Audible Digital Talking Books
Listen to books, magazines, and more on
your computer or portable MP3 player
You'll be given a free
MP3 player if signing up for a one year audio book subscription with
You can choose from a
wide variety of books, magazines, newspapers and radio
shows, and play the audio on a range of different MP3
players or your personal computer.
The 'talking book' - a
recording of someone reading a book - has been available to the
general public for many years, either recorded onto cassette
tapes or CDs.
This technology has evolved
into a purely digital format, similar to MP3. In theory,
it promises a great deal more convenience and lower cost.
In practice, restrictive copy protection
sacrifices much of the convenience you have with
cassettes/CDs, and the theoretical cost savings that a totally
electronic format requiring neither dead trees, plastic, nor
any freight are not as great as one would hope for.
But if you have spare time -
perhaps while driving, or exercising, or traveling, then you
might find listening to talking books, whether for amusement,
education, or any other purpose to be a good use of that time.
Audible's special 99c trial offer is a great way to try the service
and decide for yourself if it is of ongoing interest for you and
Audible was founded seven
years ago - a lifetime in terms of internet and digital
technology evolution. Back then it was definitely ahead of
its time, but now it is perhaps the right product in the right
Audible has struggled to build a viable
customer base and attain the critical mass it needs, but seems close now to making that necessary
breakthrough. It does not disclose current customer
numbers, other than to say that in total since 1997, 384,000
people have tried their service. We estimate their current
customer numbers are about 150,000, with customers from over 120
Audible partnered with
Amazon in 2000 so all digital audio books for sale through
Amazon are sourced through Audible, and in October 2003 joined
the Apple iPod bandwagon and titles can now be purchased
through the iTunes website too.
Overview of How it Works
You visit the Audible
website and either buy individual books and magazines or
else buy an annual subscription that makes more content
available at a lower price.
You download the items you
purchase to your computer and then either play them on your
computer or on a limited number of MP3 players.
You need to install special
software on your computer and special drivers onto the MP3
player for the audio to play. Copy protection prevents you
from sharing files with others.
Audible Book vs Paper Book
An audio book obviously has
no illustrations or pictures, and - less obviously - has almost
no chapters or pagination, either.
The software will
automatically restart a book at the point where you stopped
reading, but has only rudimentary chapterization and nothing
like the convenient tracks and extensive information about each
track that you'd find with MP3s. This is a disappointing
and surely unnecessary omission - if track information can
easily be included with MP3 files, why can't it also be included
with the audio book files?
If you're a fast reader, you
might be frustrated at the slower speed of the spoken word.
On the other hand, there are
advantages of an audio book as well. You can listen to the
book in places where you couldn't conveniently read - for
example, when trying to sleep on an overnight flight, or while
driving, or perhaps when at the gym.
Audio books usually have one
or sometimes two people doing the reading.
Some people find the
best way to think of audio books is not as an 'either/or' issue, but
instead, considering the audio books as an extension of their
reading opportunities. If you're feeling like a good read
in the evening, you'll probably still curl up on the couch with
a nice print book. But if you'd like to read at times and in places where you couldn't otherwise
read, then an audio book gives you an added opportunity.
Audio books are also much
smaller than print books. For example, the Creative Muvo
player measures only 1.5" x 3" x 0.5" and weighs little more
than an ounce, but can hold three or four hardback
books. This makes it useful if you're traveling and trying
to keep your weight down.
If you're like me, many of
the books you lend to friends get forgotten about and never
returned. And so, perhaps it is a good thing there is no
easy way to share or give an Audible audio file to a friend!
Audible files are copy
protected, and to play them you need special software for your
computer and special drivers for your MP3 player (which is why
not all MP3 players can handle the files). They are not
plain generic MP3 files.
If desperate to share, you could a regular CD containing the
information from an Audible file and give that to a friend. Of course, if
you wanted to give them a 12 hour book, you'd end up having to
burn about 10 CDs in the process. This isn't nearly as
convenient as just passing your book over to them (and the
Audible program limits you to making 1.5 CD copies of each
If you wanted to sell your
used Audible files, you would be out of luck. You are
buying a single exclusive non-transferable license to listen to
the file yourself, but, unlike a regular book, can't sell
it on to anyone else after you've finished with it.
The bottom line is that an
Audible book costs more than a paperback edition of the same
title, but you can't lend it to friends, and neither can you
sell it (or buy it second hand) when you've finished it.
Time to read
Audible books range in
length, just like regular books, of course. Many titles
are also available in an abridged format, which seems to be
about half the length (or even less) of the full unabridged
Audible advise that fiction
books seem to generally be more popular in an unabridged format,
but non-fiction books (particularly self-help and general
business advice) books are often more popular in their abridged
Full length books seem to
commonly range from about 9 - 15 hours. But there are
notable exceptions - for example, former President Clinton's
autobiography is a staggering 52 hours long. But what to
make of the fact that the abridged version collapses to a a mere
Some titles are available
both in unabridged and abridged versions, and others are only
available in one format but not the other. An abridged
version ranges from only slightly shorter than the original book
to often less than half the length, and in the case above,
barely 10% of the original book.
