Audiobooks vs. Books: What’s Right For you?

The audiobooks vs. books debate continues: Which is best choice for avid readers?

Some people insist that a physical book is the only way to read. Listening to an audio version, in their eyes, does not count. At the other end of the debate are people who tout the benefits of audiobooks. According to them, it’s what’s inside the book that counts, not the manner of delivery.

While each has its fans, this much is clear: neither the written word nor audiobooks are going away. Even as we generally shift from print books to e-reader versions, many people will maintain their preferences. This is what we’ve learned about the benefits and drawbacks of audiobooks vs. books.

How Popular are Audiobooks?

Audiobooks vs. Books

Audiobook sales on platforms like Audible are increasing year after year. As of 2020, over $1.2 billion are sold every year. The newest Kindle models also have audio functionality. There are also ‘free’ audiobooks are available through subscription services like Kindle Unlimited or through open-source projects like LibriVox. 

The popularity of audiobooks has increased alongside other audio products like podcasts. As of 2021, around 57% of US consumers listen to podcasts, a 2% increase over the prior year.

People Still Read

Despite the growing popularity of audiobooks, print books still have many people’s hearts. During last year’s coronavirus shutdowns, book sales soared. Printed book sales totaled 750.89 million in 2020, an 8.2% increase over the year before.

In the audiobooks vs. books debate, those who come down on the side of paper books have many reasons. Physical books, especially when purchased secondhand, are typically cheaper than audiobooks. You cal also display physical books on bookshelves to spark conversations. Plus, many people like the physical heft of a book; holding it in their hands lets them know where they are in a narrative arc. Plus, the scent of books is so popular that Demeter even made a cologne.

Benefits of Audiobooks

Audiobooks vs. books
The APA says that audiobooks can enhance literacy skills in new readers

Both research and anecdotal reports back up the benefits of audiobooks. Many readers with dyslexia report that they have better comprehension when listening instead of reading. Some people prefer audiobooks while commuting because they get motion sickness when reading in a moving vehicle.

The APA says that audiobooks can enhance literacy skills in new readers. In their research, kids who read along while listening to an audiobook version had better reading comprehension. Children also typically have a listening skill level that is a grade or two above their reading skill level. Because of this, they can digest more complex books than they would if limited to their current reading level.

Audiobooks can be an excellent tool for people who are learning English as a second language. Hearing a narrator allows new English speakers to work on their pronunciation. They are also able to focus on comprehension without having to slow down to decode individual words. 

Listening to audiobooks can be either a solitary or communal experience. Readers can put in their earbuds and lose themselves in a story alone. Or, they can listen to books together during drives or when relaxing at home. People can discuss physical books together at their book club, but the actual reading experience is still solitary.

Benefits of Printed Books

At the same time, research indicates that, between e-readers, printed books, and audiobooks, printed books give an edge when it comes to retention. Psychologist Daniel Willingham theorizes that printed books give you physical cues regarding where you are in a story. With both audiobooks and ebooks, it can be harder to gauge where you are in a narrative.

Printed books also make it easier to flip back and forth when you want to reread something. With an audiobook, you’d have to rewind, which is more cumbersome. If you are prone to zoning out when listening, reading physical books can be a better fit.

In studies involving eye-tracking, around 10 to 15% of eye movements during reading involve going back over text and rereading. This happens almost without the reader noticing. With an audiobook, you cannot linger over sentences for better comprehension or even just enjoyment.

And, of course, reading books on paper doesn’t allow for multitasking the way that audiobooks do. However, few experts believe that humans are actually able to multitask well. So if you are listening to an audiobook for pleasure, this is not a problem. However, if you are reading a book because you need the information inside, a printed book might be better.

The Final Word on Audiobooks vs. Books

While people will always debate the pros and cons of audiobooks vs. books, it turns out that both offer benefits. So while one may have the edge over the other in different circumstances, both provide most of the benefits of reading.

And, in the end, reading wins out over not reading, no matter the format of the work. So, if audiobooks are the way that you take books in, by all means, continue. Just pick the type that suits your current needs best. Looking for relaxation? An audiobook is fine. Need to memorize information? Switch to physical books when retention is important.

Like this? Check out our guide to the best audiobook service.

FAQ About Audiobooks vs. Books

Are audiobooks cheating?

While many people consider it a cheat, you can get most of the benefits of reading out of audiobooks.

Where can I get free audiobooks?

There are many public domain audiobooks available online. You can also find them on your public library’s website. 

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