How to get cheap or free audiobooks without resorting to piracy

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All arguments about whether listening counts as reading per se aside, audiobooks are awesome, and I wish I could listen to more, but until recently I felt too stymied by unnecessary limitations, and terrible value propositions to give my business to the people who create audiobooks. After some sleuthing, however I discovered tons of great ways to save money on long-form audio entertainment. In fact, since many of these are free, and some are viable alternatives to paid services, I sense a renaissance coming.

I’ve saved the best for last. Let’s start by evaluating the cheapness of the status quo:

Audible.com

At the moment, Audible.com is inescapable for podcast listeners. This Amazon-owned service has relentlessly advertised to audio entertainment enthusiasts for years, and by now we know the pitch by heart: “Sign up today to get a free audiobook of your choice.” But we have questions about what we actually get for signing up, and the answers aren’t very convincing.

audible
At first it sounds like a Netflix-style service, in which you sign up to access unlimited audiobooks, but it’s not that at all. It’s something more akin to a Columbia House CD-of-the-month-club membership, but not scammy. You pay Audible either A) a price for 1-2 audiobooks per month, plus the privilege of paying lower prices on additional audiobooks, or B) vast numbers of audiobooks at once, at bulk discounts that bring the price of each audiobook down to about ten dollars or so.

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So essentially you’re paying the cost of a used book-on-CD, but it’s instant, and — bonus for smartphone listeners — you don’t have to futz with multiple discs.

Worth noting: Audible users were delighted last year when Audible refined its return policy, and started allowing users to return books easily for a credit good for any other book. Ostensibly this is so that you won’t feel ripped off if you wasted your month’s credit on a book you didn’t like. Some users say they use these returns for any complaint at all (“I didn’t like the voice actor!”), and this really stretches the value of their membership.

AUDIBLE.COM
RATINGS:
CONVENIENCE – 8/10
CHEAPNESS – 2/10
AUDIO QUALITY – 10/10
SELECTION – 9/10
OVERALL – 5/10

A quick word about piracy: Yes, stealing is always the cheapest way to get stuff, and hindrances like digital rights management, gouging, and slow adoption of new technologies tempt savvy users to stick it to the publishers by torrenting. Let’s table discussions about this illegal, but highly effective method for obtaining audiobooks because, if nothing else, using existing channels to find pirated audiobooks is an unpleasant process. And it’s a no-no.

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PIRACY RATINGS:
CONVENIENCE – 10/10
CHEAPNESS – 10/10
AUDIO QUALITY – 10/10
SELECTION – 8/10
OVERALL – 0/10 because it’s illegal. Don’t do it.

Audiobooks as Podcasts

podiobooks

In the contest for cheap audiobook supremacy, the Miss Congeniality prize absolutely goes to Podiobooks.com. If you just can’t get enough literature delivered to your ears, authors on Podiobooks are offering up free, serialized versions of their work in the form of podcasts, the pre-eminent method for conveniently syndicating audio of any kind.

The drawback, as you might expect, is that these authors are hungry, and they’re doing it for exposure, meaning you won’t have heard of any of these titles before. Still, you can listen to free tales of unicorn-riding cowboys, and London hackers on the run from the Russian mob to your heart’s content. Podiobooks updates very frequently.

Occasionally, there are other ways to get audiobooks serialized as podcasts, such as the fascinating Moby Dick Big Read a couple of years ago, which featured the voice talents of Sir David Attenborough, Tilda Swinton, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Stephen Fry. This is a great way to enjoy Moby Dick if you never found a way to get into it.

PODIOBOOKS RATINGS:
CONVENIENCE – 9/10
CHEAPNESS – 10/10
AUDIO QUALITY – 5/10
SELECTION – 1/10
OVERALL – 5/10

Librivox

Librivox

How cool is it that there’s a site trying to create and distribute audio versions of everything in the entire public domain? If you are a student in need of something to take the edge off of your Dostoyevsky assignment, or you want someone to read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to your kids while you have a martini, Librivox has you covered, for free. Plus, their well thought-out interface syncs easily with your smartphone.

Who would do all this for free? The kinds of geeks who love classic literature and want to share it with the world, that’s who! Unfortunately, that’s exactly what these voice actors sound like. They’re not compelling thespians, in fact they sometimes sound bored or spaced out. Also, these generous folks obviously couldn’t invest in top quality recording gear, and in some cases you can hear their neighbors vacuuming. You have to be okay with that.

LIBRIVOX RATINGS:

CONVENIENCE – 9/10
CHEAPNESS – 10/10
AUDIO QUALITY – 4/10
SELECTION – 6/10
OVERALL – 7/10

Hoopla

hoopla

Download Hoopla right now. If you have a library card (Don’t tell me you don’t have a library card), Hoopla allows you to check out and then stream audiobooks directly to your smartphone. The website interface is gorgeous, resembling streaming services like Rdio, and improving upon Hulu in its simplicity and intuitive design. These come to mind for a reason: in addition to books, it also lets you stream movies, music and TV.

But oh, the content you’ll get for free. Hoopla is allowed to send you a limited selection of titles that it, and your local library, are both legally entitled to let you check out, which for me includes the whole Divergent series, and other contemporary, in-demand titles, along with lots and lots of erotic fiction. Go figure.

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It’s far from everything your library has, and there are puzzling omissions. Why can I stream all 54 hours of Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, but not Gravity’s Rainbow? Why isn’t there any Toni Morrison at all?

But nevermind. These are amazing, high quality recordings featuring the best voice actors in the business, and they’re available instantly.

HOOPLA RATINGS:

CONVENIENCE – 9/10
CHEAPNESS – 10/10
AUDIO QUALITY – 10/10
SELECTION – 7/10
OVERALL – 8/10

Despite the relatively high cost of audiobooks over services like iTunes and Audible, the MSRP for audiobooks delivered in CD are stratospheric by comparison: around $30-45 for a typical bestseller, leaving me wondering who in their right mind would pay prices like these. With all the cloak and dagger stuff happening behind the scenes, and with publishers all in existential turmoil, it’s no wonder the prices and services are chaos.

Granted, studio-quality recordings cost money, but the production of an audiobook can be accomplished for only about $4,000. Given that, I plan to squeeze the publishers for every penny’s worth until they come up with a service whose value proposition makes sense. Alternatively, maybe after a their selection grows a little, my precious Hoopla will be all I need.

Mike Pearl is a news contributor for VICEGristDeathandtaxesmag and others. He takes public transportation and the vegetarian option when possible.

(Source: Savings.com)

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