It sounds like the setup for a 90’s style Seinfeld joke, right? I’d launch into this right after a bit about terrible airline food and how I just flew in and boy are my arms tired!
If you spend any amount of time in bookish spaces online, especially spaces where people are discussing reading challenges or their yearly Goodreads goal, you’ve probably run into the debate on if listening to an audiobook is the same as reading a physical book when it comes to counting on if you’ve read a book. The widely accepted answer is yes, it does count the same with the reasoning being that it impacts our brains the same way.
What is less clear is how podcasts factor into this discussion. Specifically, podcasts that are set up to tell a whole story arc in a single episode, within multiple episodes, or over the course of a season. My question (that always goes unanswered in these groups) is, what is the difference between a chaptered audiobook and a serial podcast and why not consider serial podcasts as an entry for “books read”?
First, let’s define what we’re talking about. An audiobook is a book in audio format. They often have a single narrator, although that is changing, and it’s usually a straight reading of the original book text. It is usually a predefined length. Distribution is mostly done through the book publishers via a third party like Audible where you purchase a copy to listen.
A podcast is an audio production available for streaming or download. It comes in many forms, from chat shows to narratives. They tend to be episodic in nature with episode lengths varying from a few minutes to a few hours. Distribution is mostly independently run by the creators with multiple third-party apps providing access to listen. They are free to listen, but often ad-supported.
The thread that ties audiobooks and podcasts together is storytelling. Not every podcast is set up to tell a story. Arguably, not every audiobook does a great job of telling a story either, but that’s another argument.
Ask any writer, English teacher, or book lover and they will tell you all stories need to have the same core elements; characters, setting, plot, conflict, and resolution. A good book has all these elements if it wants to find an audience. A good podcast has these elements if it wants to hook a listener.
If you need proof, look no further than Welcome to Nightvale. Started as a serial podcast telling of strange occurrences from a fictional town, 10 years in, and the Nightvale canon now includes some books, as well as 210 podcast episodes as of writing and spinoff shows. With episodes running about a half-hour (or about 3 pages of text), it’s not unreasonable to equate a season with a novella or short story anthology.
The same can be true on the non-fiction side. Slate’s Slow Burn covers a historical event as it played out in real time over the course of a podcast season. In the 7 seasons of this podcast, each subject is researched, sourced, and covered as well as any traditionally published book on these topics, with the added bonus of having interviews and quotes coming directly from the speakers’ mouths.
I would argue that most of the differences between podcasts and audiobooks come down to accessibility and production value as opposed to content. Podcasts tend to be more accessible without a paywall and audiobooks tend to have more production behind them. However, that is constantly changing with a steady stream of new avenues for sharing and content creation. My 3 minute Google searching showed me it was way easier to set up to share a podcast than it was to get an audiobook published on Audible, especially since I have no publisher (or book, but whatever).
There is also a bit of snobbery involved, especially in the online book groups. The fact that you see a post at least weekly on whether or not an audiobook “counts” as reading and the ensuing debate leaves little question as to how some people still cling to book purity as a virtue. Podcasting is still for the bros in some eyes and they can’t fathom crossing that stream.
I AM ready to cross that stream and accept that in this era of rapid content creation there are tales to be told on podcasts and they are no worse than the mid-rated novellas I find on Audible. Counting podcasts as books can open a new avenue of accessible indie publishing to people who have a story to share and a microphone to speak into. And yes, it will help pad my Goodreads goal number.