The Problems with DRM Free Audio Books

[Update 12/26/9:  Newer MP3 players have come a long way since I wrote this post below.  Many now support resume and/or bookmarks on plain MP3 files, making them excellent choices for playing audiobooks.]

DRM (digital rights management also called copy protection) has been a big topic among music fans for years.  It’s the software that tries to keep users from illegally copying songs from iTunes, Rhapsody, Napster and other download services.  The same technology is used  for audio books that come from download sites like Audible.com, iTunes and AudioBookStandDL.com and library services like Overdrive and NetLibrary.  Audio books that come on regular CDs can be ripped just like music CDs to make MP3 files.  MP3 files are the lowest common denominator of sound files and do not have DRM attached to them.  In some cases like library checkout software OverDrive and NetLibrary, DRM can not be removed for obvious reasons. 

In the past year the big music publishers have moved away from using copy protection, allowing music buyers to have their music unencumbered by DRM.  Now audio book publishers are starting to free downloadable audio books from the same chains.  This gives users easy-to-manage MP3 files to own – but at a cost.  MP3 files are not the best format to listen to digital audio books – unless the player is programmed with features for the audio book listener.

All things being equal people will want DRM free files but until all the producers of MP3 players get onboard with making their players audio book friendly you might find such files an aggravation to use.  The key is to find the right player.  Most iPods work well as audio books, but there is a vast array of other players competing with Apple that are cheaper and potentially better products.  If you buy a Creative Labs, Sandisk, iRiver, Samsung, Cowon, etc., player you need to make sure it will work with MP3 audio books.

Right now audio books purchased from Audible.com, iTunes, and sites using the OverDrive technology come with DRM encased files, but they are also customized to handle certain features you need to enjoy playing audio books.

Resume and Bookmarks

MP3 audio books are different from music even though they are stored in the same file format.  Audio books can run many hours in length and users want to remember their place whenever they stop listening.  The MP3 file format has no built-in feature to do that.  Files from Audible.com are stored in a format that works with specific digital players that automatically remember the user’s stopping place, plus they are designed to also remember bookmarks with some players.  Those features need to be required of all MP3 audio book players.

Many MP3 players have been designed with a resume feature – that is, the player will start up on the file you left off playing last.  But if you are listening to a book, switch to listening to music, and return to the book you will have lost your place.  Some MP3 players have a bookmarking feature.  This is usually a menu choice that sets a return-to-point in the file to help you find your way back.  It’s not the same as resume.  Audible.com files have multiple-resumes and with some players bookmarks. 

Users of iPods can set their MP3 files up in iTunes so they will have multiple-resumes which makes that player among the best for audio book listening.  However, iPods are expensive and it would be easier on the user if multiple-resume was built into the player itself.

Multiple-resume feature means if you have five audio books and you switch between them the player remembers wherever you left off in each book.  This is the gold standard for audio book listeners.  Single resume is the feature that allows you to pick up where you left off on the last file played.  This is the minimum feature needed to play audio books without a great deal of aggravation.  Imagine trying to find your place every time you return to your book when it’s twenty hours long and has no pages numbers.

A bookmarking feature is a system that allows users to manually tag one or more places in a single audio book, and its a big plus, especially if you want to study or review a book and want return to specific passages.  It also allows the user to remember her place if the player does not have resume.

Plain MP3 files have no notion of resume or bookmarks – they are an add-on features to the player you buy, so it’s important to buy the right player.  If audio book publishers standardize on the MP3 file format without DRM, then digital audio player manufacturers need to catch up.  Apple does the job in software, and users must make the settings in iTunes before they copy their files to their iPods.  Other players handles things differently.

There are car CD players that will remember the user’s place when they turn off their car.  Such hardware resume control should be added to all portable MP3 players.  In fact, the hardware should support resume on every file and not the last played.  And if the manufacturer really wants to endear themselves with audio bookworms they should build in bookmarking.  Some players do this but it’s hard to find out if a particular model has these features because new models don’t always follow the standards of previous models.  Below is a couple recent links that can help.

File Size and Number

I’ve seen audio books as long as 80 hours.  A typical 15 hour book can be one 300 megabyte MP3 file or ten 30 megabyte files or even 200 small files, depending on how the seller breaks them up.  Audible.com tends to break books up in 7-8 hour chunks.  eMusic.com sells their MP3 audio books in a collection of many small files.  They do that because they know people do not always have resume or bookmarks and expect people to remember what track they left off on.  That also encourages people to finish a track before stopping.  This is a very poor way to listen to audio books.

