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Podcasts are getting better faster than audiobooks are getting cheaper

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August 8th, 2017

sony eggo headphones
Sony’s Eggo earphones.
Image: Sam Byford

Frustrated with myself over how few books I’ve read this year, last week I broke down and signed up for a trial membership to Audible.com. A friend of mine had told me it was his secret to reading more books, and when I complained that I didn’t have the time to wade through some 12-hour recording, he pointed out that I am currently subscribed to six pro wrestling podcasts. Properly chastened, I signed up for a trial, downloaded my first book, and listened to it over a long plane and bus ride while traveling abroad.

In most ways, my first audiobook experience was perfect. The book I chose, Paul Kalanathi’s shattering memoir When Breath Becomes Air, offered a welcome dose of reflection about life’s big questions as I spent some time time away from work, exploring new places. Audible’s app works well, the narration was attuned to the emotion of the story, and I happily managed to track the story without my mind wandering too much. And yet compared to the podcasts I’m used to, the audiobooks I’ve been sampling can feel woefully underproduced. Why have audiobooks been so slow to evolve?

Consider the podcast, audiobooks’ younger cousin. The downloadable version of the long-running radio show This American Life, among other pioneers, trained a generation of listeners to expect some art with their audio. Elegant musical cues, documentary-style sound clips, and a shifting cast of narrators helped to transform the venerable radio story into something more modern.

The blockbuster release of Serial in 2014 brought novelistic storytelling to a true-crime story, dramatically expanding the audience for podcasts in the process. The creators’ follow-up series, this year’s memorable S-Town, played even more like a novel; more recently, we got 36 Questions, a musical conceived entirely as a podcast.

Of course, these are among the very finest works of a young genre, and the majority of podcasts remain grubby, amateurish affairs. And slickly produced audiobooks do exist — including on Audible, which funds a variety of original long- and short-form works.

But download the audio version of your favorite bestseller from this year or last and you’ll likely find a single unaccompanied voice, maintaining a steady tone and cadence over many hours. There will be no music or ambient sound to help conjure the world. And yet you’ll pay dearly for the privilege: it’s not unusual for a single audiobook to cost $30 or more. Podcasts, of course, are almost entirely free (and supported by advertising).

In music, movies, and television, the better produced something is, the more it usually costs. In podcasts and audiobooks, the reverse is true: the most popular free stuff all sounds expensive, and the most popular expensive stuff mostly sounds cheap.

On one hand, high-end production for audiobooks would cut into publishers’ already-thin profit margins. And I’m sure plenty of listeners prefer the calm, no-frills approach to audio narration that has become the industry standard.

But times are changing, and audiobooks have been slow to change with them. I’m still excited to listen to my next audiobook, but I know it isn’t likely to sound half as good as S-Town. Audiobooks have the potential to be a thrilling format in their own right — here’s hoping publishers embrace it.