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Audio Books and Audible.com
As a slow reader, I took to Audio Books when I first heard of Audible.com five or six years ago. Audible.com provides audio books over the internet as digital files that you can play on your computer, iPod, or many other audio devices. The pricing was so much less than it was at the book store. The ability to download and play something from a very large selection of audio books on demand was irresistible. A huge chunk of Audible.com's selection was and is unabridged, whereas up until fairly recently it was difficult to find any unabridged audio books at a book store, and when you could find them, they were outrageously priced – probably several times the price of the equivalent hardcover.

Just the other day, the New York Times published an article by Amy Harmon about audio books and I was actually quoted in it! The article asks the question whether listening to audio books is the same thing as reading, or whether it's inferior. My big reason, as stated in the article, for listening to audio books is that I'm a slow reader. Basically I read stuff aloud in my head at about the same pace as someone would read in an audio book. I've tried speed reading courses but they never seemed to work. Aside from this, of course, you can listen to a book without needing total concentration as with a written book. So I can listen at the gym, in the car, etc. Some people consider this inferior because you aren't using your mind as much to invent voices in your head. You can linger on sentences or words without having to keep going if you want. But in general, I think it's all very individual. Some people get a lot more out of reading a book than listening to an audio book, whereas for others they are similar, and still others audio seems to have an added value. What do you think?

The New York Times requires a subscription to read the article, but Luke Sonnier has reprinted it on his blog along with some commentary about why he thinks reading is superior. There's also some discussion going on in his comments that indicates some of the contentiousness of this issue. Neil Gaiman, a professional writer no less, makes some good points in favor of audio books and why those who assert the superiority of the written word are snobs.

Back to Audible.com. This week the IT Conversations Podcast's show Web Talk interviewed Audible.com's Founder and CEO, Don Katz. While not the most scintillating orator, Don Katz does let us in on a lot of interesting info, particularly on where Audible may be going in the near future. In particular he talks specifically about how they are planning on offering over-the-air downloadable content. So, for compatible devices, specifically smartphones like the Treo 650 which can both download data from the internet and play Audible files, soon you will be able to download this content directly from anywhere. Up until now, one has had to be chained to a computer that syncs such data onto your device, but with the increasing speeds of cellular data networks, smartphones rely less and less synching to an individual's computer for transferring information.

The other subject that Katz talks about is podcasting. Actually a good part of the interview centers on it. Katz is asked whether it threatens their business and predictably says it doesn't, but it seems like even more traditional forms of media he has been smart to take it seriously enough to get Audible somehow involved in the whole podcasting phenomenon. There hasn't been anything announced, but it sounds like there may be plans to court some podcasters for inclusion as programming that Audible sells. This will, of course, be very different from the current, completely free (or voluntary contribution) model. Will podcasters take advantage of such a system and make only part of the podcasts freely downloadable? Or none? Will they only provide their last podcast for download and let Audible sell their archives? Some of course will. But many will, I think, be resistant to forcing people to sell something that they have labeled with the Creative Commons license. Who knows, Audible could even offer podcasters a salary and let them, as Katz said "quit their day job," as long as they could sell their content (and likely have it not freely available otherwise). I will admit that since I got into podcasting, I've had so much to listen to that I haven't listened to many books over the last 6 months! I'm not about to unsubscribe to Audible, but I do think that there's so much great content available freely via podcasts that for many, it will be hard to convince them to pay a monthly fee for more, even if it is stuff that is not available via free podcast.

While I love Audible in many ways, I thought I would get off my chest a couple of things that have nagged me about them for a while, and I know I'm not alone. The first is related to Audible's web interface. There are often problems where if you search for an author or title, it doesn't come up with the books you know they have. But this is an occasional annoyance. My major issue is with their wish list and search functionality which I think are extremely clunky! Audible has tons of books in their library and so it's very easy to build up a wish list that is hundreds of books. In order to keep this up to date and prune it so that it doesn't get completely out of control, Audible should make it easy to remove, and sort the list in different ways. Instead, you have to look at your list in 20-book increments for one, and secondly, while you can sort on various fields, you cannot sort in revers order. In order to see the books I've added to my wish list most recently, I have to click on sort by date added and then page forward a dozen or more times. Audible's site is often sluggish making this a time consuming process. I'm a web developer by profession and so I know these changes to the interface are not huge ones. I realize that Audible has many other places to put its resources, such as in actually recording the books and customer support, but it seems like the way most people browse and buy books could be improved quite a bit. Katz did say there were improvements coming in these areas, so I await them with great hope, but really it's been a long time coming!