If you rip a CD audio book or buy an audio book from eMusic the best thing to do is merge the tracks into fewer larger files.  This makes managing your book much easier.  If all players had multiple-resume I doubt booksellers would market audio books with 200 tracks.  When I rip a CD book of 15 CDs I make it into 15 tracks, rather than 150-200.  But I’d rather have the book in 2 parts like Audible.com and iTunes sell.

I use CDex to rip CDs with multiple tracks into a single file, but iTunes can do it too.  MP3Merge is the utility I use to merge MP3 files into bigger files when I buy a book that comes with lots of parts.  This is also useful to merge podcasts – because many sites like to make their longer downloads as a series of files.  With MP3Merge you can put them back together into one file, which is easier to manage in your library.

One reason why publishers want to give up DRM on audio books is the hassle they face with supporting players.  If they make their audio book plain MP3 files then the hassle of support is up to you, the user.  Selling the books as MP3 files with multiple tracks is marketing the book to work on the widest possible range of players.  Anything that can play a MP3 file can play the book.  That doesn’t mean the book will be easy to use.

It does mean people can go buy cheap $25 MP3 players and start listening to audio books on the go.  The cheapest current players tend to offer 1 gigabyte of space with no display.  The best way to listen to an audio book on such a device is to load it with one large file and expect it to have resume.  Thus it becomes a single-function device – an audio book – you turn it on, listen for awhile, shut it off, turn it back on and start where you left off.  When you’re finished you delete the book and load another.

If you get an audio book from eMusic.com and it comes as 200 files and you’re trying to manage them on a player with no display and you lose your place, you’re going to get very pissed off.  Another reason why publishers are now wanting to abandon DRM is because they want to sell audio books outside of iTunes/Audible because they know that most people have iPods and this would allow more audio book merchants to compete with Apple.

PC versus Mac

The PC-Mac dichotomy spreads over the digital audio player world.  Microsoft promoted its DRM and non-iPod MP3 manufacturers followed behind their lead.  If a publisher supported Microsoft’s DRM then that book wouldn’t play on an iPod because Apple uses a different DRM.  Many people can check out digital audio books from their libraries through the Overdrive or NetLibrary systems.  These systems use the PlayForSure DRM designed by Microsoft.  People with iPods go to their library and are told they can’t participate.  Conversely, people with Creative, Sandisk, iRiver and other players go to iTunes to buy songs and books, and they are told, sorry, but you don’t count.

This is why publishers want to abandon DRM.  They may have to deal with pirates, but they don’t offend their users or handhold them while supporting numerous devices.  This is a good things, except like I’ve been talking about above, plain MP3 files aren’t ready for prime time audio book listening.

Right now I’m sticking with Audible.com and its DRM system.  Audible.com has made deals with many hardware companies, including Apple.  Some players will even work with Audible and OverDrive/NetLibrary.  Because they also play plain MP3 files too, they will work with DRM free files.  Audible.com is also the cheapest way to buy audio books, but Audible.com sells DRM files.

Amazon, now that it has bought Audible.com, may change things because they are in the DRM-free music business.  They may make buying digital audio books a breeze, but without Audible.com’s extra effort to make digital audio books practical, I’m not sure if Amazon will improve things.  If they do end up selling DRM-free audio book downloads, lets hope they promote the best players to use for listening to these books and use their clout to get all DAP (digital audio player) makers to support audio books.

Digital Media Libraries

Ultimately we do not want to mess with ripping CDs or merging files.  We want to just buy a digital audio book and download it.  From there we will have two options.  Some people like having a media library program like iTunes or Windows Media Player to manage all their files and other users like to store their files in folders they control.  MP3 works with either option so that should make most people happy.  Some DAP players only work with a media library to transfer files to the player’s drive, other DAP players work like flash drives and you can just drag and drop books onto them.

I tend to think the majority of people will want a media librarian.  Such library software can track songs, audio books, podcasts, videos, photos, etc.  However, libraries break down when the user gets too many files, but I expect that will be fixed by Apple and Microsoft in the future.  I would like to advocate that a file structure be designed to work across platforms and design them so any media librarian can use that structure without altering it.  That way you can switch librarians as the years progress without screwing up your file folder of songs, books, photos, podcasts and videos.  But this might be too much pie in the sky idealism.  Imagine:

\Library

      \AudioBooks

           \Author1

                 \BookTitle1

                 \BookTitle2

      \eBooks

      \Music

            \Artist1

                 \AlbumTitle1

                 \AlbumTitle2

      \Photos

      \Podcasts

      \Videos

Another reason to desire standard folder structures for media is the emerging wireless media servers.  These devices allow you to play songs, books, videos and photos on your big screen TV in another room, or channel sound to a bedroom stereo system.  Companies like Sonos even make remotes that allow users to select what they want to hear and play it in any part of the house without being at a computer.  Wouldn’t it be great to have a system near the bed and tell your computer to play a book and set it with a sleep timer?  Standardizing on DRM free files and standard folder structures for storing those files help these media servers. 

