In recent years the popularity of audiobooks has been soaring. In fact while sales of printed books continue to fall audiobooks are reaching record-breaking highs, with 2019 sales reaching £97m. The 2020 pandemic has only strengthened the popularity, with 26% of 2020 audiobook consumers in the UK buying the format for the first time during the spring lockdown.
Audiobooks have become so popular they now make up 34% of books read each week, according to a Nielsen survey.
Why are audiobooks so popular?
With the popularity of online streaming services for music and film it's no wonder people are won over by the same format for audiobooks. Now that audiobooks can easily be streamed and there's no need to buy bulky, expensive CD boxsets it's easy to see why listeners have flocked to audiobooks, and even die-hard paperback and hardback fans should give them a try.
The convenience of being able to listen to a book you enjoy in the car, while you're washing up or working in the garden means you can make short work of audiobooks whatever their length, allowing you to work through that 'to-read' list without giving up hundreds of hours devoted to the task. Vacuuming isn’t nearly so painful with a good book and if you’re out walking, you’ll love having a great story to keep you company.
In fact, you might find listening to audiobooks while walking or exercising will keep you working out for longer.
They won't necessarily replace your love of a good dog-eared paperback or scheduled talk radio but they could certainly complement them.
What are audiobooks?
An audiobook is simply a recording of someone reading a regular book on CD or in a downloadable digital format. Some are straightforward narration while others might feature multiple actors and have more of a radio play feel.
Actors or even the books’ author read some of the most popular bestsellers. Others are read by volunteers or professional narrators.
Far from being intended to replace physical books or eBooks, audiobooks are a fantastic way to ‘read’ when you’re unable to actually do so – whether you’re exercising, cooking or if your eyesight makes reading a printed page difficult.
Where to get free audiobooks
If audiobooks sound like an interesting prospect, the best way to get started is to try a few for free before parting with any cash, and the good news is there are plenty of free audiobooks available and they're completely legal.
Public domain books are books whose intellectual property rights (copyrights) have expired, or which have been released to the public for free by the authors.
Thousands of classics are now in the public domain and are available to download through sites like LibriVox. Its enormous catalogue is sorted by release date, title and author, or you can use their search engine if you know what you’re looking for.
If you are registered with your local library you can access the completely free app Libby by Overdrive. Your library card and library PIN grant you access to hundreds of free audiobooks on your phone or tablet, which can then be played in your car or on your stereo via Bluetooth. The exact range available will vary from library to library so check on your local library service's website for details. The good thing about Libby is you aren't limited by what's in the public domain so new releases and celebrity narrators are there for you to enjoy. You can browse by genre and filter your results to include both audiobooks and eBooks or just one format.
The downside is that, just like a bricks and mortar library, the quantity of each book is limited as it depends how many digital copies your local library service has bought. If your county library only has one copy that means only one person can borrow it at a time and you might have to put it on hold. High demand books might have a list of people waiting for them even when there are multiple copies available - for example at time of writing Kent libraries have 13 copies of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone narrated by Stephen Fry and each book has five people waiting for it. Libby advises that the wait time on it is about 10 weeks, although it's unlikely there are going to be many audiobooks that have the combined appeal of Harry Potter and Stephen Fry.
To avoid the heartache of coming across books that aren't available in this world of instant gratification you can filter your search criteria to show only books that are available to borrow right now. Some titles (particularly non-fiction educational books) might even have unlimited copies, in which case it will tell you that particular book is always available.
Popular music streaming platform Spotify now offers a range of audiobooks, including The Great Gatsby (F Scott Fitzgerald), Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain) and Brave New World (Aldous Huxley). Although the range is not very big it's a nice addition to an app a lot of people are already using for music.
Find out how to get free Kindle eBooks
Buying audiobooks and subscription services
Once you’re suitably convinced by audiobooks and you want to pick and choose what you listen to you will probably have to pay for them, but they’re not overly expensive, although they do currently carry a 20% VAT rate despite this additional charge being removed from eBooks in 2020.
The world's biggest producer of audiobooks is Audible, an Amazon-owned company. Audible has more than 200,000 audiobooks available and the number grows every day. Audible books are available to buy via Amazon, or you can subscribe for a monthly fee of £7.99 which gives you access to one book a month plus heavy discounts on purchasing books. Many of the titles are exclusive to Audible, and one perk is that if you don't like the book you've chosen you can easily return it for another.
If you'd prefer not to have any kind of subscription you can buy audiobooks from Google. If you have an Android phone this will be found in your Play Store app under Books and then Audiobooks. The range will be broken up into different genres, and there's usually a special offer section to browse too. If you have the Google Rewards app you can even earn free credit by answering quick consumer questions which will net you between 5p and 25p a pop.
Scribd’s library of audiobooks is available for a monthly fee of £9.99, and unlike Audible this will give you unlimited access to audiobooks, eBooks and magazines, making it more of a 'Netflix-for-books'.
Bookmate, like Scribd, offers unlimited eBooks and audiobooks for a monthly fee of £9.99. It includes books in 13 languages, making it a great option if you're looking to brush up on your French or Spanish.
iTunes has a huge library of audiobooks. If you have an iPhone, you’ll find the app at the App Store on your mobile device. If you have an Android device, you can download an app from Google Play that allows you to sync iTunes to your Android device.
Downpour is an audiobook subscription service run by Blackstone Audio, one of the biggest independent audiobook publishers in the US. It's a US service so prices are in dollars (currently $12.99 a month) but it's available globally.
Rakuten Kobo Audiobooks is a subscription service that comes in slightly cheaper than Amazon Audible at £6.99 a month. The service's format is very similar to Audible - each month your fee counts as a 'credit' which you can exchange for a book of your choice.
Read our guide to apps for reading and writing
Where to listen to audiobooks
Publishers of audiobooks know most readers will want to listen to them while they’re on the go and have made it easy to download their selections on to mobile devices.
The most common way to do this is to download an app that connects you to the audiobook provider. Some of the most popular apps include:
The beauty of audiobooks is that you can indulge whenever you like, and once you have your app on your mobile phone or tablet you can connect it to speakers, stereos or even your car with a Bluetooth connection.
Get access to the world's largest collection of audiobooks and spoken-word entertainment and download a free audiobook of your choice with a 30-day trial of Audible.
Choosing your audiobooks
The main considerations for choosing a good audiobook are going to be the same as choosing any book - a genre you like and an author you enjoy. However the two main criteria specific to audiobooks are running time and narrator.
Running time varies wildly, with some of the shortest audiobooks having a running time of three or four hours, and some epics going up to around 50 hours. Bear this in mind if you're choosing an audiobook for a specific occasion, such as a long car journey, and you might be able to find an audiobook that perfectly suits your need.
The narrator can make a huge difference to your enjoyment, and once you find one you like you might even start choosing books read by them. Books will often be available with different narrators to choose from, or different narrators for different regions (most notably the Harry Potter series being read by Stephen Fry in the UK and Jim Dale in the US), and often the narrator will be chosen for a reason - for example Star Trek: The Next Generation star Wil Wheaton narrates a lot of science fiction. In many cases the narrator is associated directly with that book, presumably to encourage TV and film fans to give the audiobook a try, such as The Handmaid's Tale star Elisabeth Moss reading Margaret Atwood's classic novel.
You can usually listen to previews of audiobooks to get an idea of whether you like the narration or not.
Read our guide to the best audiobooks to get started, or visit our Books section for short stories from bestselling authors.
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