Thursday, May 2, 2013

Audible for Audiobooks

Is audible a good deal?  That's what you want to know.  The answer is a mixed bag, so here's what I found out.

Audible sells audiobooks, but not on CD.  You download them from their website.  The problem is they are in a special format.  It ends with ".aa".  What this means is you have to use special Audible software to play these files.  That's the problem people have with using Audible.

I'll start with the good.

You do own these books, and you can download them multiple times and play them whenever you want, wherever you want.  You're not streaming them, you don't need to be online to listen to them.  And they are cheap - comparatively speaking.  I don't mean you can get them for 99 cents like a song track.  But I haven't found them cheaper anyplace, and I've looked around.

The selection on Audible is fantastic.  Seriously.  Books you can't find any other place, obscure books, older books, wacky narrations - you'll find them on Audible.  Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, I found 17 different narrations!  The Red Badge of Courage - over a dozen.  The one I bought was only $2.95, and it was perfectly fine, a real narration by a professional reader.  I can't even buy the paperback that cheap.  You can play a sample, sometimes up to 20 minutes, of each narration and decide which reader you like.  All narrators are real people, no machine readings here, all professionals, no amateurs, no LibriVox recordings.  Sometimes readers have a British accent for a British authored book, sometimes an American accent for an American authored book.  You can try them all, a few minute samples of each one.  The better narrations are more expensive, up to 20 bucks, and the lesser ones are sometimes a few bucks.  But they are all one credit, which for most plans is 15 bucks each month.  I was able to find things I simply could not find in other places.  I've been looking for Roughing It, by Mark Twain, narrated by Norman Dietz.  It had to be Norman Dietz.  It's long since out of print (or whatever you call that for audiobooks).  I found it on Amazon...for 75 bucks!  I checked Barnes and Noble, I checked some used bookstores, and of course I checked the library.  No one had it.

But Audible did.  All for one credit, 15 bucks.

I wanted Ulysses, by James Joyce.  I wanted not just any copy, but the one read by Jim Norton.  It sells for over 100 bucks on Amazon, and good luck finding it cheaper anyplace else.  But at Audible it was one credit, which is 15 bucks.

I could list a variety of other items I found only on their website.  Plus, so many of them are so darn cheap!  Audible is a monthly membership deal.  You are automatically charged 15 bucks a month and for that you get one credit which can buy one audiobook.  But there are so many good deals because you can buy the books at "member prices" that you quickly find yourself buying lots of books for a few bucks.  I bought several books for only 3 or 4 dollars, some even cheaper!  In fact, so many books sell for around 10 bucks that if you spend your credit on them, you lose money.  So you just outright buy them at that price and save your credit for something better.  I searched everywhere for a good copy of A High Wind in Jamaica, then when I found it on Audible it was less than the price of a credit, 10 bucks.

Most of the non-member prices normally aren't too terrible.  Just scanning the best sellers many of them sell for 25 bucks for non-members, 18 bucks for members (or 1 credit).  When you sign up for Audible you can sometimes get a good deal - the first 3 months for 8 bucks a month, or maybe they throw in a free credit or two.  After signing up they emailed me a 10 dollar coupon.  I promptly used it to buy a book.

For anyone who has tried LibriVox, you probably understand why it's better to buy a book narrated by a professional.  I don't want to knock the intrepid volunteers at LibriVox, but to hear so much monotone and so little enthusiasm makes for hard listening.  Each chapter might be narrated by a different person, sometimes with accents incongruent to the story.  A book might be partially completed while they wait for a volunteer to do a chapter.  I waited a long time for The Mysteries of Udolpho to be finished on LibriVox, then I gave up and bought it at Audible.  Although LibriVox is free and it's easy to download in mp3 format so I should probably shut up about LibriVox and get back to Audible.

My local library used to be my primary source for audiobooks.  They have a new system to let you download audiobooks from their website using Overdrive.  The problem with that was you had to wait for a copy to become available, just like checking out a regular book.  They had a limited number of "copies" to lend, and a long waiting list for the good stuff.  This was managed for the most part with DRM using wma formats.  They had some titles in mp3 format, but most of them were not, so again your choices were limited, or your listening options were limited.  For us iPhone/Mac listeners, wma is problematic.

Audible so far has provided compatibility with all my devices.  You don't have to stream these books or stay connected to the internet while you listen.  They have an iPhone app in every way as good as the music app that comes with the iPhone, except that the Audible app only plays ".aa" files.  They support Windows, Mac, iPhone, Android, Windows Phone, and Blackberry.  I don't know about Linux.  And they let you burn the files to regular audio CD so they become just like you would have purchased them in the store, minus the fancy packaging.  Then I can play them in any CD player.

