“Words-to-be-read” must now become a content category, along with still images, video, and audio. Audio includes “words-to-be-heard”. We are in what must be the early stages of a reordering of primacy among these varieties of “content for delivery and consumption”, which is distinguished from “content for interaction”, or the world of “gamified content” along with who-knows-what-else.
In a post three months ago, I observed that I had been fortunate enough to have been taught to type when I was a little kid, so producing written words was relatively fast and easy for me. That led to great “experience” with the practice of narrative word creation at a young age, a great competitive advantage in school and the workplace (quite aside from enabling the writing of several published books). That piece also made the point that words-to-be-read were, until some very recent moment, the cheapest and easiest form of content to deliver and distribute. Still pictures required film and processing. Audio and video required controlled (and often expensive) circumstances for recording and a variety of skills to deliver professional content. And beyond that, delivery by cassettes and CDs was expensive and also failed to reach large numbers of the potentially interested people.
We get regular reminders that since the combination of multi-function smart phones and ubiquitous wifi connections, this is no longer the case. It is very much simpler and even cheaper to capture and distribute a still photo or a chunk of video or audio than it is to deliver “words-to-be-read”.
What really rang a large bell for me was the recent New York Times article about the rise of audio, which focused on big-earning writers whose fortunes and reputations had been earned through “words-to-be-read” (in what we can now see was really a different content era), but who were now switching to audio. One such author, John Scalzi, was moved to reconsider his publishing strategy when a recent book sold 22,500 hardcovers, 24,000 ebooks, and 41,000 audiobooks. Author Mel Robbins responded to her self-help book “The 5 Second Rule” selling four times as many audios as print by making her next creation an audio original.
And I can’t help observing that I am consistently asked by The New Yorker, when I’m reading an article from the current issue on my phone, whether I’d like the audio version of that.
This causes a certain degree of cognitive dissonance in an old “words-to-be-read” person like me who is actually annoyed when the link I click leads to audio or video rather than something more to read. My default for my computer is “mute”, and, anyway, the bluetooth for my hearing aids connects to my phone, not my computer, so “listening” through any other device is a nuisance. I doubt I’m particularly unusual in that way.
So while we have been recently living through an era where audio pioneers like Don Katz of Audible have had to make the case (and offer the tools) to enable creation of good audio content that was originally intended as “words-to-be-read”, that may be about to flip. More and more, we’re going to find that extra effort is required to make content accessible to the word-reading population, who otherwise will not be able to enjoy a variety of fiction and non-fiction content that will only be professionally rendered to be seen and heard.
Of course, just as there is automation that enables text-to-voice and text-to-speech, there is automation that transcribes words-to-be-heard into words-to-be-read. As any of us who has read the transcription of a phone message knows, we’ll just have to hope that there is some investment in cleaning up what the machine thinks it heard before we’re asked to read it.
And this is yet another reason for book publishers to be concerned about their future. As powerful as Amazon is in the distribution of print and ebooks, Amazon’s Audible operation is ever so much more dominant for audio content. If the ground shifts so that “words-to-be-heard” frequently engages more consumers than “words-to-be-read”, it simply adds to any content creator’s dependence on Amazon and increases the challenge for any other “middle” player to generate enough value to justify their participation.