Audiobook Basics, Part 2: (Listen) Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger

This is the second part of a three-part series on audiobooks. In the first part, I talked about the growing trends in audiobook listening (it’s the fastest growing format in publishing, like what?!). This is a megalist of all the strategies I’ve learned over 4 years of listening to get the most out of your audiobook experience. This post is filled with things I wish I’d known more than 4 years ago, when I got an Audible membership, started listening (to a 20-hour behemoth, god help me), and then…gave up.

I wasn’t sure how to do it, and it took me years to figure out the tips and approaches I’m sharing today. Maybe that sounds silly, but if it happened to me, it probably has happened to someone else. I hope you enjoy! If you have any questions, you can always leave a comment or let me know through this contact form. The final post in this series will be full of audiobook recommendations especially geared towards easy and engaging listens (no History of the Ancient World here– although, not gonna lie, I listen to that book every time I have a dental procedure done, and it takes me to a beautiful plane where teeth cleanings and cavity fillings do not exist. Highly recommend.).

Tip #1: Don’t Think of Them as Books

Okay. I know they’re books. But don’t think of them that way.

Your priorities for audiobooks might be different than your priorities for regular books, which is why I recommend using your library, Overdrive, Hoopla, or Playster when you first start listening. Borrowing books means you can experiment more than you could if you bought them, which means you can figure out what works for you. If you don’t like a particular narrator, who cares? Send that puppy back and grab something else. Be ruthless (more on this later).

For example: In my “silent” reading life, I have no problem deep-diving into intense non-fiction (The Organized MindLenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire, etc.). I don’t always finish those books, but my DNF rate isn’t any higher than it is for lighter reads. But with audiobooks? Good luck getting me to finish heavy non-fiction reads. It just doesn’t work for me. I need something with different voices, a compelling narrative, and an emotional arc to keep me interested. 

A question I ask myself every time I try to listen to Heart of Darkness.

Does that mean you’ll never make it through Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City on audiobook? Absolutely not. But you might find that what you enjoy reading is not exactly what you enjoy listening to. Be honest with yourself about your listening style and your priorities. If you keep picking audiobooks that you’d like to have listened to (because they’re popular/important/literary/etc.) but can’t seem to make it through, you’ll just get frustrated.

Full Cast is Your Friend

One of the first audiobooks I ever listened to successfully was a full-cast production of Ender’s Game. Something about the character voices and the sound effects made it so much easier to follow the story even when I was doing laundry or slogging my way through rush hour. This might sound crazy, but full cast productions brought the book to life in a way that feels more like what it’s actually like to read a book (or am I the only one who does “character voices” in their head?). 

Pick a Good Audiobook, Not a Good Book on Audio

Good books aren’t always good audiobooks, and good audiobooks aren’t always good books. There’s overlap, of course, but when you’re starting to listen to audiobooks, I’d try to limit your variables as much as possible so you can figure out what you enjoy.

One way to do that is by listening to a book you already know you love. Rereads are great audiobook experiences because they let you focus less on the plot (which you presumably remember at least partially) and more on the listening experience. When I listen to an audiobook, I sometimes worry that I’m not paying close enough attention to what’s happening, but if I’m rereading, that worry feels way less relevant.

One resource for discovering good audiobooks is The Audie Awards, annual awards given out to the best audiobooks-as-audiobooks. There’s usually some overlap with other awards, which makes sense since Pulitzer-prize winners are likely to have pretty high production value. Book Riot also has an audiobook newsletter you should check out!

Whenever you find a book you think you might like to listen to, make sure to find a review of the audiobook itself. Reviews of the print edition will tell you all about the author’s voice, the plot, and the critical reception, but they won’t mention the fact that the male narrator’s voice trails off into a dog-whistle-high pitch whenever they do female voices, or that their attempts at accents are borderline offensive, or that the faint strains of music running throughout the narration are absolutely delightful. You can find customer reviews of audiobooks on Audible (though those are of variable usefulness) and more formal reviews by searching for “[insert book title here] audiobook review.” 

Tip #2: Listen With a Friend!

Audiobooks echo a more traditional listening experience: one person reads while others listen.

When I first started considering audiobooks several years ago, I thought, “I don’t want anyone to read to me. How childish!” But it isn’t really childish to listen to someone else read– after all, I do it all the time at readings and literary festivals, in classrooms and at weddings. It doesn’t bother me then– in fact, it often feels like a treat to have a communal reading experience, to have heard the same words at the same time as someone else. In my classrooms, a student usually reads a paragraph or two out loud fairly early in our discussion; it helps to make sure everyone is on the same page (literally as well as figuratively, sigh).

This might be one of the reasons why audiobooks are so popular on road trips: everyone in the car hears the same story. It gives us another way to feel connected. My partner and I do this fairly frequently whenever we travel, although I usually pause the audiobook at least five or six times to embark on a long discussion about whatever topic we’re currently listening to (we usually listen to non-fiction on road trips, since it’s a genre we’re both interested in). It may be slow going, but audiobooks have generated some thought-provoking discussions that I’m not sure we would have had otherwise.

