Summary: How will people engage with fiction in the future? Will most fiction still be experienced by readers, or will a growing percentage of people consume stories as listeners? Arielle Pardes of Wired explores the changing landscape in a recent article, briefly touching on the contrast between traditional audiobooks and stories delivered by voice assistants.
In her recent Wired article “Listening Isn’t Reading, But Audiobooks Still Resonate,” Arielle Pardes uses an interesting analogy to describe the difference between reading a novel and listening to the audiobook version. If you run 26 and a quarter miles on a treadmill, Pardes asks, have you really run a marathon?
When you run on a treadmill, you’re not truly invested in the work. You go through the paces, but all while listening to your favorite podcast, watching TV, or chatting with friends. You’re not 100% focused on gearing up for the next hill or overtaking the runner in front of you.
Similarly, the big selling point of audiobooks is that you can “do something else” while listening. The intake experience doesn’t force an interruption in the countless tasks forming your typical harried day.
As Pardes points out, sitting down with a book in your hands, paper or ebook, forces a different level of engagement. The mental act of reading, and the intense level of engagement required, often leads to immersion in a completely new reality.
Audiobooks, Pardes notes, are a good fit for our modern lifestyles. Accordingly, Silicon Valley is pushing what Pardes calls the “audio-first future.” She cites Google’s recent support for audiobooks in the Google Play store and a HarperCollins initiative to “deliver audiobooks to children via Google Assistant.”
Interestingly, Audible.com had a large presence at Modev’s Voice Summit 2018 last week. Part of the rationale for their involvement in a voice-first focused conference was the venue’s proximity to Audible’s Newark-based studios. But it’s clear that Amazon Alexa is viewed as a promising new distribution platform for streaming audiobooks.
Padres doesn’t address the key difference between Audible.com’s current streaming audiobook service and the Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant platforms. The difference, of course, is that the voice assistant platforms incorporate advanced speech recognition and at least a rudimentary form of natural language processing. You can’t talk back to an Audible.com book and have it respond intelligently. But that’s exactly what you can do, or should be able to do, with Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant.
As authors, how do we utilize this amazing new set of capabilities? That’s what those of us engaged in the design and development of voice first fiction are still trying to figure out.
Reading a book requires intense mental focus and is rewarded with a pleasant sense of immersion. But what happens when we listen to a story, and we’re invited to engage with the narrative and the storyteller in ways that require a new and different level of attention and mental involvement?
Towards the end of her article, Padres recalls the fulfilling experience of having parents read us a story. Parents as narrators are often a person’s introduction to the notion of “audio books.” There is, then, something inherently compelling about interacting with a trusted storyteller. We’re still just beginning to figure out how to take the best parts of this experience and leverage them in emerging voice first platforms.