About a year and a half ago, I developed this nerve problem in my head, and ever since then, I haven’t been able to read much with my eyes without getting headaches. But the thing is, I still love books! Sure, I can read small amounts and take painkillers, but I could never read 100+ books a year like I normally do. Audiobooks are a great option, and thankfully I have access to many through my library, but that’s not the case for every book. And this is just my story. There are lots of reasons that people may not be able to read much or at all with their eyes, why they may need both visual and audio for their best reading experience, or why they may simply enjoy listening to books.
Luckily there is another option for everyone who likes or needs to listen to books: Text to speech!
I’ve been wanting to write this post for a while because TTS (text to speech) and screen readers as a way of consuming books is underrated. So I thought I’d use this post to talk about both how I listen to books with TTS and also some of the pros and cons. Hopefully it will be helpful to other readers, especially those who need it!
How to Listen to eBooks with TTS
Smart phones, Kindles, and probably most other tablets and reading devices have some form of TTS accessibility. Each device might have something a little different though, which means you’ll have to figure it out or find instructions for your specific device. The methods below are ones I know of, which make use of Android phones, PCs, and Kindles. If you have any other knowledge or suggestions you want to leave in the comments, feel free!
On my phone, under Settings -> Accessibility, there are two options. One is “TalkBack,” which makes the whole phone accessible. Once it’s turned on, I can go to my Kindle app, and it will do continuous reading. It may also work with other apps (for example, whatever app your library uses), but I haven’t tried any others except Hoopla, which it doesn’t work well on. The drawback is that, if you don’t normally use TalkBack, it’s more work to navigate the phone with TalkBack on. So this is only good if you normally use TalkBack or are planning to listen for a while.
The other option on my phone is “Select to Speak,” which adds a little icon in the bottom right corner of my phone, and whenever I want something read aloud, I click the icon and then click or highlight the text. The drawback for this is, to read a Kindle book, you have to click the icon and the page for every page of the ebook. This is generally better for reading shorter things (for example, a short story you find online). It works on the Hoopla app though, if you don’t mind going page by page.
Kindle devices have their own TTS. You have to enable it first, then you can click the middle of the screen once a book is open, and there’s a “play” button in the bottom right corner. There’s also a speed adjustment button with a few options. The drawback is that there aren’t many voices options or settings you can adjust, at least not on the Kindle I have. Here’s the Kindle TTS Amazon help page with further instructions.
Updated versions of the Kindle for PC software are supposed to work with certain screen readers. Here is one how to article about Kindle for PC (though it’s from 2018), and here’s Amazon’s Kindle for PC help page.
If your computer has an app store, you may also be able to find a TTS reading app for non-Kindle books (more on non-Kindle books below).
You may also be able to use your regular screen reader with any websites that have their own ebook readers (for example, whatever sites your library uses). The Hoopla reader works with screen readers, but only on Chrome browser (and from what I could tell, it doesn’t actually save your spot when you stop). If you need a free screen reader, check out NVDA.
TTS Reading Apps
If you have the actual file (mobi, pdf, maybe certain other types) for a book and can get it onto your phone or whatever device you’re using, you have more and better options. If you have a file but it’s the wrong format, you can convert files using Calibre, which is a free software! Just make sure you’re only converting files you’re legally allowed to.
There are numerous apps available in app stores that you can find by searching, “TTS reader,” “ebook reader,” or something similar. The one I use on my Android phone is “@Voice”. I like it because you can choose from free Google TTS voices or use voices from a variety of other free and paid options (which includes different genders and accents), adjust speed and pitch, and input pronunciation for specific words. It’s also free, though the free version has ads.
I will say, I don’t know if it’s the best app out there for users who cannot see the phone at all. It seems usable, from my testing with TalkBack, but certain things may be a bit frustrating, and there may be better apps. The ads on the free version might be a problem, but you can usually avoid them by closing the app and letting it just run in the background, or you can buy the ad-free version.
Pros and Cons of Listening to eBooks with TTS
– You can multitask, listen while doing other things.
– Ebooks are cheaper than audiobooks.
– Some books don’t have audiobooks, or you have access to the ebook but not the audiobook, and now you can listen to those too. This includes ARCs, if you’re a reviewer.
– Some audiobooks have horrible narrators, or narrators who just don’t work for you. No more suffering through them just so you can listen.
– For me, TTS is more similar to reading with my eyes than audiobooks are. I’m someone who imagines books playing out in my head, complete with images and sounds. With TTS, I can let the TTS voice kind of sink to the back of my mind and then overlay my own imagined voices, making the books more accurate to my interpretation, making characters all sound different, having them say things with the emotion and inflection I feel is most accurate, etc. I can’t do that with regular audiobooks.
– Using the TTS app I recommended, you can customize and adjust settings exactly to your liking, which includes choosing the best accent for the book, choosing the best voice from what’s available in that accent, changing word pronunciation, adjusting pitch, and adjusting speed.
– It’s easier to save quotes (depending on visual impairment) because you have the book and can highlight or copy+paste. With audiobooks, you have to listen and then write/type them out.
– Obviously it doesn’t sound the same as an audiobook. The inflection is not quite as varied and natural, it won’t have different emotion for different lines, it won’t have different voices for different characters, etc. But if you haven’t tried TTS recently, you might be surprised at how natural some of the voices sound.
– Dialogue can get confusing. It’s usually fairly easy to differentiate dialogue and narration, or dialogue from one character vs. another, but there are definitely times when it’s harder. It depends on the book or scene and exactly how it’s written.
– Fantasy can be difficult if there are a lot of made-up words and names. At least for me and the way my brain works.
Listening to books with TTS is something that takes a bit of getting used to at first, but it’s one of those things you get better at the more you do it. I’ve gotten better at parsing dialogue from narration, better at focusing, and better at overlaying my own voices and inflection and emotion for characters in my head.
It may not be for everyone, just as audiobooks aren’t for everyone, but for those who want to be able to enjoy books while doing other things, and especially for those who need auditory books for accessibility, listening to books with TTS and screen readers can be a great option!