Right now you buy a media server to match a particular system and DRM, like iTunes or Windows Media, but they try to be as compatible as possible.  My RoKu SoundBridge can get DRM songs from Rhapsody and its folders, and DRM-free iTune songs from the iTunes folder, and songs from my Windows Media folder.  It’s a pain in the ass to try to remember where I put a song though.  Did I get it from iTunes or Rhapsody?  See why I want a standard folder structure?

For now we must campaign and even protest to get DAP makers to delivery on multiple-resume and bookmarking features for us bookworms.  We can work on media servers later.

Jim

Update #1: I’ve heard back from several online friends and there is no consensus as to which player to recommend. The Cowon and Creative Zen Plus were both mentioned. All I can recommend is the iPod with a screen. I don’t recommend the Shuffle for audio books.

Update #2: OverDrive announces it will sell DRM free audio books to consumers. This is huge. Digital audio players (DAPs) and audio books are changing the way people read books. OverDrive’s is advertising their MP3 files will play on virtually any DAP, including the iPod, Zune, Creative Labs and smart phone devices.

Going Paperless 2 – Magazine Reading

I’m starting to learn just what I’ve got myself into since I had the bright idea of Going Paperless.  After I wrote that post I decided I’d focus on giving up newspapers and magazines and justified that the paper in books is different because books are meant to last and not be disposable.  Going cold turkey on buying magazines has turned out to be very hard.

I originally planned to go paperless to save on trees and the natural resources and energy that go into making paper.  I assumed digital is more environmental.  Since that time I’ve discovered other benefits to going paperless.

I buy a lot of magazines and subscribe to maybe twenty of them.  I love magazines.  I spent several years working in a Periodicals department at a university library.  To me each magazine represents a subculture.  After writing my original post I’ve been to my favorite bookstores a number of times.  I linger in the magazine section looking at the issues I’d love to buy and walk away feeling disappointed, empty, even sad.  Well, I am saving some bucks too!

So far I’ve only read Time, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s, Reader’s Digest and Analog on my Kindle.  I’ve only subscribed to Time and just bought single issues of the others.  Amazon.com doesn’t offer that many magazines yet.  I could get The Atlantic which I currently subscribe to, and over at Fictionwise.com I could get Interzone, a SF magazine I’ve always wanted to try.

Luckily, I have about 12 feet of back issues to tide me over before going through total withdrawal.  You see, I’ve always bought far more magazines than I can read.  To be honest, I do way more flipping than actual reading – looking at photographs, cartoons, ads, reading tidbits and columns, and only sometimes getting down to reading the core articles.

Reading on the Kindle is teaching me to read differently.  The Kindle does not have photos.  Nor is it practical to just flip through the pages.  When I get out my Kindle to read a magazine it means reading – and reading only.  And that’s very different.  For casual scanning I’m going to have to use the web.

Nor do I have colorful covers, art and photography to seduce me into a particular article.  Geez, I might need to hang around the bookstore to get aroused and then run home and hope I can find that story my eyes are bulging to read.  The net has art and graphics but I can’t remember seeing a magazine site that entice me into reading a story like a magazine layout.

The latest issue of Astronomy Magazine has a stunning cover showing a bizarre image with the headline, “Is this the shape of the Universe?”  And sad to say Astronomy Magazine does not offer any freebies at their web site.  Going paperless will mean giving up this periodical.

Discover also has an eye catching cover with a lead story “Before the Big Bang: 3 Theories Explore the Backstory of Creation.”  Jumping over to the site gives no indication if I could read that article but there’s lot to read, with many entries on the same subject.  The DiscoverMagazine.com site is geared to provide reading material but it appears to have a web based structure.  It’s a busy site with lots of tiny print.  I’ll still offers lots to read after going paperless, it just won’t be easy to read.

Scientific American has a beautiful cover too that beckons me to read, “The End of Cosmology,” an article I can read online.  The SciAm.com home page is colorful, but still not as inviting as an actual issue.  SciAm also provides many full articles online, but reserves content on others.  After dumping paper I will have reading material here but not always the essay I want.

It would be great if these magazines offered a Kindle edition.  And it would be even greater if Kindle 2.0 had a nice hi-rez color screen.

There is another way to go paperless without considering the Kindle and the web, and that’s audio.  I already read 40-50 books a year via my iPod.  I can get Scientific American and The New Yorker in an abridged audio format.

