Accessibility improvements or the end of Audiobooks?


In January I started working for Laurel & Wolf and went from being a distributed employee working from home to driving daily into an office. The commute is roughly an hour each way so I began looking for ways to consume items from my reading backlog (books, articles, papers, etc.) so that I can utilize that lost time. In the past I’ve purchased Audiobooks but I was hoping to have more choices and/or not have to sign up for a new service like Audible.

Almost by accident I remembered Instapaper’s iOS app has text-to-speech support. (I consider this to be an accessibility feature although I don’t think it was designed with that purpose in mind.) With it, I’m able to create playlists of articles and have them read back to me like an audiobook as I drive. This has been particularly handy with those longer articles I’ve hesitated to dedicate time towards. Aside from bookmarked videos and code-heavy posts which don’t translate well, this functionality has been a huge win.

After a few weeks of Instapaper reading articles to me, I wondered if I could get my existing eBooks to do the same thing. Between the Kindle iOS app and iBooks, I had at 15 books sitting around ready to be consumed.

Turns out iOS has an accessibility feature called Speak Screen. (Below is a screen recording showing you how to turn it on.) Simply toggle it on, swipe down from the top with 2 fingers and a SIRI voice will read the screen for you. Speak Screen can turn pages and will continue reading until you stop it. Page turning works a little better in iBooks than Kindle but both are doable. Despite a few miss-pronunciations and the monotone-ness of its voice, the result is a free Audiobook from your eBook!

However, if phones and other IoT devices (like smart speakers) can dictate books and other text, does this replace the need for audiobooks? If I can get 80% of the value of the audiobook through my eBook why would I buy a different, more expensive product? True, audiobooks have better voices (professionals voice actors, tones, and style that may be hard for a computer to replicate) but is that enough to compete with lower priced eBooks that can be both?

The challenge with any good technological advancement is what long term impact it will have. Is this merely an accessibility improvement or the end of Audiobooks? In the short term I’ve solved my problem!