The Debate Between Audiobooks vs. Reading

young man reading and listening to an audiobook at the same time

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

The audiobook market is the fastest growing component of the publishing industry, and it’s no accident. Audiobooks benefit both readers and authors in a multitude of ways, and the global market is projected to reach $35 billion by 2030. Even when the publishing industry declined, audiobooks experienced growth.

Audiobooks have come a long way since their humble beginning in 1932. They first emerged when The American Foundation for the Blind created recordings on vinyl for the visually impaired. As technology evolved, audiobooks were made available on cassette tapes and compact discs that were sold in local bookstores. By 1994, the term “audiobook” became a legitimate standard in the publishing industry, and Audible introduced a feature to download books onto desktop computers.

The audiobook revolution has led to debate and a fundamental question — Which is better, listening to an audiobook or reading a book? The answer, like most things, is complicated. Neither is superior to the other and both have unique traits that benefit both authors and readers.

Benefits of reading books

Books are good for you — that is stating the obvious. Although we read for pleasure, there are significant cognitive benefits to reading. The human brain operates similarly to the other muscles in our bodies. Thanks to its neuroplasticity, the brain is always changing — for better or for worse. Reading is how we train and strengthen our brains. Those who consistently read have strong, chiseled brains like the muscles of those who frequently work out.

Cognitive benefits of reading

The human brain consists of an advanced network of circuits and signals. When you strengthen your reading comprehension skills, you also strengthen this network. We can track the cognitive impact of reading by using MRI scans.

In 2013, a study conducted by researchers tracked the brain activity of participants while they read a novel. As tension built in the story, the researchers observed that more areas of the brain lit up with activity. Furthermore, the MRI scans revealed that after reading concluded, overall brain connectivity increased.

Even if you don’t have a background in science (like me), it’s fascinating to see the profound impact reading has on our brains. Every time you read, you are actively improving brain connectivity — which prevents cognitive decline as you age.

How reading improves vocabulary and comprehension

It’s easy to understand how reading improves vocabulary. Regular readers are exposed to different words, phrases, and expressions that diversify their understanding of language. The correlation between vocabulary, comprehension, and reading can be likened to the Matthew effect — the rich get richer and the poor get poorer — which is as relevant to vocabulary as it is to money.

A 2011 study shows that avid readers have stronger vocabularies — especially when they begin reading at a young age. Reading is more than just an exposure to thousands of words. It puts these words into context, and this is what leads to improved comprehension levels.

Reluctant readers find themselves at a legitimate disadvantage compared to regular readers. It’s important to instill good reading habits into students at a young age so they are best positioned for academic and professional success.

Reading as a form of entertainment

Reading a good book is a joy in life that should never be taken for granted. There is nothing like tuning out the world and getting lost in a compelling story or a captivating account of nonfiction. Books bring joy, build passionate communities of readers, spark conversation and debate, and challenge us with new perspectives.

In addition to the joy books bring, they also have health-boosting benefits. Reading a physical book helps prepare your body for a good night’s sleep. When you read a print book, the mind settles and begins to drift into a relaxed state. For those who have trouble falling asleep, a bedtime reading ritual can be the best medicine. Be aware that eBooks may be great, but the blue light they release can strain your eyes. So before sleeping, it’s best to avoid digital formats and screens.

Are there cons to reading?

No. Everyone — from elementary students to the elderly — should be reading. There are no cons to reading a book. However, there are limitations, and that’s why other formats exist! Reading for hours without rest can potentially strain your eyes, especially if you’re reading on a screen. And of course, there are limitations to how and when you can read a book. With busy schedules, commutes, and long workdays, many readers find themselves wishing they had more time to sit and read. That is why the audiobook market has become so attractive to readers of all backgrounds.

Pros and cons of audiobooks

The reading community is rich with diversity. Different readers have different needs. However, there is no such thing as perfection — so it’s important to address what makes audiobooks desirable alongside their potential limitations.

