Audiobook self-help advice: why so popular and how effective is the format?

unrecognizable female audiobook narrator recording audiobook

Whether I’m sliding into restful slumber listening to an Agatha Christie audiobook, or listening to Down These Mean Streets, a podcast showcasing audio detective tales of yesteryear, I love listening to fiction audiobooks that transport me to marvellous parallel universes.

But what about self-help audiobooks?

With rising numbers of self-help titles provided as audiobooks, coupled with my keen interest in issues relating to this genre, I wondered why demand is increasing and how effective audiobooks are for implementing offered instructions?

Whilst the genre of self-help titles has endured the ebbs and flows of publishing challenges and adversities, the physical formats of these titles don’t always populate either bestseller lists or catalogues of books most often borrowed.

Self-help audiobooks are different.

In fact, according to the Association of American Publishers, in the twelve months from February 2019, downloaded non-fiction audiobooks – with self-help titles, a major subcategory – increased by 10 percent.


Well, there appear to be several considerations:

First, audiobooks with self-help messages have soared in popularity because they are perceived as an ‘intimate’ form of communication between speaker and audience

Self-help messages on audiobook tie to this sense of intimacy because, so the logic runs, listening to self-help advice on an audiobook saves people who may otherwise be embarrassed at getting caught reading a physical book on a topic they would much rather keep from prying eyes.

Second, there’s the fact that audiobooks in general are splendid for occasions when the prospect of reading a book seems demanding and tiring and you just want to listen to simple prose that doesn’t judge when you miss the odd sentence, forget which character is related to whom, or snooze before the murderer is revealed.

Finally, since audiobooks lend themselves to what’s referred to as ‘time-shifting’ –the ability to listen whilst immersed in another task such as gardening or driving – they surely add spice to an otherwise mundane pursuit.

In fact, in a 2020 Observer article, Michele Cobb, executive director of the Audio Publishers Association, pointed out that it is perhaps this capacity to listen whilst engaging in separate activities that may afford the genre its success in this form.

But what if it’s loaded with vital material to which I’m supposed to be paying attention-if any legitimate personal growth is to happen-but I either miss something or, worse, forget what I’ve heard?

This was the experience of Susannah Bailin when she attempted to listen to self-help audiobooks whilst being immersed in various domestic duties or driving.

In a 2017 Publishers Weekly article, the American IT entrepreneur noted that even though she gained inspiration from the audio offerings, she had to keep pausing the audiobook, either to absorb ideas or remember cryptic messages, creating a distraction for her and making the listening experience a ridiculously long affair!

By struggling to remember key messages she was sure she should have remembered, she left feeling restless and unsatisfied; a deviation from previous feelings she had encountered whilst listening to fictional or memoir audiobooks.

I then speculated: how effective are audiobooks for listeners?

Do they effectively communicate their message?

Are they an effective medium for allowing the listener to retain information?

Or do they provide only transitory inspirational segments?

Susannah’s experience piqued my interest to probe whether a product is available to help.

And whilst some self-help books have added apps to enhance their brand, frustrated listener Susannah developed a generic app that self-help authors can adapt to their own title.  

The app is called AdviceCoach and it complements an author’s self-help book by integrating the steps from the book into the app. It then allows the reader to work through the steps at their own pace – with the additional feature of not allowing them to advance until completing the previous step.

The app cancels out the common action that – let’s face it most of us do – which is to have a read of the book, say ‘yep no problem,’ put the book back on the shelf, then promptly forget what’s just been read!

This seems to me a remarkable way to enhance the absorption, implementation, and potential sustainability of the dispensed audio self-help concepts.

It is unfortunate then that, given escalating consumer demand for self-help titles in audiobook form, I find it near impossible to find studies that have considered the efficacy of self-help messages delivered in this format.

This, therefore, leaves me no closer to determining whether this format is an effective way for myself or others to bring about personal growth in any meaningful, sustainable way.

Perhaps self-help messages delivered in audiobook form do require additional digital products, such as apps, to reinforce their instructions to their audience.

Whether they do or not, however, requires further study to focus on how self-help audiobook efficacy can be improved. Hmmm, I feel a future PhD thesis brewing…

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