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Book, ebook, or audiobook? That is the question.

It used to happen every single time I wanted to buy a new book. I would check the price of the physical book, whether I had any promotions on Amazon, and whether I had any Audible credits left. Then I would decide which format of the book to purchase based on these circumstantial and superficial factors. There was no strategy. Just happenstance. Not good.

I recognized the various patterns and anti-patterns and have since become much more intentional about which format I choose to read a book in. At this point, most articles on this topic enumerate the pros and cons of each format. I will instead take the somewhat opposite approach. I will first list some questionable reasons to pick one format over the others. I will then list and elaborate on my current principles for picking this or that format.

Here are some of the not so great reasons to pick a format over the others:

  • Price. I realize cost might not be a trivial factor depending on your current life circumstances. But I made many mistakes back when I was a poor grad student precisely because I prioritized saving a bit of money over return on investment, which is what matters at the end of the day. If it’s really the audiobook version that you want to read and you are currently out of Audible credits, simply wait until the next one drops. If you want to read a physical copy and it’s too expensive, borrow it from your local library! In fact, some libraries offer ebooks and audiobooks as well. Check out the Library extension for Chrome, Firefox, and Edge.
  • Promotions. Just because Amazon sent you ebook credit or a digital reward doesn’t mean you should spend it on whatever book happens to be on your mind right now or some arbitrary title from your wishlist. What’s the point of “saving” $5 if you don’t get value out of reading the book? Besides, if you never end up reading that book, you lose money.
  • Aesthetics. Some of us love the idea of a full bookcase that can display all of the print books that we own. Notice that I said “own”, not “read”. Because, let’s be honest, how many of these books have been read? I also enjoy the sight of a beautiful bookcase, but let’s not confuse reading with decoration. Read the book in the ideal format and then, if you really loved it, purchase a physical copy for display on the bookcase.
  • Multitasking. Back in the day, I used to sometimes pick audiobooks with the intention to multitask while listening to them. Depending on that other task, this might be somewhat acceptable for fiction. But I find it to be a waste of time for nonfiction. Your mind will wander. These days I’d rather listen to a podcast if I’m doing anything other than walking.
  • Guilt. This one is a bit of a curveball, isn’t it? Here’s what I mean. Sometimes I will be flipping through books at a physical bookstore, which is something I used to really enjoy doing. But then I would feel guilty about leaving the bookstore without buying anything. As a result, I would purchase the physical copy of a book just so I wouldn’t leave the bookstore empty-handed. Good gesture, but again, circumstantial.

Finally, these are the factors I currently take into account when deciding whether to purchase the physical, ebook, or audiobook version of a book.

  • Fiction vs nonfiction. In the absence of other factors, I default to audiobook for listening to fiction. For example, I managed to listen to the entire Dune Saga thanks to Audible! Conversely, I default to reading the print or Kindle version of nonfiction books. This is just a general rule of thumb. As you will see below, there are reasons to deviate.
  • Full-cast productions. When it comes to fiction books, I will absolutely choose the Audible version if there’s a full-cast production (as opposed to a single voice narrating the entire book). Some examples of full-cast productions are Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book and The Sandman.
  • Practical vs theoretical. I usually read the physical or Kindle version of nonfiction books that contain lots of practical advice (tips & tricks, tools, action items, links to websites, etc.) Furthermore, I prefer the Kindle version in particular because it provides easy access to my notes and highlights (https://read.amazon.com/kp/notebook). But if the book has lots of figures or photos, then I prefer the physical book. I find listening to the audiobook version of these kinds of books to be a waste of time unless I’m intentionally “flipping through the book” to determine if it’s worth reading thoroughly. But even then, I would rather listen to a summary of the book on Blinkist instead of committing to the entire audiobook. Last but not least, if the book is more theoretical or philosophical in nature, then listening to the audiobook might be preferable, especially if it’s a longer book that I’d struggle to get through.
  • Purpose & utility. As Stephen Covey said, “start with the end in mind.” Why do I want to read this book in the first place? This is a higher-level, overarching factor that arguably encompasses some of the others. For example, I buy some fiction books for the sole purpose of reading them in bed, right before going to sleep. I will always purchase the ebook version of such books in order to read them on my Kindle Paperwhite, while in bed, with the lights dimmed. But if I’m reading exclusively for entertainment, then I will prefer an audiobook with a great narration, such as one of the full-cast productions above. Medical reasons also fall under this category, e.g., listening to an audiobook after an eye surgery.
  • Lifestyle & travel. This is where I think about reading in the broader context of my life. I used to buy lots of physical books which have since become a hindrance because I move relatively frequently. I plan on traveling a lot next year and as a result I’m no longer purchasing print books. They are heavy when moving and they take up too much space in luggage. These days, if I want to read instead of listen, I will simply buy the Kindle version. In fact, I will be donating most, if not all, of my print books to a Little Free Library in my neighborhood. At some point, I will likely settle down and maybe buy a house. At that point, I will consider purchasing physical books again for both reading and decoration.

Do you agree or disagree with any of the good and not so good reasons for picking a certain book format over the others? I would love to hear your thoughts. Especially if there’s a factor I completely overlooked! Please leave a thoughtful comment below or ping me on social media (@spmaniato)



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Spyros Maniatopoulos

Self-Driving Car Software Engineer at Cruise. Previously: Mayfield Robotics, Tailos, Team ViGIR DRC, Verifiable Robotics Research Group, Cornell University.