Learning to read magazines with the Kindle means I need to change my buying habits.  It’s one thing to buy magazines and let them sit around on the shelf mostly unread, but it seems down right silly to buy magazines that go unread and unseen as bits and bytes on my Kindle.  To be practical I need to only buy what I can read.

Going paperless means learning to buy just the amount of words I can read on a regular basis.  Learning to do that will be difficult.  I’ve subscribed to the audio edition of The New Yorker before and like my paper copies many issues went unopened. 

Thus going paperless means changing a lot more than I previously thought.  I opened my Kindle last night and discovered I had four issues of Time queue up already.  I spent little over an hour and read many stories.  Without the photos Time really is a much different magazine.  The Kindle formatting tries to describe charts and graphs with words and that takes some imagination to see.

On the other hand I got a much better feel for the content of the magazine.  I flipped through an entire issue one screen at a time.  The Kindle tends to encourage speed reading.  There’s a delay in “flipping” pages, just enough that I still grasp some content I’m skipping past.  This causes two things to happen.  One I pick up tidbits just by flipping, and second I end up jumping back and reading stories I had planned to skip.

If I really have the guts to go paperless I’m going to have to change myself significantly.  Strangely enough going paperless might force me to focus on content and learning to read more efficiently.  I’ll end up reading more if I stick with the Kindle.  It will also force me to learn my limitations on how much I can read.

Moving away from magazines might mean spending more time reading whole non-fiction books, or watching more documentaries.  Nova (PBS) and The Universe (History Channel) have gorgeous visuals in high definition, far more stunning than magazine covers.  Magazine reading has always been the shallowest form of reading.  Ditto for newspapers.  Going paperless may also mean focusing on more substantial reading sources.

Finally, there are the Best American series of annual books that collect the best of the best periodical writing from the previous year.  These include The Best American Science and Nature Writing and The Best American Science Writing.  And I just got The Best of Technology Writing 2007.  I could easily give up magazine reading and just buy these volumes.  I might discover that the amount of time I spend reading non-fiction essays and articles each year might be equal to the time it takes to read a handful of annual best of anthologies.

By the way, I have thrown away a number of magazine subscription offers – some that made me want to cry because they were so cheap.  I love cheap magazine subscriptions.  That’s why I have so many magazines on my selves going unread.  Another reason going paperless is good for me.  It breaks a bad consumer habit.

Going Paperless 3

Jim   

Heinlein on Audio

I love audio books.  One of the first things I wanted to hear when I discovered audio books was stories by Robert A. Heinlein.  And the first books I wanted to hear the most were all the Heinlein juveniles.  I joined Audible.com at the beginning of 2002 and my first two monthly selections were The Menace from Earth by Heinlein and Snow Crash by Neil Stephenson.

At the time they didn’t have any of the juveniles, unless you count Starship Troopers, the intended thirteenth book in the Charles Scribner’s Sons series that was turn down causing Heinlein to leave the publisher, and I assume give up on writing juveniles.  Podkayne of Mars was probably the 14th and last one written.  Variable Star written by Spider Robinson and recently published was inspired by an outline of Heinlein’s.  Finally, I consider Rite of Passage by Alexei Panshin the closest thing you’ll ever get to another Heinlein juvenile, so I’d like to hear an audio edition of it.

Right now, [updated October 4, 2012], if you join Audible.com you can get the following books by Heinlein, including all four of his books to win the Hugo Award, and all twelve of the Heinlein juveniles.  The list below are those audio books available through Audible.com in the USA.  Other editions might exist.

  1. Assignment in Eternity
  2. Between Planets
  3. Beyond This Horizon
  4. Citizen of the Galaxy
  5. The Door into Summer
  6. Double Star
  7. Farmer in the Sky
  8. Farnham’s Freehold
  9. For Us, the Living
  10. Friday
  11. Glory Road
  12. Have Space Suit-Will Travel
  13. I Will Fear No Evil
  14. Job: A Comedy of Justice
  15. Methuselah’s Children
  16. Orphans of the Sky
  17. Podkayne of Mars
  18. Red Planet
  19. Revolt in 2100
  20. Rocket Ship Galileo
  21. Six Column
  22. Space Cadet
  23. Starman Jones
  24. Starship Troopers
  25. Stranger in a Strange Land
  26. The Cat Who Walks through Walls
  27. The Menace from Earth
  28. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
  29. The Number of the Beast
  30. The Puppet Masters
  31. The Rolling Stones
  32. The Star Beast
  33. Time Enough for Love
  34. The Green Hills of Earth
  35. Time for the Stars
  36. To Sail Beyond Sunset
  37. Tunnel in the Sky

In the future I still hope to hear:

  • The Man Who Sold the Moon
  • Waldo & Magic Inc.
  • The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag

We’re getting very close to having all of Heinlein’s books on audio. That’s pretty significant.  It shows that Heinlein is still well loved – and I hope by new readers.  It would be a shame that these audio books are selling only to old fans like me who want to hear his stories once again.

