I have friends that would never read a book on a Kindle. "I couldn't give up that smell", they tell me, confusing books with perfume.
When the e-book reader came along, purists may have been up in arms, insisting that they wouldn't let the dead tree version er, die, but really was it worth any fuss? After all their preferred format didn't come first either. Fire did and the campfire story. That's still around after the book and the e-book reader won't kill them off either. Everything will simply shuffle up and make room.
I love books and have been reading in earnest since Topsy and Tim first captured my imagination somewhere back in the early 1980s. The trouble I have had more recently is that time is less available and, whenever I start reading before bed, two pages in, no matter how good it is, I'm out like a light. Campfires are not practical on a school night, dead trees are awkward in bed and the Kindle, even with a light could not prevent my dozing off. No, I needed yet another format to get my fix and that format was, the audio book!
In the grand scheme of things, Audible are a young firm, but tech companies that formed in the heady 'internet bubble' days of the late ninties are really the old masters of the web now. Created to deliver audio in many forms, books, comedy, speeches and so on, they were early digital innovators of many things that we take for granted now, including digital audio players and direct digital delivery to devices like PDAs (RIP).
From my point of view, the key function I was interested in was the ability to download an audio book to my smartphone at my leisure and play it back in the car, when out for a walk or just whenever I wanted. I'm now just finishing my fourth book in as many months and I'm ready to share how I've got on.
According to the briefest of Google searches, Audible have over a million hours of audio in their catalogue. By my reckoning, that's over 100 years worth of books, radio shows etc, so if you're someone who likes to complete a collection, you'd better have lots of free time on your hands. What it translates into for the rest of us is an excellent selection of books, with stuff that's doing well in the Amazon book charts doing similarly well in Audible's own rankings. Although audio books generally come out after the hardback release of a title, usually there isn't too much of a wait, as publishers want to ride the same initial wave of publicity. After all audiobooks can cost quite a bit to produce. My reading taste is fairly mainstream and I can tell you that generally the books that you can get on the high street, are all here in audio form too.
I mentioned that audiobooks can cost a lot to produce and that is definitely reflected in the list price of some of them. Many of the books I was interested in came in at over £25! Way over my budget. However, although some are read by the author, others use professional voice artists to narrate the books and in some cases, distinctive, well known actors or celebrities. These people have to be paid. I also found the production to be excellent across the four books I've picked up so far. Some of these books are over 24 hours long and probably take the same effort as to record a music album. Yes, the cost is higher than the book, but you are getting a very different product.
Sign up to Audible though and those big purchases can get a lot cheaper if you're patient. Being a basic member costs £8 per month and you get one monthly credit entitling you to a single audiobook download. You can choose from the entire catalogue, so this can represent a real bargain. I'm happy to keep pace with one book per month, but there are plenty of special offers coming from Audible via email, so you need never pay full price, however many you get through. Overall I would say that Audible offers value for money, especially because its service is quite slick.
Service and Apps
These days Audible operate as a subsidiary of Amazon and it shows. The website is from the same school of design and despite there being so many titles on offer, everything is easy to find if you know what you want and browse if you don't.
On my Nexus 4, I can browse a mobile version of the store and download audio books on the go. It's worth a note here that some of the files can be quite big, so use the setting to download via WIFI only if you'd rather avoid taking a chunk out of your data allowance. Sadly on my iPad, whilst the app is nice, the store is not available direct. I assume this is to avoid having to pay Apple a cut of the sales, as is the rule, but it would be nice if they could do what Amazon did with the Kindle app and offer direct access to the free samples. In the meantime, opening a web browser to pick up a new book once every few weeks is no big deal, the app will automatically recognise the new addition and update your growing library accordingly.
The apps themselves are very nice. I've tested the Android one, which has recently had a big rewrite and the iPad version.
Really, the app doesn't have a big job to do, but Audible have put several clever ideas in to make it a nice experience and practical to use wherever you happen to be, especially in the Android version.
First of all, there is a nice widget for your Android home screen, which gives you the basic play/pause controls, plus the ability to jump back thirty seconds if you missed something and wanted to catch it again. The main view within the app shows you your library and you can list those that you have got stored locally on your device separately.
Within the app's settings, you can prevent the phone from locking whilst a book is playing. This is pretty useful in the car, where the phone can be plugged in for power and you don't want to muck about with unlocking a phone when you're supposed to be concentrating on more important things!
Less useful, but just as interesting, you can look up some stats about your listening habits. I now have more than a day and a half worth of listening under my belt!
During playback, Audible have even gone to the length of giving you two different ways to control your listening. The first is the traditional play screen with fast forward, play, skip buttons and so on. The second is a 'button free' mode where swipes and gestures control playback. For example a swipe to the right goes forward thirty seconds, whereas a tap anywhere on the screen plays or pauses as appropriate. It works really well, especially in situations where you don't want to spend time looking for a button when you should be doing something else.
The final nice touch I noticed, which impressed me even though I've not found a personal use-case for it yet is playback speed. The narrator can be slowed by half or sped up by up to three times. If you really want to race your way through a book, or perhaps the narrator seems to be going to fast in the first place, it's good to have this extra control.
I've not got much to offer by way of criticism. I guess the one slight shortcoming was, when testing out the iPad app, I was disappointed to find out that the books do not synchronise position between devices (Update: This has now been added and works well!). Maybe this is a big ask, but with Amazon's Kindle store doing that for books, I think it would be great if Audible could to. That said, personally it will only be the odd rare occasion when I will not be using my phone and there are bookmarks which could help.
I got into Audible because of the month's free trial that they do. You get to explore the site and download one ebook for free and there is no obligation to stay on or hand over a penny. Cynically I used this to get my hands on Steve Job's biography, but I enjoyed the ebook experience so much I'm now several books in with a growing library. So the marketing worked, but hey, I don't feel hard done by. It's an excellent service offering another way to access books for people like me who aren't completely wedded to the dead tree version. If you're tempted, give that free trial a go, but be warned, you may well end up a paying customer.