A few years ago, ebooks were a hot topic of debate among the bookish. Were ebooks destroying our attention and killing the publishing industry? Or were they making books more accessible and increasing readership?
Now the buzz is about audiobooks. Audiobook revenues and titles are growing, and our reading habits are expanding to include listening.
Some authors are bypassing print altogether for their works. Business author David Burkus released Pick a Fight as audio only, and historian Erik Larsen is publishing an audio-only ghost story, No One Goes Alone.
Let’s put aside what the growth in audiobooks means for the publishing industry and focus instead on its impact on us as people.
We make technology, technology makes us
Our brains adapt and rewire themselves in our lifetimes based on our behaviors. When we use technologies, we reinforce certain neural patterns and neglect others.
Reading and writing came too late in our history as a species to have dedicated brain functions—they are themselves technologies that have coopted regions of our brains.
It’s no exaggeration to say that technologies change us in meaningful ways.
That raises an interesting question: how does the growing audio trend change us as readers and writers? What happens when we become people who listen to books as much as we read them?
Listening as reading
As with any technology, audiobooks have many effects.
Perhaps our visual reading skills will decline. When listening, it’s less convenient to go back and revisit a passage you want to absorb, so we may have a harder time understanding complex ideas.
Traditionalists might bemoan the fact that our capacity for deep focus is disappearing.
On the other hand, audiobooks bring many benefits.
For one, people with reading and vision difficulties now have access to more books. Late in her life, my avid-reader grandmother lost her ability to read and ordered books on tape from the Library of Congress. How she would have loved the abundance of choice and quick access to books today!
Audiobooks might increase to our total time with books. Many people are consuming more books because they can listen when walking, driving, or doing chores.
In my own life, I’ve noticed three key benefits to the audiobook format:
- They slow me down. I’m less likely to start skimming if my attention wanders.
- Reading becomes a social activity. I listen to books with my husband and we chat about them as we progress.
- Audiobooks strengthen my sense of connection with the author, especially for nonfiction books narrated by the author. I feel like I know them better, having heard the author’s voice.
That last point resonates with me as a writer, because I hope to connect with my readers. And it brings us to the part of the conversation we talk about less: audio’s impact on us as writers. Here, I can only speak from my experience.
Audiobooks made me a better writer
I narrated my first audiobook, the first edition of Subscription Marketing, in 2015. The process taught me important lessons about my tone, word choice, and sentence construction. I’ve applied those lessons in subsequent editions of that book and all of my books since.
Every writing coach advises that you read your work aloud. But it’s easy to skate and skim through it when you’re reading only for yourself.
Narrating the work for a clean recording, you must read with focus and attention. This is the acid test for your writing. You’ll discover awkward sentence constructions or strange wording choices. You’ll learn how to remove barriers to comprehension.
Today, as I write and revise my work, I remember I am preparing a script as much as a manuscript. My listener/reader is present, even as I revise and write.
So yes, audiobooks have changed me as a writer. Indirectly, they’ve made my print books better. They’ve helped me reach and connect with a larger audience, and perhaps make a deeper connection with a few.
That’s a win.
Related reading and listening
Read the NY Times’ article about Erik Larsen’s audio-only decision: Erik Larsen Has a Scary Story He’d Like You to Hear
Ezra Klein hosted L.M. Sacasas in a discussion about technology and its effects on us here: This Conversation Changed the Way I Interact with Technology