Radio programs are typically
Compared to a fiction
If you plan to simply
casually read a book from cover to cover, starting on page 1 and
going through to the end, then the Audible experience is similar
to just reading the book.
Compared to a
If you're wanting to simply
casually read through a non-fiction book - perhaps a biography -
then you can listen to the audio book as conveniently
as reading the book.
But if you're wanting to be
able to refer to the book - to be able to look things up in the
index, or read through the contents and go to exactly the
chapter you want, and of course, if you want/need to view
illustrations as part of understanding the book's subject, then
an audio book becomes inconvenient and/or useless. It
wouldn't be very useful as a travel guide. I'm not sure
how it would handle footnotes either.
Comparison with Cassettes and CDs
All three media offer a very
similar audio experience.
The biggest problem with
cassettes is the inconvenience of having a pile of cassettes for
each book. This makes each book less portable and
convenient, and the sheer volume of cassettes can add to the
price as well.
CDs are less bulky, but a digital book is
plainly the least bulky of all.
Cassettes are perhaps the
worst of the three options, due to their size and the
inconvenience they present, plus their greater fragility.
CDs are more robust, and if well programmed with track
information, it is easier to find your way around a pile of CDs
than through cassettes.
To take an extreme example,
the 52 hour Bill Clinton book takes 41 CDs or 34 cassettes, and
sells for about $150!
CDs usually have the highest
sound quality, with cassettes having reasonably good sound and
Audible books a sound quality that you can select, ranging from
worse than cassette to as good as cassette but not as good as
Range of Product Offered
There's a lot less material
for sale at Audible's website than at your local bookstore.
They have approximately 5250 books online, compared to a good
bookstore that will carry more than ten times this number of
books, and Amazon with 2.5 million books available.
The range of titles they
have is sensibly tilted towards subjects that are better suited
for talking books - you won't see any 'coffee table books' that
rely heavily on illustrations, for example, and neither will you
find any in-depth reference works.
Audible also offer a mix of
other programming - magazines, radio shows, newspapers, and even
In total this makes for
22,000 programs of all types (but who really cares about last
month's magazines), totaling 52,000 hours of material.
New titles are being
released all the time, so if you do sign up for a subscription,
you don't have to worry about running out of things you want to
How Many Megabytes is an Audible Book
Audible sound files are
available in four different levels of sound compression and
MB per Hour
per hour of material (56k/broadband)
1 - Fair
2 - Good
3 - Good
4 - Excellent
Obviously, the more
compressed a book, the less space it requires, and the faster
Space is not really a
problem on the huge hard-drives available today, but it is a
massive constraint on some of the smaller portable playing
devices (such as the Creative Nomad offered by Audible).
While the Apple iPod has a 20GB hard drive, the Nomad has only
128 MB, and other similar devices generally have between 64MB
and 256MB. So if you want to take your books with you,
there is strong reason to get the most compressed file size
Unfortunately, you don't get
something for nothing, and the compromise you must accept is
that the smaller the file size, the poorer the sound quality.
The smallest file size, with the greatest compression, gives a
low sound quality that probably would become tiring to listen to
for an extended period.
Note also that Audible's
level 1 compression is incompatible with portable MP3 players,
it only works on computers and Pocket PC devices.
Indeed, not all portable
devices support all three other compression levels, either.
Most will support levels 2 and 3, and a few will also support
You should normally choose level 2 or
3 for your downloads. You can play samples of all four formats from
this page on the Audible site to choose which sound level
you're comfortable with.
The 32 kb/sec rate of Audible's best audio quality
is still very much lower than the 192kb/sec I recommend for
making music MP3s. But voice recording needs very much
less bandwidth than music recording, so the 32 kb/sec is more
than adequate for most people.
How Many Books Can You Fit on
an MP3 Player
If we say an average book is
10 hours, then you are looking at either 40MB or 70MB (for level
2 or 3 compression) per book.
The Creative Muvo player
offered for free with new one year signups holds 128MB of audio.
This means you could fit three regular books in lower quality
audio, or one regular and one short book in higher quality audio
onto the player.
Expressed another way, 128MB
can hold between 17 and 34 hours of audio.
If you choose to load books
onto a higher capacity 20GB iPod, then you could get a massive
2,650 - 5,300 hours of audio on the unit - more than enough for
your next long flight somewhere! Even if you set aside
'only' 1 GB for audio books and keep the rest for music, that
still gives you 125 - 250 hours for books and magazines.
Audible Subscription Options
You can choose to simply buy
books and magazines, one by one, as you wish, or you can sign up
for a one year commitment and then have access to discounted
Perhaps the best buy for
most people is the one year 'Basic Listener' package. This
costs $14.95/month and gives you, each month, your choice of any
one book plus also a subscription to any one magazine, newspaper
or radio program. You can of course buy more books and
periodicals if you choose to.
A nice thing about the
annual packages is that you can pre-order books (a bit like
pre-ordering videos with Netflix) so if you forget to order
something one month, you get the next item on your list and your
subscription fee isn't wasted for that month.
