Audio vs text: the rise of podcasts & audiobooks

On The Bill Simmons Podcast this month, author Malcolm Gladwell said something that startled me: the audiobook version of his latest book, Talking to Strangers, was outselling the hard cover after the first week on sale. He mentioned this was also happening with the books of Jordan Peterson, a middle-aged self help author who’s become enormously popular with younger generations due to his YouTube channel and podcast.

“It’s a [re]balance of power from people who wrote well, to people who talk well,” Gladwell said. He then made the following argument about people who are good at talking:

“Now with audio, all of a sudden people who have this particular, weird, previously undervalued gift of being able to express themselves [verbally] really well […] that person is now suddenly elevated.”

Podcasting is changing how books are written

The increasing popularity of audio is also having an impact on the creative process. Gladwell changed how he wrote his latest book, plus he modernised the format of the audiobook version to make it sound more like a podcast. These changes were inspired by his experience producing and hosting the Revisionist History podcast, which he started in 2016.

Entertainment Weekly asked Gladwell in a recent interview how his podcast impacted the writing process for the new book:

“Well, the podcast medium is so emotional, right? It’s so intimate and emotional. And if you’ve been spending your life writing prose, you’re not used to that. You’re used to being something with a little more distant, analytical perspective. And so doing Revisionist History, suddenly you’re telling these stories and you hear people’s voices, and you really feel like you have a part of their lives in some way. That, for me, was a pretty powerful lesson. And it got me interested in new ways of telling stories. I started my career as a newspaper person, then I was a magazine writer, then I was a book writer, and now I do a podcast. I’ve always tried to kind of find new ways to tell stories, and so this seemed like the next chapter.”

So from the start of the writing process for his latest book, Gladwell was thinking of it as an amalgam of book and podcast.

When it came to doing the audiobook, Gladwell went even further: he copied the narrative podcast formula almost exactly. He told Bill Simmons that “the audiobook is produced like a podcast […] it’s like listening to ten consecutive Revisionist History podcasts.”

Another EW article explained that the audiobook contains “excerpts from Gladwell’s recorded interviews, archival audio, conversations re-created by actors, and even music.” That’s the same approach taken by Serial and other narrative podcasts (and adopted in 2016 by Gladwell himself, with Revisionist History).

Gladwell attributes the trend towards voice for books and media to the consumption habits of young people, especially Generation Z.

“When I talk to a parent of teenagers, I hear over and over again about how that generation consumes stuff with their ears, not with their eyes. And if that’s the case, then we would be foolish not to give them something of high quality.”

There may be some truth to that, but it’s also true that podcasts and audiobooks have become more popular across all audiences in recent years.

The simple reason is that it’s much easier to consume audio content now than it used to be. That’s because the technology has significantly improved from ten years ago: people can easily listen to audio content on their smartphones, there’s a plethora of podcasting apps, subscribing to (or streaming) podcasts and ebooks is much easier, and of course there are many more quality content creators now working in audio.

Converting to audio for good

While Malcolm Gladwell has fashioned himself a new career as a podcaster - and is bringing the audio skills he’s picking up back to book writing - ultimately he remains a writer at heart. He’s written six books now and I imagine he’ll continue writing more - since that’s what his reputation is staked on.

Other writers though have seemingly converted to audio for good. Bill Simmons is a great example. He made his name writing sports columns, including for ESPN and later for his own company The Ringer. He also published a book in 2009 entitled The Book of Basketball.

Although Simmons started podcasting back in 2007, and thus was very early to the podcasting game, up till recently he viewed himself as a writer first and foremost. But over the past year or so, he sometimes complains on his podcast that he doesn’t have time to write anymore. On the episode with Gladwell, for instance, he joked that “my fingers don’t even work any more; I can barely send emails.”

To be fair, Simmons is also the CEO of a large, thriving online media network (The Ringer). I had enough trouble finding time to write while running a much smaller media company (ReadWriteWeb), so I totally understand Simmons’ dilemma.

Ultimately though, the reason Bill Simmons spends whatever creative time he has on podcasting and not columns is that a) he’s an outstanding podcaster (fun to listen to, gets the best out of his guests, tone of voice is one to be envied, etc.), and b) there’s more money, or at least easier money, in podcasting these days than in website writing.