You don’t have to just listen in the car, though– my partner and I also listen sometimes before bed, while we’re cleaning, or even when we’re both engaged in separate projects. We have a small apartment, so if I put a book on using the kitchen speakers while I paint or draw, he can hear it easily while he hangs out on the couch or plays video games. When we’ve had to be apart because of school or work, we’ve chosen books to listen to (he has my Audible and Hoopla account on his devices) and talked about them in the evenings. Sometimes we get a little out of sync, but we’ve only had one major spoiler event (It was a Game of Thrones death. I’m so sorry.). It’s a nice way of feeling “together” even while we’re apart.

Tip #3: Don’t Just Sit There

Okay, yes, I’m sure some people do actually just sit quietly and listen. I do this sometimes too, but my most successful extended listening sessions happen when I have something else to occupy my hands. Some activities take up too much of my “brain space” (the technical term, I’m sure), like writing (even if it’s just an email) or cooking, but I’ve found significant portions of my day that offer prime listening opportunities:

Driving, Walking, Public Transit, etc.

This one is obvious (I think). If you’d put your music on to walk to the grocery store, you can put your audiobook on!

Creative Projects

Before I started listening regularly to audiobooks, most of my downtime went to reading. I got handmade gifts from people who I considered avid readers, went to their art shows, and stalked their Instagrams, all while thinking “Good lord, how do these people have time?”

I have no idea how they do it (I don’t think they listen to audiobooks– maybe they just don’t sleep that much?), but now I know how do it. I find it incredibly soothing to turn on an audiobook and spend a few hours painting, drawing, or making cards or bookmarks.

Repetitive Job/House Stuff

I don’t have too much of this right now, but data entry used to be a (horrifically boring) part of my job. I didn’t know about audiobooks back then, but they would have been an excellent way to occupy my brain.

This also applies to housework– scrubbing floors, doing dishes, folding laundry, it’s all so much more bearable when you’ve got a good story to distract you.

Videogames

I’ve been playing a lot of Stardew Valley— like, five to six hours at a time. Let’s not talk about it. It’s a pretty slow-paced game with a lot of grinding (I don’t think I’d recommend listening to audiobooks while playing Rocket League or Fallout), so audiobooks are the perfect accompaniment. Whenever I sit down to play, I turn on The Stand ( 47 hours– hey, I needed to stretch those credits). Stephen King is a great audiobook author because (at least to me) his language is very clear and not particularly subtle (sorry!), his characters are easy to remember, and his plots are compelling. I don’t feel like King is punishing me if I get distracted by an important moment in the game– I can just pick up a few minutes later and get the gist. Good luck doing that with Camus.

Exercise

I’ve heard tell of mythical creatures who enjoy exercise.

I am not one of those creatures.

One of the best tips I’ve heard for integrating audiobooks and exercise is this: only listen to the audiobook while you’re actually exercising. Unfortunately, this only works if you’re invested in the audiobook. We readers are extremely good at finding excuses to read. This takes what some might call an unhealthy obsession and turns it into…well, a healthy one! I’ve definitely stayed for another lap just to get to the end of the chapter. Nothing else in the world could get me to do that.

There are plenty of other times in my life when I listen to audiobooks: when I put on makeup, when I shower, when I bullet journal… I can give a million more recommendations, but since everyone is different, I hope you’ll take this list as inspiration to find time to listen in your own life.

Tip #4: Give Yourself Structure

Whenever you’re starting a new habit, it’s important to give yourself concrete goals to meet (and then feel accomplished about!) So instead of just saying, “I’m going to start listening to audiobooks,” try one (or some, or all) of these:

  • “I will listen to an audiobook for 20 minutes every day.” (Usually, by the time I hit the 20 minute mark, I’m deep in the story, but saying you only have to find a 20-minute segment of listening time makes it easier than staring down all 20 hours of the book itself.)
  • “I will keep track of what I listen to.” (I’ve posted before about the joys of reading journals, but with a new genre or medium it’s especially important to take notes. Noting what worked for you and what didn’t– “My commute went by so quickly today!” “I can’t stop listening to this full-cast production!”– is the fastest way to hone in on what you like to listen to.)
  • “I will complete one [or two, or three, or whatever number bloats your stoat] audiobooks this month.” (I think goals really help. Then again, I’m part border collie.)
  • “I will set aside books that do not work for me.” (This is a controversial one. I know many people refuse to give up on a book. But I think for audiobooks, especially when you’re first starting out, the prospect of forcing yourself to listen to a boring book for 14 hours can completely tank your resolve. Better to have a positive experience and figure out what works for you.)
  • “I will try new places, times, and ways to listen.” (Some examples of things to try: increasing playback speed, full-cast productions, listening on speaker– instead of headphones– when it doesn’t inconvenience others, obv, alternating listening and reading the same book, etc.)

Phew! Okay, that’s all I’ve got for today. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for tips I didn’t cover, leave a comment or shoot me an email at omnivoreads@gmail.com. I still consider myself an audiobook novice, so I’ll take all the help I can get!

The next post in the series will be all about audiobook recommendations for beginners! Cue gleeful hand-rubbing…

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One comment

  1. I have recently decided to be a better audiobooker (for lack of a better term.) Audiobooks have been difficult for me and I want to change that. Your tips in this series have been really useful! Thank you!

    Like

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