BitDepth#898 - August 13

After more than a decade of reading audiobooks distributed by Audible, a reflection on what the medium has come to mean to me.
Reading by ear
Staff at work in Audible’s Newark offices. Photographs courtesy

It’s been nine years since I’ve written about audiobooks and 11 years since I downloaded my first book from
Audible, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, a 17 hour epic novel that constituted a bold dive into the deep end of spoken word fiction.
But what better way to start messing around with a new development in technology than with a book about bristling, shiny and slightly frightening techno-fiction?

Since December 2002, I’ve never had less than two audiobooks loaded onto a device near at hand. Back then, they were played on a second generation iPod and funnelled to my car’s audio by a variety of hacks, first a fake tape cassette that fit into the stereo then with a tiny transmitter that put out a limited range signal for the car’s radio receiver.

Fun, though slightly maddening times for a fledgling audiobook fan, but a staggering improvement over the predecessor technology, huge blocks of CDs that you fed one by one into a player, each capable of playing back around 90 minutes or so worth of the narrator’s presentation.

Needless to say, this was a giant pain and audiobooks that were three times the size of the original book and required user intervention every hour and a half were a struggle even for the visually impaired.
For the last decade though, audiobooks have also been a salve for the boredom impaired. I’ve racked up 362 titles on my Audible bookshelf since 2002, with another 270 on my wishlist awaiting their turn.

A modern Audible audiobook is a file of roughly 90MB for a standard book. Longer books are split into two files and users can choose the audio quality they require, better quality versions creating bigger files.
But middling quality, roughly 32kbps, is more than good enough for reproducing the human voice on the very average speakers in most vehicles.

Audiobooks have made me a better driver. They play continuously in my car, now running through a more reliable audio jack connection between my phone and the auxiliary jack on the CD player in the vehicle.
Unlike CDs, audiobooks have always been bookmarkable, remembering where you stopped even if you reboot the device you’re listening on.

Lots more has changed in the last ten years.
It’s now perfectly acceptable socially to stick a pair of earphones into your ear canals and ignore people around you in many social situations which makes audiobooks an engrossing way to ignore marginally bearable social situations like mass transit.

Audible itself, which was like an online mom and pop shop when I joined, is now a subsidiary of Amazon, which bought the company in 2008 for US$300 million.
It was also around the time of the Amazon buyout that I began to have problems with books disappearing from my wishlist and discovered that publisher zoning restrictions would now be applied to Audible publications as well.

If the publisher decided that the book was for the US only, well that meant that I couldn’t buy it. That particular fracas took considerable sleight of hand to sort out.
Now Audible, which began in 1999 as a much looser organisation, operates by hard and fast licensing rules, quite likely the result of audiobooks moving from being a curiosity to a mainstream medium for readers on the move.

iTunes still plays Audible files and honours the DRM still embedded in them, but Audible now offers excellent software for the iPhone, iPad, Android. Windows and Windows Phone.
Other advancements since the Amazon buyout include Whispersync, which synchronises the spot you’ve reached in an audiobook with the equivalent page in the same e-book on your Kindle.

A new addition to Whispersync for Audible is simultaneous audio and text synchronisation on a Kindle HD. If you activate what Audible calls Immersion Reading, the text that’s being read is highlighted in synchronisation on the screen of the e-book on the Kindle. This sounds like a killer feature for non-English speakers or slow readers.

Sites for free audiobooks...
Books should be free
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