While Audible has tons of material, my one wish would be that they would carry more "special interest" material, such as computer books, reference books, instructional manuals, etc. Audible occasionally has something close to this in the way of kinds of "self-help" material, but it is almost always in abridged formats. I think this is the last big market for Audible. If they could somehow convince publishers to produce unabridged audio versions of books that aren't just categorized as fiction or non-fiction (historical, political, etc), then I think they could attract even more readership.

Finally, I wish that Audible would give more choices in the formats they offer for various devices. Audible has four formats they offer their programs in; level 1 being the poorest quality and level 4 being the best. Of course level 4 takes up much more spaces than level 1. Audible offers level 4 for iPods, but not for my Treo 650. Perhaps this is some technical issue with the Treo not having enough processing power or battery power to play the file, but my guess is that it is more likely a decision Audible made based on the file size. Since the Treo has only a very small amount of internal memory, it would be infeasible to expect people to store their books anywhere but on an external memory card. While a couple of years ago probably 128MB or 256MB would be the largest most people would invest in, one can now get a 1GB card for $70 give or take and if price is now object than you can even get a 2GB card. Even 1GB still will store just about any unabridged book in its entirety, and up to several depending on length, all at level 4. While I like the thought of having all my books on my iPod, it sure would be nice to listen to everything on one device. But not having that extra fidelity does make the decision to ditch my iPod for most occasions not a very likely one.

Aside from these relatively minor annoyances, Audible and Audio books have changed my life in the last five years. I've read upwards of 60 or 70 books, whereas the previous 5 years I probably read 6 or 7! In my mind, the fact that I didn't read these on paper makes no difference. I can still recall the good ones in detail and many greatly influenced my thinking.

posted Friday, 27 May 2005
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A visitor made this comment,
Very cool that you were quoted in NYT, Levi!!

I'm getting my husband a subscription to Audible for his birthday!

Laura

comment added :: 30th May 2005, 21:00 GMT-05
A visitor made this comment,
Great to hear that you got a citation in the Times.

I personally consider myself lucky to live near a Talking Book World outlet, where I can rent audio books either a la carte or on a subscription basis.

I too have found it to be a life-changing experience!

Tut [webmeister@health-hack.com]

comment added :: 31st May 2005, 10:45 GMT-05
andrea made this comment,
I love Audible.com and have been a subscriber for close to 5 years. Recently, though, I bought a 20G iPod and now have a big problem I am hoping you can help me with. Over the years I have had multiple subscriptions, so I have 4 "owners" for my audio books. (They are all ME, but have been purchased with the user names of my different subscriptions.) When I bought the iPod, my goal was to put all of my audio books on the one device. Why else would anyone need 20G??? BUT iTunes and the iPod only allow 2 "owners," so I can only load half of my library. Has anyone conquered this problem?
comment added :: 3rd July 2005, 00:44 GMT-05
Levi Wallach made this comment,
Andrea, are you the one who's been writing about this on Audible's Yahoo Group recently? If not, what a coincidense! Anyway, first of all, it's very easy for people to fill up a 20GB iPod, doesn't matter with what. I probably have 25-30GB of music on MP3 and 25-30GB of audio books. I do something similar with my iPod in that I share the books on my wife's account, but that makes only two accounts, so it's not an issue. My suggeston to you if you haven't already done this is to call Audible and ask them if you can merge some of your accounts. Is there a reason you want/need four seperate ones? Why did you get additional ones to begin with?
comment added :: 3rd July 2005, 06:52 GMT-05 :: http://twelveblackcodemonkeys.com
andrea made this comment,
Levi, thanks for the idea. I called Audible and they said to merge accounts they would basically have to give me all those books again for free. They weren't able to just change the user names. Go figure. The reason I have four (two I don't currently use for new purchases) is because since I purchase so many audio books, pricing is better with the monthly subscriptions. They don't offer a plan larger than "Premium," and I can't see paying their regular price for the extra books I buy. Soooo, I am still looking for a fix for my iPod problem. I think I will check out the message on the Yahoo group you mentioned. Thanks!
comment added :: 6th July 2005, 07:44 GMT-05
Levi Wallach made this comment,
Well, that blows, huh? Oh well. You would think Audible would have a way to do this without having to have you repurchase everything. As far as plans that are "higher" that the "premium" plan, this is true in that there isn't a monthly plan. However, there is something called an ultimate listener plan, I believe, but you have to call them to switch to it. Instead of getting monthly credits, you get 12 credits for about $120 and you have either one year or maybe even two years to spend them. Once you spend them, you can just go and resign up for another one. This way you can maintain the approx. $10/book average and never have to buy books at premium prices.

