Audiobooks are not a new invention – their history can be traced as far back as 1933 when J. P. Harrington began recording oral histories of Native American tribes. In the late 1970s, audiobooks began to be distributed on cassette tapes (commonly known as ‘books on tape’). The invention of CDs increased the popularity of audiobooks by adding to their convenience and offering a cleaner and crisper audio sound.
In recent years audiobook technology has transitioned yet again with the advent of downloadable audiobooks.
Benefits of Downloadable Audiobooks
Audiobooks have a number of benefits, the primary one being the ability for a listener to multi-task. For example, audiobooks can be listened to while commuting to and from work, while doing household chores or working out at the gym. Some other benefits are:
- You can listen to an audiobook when it’s dark. This means you can listen to audiobooks when you are out camping, or simply when you are drifting off into sleep each night.
- Audiobooks are a great way to learn a foreign language. It is proven that learning a new language is easier if you hear it often.
- Kids can learn the pronunciation of words through listening to audiobooks.
Downloadable audiobooks have a number of additional benefits over other formats:
- Digital audiobooks don’t take up room in your house. You can store hundreds if not thousands of audiobooks on your listening device.
- You can download audiobooks and begin listening to them straight away. This means no waiting for them to arrive in the mail or paying for shipping.
Audiobooks sometimes feature the author’s own voice although many are given dramatic readings by one or more actors or at times embellished with sound effects. It’s always a good idea to pay attention to the narrator before downloading an audiobook as a good narrator will add to your experience of the audiobook (and a bad narrator can ruin it!). You can do this by listening to a sample of the audiobook before downloading it and/ or reading the reviews from other people.
Abridged vs. Unabridged Audiobooks
In an abridged title, the publisher may take away parts of the text, leaving the audiobook shorter. Unabridged titles offer the full unedited version of the text. Which is better? Ultimately it comes down to personal preference. If you want to read more audiobooks and save money on each one, buy the abridged audiobook version. Want to experience the full text of the book the way the author intended? Download the unabridged version.
The bit rate is the best pragmatic measure of quality because it basically describes the amount of bytes it takes to record a second of audio. The higher the bit rate, the higher the quality. Audiobooks encoded at 32 kbp are usually more than good enough. Audiobooks encoded at 64 kbps (e.g. Audible’s “Enhanced” format) are noticeably more crisp and clear, however, you also need to consider the hard drive space and capacity on your listening device.
Where to Download Free Audiobooks
You can find audiobooks for download at your library, direct from the publisher, an online multi-publisher service, and other online sources.
Your local public library is a great place to get audiobooks. Most will allow you to download using your card and one of the following apps:
- Overdrive (see if your library offers free downloads using the Overdrive Media Console App)
- Hoopla (if your library doesn’t use Overdrive, check to see if they use Hoopla instead)
- 3M Cloud
If your library doesn’t use any of the above, you can also try:
- Librivox (free public domain recordings of public domain works)
- Lit2Go (recordings of public domain works, available on iTunesU and as chapter-long mp3s)
For more information on free downloadable audiobooks, see The Complete Guide to Free Audiobooks Online.
Buying Audiobooks Online
Often, to get the exact audiobook you want when you want it, you’ll need to purchase it. The following are some reputable sources:
- Crossroads Press
- Graphic Audio
- In Ear Entertainment
- Big Finish
- scribl (Crowdpriced books, some free)
- Kobo Audiobooks
- Audible (DRM)
- Downpour (DRM-free)
- Scribd (Audiobook subscription service)
- Barnes and Noble
- Simply Audiobooks
- Estories (mostly DRM free)
- Audiobookstand (physical formats)
- Libro.fm (online independent store for audiobooks)
- TuneIn Premium (unlimited streaming of 40,000 titles – no offline use)
- Playster (unlimited streaming service)
- Google Play Audiobooks
Each of the above sites have their own particular strengths and weaknesses when it comes to selection, price, quality, format and digital rights management (DRM). For a full overview of these sites see The Best Places to Buy Audiobooks Online.
Digital Rights Management (DRM)
DRM, or Digital Rights Management, embeds usage limitations onto CDs and audiobook downloads. Audible and iTunes , the two biggest retailers of downloadable audiobooks, sell DRM-protected audiobooks. There is a growing trend toward DRM-free formatting with retailers such as eMusic and Simply Audiobooks selling audiobooks without digital restrictions.
With so many audiobooks available online, you may find it difficult to decide which audiobook to download. If this is you, I recommend you try the following (they’re some of my favorites):
- Angela’s Ashes – Frank McCourt
- Bossypants – Tina Fey
- Freakonomics – Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
- Life – Keith Richards
- Outliers – Malcolm Gladwell
- Switch – Chip & Dan Heath
- The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo – Stieg Larsson
- The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – M. A. Shaffer & A. Barrows
- The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot
- The Help – Kathryn Stockett
- Unbroken – Laura Hillenbrand
- Under the Dome – Stephen King
- Water For Elephants – Sara Gruen
For more suggestions see my recommended audiobooks page.