In just a few months I have purchased over 100 audiobooks from Audible.  Yes, I know that's a freakin' lot of books, and maybe I won't have time to listen to them in my lifetime.  But for God's sake, they were so cheap!  What I did was go to their catalog by clicking on Shop Audible, and selected Classics. Then I just used the filters on the left.  Unfortunately you can't sort by price.  That's a drawback.  But I went through page after page and bought book after book for only 95 cents each!  Yes, you heard me.  I bought tons of audiobooks for 95 cents each.  Forget using your credit for this, save that for something big.  And these were perfectly good narrations.  An example is H.G. Wells The Time Machine, unabridged, narrated by Alan Munro.  He's got a deep base voice, perfect for this book.

Another perfect example - I found The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, narrated by Patrick Tull with a perfect British accent (of course, because he's British).  It's unabridged and contains eleven complete Sherlock Holmes stories - all for 95 cents.  Yes, that's right.  95 cents.

When it comes to a tremendous variety at good prices, Audible is the place to go.

Now, for the bad.

".aa" files and DRM.  That's the bottom line.  You've got to deal with that mess, and even though you "own" your copy of the books, you are forever tied to Audible in order to listen to "your" books.  It's called a proprietary format, a format made for a specific use by a specific company.  And they load it up with DRM crap.  Yes, I said DRM crap.  This is not to protect the artist, this is to protect the middle man.  Period.

When I play a book on my iPhone, I actually have to sign in with Audible for it to work.  If you use an Audible file that was purchased with one Audible account you can't play it on your device that is logged in with another account.  It knows.  If I'm not signed in, it won't play my files.  As long as I'm logged in then it will work even when my device is offline.  I don't know if it has to be online for the original sign in.  Once signed in it will not sign you out unless you do it manually, but you have to be signed in for the book to play.  I'm wondering what will happen when I cancel my membership.  I believe I will forever need to keep my account with Audible even after losing my membership.  I have no intention of shelling out 15 bucks a month for the rest of my life for the privilege of listening to books I already purchased.

The whole thing makes you yearn for the day when you can be rid of Audible.  So instead of creating loyalty, they create enmity.  They grow a large base of unwilling and unhappy customers that long for freedom, for something better.

There are ways to turn your ".aa" files into mp3 files.  Audible allows you to burn them to CD as normal wave files (meaning regular audio CDs that play in a regular CD player, not mp3).  Audible allows you to burn them a limited number of times.  I believe it's either once or twice.  After that they will not burn.  I don't know if they will play after that, I'm scared to risk it.  Once they are in audio CD format all DRM is gone and you can rip them back to mp3.  This is time consuming and costly.  There are programs out there that claim to turn them straight to mp3 but I've yet to try them.

Do I feel guilty turning them into mp3 files?  Hell no.  I bought them, and I have no intention of uploading them or anything illegal.  But DRM is a big giant scam.  I fully agree with it's original intent, to prevent pirating.  But it has been misused to allow middlemen and resellers to get rich for something they don't deserve.  We are being charged for the privilege of listening to books and music we already purchased.  The idea was to make sure music artists got their fair share.  But instead, iTunes and Sony and others are taking advantage of it.  It's like saying I bought a movie at Walmart, and put it in my DVD player I bought at Target, and it won't play, and Walmart requires me to buy their DVD player in order to watch Titanic.  Really?  Why would Walmart think they had anything to do with Titanic?

In the same way, what does Audible think they had to do with the writing of Ulysses?  It was written long ago and the author is long since dead.  Audible didn't write these books, Audible didn't narrate these books, and Audible didn't record these books.  All they did was sell it to you.  They should get paid for making it convenient to purchase and download, which they do.  But beyond that why can they take credit for the rest?

DRM should protect artists, not the RMA or the RIAA, not iTunes or Sony or Audible.  But those are the ones getting rich from it.

I'm keeping my Audible membership for now.  But it makes me feel like I want to load up on books so I can drop them.

There are a few more bad things other than DRM.

I did a test, and this is something I should mention.  I burned a book to CD - it took 7 CDs.  Then when I play them, it might be my imagination, but it didn't sound as good as the original Audible files.  It made me wonder if Audible did something to make them only sound their best in their original format.  Or maybe the problem is with my Mac.  But I've burned lots of mp3s before without any quality degradation.

The member prices, those oh-so-cheap prices for their audiobooks, really are just for members.  If I ever cancel my membership I won't be able to buy cheap books.  Ulysses will once again sell for over a hundred dollars, compounded with the dratted .aa file format.

The book chapters in the .aa files don't always match the actual book chapters.  A single .aa file does not equal a chapter, it's just a conglomerate of all the data that fits in a certain file size.  Then when you play the book, the Audible software will say "Chapter 3" or whatever, but that means nothing.  In some books the chapters line up, but in other books they do not.  The ideal solution would be a single mp3 file for each chapter, and that is something you can engineer yourself, but who wants to go to the trouble - especially if it's a book you only listen to once.

So there you have it.  Will you use Audible?  Is there something better out there?  Or is Audible the end-all, be-all in the audiobook world?

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