/ 23 August 2008

Audio books bring reading back to the masses

No time to read? No problem. If you have access to some type of audio player — whether it’s a CD player in your car, an iPod, or even a cellphone with an MP3 player — you can let the bookworm in you surface once again.

And that’s exactly what a growing number of readers are doing. While sales of most categories of traditional books are flat or even declining, audio books are seeing sales increases of over 20% per year, according to 2007 statistics from the Association of American Publishers. As a result, audio books are now more widespread — and more readily available — than ever before. That’s good news for anyone who wishes there were more time to fit in a good book.

What’s an audio book?
For the uninitiated, an audio book — also sometimes called an e-book — is quite simply a reading of the text of a traditional book, either by the author or, just as often, a professional reader or celebrity with an appealing and expressive voice.

Audio books first came to the attention of the general public in the days of the cassette tape. Back then, they were often referred to as ”books on tape.” Now, though, with cassette tapes having given way to the ubiquitous iPod and other portable digital audio players, audio books are almost always released on CD or simply downloaded as a file and then loaded onto the listener’s digital audio player of choice.

The obvious appeal of audio books is that one can listen to them while doing other things, such as commuting or exercising. But they can be great study aids for students, who might use them to supplement a traditional book. Replaying passages is as easy as pressing the rewind button, and of course you can pause an audio book as easily as you can put a real book down.

Perhaps one of the major drawbacks of audio books is that they separate the reader from the printed page. You lose the tactile pleasures that come from holding a book and turning pages, and you are no longer a witness to any nuances of language that might be apparent only by seeing how words are spelled or constructed.

Best sellers and best prices
Audio books have become so popular that, these days, they’re often released simultaneously with a traditional hardback copy of a title.

Even better is that the low distribution costs of audio books, along with the growing number of vendors vying for business, is putting downward pressure on prices.

While Amazon.com sometimes charges a premium for the audio book version of a new title, there are plenty of dedicated audio book sellers — including Audible and Simply AudioBooks — that offer audio book plans that make listening to best sellers and new releases more cost-effective than buying the books. Beyond the world of new releases, however, is a another universe of internet sites that offer classics as audio books for no cost whatsoever.

How to play them
You can buy audio books directly from most traditional and online booksellers on a CD that’s ready to play in any standard CD player. But downloading an audio book is cheaper — and more flexible. Many audio books can be downloaded directly from a bookseller in MP3 or WMA format, both standards that can then be copied to an audio device or burned on to a CD.

Sometimes an audio book seller will have special free software that you first install onto your computer in order to facilitate the purchase and download of books. From there, you can often then move the audio book file to the playing device of your choice. Or you can simply listen to the book directly from your computer.

Free audio books
Perhaps the best part of the world of audio books today is discovering just how many are available for free over the internet.

Once you’re online, you can begin your foray into the audio book universe right away, with no equipment necessary other than your computer speakers. The internet becomes your public library. A simple search for ”free audio books” should get you started.

Free audio books are generally those in the public domain. In other words, you’ll find classic works from all genres, as well as other non-copyrighted texts, including plenty of children’s books and non-fiction works. The best free audio book sites let you browse the catalogue of titles as easily as you would search for a site using a search engine.

At Librivox, for example, you can search for books by title, author, or whether the audio book version is complete or still in progress. AudioBooksForFree.com organises their titles by genre, age group, or fiction versus non-fiction. Gutenberg provides yet more interesting ways to find great free titles, including links to the most popular downloads and the latest offerings.

On free sites, you’ll typically download the audio book in MP3 format. Sometimes the files are downloaded as compressed ZIP files that contain the book in MP3 or another easily playable format. Instructions for transferring files to iPods or other listening devices are often provided. There are generally few restrictions on how you may use the free books — just the hope that you’ll enjoy them as much as those who took the time and put forth the effort to make them available. – Sapa-DPA