Oct 21 2008 4:24pm

Audiobooks: They Collaborate, You Listen

Last year around this time, YA author Tamora Pierce released her newest work, Melting Stones, straight to audio via Bruce Coville’s company Full Cast Audio. According to the Audio Publisher’s Association, this was the first time a manuscript had appeared in audio before print. Now it’s happening again. Local favorites John Scalzi, Elizabeth Bear, Jay Lake, Tobias Buckell and Karl Schroeder have teamed up on a future-cities anthology called Metatropolis, released as an audiobook today, October 21st. Even better, if you’re a Battlestar Galactica fan, three of the stories come to you in the familiar voices of Dee, Gaeta, and Colonel Tigh, and the sample up on Audible.com is from Michael Hogan (Tigh)’s section. In the words of John Scalzi, SQUEE.

But when Melting Stones came out, there was some fuss and furbelow over Tammy’s decision to release in audio first. People objected that audiobooks are more expensive, harder to get in other countries and discriminate against the hard-of-hearing/Deaf. Discussions on Metatropolis have added concerns about Audible’s DRM policy to the list. I’ll be interested to see what people have to say on those topics, but by far and away the most common reaction was that people just dislike audiobooks.

I didn’t get into audiobooks until I was having trouble sleeping and a friend gave me the U.K. versions of Harry Potter, read by Stephen Fry. I’ve been an absolute fiend for them ever since, going through a good deal of Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, and, yes, Tamora Pierce, while staring at the ceiling or riding the subway to work. What with mp3 players ’n’ the intertubes ’n’ all, audiobooks are everywhere—there’s even a family of audio zines—and interesting celebrities are getting into the game, along with the field’s experienced and brilliant readers.

Audiobooks just don’t intrude on my mental landscape the way movies do, and I tend to delight in the reader’s funny and often brilliant voices rather than quibble with character interpretations. One friend of mine doesn’t like audiobooks because she can’t keep track of a narrative when she hears it; I have the same difficulty processing the visuals in comics, so to each brain its own medium. I’m curious about my new-found obsession, though, and I wonder what special pleasures books written for audio might afford, even aside from full-cast readings like Bruce Coville’s company does. I had a playwriting teacher once who urged us to think about things you can do on a stage that just don’t work on camera—crazy, absurdist, metaphorical things! What experimentations with form will arise? What aural rather than visual enhancements? What will be the front-of-book map of the audio world?

Most importantly, how cool is it that Michael Hogan and Jay Lake can team up to make the soundtrack of my life?

Josh Kidd
1. joshkidd
I actually like audiobooks quite a bit. I can listen to them when biking to work or doing other things that don't require a lot of my brain.

That said, I will not be buying Metatropolis for the simple reason that I can't listen to it. This, of course, is the DRM issue. What can I say? Audible.com hates linux users.
Nina Lourie
2. supertailz
My problem is that I can't follow if I'm distractible, which is nearly all the time. I've thought about trying to do it while knitting or sewing again, but last time I'd get too caught up in counting stitches or bird flying by the window and miss an important bit. Or as you much more succinctly put it, I can't follow the narrative. :) Maybe an audiobook of something I already know and love? Perhaps I'll try again with one of yours. James Marstairs reading The Dresden Files intrigues me. Also, our good friend L has some of the Doctor Who ones read by David Tennant....whose voice is sufficient incentive to try again.

Here's my question; how do you people (who like audiobooks) deal when you get distracted and miss something? Do you rewind? Do you go on and catch up? How do you deal when you fall asleep and then want to continue the next day??
Tudza White
3. tudzax1
People objected that audiobooks are more expensive, harder to get in other countries and discriminate against the hard-of-hearing/Deaf.

What the hell? How much would a hard-cover copy cost? You download these, is your Internet blocked in these other countries you are concerned about? Print copies don't discriminate against the blind?

All non-arguments.


I've complained to Audible about no support for Linux, especially when I found they had a Java based player for cell phones. Why not a Java player for PCs that is cross-platform?

That said, I did work through running the Audible software on my Linux box as an exercise. A "free" copy of a commercial Windows emulator did the job, Wine which is truly free unfortunately did not work for me.


I listen to my audiobooks while driving. If I miss something, I do indeed backup a minute or two and listen again, but I don't have to do that very often. If things get busy, like driving downtown, I turn the thing off.