Free Player Offer
Audible currently have a
special promotion - if you sign up for a year of service,
they'll give you a free Creative Nomad MuVo MP3 player.
This is a nifty little unit, and is little bigger than a Flash
drive - indeed, you plug it into your computer's USB port and it
behaves just like a Flash drive when copying files between the
player and the computer.
The player uses one AAA
battery and gets about 12 hours of life from each battery.
It is easy to operate and has 128MB of storage capacity.
Audible value the player at
$100, which means your one year subscription ends up costing you
a net of only $80 after allowing for the free player. You
can get the players online for as little as $55, but even if
considering this lower price point, it means you're paying just
$10/month for their service.
Buying Books One at a Time
If you don't want to sign up
for a year's commitment, you can also buy books individually.
At present (but expiring at the end of Friday 24 September)
Audible has a special offer - any and every title on their site
is available for only $9.95 each.
If you're wondering if the
Audible concept would suit your lifestyle, this is a great way
to inexpensively sample their products.
You'd expect a digital
version of a book to be substantially cheaper than a regular
print version, and also cheaper than the same audio version on
tape or CD. There is no variable product cost (other than
royalties) associated with selling each extra copy - the seller
doesn't need to make books from paper, or to make CDs or tapes
from their raw materials, and neither is it necessary to pay any
freight costs (other than a negligibly small cost for internet
bandwidth used - some fraction of a cent).
The good news - digital
audio books are usually cheaper than the hard cover print
version of the same title. But - the bad news - amazingly,
they are typically more expensive than a paperback version of
the same book. This is hard to understand and harder to
At present Audible have a
temporary promotion so that all their titles are priced at
$9.95, but when that promotion is not underway, titles can be
priced comparable to or slightly below the hardcover price.
The $9.95 promotion happens occasionally but not all the time.
On the other hand, while
prices are high compared to the print book itself, prices are
reasonable compared to audio cassettes and CDs.
Some titles are priced below
$10, while some are priced as high as $120 (when the $9.95
promotion is not running). And there is some free content
as well, although the free content tends not to be regular books
but instead things like recordings from the two party
conventions, Supreme Court oral arguments, and other such
'public domain' material.
For an example of the
different pricing levels, here is a present
best-seller, The Da Vinci Code, which is priced on Amazon as follows :
Not yet released
but will be ~ $8
(temporary special price)
Using Audible's Service
It is probably fair to say
that the concept of digital audio books is great in theory but
flawed in real life, particularly due to issues of cost,
convenience and copy protection.
Similarly, Audible - or that
part of it we see through its website - is a great idea but also
with some limitations when one actually tries to use the
I found the website
difficult to understand and work through, and the help files as
puzzling as the site they were trying to explain. The need
to load extra software onto my computer, and learn the new
interface to manage this software, was another added
complication that interfered with the simple concept of 'choose
a title, download it, play it'.
Customer support is limited
to 9am - 9pm Eastern time and 10am - 4pm on Saturday. This
is not very convenient if you're on the west coast or an international customer, and I did have
problems with the website; three outside support hours and one
during support hours. My two calls to their Customer
Support involved 5 and 22 minute waits on hold, while being
forced to listen to an audio book with a story about pregnant
talking spiders. Both problems were quickly solved, but to
have four program problems (not my misunderstanding, but
software issues) during my trialing the service is unsettling.
Information on their
magazine and radio shows was frustratingly incomplete - I'd like
to know how long each show is, and what time it is
released each day, so I can plan for if I use it eg on the
morning commute to work or the evening commute home. (I'm
told this information is in the process of being added.)
Playing the books themselves
was a mixed experience. You'll either like or dislike the
concept of having books read to you, and probably nothing I say
will change your mind.
It was good that the book playing
program remembers where you are up to, so if you stop playing a
book, then restart again later, it remembers where you were and
restarts from that place. But it was not so good that it
was hard to find any specific section in a non-fiction or
reference type book - the audio book format seems best suited
for things you read through from start to finish, not for things
you want to search through to find specific parts.
Digital audio books take up
less space than cassette or CD based similar products, but have
copy protection limitations that cassettes and CDs (and ordinary
printed books) do not.
An audio book, in general,
is a great way to 'read' (ie listen to) a book at times when you
couldn't otherwise be reading a book, such as when driving or
exercising. Audio books are well suited for fiction and
'self help' material that you'll probably read once and then
discard. They are not well suited for reference, pictorial
or complex books.
Audible is the industry
leader in providing this type of product. If the concept
of digital audio books is of interest, it would certainly
behoove you to try their product out. They're have a special offer to make it easy for you to sample
their products and service -
download any two of their audiobooks for only 99 cents! This is a great opportunity to try for yourself this
new way of listening to books.
If you find yourself with
spare time - perhaps while driving or exercising or traveling -
when you could take advantage of listening to books either for
entertainment, interest, keeping up with current events,
education or self-improvement, then this might prove to be a
valuable and convenient service, and certainly, the 99c offer,
giving you two books, is a low risk way to try it for yourself.
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24 Sep 2004, last update
28 May 2011
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.