Podcast or books, or both?

Another interesting example of a popular writer who is now mainly known for his podcast is Bret Easton Ellis. I subscribed to Ellis’ podcast as soon as he launched it in November 2013, because I was a big fan of his books. But since then, The Bret Easton Ellis Podcast has turned into its own unique phenomenon. Indeed, the podcast directly inspired the writing of his latest book.

Ellis wrote White, a nonfiction book published this year, by collecting together some of his best “monologues” from the podcast. He edited and added to this material, but the book probably wouldn’t have been written at all if it wasn’t for the podcast. To explain: at the start of each podcast episode and before the guest of the show comes on, Ellis does a long monologue. It’s usually about movies, or another cultural topic that interests him. Some people, including myself, think the monologues are the best part of the podcast. They’re insightful, intimate, culturally savvy, and reveal much about Ellis’ aesthetic (I had no idea he was a movie fanatic before I listened to his podcast, for example). So it made sense to turn them into a book.

Given how rare new books from Ellis are these days, as a theoretical exercise I asked myself which format I’d rather he devoted himself to from now on: books or the podcast? It was a pretty easy decision.

While I enjoyed reading White and would love to read new fiction from him, I’d much prefer to continue getting a regular dose of Bret Easton Ellis through his podcast. Of course, I hope he can find time to do both. But my point is, the podcast is ultimately more compelling to me as a fan. An episode arrives every couple of weeks, the content is thought-provoking, Ellis’ voice and personality is enjoyable, the guests are usually interesting.

Even if Ellis was to write one book a year from now on (he’s only written three this century), I would still prefer the podcast.

Which leads to the question…

Could audiobooks and podcasts replace books?

Bill Simmons put that question to Malcolm Gladwell, who seemed intrigued by the prospect. He pondered whether in ten years time, he might do an audiobook as the work of art - and then, almost as an afterthought, turn it into a paper book if someone requests it. Simmons replied that his Ringer colleague Shea Serrano has an interactive book coming out soon, so it has more than just words.

As for myself, I don’t think written books will ever be replaced by audiobooks, because some types of books are clearly more suited to printed words. A great work of fiction where words can be savoured, for example. But also I find a lot of nonfiction is best read in print, such as an in-depth biography or history. I find it really tough to plough through 18 hours of an audiobook biography, for instance, whereas there’s something about the immersion into a subject required of a print biography that I find very satisfying. Perhaps I just don’t like listening to nonfiction books while I’m at the gym or preparing my lunch (which are times I typically listen to podcasts and, occasionally, to audiobooks).

That said, I do think books like the type Gladwell writes (pop psychology) can take a lot from podcasting and thus become more appealing in the audiobook format. Other forms of nonfiction would benefit from this as well: pop culture, self help, business journalism, etc. Gladwell is definitely onto something, bringing the tricks of narrative podcasting to audiobooks.

And I agree with Simmons that interactive books will become more popular over time. Authors have been experimenting with images, multimedia and different digital formats for decades now (I wrote a number of posts about interactive books for ReadWriteWeb over the years, including these two in my final year at RWW in 2012). This kind of digital innovation in books will continue, and audio will increasingly be a part of it.

Conclusion

There’s no doubt audiobooks and podcasts are ‘having a moment’ in 2019. Whereas written formats - print books and blogs - simply aren’t as fashionable in this era.

I think that’s partly a reflection of the super-busy and super-noisy media world we live in now, where sometimes the only respite is putting on your AirPods and tuning everything else out. It’s also because podcasts, in particular, are a fun way to multitask - you can learn new things or be entertained while you’re working out, or doing the dishes, or driving to work, or commuting to work. Audiobooks like Gladwell’s latest are tapping into that multitasking part of our lives too.

I also attribute part of the trend from print to audio to the revenue models for this era. Advertising is still viable for podcasts (and indeed is increasing), whereas advertising on blogs has steeply declined.

With all that said, I believe there will always be a place for the written word. Certain types of books are best consumed via text, and we’re also seeing blogs continue on as email newsletters in this era.

Media formats evolve over time, as do business models. This is the age of audio, of that there’s no doubt. But the written word - like the article you’ve just finished reading - isn’t going away.