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
tags: audio books audible
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