In addition to being an avid reader of dead-tree books, I’ve succumbed to the audiobook habit. While I read several books a week, I also listen to audiobooks on my iPod, each one generally over a couple of weeks and in short doses. Audiobooks are interesting: they give you a different perspective on reading. Instead of being active, you are passive; you allow the text to enter you instead of working to ingest it. Good readers can bring out the subtleties in a text, and the nuances in characters. (One excellent example that I’ve listen to recently is Matt Dillon’s “performance” of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, which brings this book alive in ways I hadn’t expected.)
Digital audiobooks make listening much easier than books on CDs. With quick downloads (from Audible.com or from the iTunes Music Store, you can find a book and start listening now, instead of waiting for the package to arrive with the CDs. No changing discs and no being near a CD player and having to change discs every hour or so; just pop it into your iPod or other digital music player, and start listening.
There are all kinds of audiobooks available digitally: from fiction to history, from science to mysteries, Audible sells more than 30,000 programs (including books, radio shows, interviews, magazines and newspapers). However, there are a few ways that digital audiobooks could be improved, and they are really simple…When you listen to a novel, you don’t want to stop listening just anywhere if you can avoid it. Some books have chapters with titles, or numbers (Chapter 3, for example). But some fiction has either un-named chapters, or no real chapter breaks, just extra line spacing to indicate a “soft break”. When reading a book, you can spot these breaks, and, if you’re tired or need to go do something else, you can read another few pages to get to them. With a digital audiobook, you have no way of knowing where you are, how near a break you are, and, depending on the reader, you may not even notice the breaks.
Audible does have chapter breaks in its files (at least they show up on iPods; I’m not sure about other MP3 players), but these breaks are set at the ends of the original CDs, not the actual chapters of books. So you can skip ahead to the beginning of the next (virtual) CD, or go back to the beginning of the current CD, but not to the beginning of a chapter if you missed part of it. For that, you need to scrub back and try and find where the chapter starts.
It is relatively simple to indicate these chapter breaks in Audible files; it would require a little bit of work on the producer’s end, but it would be the least they could offer users, to improve their listening experience. To do this, the audiobook publisher would have to provide Audible with a time chart, showing exactly when each chapter begins, and Audible would then make their chapter breaks at these points, instead of simply at the ends of the original CDs that they digitize. (Note: as of late 2008, these chapter breaks seem to correspond to actual chapters in books. But it is likely that older books have not been rejiggered with new chapter breaks; they simply have too many books to fix.)
Even if Audible didn’t do this, they could still help listeners by providing a file with these time markers. On an iPod, you could add this to your Notes folder, and view it on the iPod, so you could see when the current chapter ends, or use it to find the time for the beginning of a chapter when you need to go back. (This would be especially useful if you press the wrong button and lose your place, and have to scrub through the audiobook to find where you were.) This, again, would require that publishers provide these time charts, but this is a simple task. (However, anyone who’s ever worked in the publishing industry knows how hard it is to get “simple tasks” accomplished…)
So that’s what novels need, but what about non-fiction? I’m currently listening to a history book which has “further reading” recommendations sprinkled throughout the text. I can’t always stop and note the names of these books, some of which interest me, so why can’t Audible provide a PDF file with these books? They really should do this for any book that has a bibliography, book list or even notes. (Books that have footnotes may have the footnotes read, but endnotes are always ignored.)
And what about maps, charts and photos? All these elements are part of the “reading” experience, and audiobook listeners just have to do without them.
Again, the onus is on the publishers, who don’t provide such information with books on CD; this is not a digital-only problem, but one that affects audiobooks in general. Most books on CD have no such notes, and, for some non-fiction books, there may be dozens of pages of notes and other non-text elements that listeners might want to refer to. Again, a PDF file costs next to nothing to prepare–the publisher can simply create it from the original page layout of the book. Including this an an audio CD is simple (using a multi-session CD), and it is simple for Audible to offer such files for download. Just as the iTunes Music Store includes digital booklets with many albums, Audible should do the same with books that merit such information.
Audiobooks are an excellent way to “read”, but they fall short in many ways. The problem with digital audibooks is simply that purveyors of this content merely reproduce the original CDs, without thinking of what they can do to make their products unique. Chapters, bibliographies and notes are not rocket-science, and could incite users to buy audiobooks for more than just novels and hot non-fiction. I’m sure some readers shy away from audiobooks on certain subjects because of the lack of bibliographies and notes. It’s time to take audiobooks to the next generation and use existing technologies to make them even better.
See some interesting comments about this article at Aldoblog.