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I was recently hanging out with my friends, and we landed on the topic of podcasts and audiobooks. I stumbled upon podcasts much later than most (less than a year ago) and have since become an enthusiastic listener of all kinds. Audiobooks, though? Not so much.
What surprised me is that there are plenty of folks out there, my friends included, who still don’t know what a podcast actually is. You’ll find just as many, if not more, who have never listened to an audiobook. And among those who know the difference, some prefer one to the other — often to a zealous degree.
By the end of this article, you’ll know all there is to know about podcasts and audiobooks. You’ll know how they’re alike and how they’re different. And you may even be persuaded to give them a try if you haven’t already.
So, if you, like my friends, don’t know the difference between podcasts and audiobooks, read on…
Is There a Difference?
On the surface, not much. Both are audio files that you can either download and listen to offline or stream directly from the hosting service, though the latter option isn’t as widely supported for audiobooks. A hard-and-fast line doesn’t exist — it’s like trying to determine whether something is art or not, “you know it when you see it” (or in this case, when you hear it).
A podcast is always episodic, meaning that it’s broken into successive episodes that are released on some kind of schedule, which is typically once a day, week, or month. The content itself can be whatever you want it to be — interviews, roundtables, news, advice, etc. — and this is why podcasts are often seen as “on-demand radio shows”. Most notably, you can subscribe to podcasts and get new episodes pushed to you as they’re made available.
On the other hand, an audiobook is a very specific type of content: singular recordings of pre-existing text. In other words, 99 percent of the time, an audiobook will also be available in non-audio form, and this is true whether it’s a novel, textbook, essay, etc. Audiobooks are never released in episodic chunks, meaning you can’t subscribe to an audiobook like you can with a podcast.
There is some confusing overlap though. Narrative podcasts like Serial, We’re Alive, and Limetown can all be thought of as audiobooks where each episode comprises a single chapter in the overall story. Other storytelling podcasts, like Snap Judgement, feature separate tales in each episode — almost like an anthology of short stories. But for the most part, the differences are easy to spot.
Perhaps the most striking difference between the two forms is pricing.
If you’re seeking entertainment on a budget, then podcasts are the way to go. Nearly every podcast out there is available free of charge, and since episodes are produced on a regular basis you’ll never run out of stuff to listen to. Of course many podcasts — especially the more popular ones — have advertisements sprinkled throughout, but that’s a small price to pay for an endless stream of valuable content.
Some producers are starting to experiment with paid subscription podcasts, but I don’t see that becoming a very popular trend. A few podcasts already do this to a limited degree, offering bonus episodes to premium listeners, but even that’s always in addition to freely available episodes, so I wouldn’t worry too much about this going forward.
On the other hand, if you want to listen to audiobooks, it’s going to cost you a pretty penny. Consider The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, which is available for $7 as a mass market paperback, $9 as a Kindle download, $14 as a hardcover… and $27 as an audiobook.
Audiobooks Going Cheap
You can get audiobooks for cheaper by purchasing them alongside their Kindle counterparts (the price of The Name of the Wind‘s audiobook drops to $3 if you buy the Kindle version) or by subscribing to Audible, which costs $15 per month and lets you download and keep one title per month. Even with these discounted prices though, audiobooks may not fit your entertainment budget.
Sure, there are places where you can find cheap or free audiobooks for download (this is covered in more detail down below, under the “Availability” section), but free audiobooks tend to be old or uninteresting, at least in my experience. If you want to listen to modern bestsellers or a recently-released self-help book, you likely won’t find it for free.
I’ve found that podcasts are generally “easier” to consume than audiobooks for two main reasons.
First, the time commitment is much smaller for podcasts. This isn’t always true, but generally speaking it is due to the episodic nature of the form. Most podcasts are shorter than an hour, and many of them are even in the 15–30 minute range. It’s easy to pop one on when you’re riding the subway, jogging on the treadmill, or waiting at the dentist’s office.
The Long and Winding Audiobook
Audiobooks are much longer. The first Harry Potter is about 8 hours long, The Help takes 18 hours to listen through, a monster book like The Name of the Wind clocks in at 28 hours, and if you really want to torture yourself, try sitting through Infinite Jest‘s 56-hour length. Can you listen to these in 15-minute chunks? Sure. Will it be as satisfying? I don’t think so.
To be fair, audiobooks are great despite this because they allow you to “read” books that you never would have read before. You can listen while you cook dinner, clean the house, or take a road trip. Indeed, when you have bigger chunks of time available, audiobooks can be far more engaging than listening to 10 podcast episodes back to back.
Second, podcasts are easier to obtain and manage. You can find dozens of podcast apps for mobile devices, a handful of desktop podcast managers, as well as a few good ones on the web like ShortOrange. My personal favorite is Podcast Addict, which is available on Android.
The beauty of podcasts is that one single app can pull in and manage episodes from multiple sources. For example, podcasts can be found through iTunes, Stitcher, SoundCloud, but they all use the same subscription method (RSS). These means you don’t need to juggle a bunch of different apps to listen to different podcasts.
Protected by DRM
Unfortunately audiobooks are usually protected by DRM, which means certain apps may not be able to play certain audiobooks. So if you only have DRM-free audiobooks, then you only need one of these audiobook players. Similarly if you buy all of your audiobooks from a single retailer, you’ll be fine just using their app. But buying DRM-protected audiobooks from multiple retailers can become a headache to manage.
This, combined with the pricing trends mentioned before, explains why podcasts are more popular and more frequently consumed than audiobooks. According to Edison Research, we saw 46 million podcast listeners per month versus 55 million audiobook listeners per year in 2015. Both industries are growing, but podcast listenership is growing faster.
Audiobook vs. Podcast Availability
At the end of the day podcasts are simply more accessible than audiobooks, especially if you live outside of the U.S.
Audiobooks, like most forms of purchased digital media, can be regionally restricted. This is nothing new — it happens with online music streaming, with YouTube videos, with Netflix catalog selections, with eBook downloads, and more — but it’s still as frustrating as ever. We can thank publishers for this stupid norm.
Thankfully most podcasts don’t have to deal with any of that because overarching publishers are much rarer in the podcast realm. In fact, most shows are independently created, and since creators want to maximize their audience sizes, podcast downloads are often made available across the globe.
That being said, I do think good audiobooks are easier to find. According to Apple, iTunes kept track of over 250,000 unique podcasts in 2013. Compare that to Audible’s library of 180,000 audiobook titles in 2016. There’s less crap to wade through, and audiobook genres are also more clear-cut than podcast genres, which helps when you’re trying to find something new to listen to.
Here are our favorite places to find podcasts:
And here are our favorite places to find audiobooks:
What Are Your Favorite Podcasts and Audiobooks?
Despite the differences mentioned above, the truth is that podcasts and audiobooks are NOT at odds with one another. You don’t have to pick one or the other — you can freely enjoy both! Then again, if you do prefer one over the other, you shouldn’t feel as if you have to like both. If audiobooks aren’t your cup of tea, that’s OK.
I’m partial to podcasts, so here are a few we recommend you check out. There are podcasts for saving money, podcasts for learning about tech, podcasts for book lovers, and podcasts for men. You may even want to see our list of best podcasts in 2015.
So tell us: do you prefer podcasts, audiobooks, or both? We want to hear about the podcasts and/or audiobooks that you enjoy listening to. So please tell us about them in the comments below!