off with the rise of the iPod and the iPhone – and its acquisition last year by online retailing giant The range of books that have been converted to talking book form (60,000 and counting) is impressive and Audible has secured some talented readers to take on the latest best sellers and a swathe of classics too.

Apparently Audible’s studios are based in New Jersey and the company has secured a string of Broadway actors to head over to read the audio book adaptations as a way of earning extra cash between shows. Most new best sellers pop up on Audible while the print version is still in hardback, so you are literally making a choice between buying the book to put on your shelf, or taking the audio version and storing it on your computer or digital music player.

In terms of the technology, you can’t really fault Audible. The website makes it very easy to browse books, buy them and line them up in the Audible download client. I have my downloads set up to transfer straight to iTunes where I load them onto my iPhone. But Windows Media and a range of other software clients and audio devices are supported.

The pricing isn’t bad for New Zealanders, given the currently strong Kiwi dollar. Currently I’m two months into a three month deal that offers an Audible gold subscription at a discounted rate of US$7.95 (NZ$11.15) per month. That will go up to US$14.95 (NZ$21) per month at the end of next month.

At that price you generally get enough new credit per month to buy a new release audio book. So far, I’ve headed for the back catalogue, picking up Story by Robert McKee and the collected short stories of Richard Matheson, whose most famous long-form work is the novel I Am Legend.

With the discount period drawing to a close I’m mulling over whether to keep up my subscription to Audible. To be honest, I’ll probably ditch it. That totally comes down to taste – and perhaps a bit of neuroscience (where’s Fabiana when I need her).

Talking books are a hit and miss affair. When you get a good reader, a pacy book, a story that flows well and lends itself to being read aloud, there’s nothing better. I find I have less and less time to read these days, so being able to listen to a chapter on the way to and from work has great appeal. The problem is that not all books make for compelling listening. Story, for instance, which is read by McKee himself, has the effect of lulling me to sleep. Matheson’s stories in spoken form are split down the middle – half are really gripping, the other half are yawn-inducing.I find my mind wandering, my attention slipping as a professional American voice jabbers in my ear. The next thing I know a jingle is playing, signaling the end of the chapter, a chapter I missed in its entirety.

The Amazon Kindle
The Amazon Kindle

One of the appealing things about the Audible monthly subscription was the prospect of getting a spoken version of the Wall Street Journal delivered to my iPhone each day. I could catch up on all the latest news on the way to work and start the day well-informed. It hasn’t worked out quite that way. Partly that’s down to the time zone – the updates come through in the evening, but mainly its down to the uninspiring nature of the reading. News articles read aloud don’t really make for compelling listening – once again I find my mind wandering.

It’s hard to explainwhy audiobooks don’t really work for some listeners. Harold Bloom the literary critic has come up with the best explanation I’ve been able to find so far: “Deep reading really demands the inner ear as well as the outer ear,” said Bloom.

“You need the whole cognitive process, that part of you which is open to wisdom. You need the text in front of you.”

Oddly, podcasts seem to be a different kettle of fish, I can listen to them happily for hours. So I’ll stick to the podcasts (which are generally free anyway) and take my books in paper form from now on – at least until the Kindle arrives and delivers books over the air straight to my electronic tablet in digital ink. That will be another test of human behavioural adaptation entirely…

0 Responses to “Audible books not so listenable”

  • I’ve just been getting into audiobooks (although not through Audible) and I’m finding the same issues. I only recently picked up my first MP3 player – an iPod – and I love podcasts. This American Life with Ira Glass is a great piece of weekly audio. But listening to audiobooks I’ve found nearly impossible. Too few readers are engaging, several I’ve found have made the supreme mistake of including sound effects. I admit, I’m gathering them from eclectic sources, and I thought that was the problem. Given your blog post, I doubt I’ll take up a subscription with a distributor like Audible either. Cheers for saving me money.

  • I would guess that for fiction at least, part of the problem will be that readers use all the sensory clues in the text to create their own virtual image of the setting and so on. Each person probably creates a slightly different “world” with the same text. With a reader speaking, you get clues from their tone of voice and pacing, that may or may not gel with what the reader wants to experience?

    My own reason not using audio books is my poor hearing, so I don’t get to worry about the option! 😉

  • Looks like things might start happening with ebooks in NZ soon. Even though the recent international launch of Kindle didn’t include NZ I am sure its only a matter of time.

    However, Kindle is getting a lot of competitors in the market. The latest is the Nook – form Barnes and Noble and with a colour screen!

    By the way. Where do they get such names from? Perhaps I can understand Nook – but Kindle? Everyone else seems to call them ebook readers.

  • Here’s the irony of New Zealand being left out of the international Kindle launch Ken – the CDMA mobile network chip in the existing versions of the Kindle is completely compatible with Telecom’s network so Kindle users here could be quite happily downloading books over the air with version 1 Kindles if the service was enabled here. Amazon had to put GSM chips in a new model of the Kindle to serve the rest of the world where CDMA isn’t as prevalent. Eventually, that’s the one we will get…

  • I have an hypothesis (theory it isn’t yet) about why books, or at least some of them, don’t always make the jump into audible books so well… Having been to a couple of book readings over the years where the books in question were absolutely superb, and their authors great speakers, I still found that the dialogue often sounded stilted when read aloud, and as for the descriptions of the scene, well… The thing is, most of us read far faster than we speak, and once accomplished, we’re even able to skim, assembling a picture of goings-on that is thought-speed – when translated into speech, though, some tidied-up dialogue (most dialogue has been tidied, to some extent) and a couple of minutes of detailed description of a scene, can fail to ignite the imagination.

  • To paraphrase, I think many books fail to work as audible books for the same reason that many movies don’t work as books (or vice versa) without substantial editing. Different senses, different experience.