Exploring Audible, a Different Audio Experience

You’d think that a company that started out in 1998, four years before the iPod, selling a dedicated audio player and a small library of spoken-word books would be out of business by now. Yet thanks to the rise of smartphones and a timely acquisition in 2008 by Amazon, Audible has become the leading provider of digital audio books.

Audible describes itself as a kind of Netflix for listening, offering more than 250,000 titles including original content. For those stuck in daily commutes or anyone craving the ability to “read” hands free, audio books are a godsend. But in 2016, what’s the fuss about having books read to you? Quite a lot, actually.

This year, Audible added a feature called Clips that lets you copy segments from audio books and share them on social media. Clips are limited to 45 seconds each and a total of 5 minutes per book, so it’s not like you can pirate a booty of bestsellers. Still, as you’re listening, all you have to do is touch the +Clip button, pair bookends, save the sound field, and e-mail or post it. Listeners become promoters.

New for Audible members is Channels, a cornucopia of free podcast-like programs. I customized my Channels screen by tiling together Onion Audio News, TED Talks, and Sci-Fi theater. The latter contained a modern radio dramatization of an old Twilight Zone episode.

If you’re new to audio books, as I was, you might discover that being fed words by ear takes away the heavy lifting from droopy eyes. Maybe it’s because we’ve become a nation of lazy readers—I know how easily I can be distracted from getting through a book—that harnessing a voice actor’s energy is an engine-assist for someone who might otherwise watch TV or nod off.

You can choose from seven play speeds (0.75x to 3x). I found 1.25x and 1.5x acceptable, especially when trying to complete a chapter before the subway reached my stop. Alas, full-throttle play was incomprehensible. (Perhaps Evelyn Wood could branch out to speed listening.)

The free Audible app for iOS, Android, Windows phones, and Kindle devices is easy to use. You can buy audio books à la carte or as an Audible member. For my first book, I chose Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble by Dan Lyons, an ex–tech reporter who at the age of 52 became the oldest employee at a Silicon Valley- like firm.

Though you can buy the physical book on Amazon for $13.50, the unabridged Audible book is $17.19. Alternatively, you can get it via an Audible membership ($14.95 a month, which includes one monthly credit and 30 percent off all audio books not purchased with audio credits). I bought Disrupted for one credit. The first month of membership is free, which meant that as long as I cancelled before 30 days were up, Disrupted was mine for nothing.

I asked Beth Anderson, executive vice president and publisher at Audible, why bits should cost more than books. She explained that the audio version incurred production costs.

But, I continued, since the author was reading his own words, he didn’t have to be paid like an actor.

On the contrary, she said, because Lyons wasn’t one, he’d need more direction and studio time.

In terms of clipping, I found myself saving the potty-mouth parts of Disrupted, though I held back sharing them since some of my Facebook friends are children.

Spoken-word entertainment first impressed audiences globally when radio was the internet of its time. Though the first Audible portable has been relegated to the Smithsonian, the ears’ greatest years lie ahead.