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The Booming World of Audiobooks

Why so many book lovers now choose listening over reading

book with headphones

Tuan Tran/Getty Images

En español | For most of my life, I have been an obsessed reader. Editor of my high school literary magazine. English Literature major in college. Professional book reviewer for three decades.

I lived to read.

Today, however, I listen. Asked to choose between reading a book — hardcover, paperback or digital — and listening to an audio version, there’s no contest. I’d much rather use my ears than my eyes.

More and more people are joining me. The Audio Publishers Association estimates that audiobook sales in 2017 totaled more than $2.5 billion, up 22.7 percent over 2016. That continues six years of double-digit growth. There has also been a massive increase in the number of audiobooks being published in the United States. In 2011, there were 7,237 compared with 46,089 in 2017.

“We are on a meteoric rise,” says Michele Cobb, executive director of the Audio Publishers Association. She points to a number of reasons for the explosion in people listening to audios, including ease of technology: Instead of audio cassettes and CDs, you can now listen with your smartphone — the number-one device people use for audiobook listening (an estimated 73 percent of audiobook consumers do so). Gaining in popularity as listening devices are “smart speakers,” such as Amazon's Alexa or Google Home.

Cobb also surmises that people who are on their phones and computers all day want to relax by closing their eyes. “People don’t want to look at anything,”  she says. And 53 percent of listeners say they listen most often at home, while 36 percent report using audiobooks most in their car.

 I can relate to screen fatigue. Five days a week, from early morning to late afternoon, I am attached to my computer as I write and edit. I also devour two newspapers, my Twitter feed and email accounts on my iPhone. So the appeal of snuggling up under the covers with a good book is, shall we say, limited.

Another reason I and many others have become audiobook converts: You can multitask while you listen. I find that, somehow, a massive traffic snarl, a towering pile of laundry or, worse, exercising doesn’t seem quite so daunting when I'm listening to, say, The Husband’s Secret, the bestseller by Australian sensation Liane Moriarty, voiced by Caroline Lee with her pitch-perfect Down Under accent.

Bottom line? As I tell my die-hard, book-reading friends, audio is well worth a try and I have a few tips for those who are new to it.

Browsing before buying/listening is a must (plus, it's fun).

Explore audiobook retailers like Audible.com, Google Play, Kobo and Audiobooks.com, among others. They all allow you to click on a free sample. The public library is also an excellent and inexpensive place to begin, with most libraries featuring both CDs and digital options. I'd suggest choosing a title in a category you already enjoy. If you like serious fiction, for instance, then go with Hilary Mantel’s outstanding Wolf Hall read by Simon Slater. But if you adore romantic comedy, consider a frothy delight like Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians read by Lynn Chen. 

The right narrator can make or break an audiobook.

Everyone has an opinion about what makes for a good audio. I usually prefer not to have the author read their own book but Cobb notes that certain books are enhanced by having the author narrate the audio. She points to Tina Fey’s Bossypants and Billy Crystal’s Still Foolin’ ‘Em as excellent author-narrated audiobooks. Because I find them difficult to follow, I do not care for dramatizations, which is when a cast of narrators performs an edited version of the book. (The marvelous 1968 BBC ensemble production of The Hobbit is an exception.) And some people think they're confusing, but multivoiced full narrations can be powerful. Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, for instance, is wonderful thanks to two terrific actresses, Cassandra Campbell and Bahni Turpin.

Self-help is particularly suited to audio. 

You can follow instructions in real-time. I feel that Marie Kondo and I decluttered my apartment together since I had Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, narrated by Emily Woo Zeller, on autoplay.

You can “flip back” for reference and take notes in an audiobook.

Seriously! People new to audio sometimes worry that they cannot go back to a particular passage or annotate it. In fact, there are rewind functions, chapter listings, and a way to make notes and bookmark passages. Are they as simple as turning down a corner or whipping out a yellow highlighter? No, though this has never bothered me. But I would not recommend listening to a book for a class instead of reading it. 

If you are ready to get started and need suggestions I have a few.

The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, read by Jim Dale.

Whether you have children, grandchildren or are listening solo, this seven-book series is an extraordinarily satisfying and immersive audio experience that will transport you to another world.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond, read by Dion Graham.

The true story behind Milwaukee’s housing crisis, this is among the most moving audios I have ever listened to.

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou, read by Will Damron.

Focusing on the fraud behind the blood-testing company Theranos created by tech entrepreneur Elizabeth Holmes, this nonfiction audio has the pacing of a great thriller. 

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, read by Scott Brick.

Sometimes an audio allows you to catch up with important nonfiction titles that escaped you when first published. This is the biography that inspired the Broadway musical. Almost 36 hours long, the audio flies by.

P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie and Jeeves comedies.

For sheer hilarity, nothing beats these British classics, and the best narrator is Jonathan Cecil. Start with The Inimitable Jeeves; Thank You, Jeeves or The Code of the Woosters.

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