This is the third post in a five-part series.
- Getting free audiobooks from local libraries via Overdrive
- Audiobook services for people with learning difficulties
- Other commercial audiobook services
- Audiobook listening apps
Note: The original plan for this post was to cover Audible and other commercial audiobook providers. But that would make it too long. So I decided to split it into two parts
In the last two weeks we looked at audiobooks from public libraries and specialised services for people with print disabilities.
We are now going to look at different services you can use to purchase audiobooks. The clear leader in this field is Amazon’s Audible.
This week, we will outline what to look for when choosing a commercial service and review Audible in detail.
Next week, we will look at alternatives to Audible:
- Downpour – downloading books without copy protection
- Playster – unlimited subscription to audiobooks
- Librivox – free out of copyright audiobooks narrated by volunteers
- For other services see this Review.
Key things to know
This is a very long post, so here is a quick summary:
- Audible has over 200,000 audiobooks
- You can get a free audiobook (to keep) as part of a free trial when you sign up on Amazon.co.uk. You can two free audiobooks through Audible.co.uk/two, if you have an Amazon.co.uk account.
- You subscribe to get one credit a month for £8 (other options are available)
- You can listen to Audible books almost anywhere using their apps on smartphones, tablets or PCs and Macs.
What are commercial audiobooks
In the old days, the only way you could get an audiobook was to purchase one on CD (and on tape in the even older days). Audiobooks on CDs are still sold but they are expensive. And because audiobooks can be 10, 20 or even 50 hours long, the CD versions are often abridged.
In this post we will look at the best commercial download services. These are mostly unabridged audiobooks that are purchased and downloaded to your device such as smartphone, tablet or PC.
What to look for
When you are choosing a service, you should look at:
- Book selection
- Payment model
- Copy protection (DRM)
- Default apps.
Some audiobook services only have a few thousand titles, while the biggest have tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands.
But the total number does not matter much if they have the books you want. Check this before you sign up.
Not all the books are available in all countries. Sometimes, the US catalogue of books is much bigger than that available in the UK.
There are basically three ways to purchase audiobooks:
- Pay outright
- Monthly subscription with limited credit
- Unlimited subscription.
Paying outright is the easiest way to purchase an audiobook. It is like any online purchase. But it is also the most expensive. Audiobooks cost two or three times as much as regular books or ebooks. That’s why this option is not the best for most people.
Monthly subscription for credit
This is the most common option for most people. You pay a reasonable fee every month and receive a credit for buying one audiobook (or two). This makes audiobooks very affordable (around £8). Some services allow you to purchase additional credits. You own the audiobook even when you stop the subscription.
Netflix-style unlimited subscription is very rare in the world of audiobooks. There are a few services out there but they have limited catalogues compared to the others. You pay a monthly fee and listen as much as you want. You don’t own the books and you cannot listen again when you stop the subscription.
Copy protection (DRM)
Copy protection or DRM (Digital Rights Management) is a limitation publishers impose on the file you buy. Its official purpose is to stop illegal sharing but its effect is to stop you from using your ebooks or audiobooks in the best way for you. It means that:
- You can only access the content on official apps
- You can only use the content on a limited number of devices
- You cannot share the content with your family or friends unless you also share the device.
As a consequence you don’t really own the book you purchased. You just pay for a license to use it.
In extreme cases, the publisher goes out of business or changes formats and you can lose access to content you thought you owned.
Copy protection used to be extremely common with music but is now not used by any of the major sellers. It is used on movies and TV shows. It is, of course, also used by streaming services.
Unfortunately, DRM is still the norm with ebooks and common with audiobooks.
This is particularly important for services that use copy protection. You should always check whether the default app has all the key features for listening to audiobooks:
- Setting speed of playback
- Resume a few seconds back after pause
- Manage audiobooks on device
- Skip back and forward buttons by 15 sec
- Navigation by chapter
- Volume boost.
Audible is not the only option for audiobooks but it is perhaps the best and easiest one to get started with.
Audible, owned by Amazon, is by far the biggest online store for audiobooks with over 200,000 titles available. It is the default choice for many people, including myself. I have been an Audible subscriber for almost 10 years (my first audiobook purchase was in 2007) and I have well over 100 audiobooks in my Audible library.
Audible has almost all the most popular books in all genres you can think of. It is even great in genre fiction such as fantasy and sci-fi. There are lots of Young Adult books and plenty of books for children, as well.
There are many non-fiction as well. Audible now also includes lectures from the The Great Courses (formerly Teaching Company). These are a great way to get more information about variety of university-level topics. Buying these courses through Audible is a great deal cheaper than directly on the website.
The only area not covered is textbooks on the UK curriculum and more academic books but many other curriculum texts are available.
Also, not all books available through the US Audible (Audible.com) are available in the UK.
Titles are read by male and female narrators with US or UK accents. Occasionally, some popular titles (like Harry Potter) are narrated in both accents.
Payment model (Free trial available)
Free trial details at the end.
The basic subscription for Audible is a monthly payment of £8 pounds. This gives you 1 credit to purchase audiobooks with. Almost all audiobooks cost 1 credit, no matter what their full cost. You get a new credit every month.
