Why Are Audiobooks So Damn Hard to Understand? (Part 1)

When I listened to a roundtable discussion among professional audiobook narrators, I had no trouble understanding them. Then they put on an audiobook performance. I no longer understood what they said. This is a problem I have with audiobooks.

I was working on a task with my hands. Generally, I can listen to podcasts and talking-heads-videos-without-much-visual-content while working with my hands and understand everything. Audiobooks… not so much. Yes, when I don’t move my hands and pay full attention to audiobooks, I understand them, but if my attention must be undivided, I’d rather read a book in print. Freeing my hands and eyes to do things is the only advantage audio content has over reading, at least for me.

Even though I started learning Mandarin as an adult, I can listen to a Mandarin language talk show like 锵锵三人行 while doing simple/mindless tasks and still follow what they are saying. (I can’t do complicated tasks with my hands and follow 锵锵三人行). Even though English is my native language, I often can’t even do simple tasks and understand the professional audiobook narrator at the same time. How the heck is it harder to understand something in my native language than something in a non-native language?

(Yes, Mandarin language audiobooks also require my undivided attention, but that’s to be expected since Mandarin isn’t my native language.)

Why is narration by professionals so hard to understand? Shouldn’t professional narrators be as easy to understand as a mediocre amateur podcaster? Or is it just me?

This is the question I investigated.

One type of audiobook is consistently easy for me to understand, even when my hands are busy. I would have never guessed it if I hadn’t learned from experience. The type of audiobook I consistently understand with ease is… machine voice audiobooks.

That’s right, I’d rather listen to machine voice narration than most professional audiobook narrators.

For a long time, I found it strange that understood machine voice narrators much more easily than professional human narrators. Now I’ve figured it out… I’ll explain it later.

That doesn’t mean I like machine voice audiobooks. They just pass the minimal bar of being understandable even when my eyes and hands are occupied.

Is it just me? My internet searches say the answer is an emphatic no. Many people struggle to understand audiobooks, much more than they struggled to understand other audio content, such as podcasts. Reddit has multiple threads about this, and I’ve also found book bloggers who have trouble understanding audiobooks. Do 0.5%, 5%, or 50% readers struggle with audiobooks? I don’t know the proportions, all I know is that I am far from alone.

On Reddit, audiobook fans give the following bits of advice to people who have difficulty with audiobooks:

  • Find an audiobook narrator you love
  • Start with this [particularly good] audiobook
  • Memoirs are better
  • First person POV novels are better than third person POV novels
  • Self-narrated audiobooks (i.e. narrated by the book’s author) are better than professionally-narrated audiobooks
  • You just need to practice listening to audiobooks

These bits of advice intrigue me. First, I have listened to part of one of the most frequently recommended audiobooks. Though it passed the minimal bar of being understandable, I didn’t like it. At first, I thought I didn’t like the book… but when I read a paperback copy, I liked the book much, much better. The problem was with the audio narration, not the writing. My uncle, who is an audiobook fan, also disliked that audiobook. He claims he disliked the book, not the narration, but I wonder…

I found nobody–NOBODY–who prefers professional narrators over self-narrators. Some people prefer self-narrators in general, some people are fans of a particular professional narrator, but nobody prefers professional narrators in general.

As far as ‘you just need to get used to it’… I wonder, how much do I have to try audiobooks before I conclude that they don’t work for me? Is listening to a few audiobooks enough? A few hundred? At what point can I conclude that I’ve had enough practice listening to audiobooks that more practice isn’t going to help me understand them?

The recommendation that memoirs work better, especially self-narrated memoirs, is revealing. One of the most highly recommended audiobooks is Born a Crime by Trevor Noah. It’s a self-narrated memoir by a professional entertainer. If any audiobook is going to succeed, it’s that one. I listened to the sample while working with my hands, and I had no trouble understanding what Trevor Noah said. Though I haven’t listened to the entire audiobook (I have read the book in print), that sample convinced me that it’s a splendid choice for people who have difficulty with audiobooks.

Authors reading aloud their own works can be all over the place. Some authors suck at reading aloud. Some, while reading aloud, bring their writing to life. Publishers don’t ask authors who suck at reading aloud to narrate audiobooks, so self-narrated audiobooks are by authors who are at least okay at reading aloud their own work. But how do they do it better than professional narrators?

Why aren’t professional narrators as easy to understand as mediocre amateur podcasters? Why are machine voices easier to understand than trained/experienced humans? Why do some authors suck at reading aloud their work? Why do some authors outperform professional narrators? Why are memoirs the easiest audiobooks to understand?

I read part of There’s Money Where You Mouth Is by Elaine Clark, the ‘bible’ of the voiceover industry, including audiobook narration. The book answers the above questions, but the answers require explanation. The explanation is in Part 2.

11 thoughts on “Why Are Audiobooks So Damn Hard to Understand? (Part 1)

  1. The only way I can read books lately is audiobooks but yeah narration understandability could be hit or miss i suppose. I think we’re better at understanding conversation than something just read out loud and when I was learning about how to read out loud a script and sound natural when you’re a newbie to it like if you’re starting a podcast or vlogging YouTube channel and wrote down what to say well… You have to basically get better at acting or else what you’re saying won’t sound natural, but the advice is typically just write short bullets and make up the exact words for the full sentences on the fly because nothing sounds more natural and like the correct tone of voice rather than monotone etc as much as actually natural speech off the cuff does…

    I wonder where you think i fall in understandability in my own podcast vs my podfics (the podfics being more like fiction audiobooks, whereas the podcast is usually just conversation off the cuff).