JWH – updated 10/4/12

The Game of Rat and Dragon

    The job of a science fiction author is mighty tough! To write a great science fiction story requires showing the reader something they’ve never seen before, and that ain’t easy. Age of the genre and reader are big factors here. When science fiction was young, “The Time Machine” by H. G. Wells dazzled the Victorian world with its hallucinatory imagination. On the other hand, you’d need to be Amish to be dazzled by the idea of time travel anytime after turning five-years-old in our SF jaded world. But then I was in my forties and charmed by Terry Bisson’s “Bears Discover Fire,” and I was in my fifties and dazzled by Snow Crash by Neil Stephenson. In other words, even with an old genre and an old reader, it’s still possible to for a science fiction writer to succeed with creating a breathtaking vision.

    Today I decided to try another Wonder Audiobooks title, “The Game of Rat and Dragon” by Cordwainer Smith from 1955. I’m glad I did. I read this story years ago, but listening to the excellent reading by Matthew Wayne Selznick I was able to “see” it with fresh sense of wonder. Audio productions are like getting a high definition television and wanting to see all your favorite shows again. Like I explained in “How Audible.com Changed My Life,” reading with my ears lets me appreciate fiction so much better than when I read with my eyes, and this old Cordwainer Smith tale was a good example.

    Cordwainer Smith broke on the scene with a distinctive voice, working in a field known for being tone deaf. Now he wasn’t a great writer by literary standards, but the old concept of a one-eyed man living among the blind applies here. “The Game of Rat and Dragon” take cliché space opera and adds new dimensions making the story vivid, thus I think creating something new in the field. This story really does lay the foundation for stylistic explorers like Samuel R. Delany and Roger Zelazny in the 1960s.

    If you ever get a chance read some science fiction from the 1920s, like from early Amazing Stories. Then read Asimov’s Before the Golden Age, for the flavor of 1930s pulp writing. After that read Adventures in Time and Space to get the feeling of how J. W. Campbell shaped the 1940s. Science fiction genre is always evolving. The 1950s brought its own breakthrough in style, and writers like Cordwainer Smith, Jack Vance, and Alfred Bester made their impact.

    Listening to “The Game of Rat and Dragon” let me feel that difference in a magnified way. Cordwainer is at the beginning of his career, but all his elemental seeds of his later story worlds are planted here. This story, which is poorly written by MFA standards, with its heavy handed setup common for stories of the time, still takes off and shines when it comes to creating a vision of something new.

    It evokes awe and emotion in this old jaded reader, although I wonder how it will work with younger readers of today. It is primitive compared to today’s writing, so young readers may feel like they are hearing something from old time radio. If you look at ISBDF, you’ll see its still being anthologized as late as 2006, so I do have hope it’s a story with lasting impact, and I’m very appreciative that Wonder Audiobooks published the audio edition.

    I don’t want to give away any of the ideas and spoil this story, especially since it’s short and somewhat expensive, so I won’t go into what it’s about. Don’t read the links until after you have heard the story. “The Game of Rat and Dragon” is $4.88 for Audible.com members and for anyone it’s $7.95 at iTunes. I wished Wonder Audiobooks had given us two Cordwainer Smith stories for the same price to entice more readers to try Smith because I’m not sure about the market for single short stories. Let’s hope they succeed. WA could have created a nice mini Ace Double type collection with “Scanners Live in Vain.”

    Another odd idea would have been to make a complete audio edition of the October, 1955 Galaxy magazine, in which “The Game of Rat and Dragon” first appeared. I don’t know how involved it would be to get copyright permissions, but that sure would make a fun blast-from-the-past time capsule.

JWH

Fondly Fahrenheit by Alfred Bester

    “Fondly Fahrenheit” is a classic science fiction short story written by Alfred Bester who wrote two mega-masterpieces of science fiction, The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination. The Demolished Man shared the #1 spot on my Classics of Science Fiction list with Dune by Frank Herbert and More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon, and The Stars My Destination was #13. Alfred Bester was a writer’s writer among science fiction authors. Bester only visited the science fiction field in his long career, just long enough to write a couple classic novels and a handful of equally good short stories before moving on – so he’s not well known to young SF readers of today.

    Wonder Audio hopes to change that by publishing a fine audio presentation of “Fondly Fahrenheit” for the iTunes and Audible.com generation, along with a handful of other classic SF short stories by Cordwainer Smith, Jack Vane, Poul Anderson and Jerome Bixby.