Other subscription options are 2 credits a month or 12 credits or 24 credits for a year. The last option makes 1 audiobook cost £4.60. These options are not easy to discover – you need to go to Switch my membership under Account details.
Other ways to buy
You can also buy additional credits as part of various offers. For instance, 3 credits for £18.
You can also buy an audiobook outright but that is almost always more expensive than 1 credit. But Audible regularly runs special deals on certain audiobooks, in which case, the cost can often be less.
You can return books you didn’t like or did not listen to. There are no official limits on this but Audible can stop you if you abuse this feature. Also, it only applies to books not purchased through special deals. I have returned several books I did not finish listening to. Returning is done via the website.
You can roll over credits into the next month, if you don’t use them. Maximum of unused credits is 12.
You can also pause your membership if you want to catch up on old audiobooks. I have done that several times. Simply, go to Cancel and it will be given as one of the options. Occasionally, Audible will offer you to re-join at a lower subscription price.
When you first go to Audible.co.uk, you will be offered a free trial of one book. But if you go to Audible.co.uk/two, you will get 2 free audiobooks. This only works if you also have an Amazon account.
You can cancel your account in 1 month and still keep the free books in your Audible library. Otherwise, you will be charged again in a month.
The free trial is probably the easiest way to get started with audiobooks for free.
Unfortunately, Audible uses copy protection to limit how you use the audiobooks you purchase. This means you can only play Audible audiobooks on certified devices or using Audible apps.
There is also a limit to the number of devices (4) you can put an audiobook on.
I have never run into a limit of devices but I had to pause my Audible membership in the past when I used an MP3 player not supported by the service.
Luckily, Audible is now a part of Amazon and not likely to disappear soon. Audible itself has existed for almost 20 years. The books you purchased are available to you even when you stop your subscription payments. Also, you can burn the audiobooks to CDs as backup.
For families, this means that they have to share an Audible account (which could be unfortunate if parents want to listen to books not suitable to children) or buy the same audiobooks multiple times. Amazon has a Household Sharing programme but it is not available for Audible.
The only way to listen to Audible audiobooks is through one of their apps or on an approved device – such as an iPod or select MP3 players.
Phones and tablets
The best way to listen to Audible audiobooks is on a smartphone or a tablet. Audible has apps for all three main platforms: iPhone/iPad, Android and even Windows.
I use the Android app regularly and it has the most important key features. It is not the best audiobook player in the field but it is very capable. It has also improved a lot since it was first introduced.
Most importantly, you can buy and download audiobooks right from the app.
You can also listen on your computer (Mac or PC). This can be either using iTunes, the Audible player or Windows Media Player. These are not great ways to listen. None of these apps are intended for audiobooks and they do not offer bookmarking or variable speed.
On Windows 10, you can also listen using the Windows 10 app. It can be downloaded via the Store. This is a very good app.
You can also stream via the website. This is a good option because it syncs position with other devices. The only feature not available is variable speed.
Other possible ways to listen are iPods, approved MP3 players, approved specialist devices for visually impaired people. There are even some GPS navigators that will play Audible.
All iPods support Audible. Other MP3 players typically do not support it, including some of the best ones. Audible has a list of supported devices. Check before you buy.
You have to use the Audible downloader or iTunes to copy the audiobooks to these devices.
However, a smartphone is probably the best way to listen to audiobooks now.
You can burn the Audible audiobooks to CDs using the iTunes Music Player on Windows or Mac.
This is great for backup but it is not very practical. 1 disk can only fit 80 minutes. Most audiobooks will need 6 – 8 CDs. Some may need as many as 30-40 CDs.
Theoretically you could rip those CDs again and get DRM-free MP3s. But this would be too time consuming to be worth the effort for more than 1 or 2 audiobooks.
Sync position in audiobook across devices
A great reason for using Audible apps is that they sync your position in the audiobook across multiple devices.
This means you can listen on a phone while walking about and switch to tablet or PC when you come home.
Sync of books and audiobooks (Whispersync for voice)
Some audiobooks can also sync reading position with the corresponding ebook. This is available for a minority of books on Audible but it is not completely uncommon. About 25% of the audiobooks in my library have this option.
This means that you can read a book on your Kindle in your bed, get up and continue listening to the audiobook where you left off. When you come back, you can start reading where you finished listening.
On the Kindle Fire, you can even listen while the words are being highlighted on the page. This is a great option for new or dyslexic readers. Sadly, Amazon does not make that available on other tablets or phones.
Audible is a great way to get kids and adults reading. If it is the lack of time or a reading difficulty. You can read more with audiobooks. More and more people are listening to audiobooks and this is in part thanks to Audible making so many books available to listen to.
Children with dyslexia can particularly benefit from an Audible subscription. Even if they also use other free options.
Learning to listen to audiobooks should be a part of what children learn in school. Every school library should have a trial subscription to Audible so that they can introduce children to this great way to access books.
Parents who are uncomfortable reading to children themselves can also find listening with them a great way to share the excitement of stories and literacy with their kids.
Audible is not the only way to do this but it is a great and fairly affordable way to get started.
Next time we will have a look at three alternatives to Audible. After that, we will review audiobook apps.
All photos in this post are courtesy of Pixabay.
Dominik Lukes - Education and Technology Specialist