Words-to-be-read are losing ground to words-to-be-heard, a new stage of digital content evolution

From veteran publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin:

“Words-to-be-read” must now become a content category, along with still images, video, and audio. Audio includes “words-to-be-heard”. We are in what must be the early stages of a reordering of primacy among these varieties of “content for delivery and consumption”, which is distinguished from “content for interaction”, or the world of “gamified content” along with who-knows-what-else.

In a post three months ago, I observed that I had been fortunate enough to have been taught to type when I was a little kid, so producing written words was relatively fast and easy for me. That led to great “experience” with the practice of narrative word creation at a young age, a great competitive advantage in school and the workplace (quite aside from enabling the writing of several published books). That piece also made the point that words-to-be-read were, until some very recent moment, the cheapest and easiest form of content to deliver and distribute. Still pictures required film and processing. Audio and video required controlled (and often expensive) circumstances for recording and a variety of skills to deliver professional content. And beyond that, delivery by cassettes and CDs was expensive and also failed to reach large numbers of the potentially interested people.

. . . .

What really rang a large bell for me was the recent New York Times article about the rise of audio, which focused on big-earning writers whose fortunes and reputations had been earned through “words-to-be-read” (in what we can now see was really a different content era), but who were now switching to audio. One such author, John Scalzi, was moved to reconsider his publishing strategy when a recent book sold 22,500 hardcovers, 24,000 ebooks, and 41,000 audiobooks. Author Mel Robbins responded to her self-help book “The 5 Second Rule” selling four times as many audios as print by making her next creation an audio original.

. . . .

So while we have been recently living through an era where audio pioneers like Don Katz of Audible have had to make the case (and offer the tools) to enable creation of good audio content that was originally intended as “words-to-be-read”, that may be about to flip. More and more, we’re going to find that extra effort is required to make content accessible to the word-reading population, who otherwise will not be able to enjoy a variety of fiction and non-fiction content that will only be professionally rendered to be seen and heard.

Link to the rest at The Shatzkin Files

21 thoughts on “Words-to-be-read are losing ground to words-to-be-heard, a new stage of digital content evolution”

  1. I’m a massive consumer of audiobooks because I have far more time available for listening then I do for reading. Why turn on the radio and put up with blithering idiots, or listen to the same old stuff on the player, when I can queue up a book?

    Just commuting back and forth to work, idle moments standing in line or waiting for meetings or other idle time, and that averages a book a week.

  2. And poor Mike again has to skip around the bit that the only reason qig5 ebooks aren’t doing a lot better is their agency pricing.

    And the only reason trad-pub even sees audio as a savior is because like paper/hard backs it costs more to produce than an ebook – which puts it out of the reach of many a indie/self publisher.

    My mother likes that her kindle will read an ebook to her, I’ll stick to the printed (in e-ink or on my display) word. 😉

  3. I understand all the advantages.

    They don’t make up for the fact that my hearing, even with aids, isn’t sufficiently good to enjoy spoken material.

    Or to put it another way, when I got the DVD of The Force Awakens, I was startled at the Closed Captioning. An amazement.

    I’ll stick with reading, thankyouverymuch.

  4. I have to confess, audio books tend to put me to sleep. It’s not the content but the delivery, I think. That quiet, conversational voice always lulls me into a stupor. I’ll be following along with the story and next thing I know, I’m waking up to the closing lines with ‘wha…wha…happened?’ on my lips.

  5. The reason Audible is dominant in the audio market is because *surprise surprise just like ebooks* the big publishers thought audio was nothing to worry about. Audible grew the market, then five years ago a lot of the big publishers started worrying and insisting on audio rights. No audio = no deal.

    This led to some authors walking away from publishers, but overall a small percentage — those who were already selling really well in audio.

    Unfortunately, the publishers don’t have Audible’s marketing/promo behind them for audio, so their sales in that format were lackluster. Now, they’re trying to cultivate a relationship with Audible.

