Where to Get Audiobooks

The best source or sources for audiobooks depends mostly on your budget. If you are a “money is no object” person, then I recommend sticking with the audiobooks section of the iTunes Store. The selection is very good, and because the experience is completely contained within iTunes, it’s by far the easiest way to shop for, buy, and listen to audiobooks. The downside is that you’ll pay full retail, instead of being able to take advantage of subscriptions and sales common on Audible.com.

The option I believe best balances convenience and cost is Audible.com. Signing up for an “AudibleListener Platinum” subscription costs $23/month, and entitles you to two book “credits” per month. Each book is a credit, which means the audiobooks cost $11.50 each—even though most books are $30-$40 at Audible.com’s list prices. An “AudibleListener Gold” subscription is $15/month for one credit, still cheaper than list, and signing up through that link gets you the first three months for only $7.49/month.

Even better, Audible.com has regular “red tag” and other sales for subscribers, where you can acquire most books for roughly the same price as the subscription rate, or even as low as $5/book, if you want to stock up with a few more books, e.g., for a long vacation or business trip. The download and copy into iTunes process is only slightly more complicated than purchasing in the iTunes Store, and like iTunes Store audiobooks, the selections from Audible.com come in convenient 6-8 hour chunks, bookmarkable and with all appropriate metadata, and fully supported on your iPhone or iPod.

Audible.com has a huge selection of audiobooks, more than 100,000 currently. While there are thousands of books from which to choose, if you get interested in an author who has been writing for a long while, sometimes Audible.com won’t have the older books (at least not yet). Foreign authors (i.e., British) can also be hard to find.

Which brings me to the more labor-intensive options.

First and foremost, especially if you are listening to more audiobooks than your budget can handle, is the public library. For example, the San Francisco Public Library has quite a lot of audiobooks, and you can even reserve them online. The downside of the library is that your selection may be limited, especially as the audiobook CDs required for importing into iTunes may be the least available format. That is, many libraries have a larger collection of audiobooks in cassette format than in CD format, while other libraries are now experimenting with acquiring audiobooks in digital formats which are not (easily) compatible with iTunes. So the CD format is getting squeezed from both ends.

The other downside of the library is the labor involved. It is a classic exercise of trading time for money: checking out and copying books to your iPod is free, but the process requires time and effort at the computer.

Another option I’ve used comes into play when none of the “cost effective” approaches have access to an audiobook in which I’m interested. Audible.com mostly has newer books, and the public library is obviously constrained by the funding it receives. Sometimes they just don’t have a book, or series of books, to which you feel compelled to listen. This happened to us with the Harry Bosch series; the first six books were simply not available, unless we purchased them individually.

The obvious way to go is to buy Audio CDs, the same thing you can get at the library. But those average $30, more than twice as expensive as the subscription price from Audible.com, and you have to import them into iTunes the long way. There is a better way, a different CD format called MP3 CD.

An “MP3 data CD” is a data (computer format) CD, but formatted in a particular way, with MP3 audio data stored on the tracks. These tracks are in the MP3 format, which is already compressed and digitized. This format can contain more than 13 hours of audio data on a single disc, far more than the 75 minutes of a standard Audio CD. Most audiobooks fit on one disk. And because there are fewer CDs, the cost is lower, sometimes a lot lower. I bought most of the missing Harry Bosch novels for $16 each, only $5 more than the Audible.com format, but I get a physical CD as a backup of the book.

The trick to know about audibooks on MP3 CD is that they are a lot harder to find than standard Audio CD audiobooks. When browsing libraries and real-world bookstores, I’ve never seen an MP3 audiobook. Even on Amazon.com, finding them is not obvious. The trick is to find the book in hardcover or standard Audio CD format, and then click the See All Editions link in the Other Editions box of the item’s detail screen:

Click the See All Editions link to find the MP3 CD edition of your audiobook

This will take you to a new screen with a list of all of the available editions of this particular work. That includes the different book printings, audio recordings, and even electronic editions:

The all editions list for this work shows the MP3 CD edition of the audiobook

You are looking for the “MP3 CD” edition; in the example above it’s the last item in the list. And notice, the MP3 audiobook is $15 less than the standard Audio CD version, even though the recording is the same, it’s just a different format. (Also note the weird inconsistencies that Amazon.com occasionally has, the Audio CD version is noted as “MP3 Audio” in parentheses when it should be “Unabridged.”)

The MP3 CD format is a standard, supported by a lot of CD and DVD players. The discs contain a series of data files (those ending in “.mp3”), as well as a series of files used to index and order the data files, when played on a compatible audio player (the files ending in “.smil”, for Synchronized Multimedia Integration Language). And, while iTunes will mostly ignore MP3 discs, you can get the MP3 data off the CD and into iTunes easily enough, if you follow the right steps.

A final option, which I have also used and recommend, is one of the “Netflix-style” audiobook subscription services, such as Booksfree.com, or (now, sadly defunct) Kitabe.com. What I especially liked about Kitabe is they only offer the MP3 CD format. Because the MP3 CD format uses fewer CDs, the shipping costs are lower, and the membership fee is correspondingly lower. And the MP3 importing process, while manual, is much easier than with standard Audio CDs (fewer CDs to swap).

OK, one last option. The LibriVox project is a collection of audiobooks which are free because they are books which have an expired copyright or are otherwise in the public domain, and have been read by volunteers. The selection of audiobooks is limited for that reason, but free is a great price, so it’s worth checking out. The site itself is really nicely designed, visually and organization-wise. Be sure to download the MP3 format version of any audiobooks, as the iPod cannot play back the Ogg Vobis format which is also offered.

But, here’s the caveat. The recordings are produced by volunteers, and not in professional recording studios. There is definitely a difference in the quality of the performance. I tried LibriVox’s recording of The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie, and while it’s listenable and enjoyable, it doesn’t have the production value of the for-pay versions of the same book, which I’ve also listened to. For my money (literally), and for the time I’ll spend with the book (hours), I would rather pay for a high quality performance and recording. You might have different priorities, and that’s just fine.