Audiobook pros

Audiobooks are convenient

Time is a significant obstacle for readers. For the most part, reading is a leisure activity that we enjoy. Think about those moments of tranquility with a good book — maybe you’re even reading it on a beach. I know the feeling, and it’s one that I wish could last forever. Unfortunately, reading time is transient and heavily dependent on our busy schedules. Thanks to audiobooks, reading can fit into a jam-packed day.

how to publish on Amazon guideWith hands-free listening and other audiobook benefits, readers no longer need to block off a finite amount of time to sit with a physical book. This convenience has been a massive mood booster for the reading community at large. It’s nearly impossible for our weekends and time off to be completely free. I’m sure you can relate to this. Think about your own life today. Maybe you still need to walk the dogs or make a trip to the supermarket. Because of audiobooks, these tasks don’t have to be so menial.

Audiobooks are inclusive and accessible

Audiobooks provide an inclusive and accessible reading solution. Books enhance our lives and until recently, reading has been a luxury that not everyone could enjoy. Although hindrances still exist, audiobooks have made reading possible for more people than ever before.

Audiobooks can be enjoyed by the visually impaired for leisure reading and in school. Accessibility also becomes a crucial factor for readers with learning disabilities and health conditions that make it challenging to read a physical book or eBook. Whether a reader struggles with dyslexia or chronic migraines, audiobooks make it possible for them to remain a dedicated bookworm.

To address cost-related barriers to entry, libraries are now offering free audiobooks to be streamed or downloaded. This library-led movement has been a tremendous resource for those who are dependent on audiobooks but cannot afford to purchase them individually or through a subscription-based model like Audible.

Audiobook cons

Distractions while listening

No one is immune from distraction. When listening to a book or reading it in print format, our minds wander, and we need to take a step back and read something again. It’s human nature for audiobook listeners to slip into a passive state and fail to fully comprehend what they just heard. If you are doing something that requires your full attention while listening to an audiobook (like driving), it’s not as easy to rewind a few minutes to regain focus and context. For this reason, some readers retain information better when they read it as opposed to listening to it.

Less imagination

Although I’m an avid audiobook listener, I admit that reading a book demands a level of imagination that transcends the listening experience. A written book requires a reader to construct every aspect of the story — the way characters look, sound, and carry themselves — through their imagination. A narrator’s voice and portrayal of characters can limit the imaginative potential of a story.

Audiobooks vs. reading comparison

There is not a significant difference between the ways our brains process audio and printed text. When comparing audiobooks to print books, the two factors to consider are comprehension and retention of information.

Comprehension

When audiobooks first burst onto the scene, there was a prevalent misconception that audiobook listening was “cheating” and less effective than reading a physical book. Turns out, those claims were not backed by science.

Catalog Hana BannerDon’t believe me? Hear it directly from neuroscientist Dr. Kristen Willeumier. In a recent interview, she discusses the brain power that goes into listening to your favorite book instead of reading it. Furthermore, Dr. Willeumier establishes that both visual and auditory learning activate semantic processing in the same cortical areas. In other words, both reading and listening do something good for your brain.

Now that we’ve addressed the “audiobooks are cheating” elephant in the room, let’s talk about how listening to books leads to improved comprehension. Reading while listening (RWL) is a tactic used by educators today that has led to dramatic improvements in language comprehension, reading skills, critical listening skills, and critical thinking skills. Plus, reading while listening or listening alone helps readers understand pronunciation, tone, and the emotional pitch of a story.

Retention

For the most part, reading a physical book leads to the best knowledge retention. Our brains process information more quickly through written text than by listening. It’s also easier to go back and re-read specific passages when necessary than it is to rewind an audiobook. Remember that this is not a one-size-fits-all approach — some people retain information better by listening and the ultimate solution is to blend the two! Combining reading with listening activates more connections in our brain and lights up an MRI like fireworks in a night sky.

Should you make an audiobook?

By now, you may realize that when it comes to the great audiobook vs reading debate, I’m giving you a politician’s answer — it depends. Reading physical books and listening to audiobooks make the world a better place to read, learn, dream, and tap into our sense of wonder. Both are appealing for different reasons, and it’s not up to me or anyone to determine which one is superior.

The demand for audiobooks is real and will continue to grow over time. If you’re an independent author, the time has come when audiobooks are not exclusive to the traditionally published community. Thanks to advancements in technology and artificial intelligence, you can create a high-quality, professional audiobook with BookBaby. If you are interested, you can start the audiobook publishing process with us and have a proof within one week.

Although there is no true victor in the audiobook vs print book debate, I’ll leave you with a definitive conclusion. In 2023 and beyond, most authors who are serious about selling books should make an audiobook after their initial publish.

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