  6. The new silver bullet.
    Wait until audio hits the inflection point in the adoption curve and they discover the upper limit on audio.

    Then they’ll scrounge around for a new savior format to pin their hopes on. Probably VR/AR.

        • And every ‘Enhanced book’ they’ve tried and failed to stir any interest in has not been a ‘book’ as in it could not be made/formed/printed as a ‘book’.

          The ’90s wants their Multi-Media back …

          • But a 21st-century iBook is *better* than that old ’90s multimedia! Since your book is in constant contact with the mothership, it can continually morph through updates, changes, censorings, and editing, so that you’re never quite sure what you already read… isn’t that *great*!?

  7. It’s awesome if audiobooks become more available and encourage people to read more than they would otherwise, but I’m another one who’ll stick with reading. My auditory processing ability is just not up to absorbing all the nuances of the written word. Plus I can read quite a bit faster than someone can talk. Plus I frequently reread sentences/paragraphs to savor the language, or glance back at what I’ve already read to confirm names, facts, etc., all of which happens automatically when reading, but would require distracting rewinding and finding my place again when listening. (Which is the same reason I have trouble with ebooks.) All of which is why I fear blindness more than any other possible fate…I’d barely be able to read or write at all.

    • My reasons for preferring print are almost identical to yours. Central auditory processing problems mean that I get much less from listening than I do from reading. It probably takes about twice as long to listen to a book, so that’s half as many books I’d get to read in the rest of my lifetime. And heaven forbid you should want to flip back a page or so to reread something.

      Also, as I said in a comment on another post, I don’t want to hear someone else’s interpretation of the text or of a character.

      • I agree on every point.

        On the other hand, while audio is an imperfect tool, it’s way better than standing or sitting there staring into the distance, bored to near-catatonia…

  8. I’ve never tried an audio book, but I am a gamer and I loathe voiced dialogue in games because it’s so ssssllllllooooowwwww.

    I’m a voracious reader and can read quickly without skimming. To me, audio would only be attractive if I -god forbid – lost my sight. 🙁

    I think audio will become very important to those people who currently say they read ‘5 books a year’, or less. So long as they associate enjoyment with a book, I don’t care how they access that book.

    Maybe if the education system didn’t turn kids off reading at such a young age, we wouldn’t be having these conversations now.

  9. Audio has it’s place. I read fast and will always choose print over audio when I can.

    But if I’m on a 8 hour drive, I can listen to a book but I can’t read a book. That’s when I will select an audio book.

  10. Anybody would think that audio books are for people who don’t read. 😉

    Seriously, avid reader tend to read fast, and audio is slow. But for slow readers I imagine that audio books are a blessing.

  11. Mike talks about the “extra effort” that will be necessary to make content available to people who want to read instead of listen when a book is released primarily as an audiobook. In the age of ebooks and print on demand paper books, this seems like a silly concern. Once you have a script for an audiobook, there is really very little “extra effort” required to make that script into an ebook or POD paperback.

    I think it is great that some authors are having more success with and income from their audiobooks, but it has not reached a point where it is no longer worth the extra effort to also produce the ebook and paper versions of that book, especially when so little effort is now required.

    As for the cost of producing an audiobook for an indie author, it is of course often more than the cost of creating an ebook or paperback if you have to hire someone to record the narration. However, Audible does make it possible to record your own audiobook, which my wife and I have started doing. It is technically challenging, but with a bit of persistence, it is very doable. And as non-fiction authors, my wife and I have found it very worthwhile to release most of our books as audiobooks, even if we choose to pay upfront for a narrator.

    It does not make sense if a book is doing well to not release it as an audiobook, but it also would not make much sense to skip releasing it as an ebook and paperback.

    • “In the age of ebooks and print on demand paper books, this seems like a silly concern.”

      You must remember that Mike makes stories mainly for his trad-pub followers, so silly concerns are all he has left (if he pointed out trad-pub’s real flaws they’d stop reading him ..,)

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