Three Reasons Why Audiobooks Shouldn't Always Follow the Text Version
Audiobooks probably don't sound like complicated things. Someone with a nice voice (if you're lucky and find a good narrator) is reading you a book. Pretty straightforward.
But if you've been listening to audiobooks for awhile, you've probably been mildly confused at a few moments. Things like dedications, epigraphs, some introductions, and footnotes just don't translate as well on audio. Typically audiobooks follow their text versions exactly---like the narrator is reading from the book.
However, as an avid audiobook listener, I don't think that's always best. And I've got three reasons why.
Dedications and Quotes
It's not uncommon to see a dedication at the beginning of the book. Authors most often dedicate their books to family, like their spouse and kids, a close friend, or sometimes a supportive professional mentor. In text, these pages are set apart---most often as a page with a lot of white space just before the story begins. Many times the text is in italics to further set it apart from the story.
But with audiobooks, you don't know the confines of the physical page. The narrator doesn't interrupt the story to let you know they're reading from the top of a new page or reading the last word on a page they just finished. They just read continuously. So it can be confusing for a moment when you're wondering if "For Sally, Justin, Sarah, and Bob" are characters in the story.
Quotes at the beginning of a book work similarly. Many times authors will pick a quote or two to place at the beginning of the book, just before the story begins, as a way of paying homage to their inspirations for the story and to foreshadow the book's themes.
But again, in text these quotes would be set apart on their own separate page, though you can't see that in audiobooks. So you'll be listening along and think, "Wait a minute, didn't Shakespeare say that?" and "Hold up, that's from a Bob Dylan song," and it takes you a minute to realize that the quotes aren't actually a part of the story.
Introductions are self-explanatory and could hardly be more straightforward. Sometimes written by the author or sometimes written by someone else with a recognizable name, introductions are essays at the beginning of the book to tell you what's to come and how the book came to be. Most audiobook introductions make perfect sense---they're announced as introductions and it's nearly impossible to be confused by them. Most, but not all.
If you've ever tried listening to a collection of short stories on audio, beware the introduction! For example, I've listened to two collections of short stories by Neil Gaiman on audio---Smoke and Mirrors and Trigger Warnings. In each, he wrote a lengthy introduction naming each story in the collection and giving a brief synopsis of each, as well as background on what inspired that particular story and where the story was published previously.
This is fine in print---you can always flip back to the introduction and refresh your memory about the particular short story you might be reading. But on audio, you might be listening to an hour's worth of introduction and there's no way you're going to remember all that as you're actually reading the stories. But it's a lot harder to "flip back" to an introduction if you're listening to the audiobook, especially since audiobooks are conducive to multitasking. Flipping back or rewinding is a lot more difficult when you're driving or cooking. In a case of such an introduction, not only is the first hour of the audiobook not particularly riveting (though the stories are great!), you know good and well you're going to forget it all by the time you actually get to the stories.
I think listeners would gain much more value from the audiobook if the introduction was broken up to put each individual story's mini introduction before the story itself.
Ah, footnotes. They interrupt a narrative pretty well in text, so can you imagine listening to them on audio? How does that even work?
Well, it works awkwardly at best. If the footnote is at the end of a sentence, the narrator usually says "footnote" then reads the footnote. But if the footnote is in the middle of the sentence and that footnote is particularly long, good luck with that. Be ready to hit rewind.
In all of these cases, I think the audiobook could stand a little revision, an acknowledgement that people don't read audiobooks in the same way they read text and the message needs to change to be appropriate for the medium. The story itself doesn't have to change, but a few structural changes would lead to a better experience for everyone.
Have you ever been thrown off by an audiobook? Tell me in the comments!