This doesn't solve your immediate problem of course! There are a couple of other ways you might have, but nothing is quick and simple. Basically, you could ditch the iPod in favor of another larger player which may allow for more than two accounts. You'd have to research which of the audible-compatible devices fits this criteria. The other idea is to take the account that has the fewest books on it and start burning the books to CD. Then rip the CD tracks to MP3 and put them onto your iPod. Once you finish doing that with all the books in the account, you could ditch that account (unless you have a remaining commitment) and you could take the activation off your iPod and replace it with one of your other accounts. The disadvantages to this would be 1) the files would probably take up more room than the Audible files. 2) It's a labor-intensive process that would tie up your computer. 3) Mp3 files aren't really bookmarkable like Audible files are, and it wouldn't really remember where you left off. The fix to this is to convert your MP3 files in iTunes to AAC files - this also allows you to take advantage of the variable speed playing on the 4th generation and newer iPods. The process isn't hard, but it can take a long time and will slow down your computer. You could certainly do this when you're not going to be using your computer for other things. Of course, the easiest thing would be for Audible to simply convert your accounts. The thing I've heard about their support is that it's touch and go. You might want to call them back a few times and ask the same question of different reps to see if you might get a different answer from someone - you never know! Good luck!

comment added :: 6th July 2005, 15:02 GMT-05 :: http://twelveblackcodemonkeys.com
cptzep made this comment,
Here is an easy solution to multiple audible accounts that I have used for years. Play your books into audiohijack and save them as bookmarkable aa files. This is a real time recording so you can leave a book on at night. You can split the recording into as many sizes as you want.After that the book is no longer bound by your account name.
comment added :: 10th July 2005, 11:00 GMT-05
Levi Wallach made this comment,
Actually, there are much easier ways of converting aa files to mp3 (or whatever). However, they all take time and make your computer pretty slow. Finally, doing this is not strictuly legal. Whatever our individual opinions of fair use are, you ARE going against your agreement with Audible by converting these files - except by burning them to CD. After they are on CD I'm not sure what the agreement says you can do, but of course all of this is kind of ridiculous. The main goal is just to be able to listen to your own purchased content. The problme is that Apple, Audible, and publishers have made this into a sometimes difficult process...
comment added :: 10th July 2005, 11:20 GMT-05 :: http://twelveblackcodemonkeys.com
Stefan Rusek made this comment,
I love Audible. My only gripe is that the audible manager doesn't run if you log in as a non-administrator user.
comment added :: 25th October 2005, 12:11 GMT-05 :: http://spaces.msn.com/members/stefanrusek
Mike made this comment,
i have just returned a video ipod to the place i purchased it because i could not put more than one audible account on it. what device will allow me to put all of my audible accounts..which is over a dozen or so on one device?
comment added :: 5th December 2005, 22:17 GMT-05
Levi Wallach made this comment,
Holy cow, a dozen accounts? Why would you have so many? I'm pretty sure that iPods can hold books for either two or three accounts. I know that I've gotten mine and my wife's on my current video iPod, and my earlier iPods, and her iPod Mini. So I'm not sure why you can only get one on yours. But to get a dozen accounts, I don't know. Best thing might be to contact Audible and ask or query the Audible.com Yahoo! Group to see if some other members have the same issue and have found a player that accepts many different accounts...
comment added :: 5th December 2005, 23:26 GMT-05 :: http://twelveblackcodemonkeys.com
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