Title

The Problem With Audiobooks

How technology, monopolistic platforms and certain business models combine to exacerbate inequality.

October 7, 2021
 
 

Anyone who knows me just a little knows that I love two things: ebikes and audiobooks.

All those books that I review for this space, almost always, these are audiobooks. (Sometimes ebook/audiobook combinations.)

You’d think I’d be happy, therefore, by Farhad Manjoo’s New York Times essay “When Listening to a Book Is Better Than Reading It.” He writes,

“I rise now to liberate the audiobook from the murky shadow of text. Audiobooks aren’t cheating. They aren’t a just-add-water shortcut to cheap intellectualism. For so many titles in this heyday of audio entertainment, it’s not crazy to ask the opposite: Compared to the depth that can be conveyed via audio, does the flat text version count?"

Here is what is bugging me. And this is an issue that Manjoo (who is a fantastic writer) leaves unmentioned: audiobooks are expensive.

More than expensive, audiobooks are divergently accessible.

Yes, public libraries have significantly increased their digital book collections (including audiobooks) during the pandemic.

Anyone who has ever tried to borrow a library audiobook knows, however, that the selection can be limited -- and the wait times long.

Compare the library audiobook experience to that of finding and downloading audiobooks on the Amazon-owned Audible site. If you can pay for an Audible subscription, you have universal access to every published audiobook. No waiting. No running out of titles.

Audiobooks are life-changing. At least they have changed my life. But they are nowhere near universally accessible.

Libraries are the great equalizer. But the business model of audiobooks in particular -- and digital books in general -- has made reading a more stratified experience.

Does any of this connect to higher ed?

My younger daughter is a senior in college. Like her dad, she is an audiobook enthusiast. We have this deal -- if she needs an audiobook for school, I will use my Audible credits to get her the title.

I’m constantly surprised by how many books that she is assigned to read for her classes are available in audio format.

We know that audiobooks are scarce at academic libraries. Why is that, exactly? Why has Audible not tried to build the next generation of audiobook listeners?

Audiobooks are also hit-and-miss at public libraries.

My daughter, through her access to parental resources, enjoys unequal reading options. She has the choice of book format because her family can afford to buy her audiobooks.

The superior experience of Audible over libraries for audiobook access is one example of where technology, monopolistic platforms and certain business models combine to exacerbate inequality. There are many others.

Read audiobooks. Enjoy audiobooks. I do.

But let’s keep in mind that the privilege of audiobook listening is not universally shared. And maybe we should be thinking of ways that everyone -- including our students -- can gain equal access to all formats of books.

Are you an audiobook listener?

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