Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Is Anybody Listening?

As a follow-up to my post earlier today about Hillary Clinton's new book, What Happened, here's an article from FiveThirtyEight, in which Walt Hickey examines whether people actually read (and finish) these books using data from Audiobooks.com:
I was curious how far readers typically make it through these books. I couldn’t get any reading data, but I reached out to Audiobooks.com for listening data on political memoirs by presidential candidates going back to the 2000 election. We focused on books by every “serious” candidate published before or shortly after each presidential election — “serious” as defined by my colleague Harry Enten back before the 2016 election. (Basically, any candidate who held a major political office before running or got at least a bit of the vote in Iowa or New Hampshire.) Audiobooks.com was able to find the books with more than 10 downloads and sent over the average percentage of the book that listeners sat through.

Before we get to the data, there are some caveats! If you don’t see a book on here, remember that not all books have an audio version widely available. Moreover, sales for some of these books peaked long before Audiobooks.com began collecting data. Second, if a completion rate number seems low, keep in mind that most people don’t finish reading most things. Most likely, less than half of the people who started this article made it to this sentence. It’s the nature of the game.
The book with the highest proportion listened to was John McCains's Faith of My Fathers, for which the average completion rate was 74.7%. But part of that high completion rate was the total length of the book: this audiobook could be completed in 4.8 hours, and the average user listened to 3.6 hours. The book with the longest time listened to was George W. Bush's Decision Points, which had a 59.7% completion rate that corresponded to 12 (of 20.2) hours.

The difference between proportion and time can also be seen in the books with the lowest averages. While Rand Paul's Taking a Stand had the lowest completion rate of 30.5%, Hillary Clinton's It Takes a Village had the lowest listen time at 1.3 hours (which corresponded to 48.2% of the book).

It begs the question, "What are words for if no one listens anymore?"


  1. As someone who listens to a lot of audiobooks, my first thought was about the quality of the narration. A terrible narrator can make a great book torture, and a great narrator can make a so-so book enjoyable. Pace, emphasis, intonation, among other things, all matter. So it makes me wonder about how this variable might have impacted the overall completion rates. I was surprised to see that this was not addressed by the author of the original piece, and it makes me think that he might not be a regular audiobook listener. Someone who hasn't delved into this world, and who instead is simply utilizing this data set, might not be familiar with the importance of that variable. The importance of this variable to listener experience is why Audible has separate categories in it's rating system for the story and for the narrator. I think it would be interesting to see how that plays out for each book. And this is a good example of why understanding the origin and nature of your data is so important! :)

    1. Great points! I'm unfortunately ignorant when it comes to audio books, so I didn't even consider these variables.

  2. From one statistician to another - I'm really enjoying your blog, and I LOVE that you posted this old Missing Persons video!