    Alfred Bester wrote weirdly flamboyant styled stories in a field noted for dull writing and far out ideas, and “Fondly Fahrenheit” stands out with its multiple viewpoint POVs. This story, first published in August 1954 in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction has been heavily anthologized ever since, including The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 1. Robert Silverberg even used “Fondly Fahrenheit” as an example story to deconstruct in his book about writing science fiction called Science Fiction 101 or Worlds of Wonder. (Don’t you just hate it when they rename a book?)

    Alfred Bester wrote science fiction in the 1950s, during a time when social and psychological issues were just as important as space opera and time travel, and “Fondly Fahrenheit” features a Sweeney Todd deranged android that sharply contrasts with the clean and wholesome Asimov robots. This is a strangely adult story marketed in a genre mainly targeting the adolescent, and in a strange way can be considered disturbing, both in subject matter, but also to the field of science fiction of its day. Like I’ve implied, I considered Bester weird, stranger than A. E. Van Vogt, but not as far out as Philip K. Dick whose career came after Bester’s. “Fondly Fahrenheit” is an android story and pairs well with Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the novel the brilliant Sci-Fi film Blade Runner was based on.

    I don’t believe in retelling plot elements when recommending a story so you’ll have to go read it, or better yet, snag the audio copy. Pat Bottino does a good job of making the multiple-aptitude android sound crazed, and his reading gives the story a good creepy feeling. Listening really helps accentuate the dual first-person POV, the shifting first-person POVs and the third-person story telling. The story does everything a MFA writing teacher tells you not to do.

    Let’s hope Wonder Audio succeeds and produces a long list of classic short SF on audio. I’m curious how marketing single short stories will work out. Infinivox is also working the same market of audio short SF&F, but with more recent stories, including some longer novella work like “Beggars in Spain” by Nancy Kress. Both are companies that sell on Audible.com, but I didn’t see Infinivox on iTunes.

    I would think short SF&F would be great for the iPod age, but I worry about the pricing. Audio book pricing is strange and inconsistent to begin with. Do you price digital downloads the same way you price cassette and CD collections? Is the three hour “Beggars in Spain” worth $8.81 or 1 credit at Audible.com when the full eleven hour novel Ender’s Game is also one credit, and $19.58, but often on sale for $9.95? Of course Audible insanely charges 1 credit for some audio books that just last a few minutes.

    James Patrick Kelly sells his short stories on Audible.com by the story and by the StoryPod of 13 stories bundled together. I often buy short story collections on Audible.com and I look at the total time to judge how to spend my credit. If a collection is over 8 hours I consider it a bargain. Wonder Audio and Infinivox may need to bundle their stories into theme collections on Audible.com and see how they sell for a single credit compared to selling the stories separately.

    On the other hand, I’ve always wished that short stories would become as popular on the Internet as MP3 songs, so kids would collect them for their iPods and trade them. This doesn’t work with DRM systems, such as those used on iTunes and Audible.com. We’ll have to see if Amazon.com doesn’t develop a market for short story MP3s like they have for music. Publishers need to accept and market to the natural instinct of people wanting to share their favorite songs and stories.

    If audio short stories were sold for $2 in MP3 formats would they become popular enough to make them a commercial success? You can’t charge too much for them – songs go for 99 cents and TV shows for $2, so I doubt kids would value short stories more than an episode of Lost. The classic printed short story is a dying art form. I’ve always wondered if audio short stories could be marketed to appeal to the young and bring back their popularity. With the rise of the MP3 player this makes this idea possible but it’s a chicken and egg problem to solve. Kids don’t know about short stories, so they won’t try them on their iPods.

    People pass around songs, jokes, short films, crazy photos and such in email attachments. I wonder if flash fiction stories can be squeezed into the same number of megabytes as a song or short film and sent as an email attachment which could help seed the idea. Give these away with the encouragement to pass them on but put notices at the end, for longer stories visit our website at such and such. Comedy shorts like David Sedaris would be a good start. It’s just an idea, but I wish some publishers would give it a try.

JWH

How Audible.com Changed My Life

Back at the beginning of 2002, I joined Audible.com, signing up for their two books a month plan and getting a free Otis digital audio player. Audible.com sells audio books online and designed a system so their digital audio books worked with the emerging technology of digital audio players. This coincided with the rise of the iPod and made Audible.com revolutionary in that it made audio books, after the learning curve of setting up the equipment, easier to use than paper books. I now carry my iPod Nano with me at all times, and listening to a book is just a matter of plugging in an ear-bud and pressing play. I never carried a book around like that. I keep a log of books I read and before Audible I was reading on average 1-2 books a month, and after Audible I was average a book a week. Not only that, but I was “reading” from a much wider selection of subjects and genres. So I was improving on quantity and quality.

