Reviewing in the Audio Literacy Ecosystem

How Review Resources Limit Awareness

While popularly quoted statistics point to the burgeoning of both audiobook production and audiobook audience size, trying to drill down to the faces behind the numbers proves difficult. The broad outlines offer silhouettes: gender segmentation, age cohort spread, listening locations, and educational attainment. Disseminated reports on race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, and unsatisfied areas of content interest among audiobook listeners would boost efficacy of training reviewers to be as responsive to audience listening needs and wants as those reviewers are becoming more facile with technical aspects of audio publishing industry capacity and successes.

Where audiobook collections were once the purview of libraries, consumer-facing businesses for obtaining downloadable audiobooks offer subscription plans to individuals with even modest discretionary income. Where most listeners—whether a borrower making use of their library’s online audiobook vendor package or a direct subscriber to a consumer service—hear about audiobooks that may pique their interest is online, and by accessing a stew of commercial sites, personal blogs, a limited number of databases, and the equally small number of professional review journals that include audiobook coverage. This blend of informational access to audiobook publishing necessarily skews awareness of potential listening choices. The personal blogs, some of which contain fine critical writing, are typically limited to the bloggers’ personal listening interests in terms of genres, and even narrators. Database entries for audiobook advisory work necessarily rely on published reviews, and therefore are offering a new means of review discovery rather than additional review angles or title coverage. And the journals where critical audiobook reviews appear work with their own editorial policies and the cultural limitations of their reviewer stable.

Social media, including some communities of interest who make use of Goodreads‘ platform to create responses to their listening choices that are pre-threaded for searchers and become building blocks for user-built lists of titles holding some shared theme, subject, or other detail, offer access to discovery of audiobooks (and other published work) that escape coverage by formal review sources. To benefit from such a stream, however, the audiobook listener must be able to identify individual contributors who offer actual reviews rather than “this made me feel” notes.

Audiobook coverage in consumer books sites, including newspaper review sections, is sparse and typically limited to highly produced-bordering-on-theatrical offerings created from the occasional text that straddles best seller and high buzz literary work. Taken together the number of audiobook reviews appearing in any given year in such resources amounts to less than a dozen. So much for exposure to a range of listening possibilities.

And so, unsurprisingly, contemporary audiobook listeners self-report listening rather limited to an allegiance to one or another genre, or one or two or three specific narrators, or a subject area that they want to investigate without cutting into anything but commute time to do so. None of these scenarios point toward audiobook discovery that delivers muscular, ever growing, lifelong literacy. Of course, genre fiction can and does deliver exposure to ideas, character potential, and rich language richly performed. Some narrators manage to acquire assignments that are themselves diverse in terms of content, stylistic interpretive potential, and opportunities to perform alone and within a cast. Some commuters spend their road warrior auditory learning sessions exploring more than one area of concern. At the bottom line, however, the paucity of popular review coverage for audiobooks beyond the heavily marketed contraindicates many potential listeners knowing that audiobooks offer diversity of genres, hard as well as easy commentary and exposition of subject matter in philosophy, social sciences, religions other than Evangelical Christianity, word play, internationally acclaimed literary works, hard and applied sciences, history beyond the shores of America and Europe, and more.

And to correct that obfuscation, we need more and better reviewing. We need review editors who go beyond assuming coverage of titles that were best sellers in print is really all listeners want. In short, we need reviewing mechanisms staffed by listeners who are aware that they don’t know what they don’t know and so cast the widest possible net to find potential awareness for those listeners who know other or different from them. That’s a mark of being literate: that one knows that what is to know is limitless and that asserting economic boundaries on ideas is an exercise in anti-intellectualism.

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