You can start and stop the book and the player remembers where you left off. I'm told that the iPod or some models of it forget this information when turned off for too long, but I never ran into that myself when I had an iPod. My Windows Mobile device never has this problem.

I don't listen to new books at home, I save them for the half hour commute everyday, so I don't have a falling asleep problem. I do listen chapters of The Fellowship of the Rings or Wizard of Earthsea read by Robert Inglis to fall asleep, but I've listened to those awake so often it doesn't matter.
Katherine Farmar
4. Katherine Farmar
@tudzax1: You download these, is your Internet blocked in these other countries you are concerned about?

You're US-based, aren't you? Being based in Europe, I can't watch TV shows on hulu.com or download certain files from emusic.com. I assume this is due to licensing/IP rights issues. I imagine similar issues apply to audible.com.

The internet is not actually exactly the same in every country, despite what you may have heard.
Pablo Defendini
5. pablodefendini
what Katherine Farmer says. Copyright law is still based largely on geography, while the internet in its unaltered state is not. So companies and governments do their best to compartmentalize it. Incompatible? Yes. Frustrating? Even more so. Americans do tend to forget that in other parts of the world, the internet is not created equal. It's an easy assumption to make, given the openness of the 'net in the states, but it's ultimately an erroneous one.

What really kills me about Audible is their draconian DRM scheme, as Megan mentions in her post. I loathe the fact that to enjoy this very promising anthology, I have to buy an Audible book, as I generally don't buy DRM-infested crap that I can't truly own, but I'm sorely tempted in this case. There is just too much goodness in Metatropolis: some of my favourite contemporary authors, read by some of my favourite voices on SF TV. Damn you, Metatropolis, why must you torture me so! I've been angsting about it all day (no joke). I may yet break, (un)fortunately. Then again, I may wait for the inevitable leak, and buy two copies of each author's next book to make up for it...

I enjoy audiobooks, particularly memoirs, especially if they're narrated by the author. For example, Wil Wheaton's excellent recording of Just a Geek is one of my favourites. Any geek will see him/herself reflected in Wheaton's heartfelt reminiscing of his early geek days (yes, including ST:TNG passages, but those really aren't as poignant as some of the other stuff in there). Also, Barack Obama's books, when narrated by him, are quite fulfilling listens. The sharp cadences evident in his speechmaking get quite the stretch in these longer-form and—at least in the case of his first book—more informal venues.

Oh, and, err... ice ice baby?
Arachne Jericho
6. arachnejericho
I needed a Windows machine to get the horrible Audible software to work that would allow me to register my Kindle. My mechanism for this was: borrow a friend's.

Only had to happen once, after all, and never again.

Now I download the Audible audiobook, upload it to my Kindle over USB, and it's actually listed in the table of contents as a book. You can play individual chapters and it remembers where you stopped and everything. The speakers are okay, there's a headphone jack.

So: I'm set. Neil Gaiman from the Kindle reading you The Graveyard Book as you drift to sleep is one of those gifts of the 21st century I cherish. Tolkien was truly writing to the listened word, although I bought my CDs before Audible was part of Amazon. And spent some dedicated hours (and hours, and hours) ripping them.

I like audiobooks. If they're on your iPod, you can contentedly listen to something as you're doing laundry or dishes. Now, if only there were a better way of listening in the shower, I would be all set. I can track them decently, and they do make me spend more time in the passages I would usually skip through.

Now that I'm on Audible, I might as well start downloading some Terry Pratchett.

Also: discriminating against the deaf? I suppose so, but by that logic all other formats discriminate against the blind. And are we really going to argue whether deafness or blindness is the worthier disability in the debate?
Blue Tyson
7. BlueTyson
I had a look at the audible thing, because of them offering a sample of course - but it seems to even stream it you need to install software? That seems strange.

While audio stories will take me many times longer to get through than the print variety, still useful for the times when you are working on something else, and can still listen.

Level of trust of installing obscure American media proprietary software that no-one knows much about is pretty close to zero, though.