I’ve often heard people gush about books that changed their life. I always found that hard to believe, but I actually believe my life would be different if I hadn’t joined Audible. Oh, I’d be working at the same job and married to the same woman, but for the last six years I have been more excited about reading than any time in my life. Being a lifelong bookworm, that’s a pretty big statement. Joining Audible.com caused four paradigm shifts in habits.

Learning How to Read All Over Again

Switching from eyeballs to ears as my primary conduit for sending words into my brain taught me I have always been a very bad reader. This was a bit of a shock because I had always prided myself on being a good reader. I believed that because I loved to read, read lots of books and read them fast, it made me a great reader. Boy was I wrong. Switching to audio books showed me I was skimming rather than reading. The dying urge to know what was going to happen forced me to focus on dialog and plot at the expense of narrative details and voice.

Listening to a good book read by a great narrator showed me how much drama and characterization I had been missing. Listening at a reading pace taught me to take in the whole book and I began to value the narrative parts, seeing more details, making the settings vivid and allowing me to imagine what the characters looked like and acted. For some reason hearing words, like the names of colors or the names of objects, made me visualize what those words were pointing to in the real world. The shift was dramatic, as dramatic as being stoned and listening to music for the first time.

It really is a matter of concentration. Listening gave me the time to concentrate on what the author was intending. Since I’ve learned this trick I’ve been able to go back to reading with my eyes and read slower. What I’ve learned is eye reading and ear reading emphasize different ways to learn and experience books. If I want to study a book I have to read with my eyes, if I want to experience a book I listen. For pure reading enjoyment listening is the way to go but if I find a book I want embrace fully, I also have to read it.

Over the years I have also learned that I have been training my ears and mind to audio and I now hear a book way better than I did six years ago when I switched from reading to listening. I’m also improving my reading ability. I didn’t expect that as a person in my fifties.

I would say my old way of reading a novel I took in maybe 10% of what the author intended. Listening bumps that up to 25%. Reading and listening takes things to 35%. Multiple readings, with both eyes and ears, improve on those figures, but I imagine it takes a lifetime of study to really go beyond mining 50% of the gold in a great novel. My guess is there are highly educated readers with refined minds and powerful abilities to concentrate that can do what I do in one reading, but my experiences of the last six years has also taught me my limitations. I am a humbler bookworm.

Learning How to Widen My Reading Tastes

In 2002 when I switched to audio books, the audio book industry was far smaller than it is now. Thus Audible.com had a much smaller selection of books. Best sellers and classics were the top choices for publishers when deciding which books to give the audio book production treatment. When I joined Audible I expected to get the same kind of books I was reading: science fiction.

My first two selections were The Menace from Earth by Robert A. Heinlein and Snow Crash by Neil Stephenson, two books I had already read and loved. To say that I was blown away by listening to them would be an understatement. I hate to use curse words in my public writing, but the only way to convey this is to say I passionately thought to myself, “What the fuck!! How the hell did I miss so much? These are fantastic books!!!”

My immediate desire was to buy all my favorite books in unabridged audio and listen to them. The trouble was Audible didn’t offer them. I got Starship Troopers, another Heinlein novel, and Seeing in the Dark by Timothy Ferris, a nonfiction book about amateur astronomers. I discovered the magic worked just as well with nonfiction.

Okay, with my next two monthly credits I decided to be brave and just try something other than science fiction. What the heck, two books were only $16 at the time. I selected Great Expectations by Charles Dickens and Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier. I had been forced to read the Dickens book in high school and it was my model when I thought of classics. I had no idea who Tracy Chevalier was or what her book was like, but it came highly recommended. Well Mikey liked it! Turns out, Great Expectations is one of my all-time favorite books – what a discovery.

Then I tried White Noise by Don DeLillo and The Western Canon by Harold Bloom and I began to get the big picture of what I’d had been missing all my life by living in the ghetto of science fiction. Being a hard-core science fiction fan had always prejudiced me against fantasy. I got His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman on Audible and paid a rather large sum for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets on CDs from Amazon.com. I was happily eating crow.

I then tried books I would never have thought to read, like Moby Dick, Sister Carrie and Pride and Prejudice. I’ve always hated long books, but I discovered I could handle long stories if I listened to them, like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. These really are books I would never read in book form. I never had the patience for classics or long books. Audio changed that.

