Why...listening to audiobooks isn't cheating

Audiobooks have made a huge difference to the publishing industry. You only need to look at the emphasis publishers have put on creating a memorable audio productions recently to see this. Never mind the fact that users downloaded 2 billion hours’ worth of audiobooks from audible in 2016 alone. That would take me 228,310 years to read!

And I use the word ‘read’ on purpose since a lot of readers consider audiobooks to be cheating. About 30% of the books I read are audiobooks and I recall them in the same way that I remember other books that I’ve read on paper, so I’m very much on the audiobook bandwagon. Note – this is not a sponsored article.

According to research included within a Science of Us article, as far as your brain is concerned, audiobooks are not cheating. It argues that from a cognitive psychology perspective, there is no real difference between listening to a book and reading it. It’s all about how the brain makes sense of language.

Researchers have studied the question of comprehension for decades, and “what you find is very high correlations of reading comprehension and listening comprehension.”

Of course, the experience of listening to a book rather than reading it is different, and I appreciate that audiobooks aren’t for everyone. The narrator is key. Listening to Stephen Fry read Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams is an amazing experience, and no doubt led to me enjoying the audiobook more than if I had read a physical copy.

When listening to an audiobook, your brain will naturally drift off, get distracted or even bored. They are great for listening to a book when doing the housework but I frequently find myself rewinding parts that I’ve missed. Fastcodesign published an interesting article which looks at how readers absorb information, and how likely they are to be distracted according to what format they are using. The graph below shows the results of the research featured within the article.

As you can see the results clearly show that audiobooks are tougher to take in, especially when there’s a lot going on around you so they’re not for everyone. To me, audiobooks allow me to absorb more books than I would be able to otherwise and some of my favourite books of all time are audiobooks. As long as you ensure that you’re paying attention to what’s being said and you’re not rushing through it just to say you’ve finished it, audiobooks are equal to other formats.

If you would like to check out some audiobooks but don’t know where to start, here are some of my recommendations:
1. Always try before you buy – You should be able to preview a book before purchasing. Which means you can avoid getting stuck with a good book, with a terrible narrator.
2. Don’t buy outright – I subscribe to audible for £14 per month which gives me two credits to use. If I run out of books for a month I’ll buy another three credits for £17. So that’s around £6 per book, about the same as you’d pay for a new book these days. The books listed on audible are frequently listed for around £25. Stick to membership credits and you’ll save a lot of money.
3. Trial – If you sign up you can do a trial and try out one audiobook for free.
4. Daily deals – A lot of my audiobook library consists of daily deals that they run where a book can cost as little as £1.99.
5. Try and pick something simple – I always check out a story to see if it’s told from multiple povs, or if it jumps from one time period to the other. If it’s a hugely complicated book, then I won’t attempt to listen to it.

Here are some of my favourites:
Locke and Key by Joe Hill narrated by a huge cast
Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, narrated by Stephen Fry
Jim Butcher’s entire Harry Dresden series, narrated by James Marsters
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman – Gaiman narrates this himself
Blood Song by Anthony Ryan narrated by Steven Brand
Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh narrated by Tam Dean Burn
Heroes Dies by Matthew Stover narrated by Stefan Rudnicki
Redshirts by John Scalzi narrated by Wil Wheaton
Ex-Heroes by Peter Clines narrated by a large cast
Daft Wee Stories by Limmy (narrated by Limmy himself)

A final plea to audiobook producers everywhere - Stop making your narrators whisper, it makes it impossible to hear!

Happy listening.




  1. Great post! While I much prefer real books, I find audiobooks great for listening to when in the car or doing chores. The narrator is quite important though, I just finished the audio version of Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman and it was great fun.

    1. Thanks Steve. I've just finished Norse Mythology today also. Gaiman's audiobooks are awesome.