Audiobooks in the shower? There's an interesting one. I guess you could have a waterproof watch with a card in it - might eat the watch battery really fast though - so does a rechargable mp3 player watch exist?
Randall Ashley
8. Rand1956
"Melting Stones" on eight CDs is $22.97 at Amazon, $39.95 retail. Audible has it for a promotional price of $20.98 (usually $27.97). The hardcover is $12.23 at Amazon, $17.99 retail. Pretty substantial difference. That's not entirely a fair assessment, though, because the CDs were performed by an entire cast, not read by one person (I assume this costs more). My daughter says it was worth the higher price. :)
Arachne Jericho
9. arachnejericho
@ BlueTyson #7 -

If you have iTunes, you're peachy keen with Audible, because the registration is automatic and pretty clean. I didn't need a Windows box for that. *pets Mac*

I only have to fuss with my Kindle because the registration of actual devices is not yet automated.

As for Audible DRM'd things:

I figure if it's available nowhere else, and the writers are people I like, I might as well give them my money. Yes, yes, Make a Statement and all that, but I like these folks and want to give them money and sales and crazy things like that, and it's already hard enough to be a writer and get paying gigs when you aren't Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, etc.
Pablo Defendini
10. pablodefendini
For the record, if anyone is taking notes, I ended up caving. Metatropolis is selling for 4.95 on iTunes, and since I have no plans to use the file anywhere other than on my iPhone, I *suppose* I can live with the DRM. Like Arachne Jericho says above, these are people I like, and I've really been looking forward to this anthology, so I might as well give them my money.

What finally pushed me over the edge was the preview on iTunes: Michael Hogan reading Jay Lake. Now I can have Col. Tigh tell me a story, and I can pretend to be part of the resistance, hiding out under New Caprica! w00t!
Blue Tyson
11. BlueTyson

Have no Mac or iPod, so no reason at all to use iTunes - probably also comes under the 'American proprietary software with dubious bits' heading, too, for that matter. :)

Other than as PD suggests above, buying the book. That would be assuming it is even available on our has less stuff version, of course. Likely be more expensive, too. My sibling does, so guess it could check for me.

Granted that it would be more useful than the one trick Audible thing.

Can you do the same things with iTunes audiobooks you can with songs?
Katherine Farmar
12. Jesse Willis
Megan, the Audio Publisher’s Association is wrong. The first book to be audiobooked before seeing print was a terrific book by Edward Wellen called Mind Slash Matter. That was way back in 1995.

Blue Tyson
13. BlueTyson
Sibling says it is available on Australian iTunes, but is $7.99.
Dave Bell
14. DaveBell
If I can't play it on my cheap portable audio player (which means MP3), I doubt I'll bother. Sitting at my computer, or relying on some expensive portable device which I shall have to buy, just isn't an attractive option.

I'm not against the idea of DRM, but in practice it seems a sorry mess of conflicting standards, which appear more suited to increasing the profits of rival hardware maunfacturers, rather than a mechanism for ensuring content creators can be paid.
Sandi Kallas
15. Sandikal
Wasn't the discrimination against the deaf comment because it was release in audio before it was available in print?

I have the same problem as #2. I can't even follow a 1/2 hour podcast short story without losing my attention.
Michael Cassidy
16. barnowl66
The thought of a book being read to me on audio seems to take away from the reason the book was written for in the first place.

Perhaps I am just old fashion, but if I want to read a book, I like to sit back in a quiet spot or place and actually read the book.

I don't want to hear someone elses voice telling me the story, I would rather allow my own mind to create the voices, the setting, and the way the words are spoken to me.

Might be silly of me, but if I am going to read a book, I want to be physically holding the book in hand and my eyes reading the words on the pages as I move through the story being told.

In a world it seems where no one has enough time for everything they want to do, making time to open a book and read is still a very simple pleasure I am not ready to give up to another form of media.
Arachne Jericho
17. arachnejericho
@DaveBell #14 -

DRM is often the first step that the companies en masse in a particular media take when first putting out stuff to digital. For music, the smaller labels and some individuals were willing to go DRM-free before Amazon MP3 Downloads made it fashionable.

And even after the success of DRM-free, the big labels were still mostly unmoved. Amazon's deal with the big labels was likely full of concessions on Amazon's side. I would not be surprised if Amazon's cut is not just less than Apple's, but *much* less.

(And then Amazon goes and slashes its prices by 10 cents per song, more per album, to undercut Apple. This is the same company that infected the net with the idea of free shipping, remember.)

While Tor and Baen are very progressive with respects to DRM-free, most publishers and imprints are not. Some of them don't even think digital is worth it---even if it's Audible, because Audible is mp3s, not CDs.