    I feel like i definitely struggled and spoke way too fast in my very first podfic but got better with time.

    I really enjoy audiobooks of various types, nonfiction and fiction, as well as podfics from various accents and experience levels of amateur fandom people. There are some podfics and some audiobooks that are a no go for me though with how hard they are to understand.

    My first introduction to audiobooks was a very good example because the voice actors they hired for both the UK and the US versions of the Harry Potter books were indeed phenomenal. But it’s also a weird introduction because i had already read the book in paper form when i first listened to a library CD of the audiobook in the car with my family.

    I do think the quality and vibe of audiobooks can vary so widely but the majority of the ones I am potentially interested in are good enough that if I’m curious enough in the book’s content, it’s worth it for me to listen to the audiobook and it mostly will be a voice I get used to their style of talking etc.

    “How To Be A Normal Person” by TJ Klune is an interesting example of an audiobook I listened to because it was any ace book club meetup event over 3 years ago and many of the attendees chose the audiobook version but not all. It was a huge turnout and like everyone loved the book, but so many people expressed specific praise for the way the humor was delivered in the audiobook and how much better it probably was that they didn’t have to decide the cadence of the lines themselves but had a skilled narrator did it just right for us. It was this weird phenomenon of kinda crediting the audiobook narrator with helping us enjoy the book even more and a large number of people all having just listened to the same one book able to really talk about it 😉

    • I understand your podcasts easily, even when my hands are busy. I recall that your podfic is also easy to understand, but I don’t remembe whether my attention was undivided or not while I listened.

      You just stated why amateur podcasters almost always are easier to understand than professional audiobook narrators. The few podcasts I struggle to understand are scripted podcasts, which is why I basically don’t listen to them 😛

      • Yeah it’s all about how hard it is for people to sound good reading out loud a script lol… Interestingly i think most parents are okay at reading a bedtime story or even reading out loud a more advanced novel to their kid because they actually really focus on the “to the kid” conversational aspect of what they are doing even if technically it’s also reading out loud a book. There is this psychological mechanism or something that helps a lot of parents not be monotone or just “off” in how understandable it is, and in fact exaggerate the tone etc because it’s a kid who is still learning and taking on every word you say and trying to understand you.

        But then when someone tries to stand in front of a crowd and do public speaking if they have a whole script to read from – including like a PowerPoint presentation with detailed notes to read while presenting at a conference or whatever – and the speaker has no practice or particularly special public speaking skills they usually are very monotone and hard to even follow and understand for a lot of audience members.

        It’s a weirdly hard thing… But yeah i think most audiobook narrators I’ve heard are better than the worst scripted amateur podcasts but aren’t necessarily often as easy to follow as conversation is.

      • You have stumbled on one of the main points from Elaine Clark’s book… in order to make a script sound spontaneous, the speaker must have a specific person in mind who they are talking to. A parent reading to a child has a specific audience they are literally talking to, whereas a public speaker may not (though in a public speaking class, I was taught to speak to one person at a time in the audience, and to keeping shifting my attention so that no individual felt singled out because I stared at them for the whole speech).

      • Very interesting, thanks for sharing! A lot of the audiobooks I’ve enjoyed recently are self help books so the narrator is talking directly to you about what you could do to change your life, i think, i haven’t fully noticed if they’re 2nd person but now I’ll pay more attention!

      • Hmmm, I haven’t given much thought to nonfiction (other than memoirs)… technically, one of the ‘2nd person POV’ novels I listened to part of the audiobook for (On Earth, We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong) is technically 1st person, but the narrator is talking to his mother and describes many scenes where you (his mother) was present and he wasn’t, so it has much of the feel of 2nd person. It sounds like ‘he did this you, then you did that to me, and I didn’t understand you.’

      • Also, I discovered something interesting: 1st person POV audiobooks aren’t the easiest to understand. The easiest POV to understand is… 2nd person. Novels written in 2nd person are rare, but they punch way above their weight when it comes to how often people specifically recommend the audiobooks, and based on what I’ve listened to, yes, 2nd person POV is easier to understand than 1st person and 3rd person.

    • Actually, I forgot another common piece of advice: speed up the audiobook. I’ve tried this. Yes, I think most audiobooks benefit from being played at 1.5x speed, but if I struggle to understand them at normal speed, I’m also going to struggle to understand them at 1.5x speed. (I suspect many audiobooks are intentionally recorded slower than what most listeners are comfortable with).

      • I actually have sometimes – rarely, though – needed to slow down my audiobooks in order to have time to process them lol. Depends on the speed of the performance of course. I usually listen at regular speed and only have enjoyed a faster pace with maybe 1 book? I did however purposefully speed up some books just because i was in a rush to hear more of it before an ace meetup book club and had failed to finish listening to the audiobook in time. Sometimes it still works for me at a really fast speed…

        And this one ADHD coaching app thing (Get Inflow) provides many options of speeds to listen to the words and you can also read along or instead and at first that one I really wanted sped up like 1.5 ish and it felt so weirdly slow at 1.0 speed… But then I got used to 1.0 and the way this narrator talks, and after just 2 or 3 little segments that are between 5 to 10 min each at the faster pace I’ve preferred listening to at least 20 more of those segments at normal 1.0 speed now. It’s kinda weird.

  2. Pingback: Why Are Audiobooks So Damn Hard to Understand? (Part 2) | The Notes Which Do Not Fit

  3. Pingback: The Word Is Out: I’m Working on a Novel | The Notes Which Do Not Fit

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