Finding New Times to Read

Then I discovered The Life of Pi by Yann Martel. I had bought the hard cover edition when it came out because it got such fantastic reviews but I never found time to read it. It was about then I discovered listening allowed me to “read” far more books than I could read with my eyes. Finally I had time to read best-sellers and all those books on the front tables in my favorite bookstores. I had always assumed best-sellers were the fast food of the literary world, but again I learned I was wrong, at least some of the time.

Those by-the-door display tables held the books people were talking about at work. The ones that got reviewed and their authors got to appear on TV. I finally tuned in and found what I was missing. I got to do this because I was now reading a book a week by multitasking with listening.

I cut off one earpiece to my stereo headphones, so the Y-shaped wire was now one straight wire. I kept my player in my shirt pocket from the time I dressed until I got undressed to go to bed at night. I wrapped the wire around my neck and dropped the ear bud end back in the same shirt pocket. It was my new geek tie. My wife thinks I’m dorky-looking and gets embarrassed seeing me in public, but the people at work didn’t complain. I’m a computer guy, so they don’t expect much from our attire.

From then on I learned how to read on the run – to multitask. I listen to books whenever I’m doing something that doesn’t require my full mental attention. I listen when I walk and exercise. I listen when I eat alone or wait in line. I listen when I do the dishes or pick up around the house. I listen when I drive. Using only one ear piece makes this much safer. I listen at work and while doing boring tasks like reformatting a hard drive and reinstalling software, or setting up a new server, or running around putting patches on fifty machines.

I got so good at multitasking reading I was even interviewed for the New York Times and got a tiny mention in the paper where they noted the number and variety of books I was reading because of Audible.com.

Connecting with Other Readers

Finally, Audible.com has brought me together with a lot of other readers, both online and at work. Because I wore my dorky wire tie, people would ask me about it. When I explained they were amazed and many of them joined Audible. They became pod people too and we ended up reading the same books. Audio books became the focus for a lot of new friendships. I also joined a Yahoogroup for Audible fans and met other audio book fans and even some of the people who publish and narrate audio books. We even got up a book club at work. Now when I go to parties I have a lot more books I can talk about. When I meet new people I’m willing to buy and listen to books they suggest and this opens up new lines of communications.

I used to be mostly a solitary bookworm, but now I’m a social bookworm. That’s a big difference. If I had stuck to science fiction as my main reading all of this wouldn’t have happened. I had science fiction reading friends, but they were few and far between. Actually, this shift in taste has moved me away from my science fiction world. I’ve encouraged some of my old SF buddies to try other books but they haven’t. You’d think reading with an iPod would be science fictional but that geeky quality doesn’t appeal.

Most people don’t want to change. I have found changing can be exciting.

I would say the majority of readers I know stick to paper books as their main source of reading. Some have added audio books as supplemental reading and some are half and half readers and listeners, usually reading at home and listening in the car. I’ve yet to meet anyone who carries their iPod with them everywhere.

I’ve also tried to get some of my hardcore bookworm friends to multitask so they could consume even more books, but audio book magic doesn’t work with everyone. A few are learning to multitask read. It’s the books and stories that are making me more friends. So I have to give Audible.com credit for helping me try a great selection of books that helped me connect with other people, and not being a cyborg bookworm.

Adapting to the Future

I’d like to think I could learn from this unexpected discovery and apply it to new experiences. Blogging is helping me learn to write and think, but I don’t know if it will have the transformative changing power that shifting to audio books have had. Strangely enough, writing is an anti-social activity, even though it’s all about communication. A blog is like a public diary, but few people read mine, and it generates little social communication. I value blog writing as a way to practice concentration and help fight off Alzheimer’s.

Computers and the Internet have made a major change in my life but it’s more about how I process information. I don’t think computers have made me see cognitively different like switching to listening to books. I’ve been reading with an eBook for years, and I now have a Kindle but I don’t think that will be revolutionary either. The Kindle is like a magnifying glass that lets me read easier, but I don’t read more. I am experimenting with putting Audible.com books on my Kindle and reading and listening at the same time to see if it causes better memorization.

Becoming a bookworm when I was a child was the major transformative experience of my life, but I’d have to credit Audible.com as a powerful second stage booster that has launched me into orbit. It’s hard to imagine another new technology coming along like it, but imagine what it would be like if my reading was moved from orbiting Earth to trajectory to Mars.

And I can see that it might not involve technology too. I’ve often thought if I could train myself to write a good novel or short story it might teach me a lot more about reading. That would take a lot of discipline I don’t have. I try from time to time, but can never achieve escape velocity.

As a new humble bookworm I know I might not ever get any better at reading and comprehension, but then I never expected digital audio players and audio books to come along and change things. Who knows what the future might bring.

JWH