Basically, first digital media needs to be successful. That means DRM for now until things reach a certain point (these days, almost everyone has an mp3 player in the US, for instance). This also means that the amount of piracy has reached a certain point, too.

Then DRM-free starts to be attractive to many companies. It's not a decision that can be forced upon them---they must choose it. And the first digital book store that convinces them to choose it must be willing to both make enormous concessions and also undercut the prices of every other store out there.

This is something that most retailers are not prepared to do---until the tipping point is reached, because then the gamble isn't certain death. And even then, it's still a gamble.

I know someone who worked for a digital books company. They tried to reach the tipping point early. They never even made it near the black before declaring bankruptcy.

We who live in digital land forget that the bridge still needs to be built. Yes, it's not fair. But I've seen too many examples that tell me that the bridge is made of blood.

miriam libicki
18. miriambeetle

i highly recommend the pratchett audiobooks. the narrator is very lively & does very good voices, & sometimes there is nice interstitial music as well (i am pro interstitial music, as long as we're having audiobooks).

as far as authors reading their own books, i liked neil gaiman's "neverwhere" & frank mccourt's "teacher man," & gene wilder's lovely voice was the only thing that made his autobiography bearable (sorry, man).

but you haven't heard an audiobook until you've heard one of sarah vowell's productions. between her sarcastic & surprising delivery, guest voices from daniel handler to conan o'brien to jon stewart & more, & original music by they might be giants, they're really the full package of aural delight. i listen to the two i have (two more weeks til i get to download the new one!) over & over, like rock albums.

unless you're one of those people who can't stand sarah vowell's voice. in which case, i sorrow for you.

*cough* yeah, this is my first post. i've been browsing tor for a few months, but this thread made me make an account. & no, i'm not a shill for audiobooks or anything, just that they are indispensable now to my drawing process.
Blue Tyson
19. BlueTyson

It is likely Australians wouldn't mind seeing some publisher oligopolistic blood, though. :)
Tex Anne
20. TexAnne
Whoa, nobody mentioned that this thing is *nine* hours long! I'll plunk down my $4.95 now, kthx. I don't like audiobooks because I get distracted, but nine hours of entertainment for half the price of a movie? I'll figure out a way to deal.
Arachne Jericho
21. arachnejericho
@ miriambeetle #18

Woah, Jon Stewart guest voicing? I'll defnitely have to check out Sarah Vowell's stuff---thanks for the recommendation!

And welcome to mingling at Tor.com!

@ BlueTyson #19

Heh. Yes, the Gods of Capitalism demand much sacrifice. I prefer not too much blood to be spilt though, because it's a delicate balance. The bigger the first massive DRM-free deal is screwed up, the less chance there will ever be a second one.
Blue Tyson
22. BlueTyson
Oh, we certainly hope it is the DRM-infested Region-coding Geolocking Monopolistic creatures at the head of the line for us to see screaming as their bodily fluids drain in rivulets upon altars, definitely.

Invitation to drink free booze and watch for those in the other camp.
Liza .
23. aedifica
I like audiobooks for certain things--for example, to have story coming in when I'm knitting and can't read--but for general use, they're (usually) far too expensive and too slow!
Katherine Farmar
24. Vickyk
I like audiobooks and found a great website at www.v-burny.com where you can buy, sell , lend and rent audiobooks
Cathy Mullican
25. nolly
I've been an Audible subscriber for years, and I've been generally happy with it. I've already gotten Metatropolis, but haven't started listening yet.

Even if Audible dropped all the DRM, they would likely still use their custom format. I'm not familiar with the specific technical details, but what it boils down to is: speech is more compressible than music, so .aa (Audible) files are quite a lot smaller than equivalent .mp3 files.

IIRC, in a previous discussion on this, I tested, and iTunes happily converted a .aa to a .mp3 for me; and, at least at one point, some portion of Audible content was available in MP3 anyway. I'm a Mac fan these days, so I really haven't tried getting any of it running on Linux -- actually, at the moment, I can't get any mp3's to play properly on my Linux box at work, which is quite annoying.

Like others, I listen to audiobooks and podcasts on my commute.
Katherine Farmar
26. ativio
Government documents now available on AudioBooks. Keep up with Obama's fast moving government! To download the latest government documents on audio, visit www.ativioaudio.com.
Katherine Farmar
27. audiobook
Very good article

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