Parting Thoughts

The Wonder of Audiobooks

Posted 1 February 2016

I have been a fan of audiobooks since you had to buy them on tape, and then on CDs. I used to drive regularly between Sebastopol and Silicon Valley, and audiobooks made these drives much more tolerable.

On physical media, though, my audiobook listening was limited to long drives. Traditional audiobooks are also expensive, typically costing more than hardback books.

Now that audiobooks have gone digital, and almost everyone carries a device capable of playing them, the audiobook world has exploded.

The Pioneer

With the arrival of in January 1998, everything changed. It took a while to mature, but Audible — now owned by Amazon — is the 800-pound gorilla of the audiobook world.


At launch, Audible faced a daunting challenge. There were no MP3 players, so Audible had to manufacture a device, the Audible Player, in addition to being a web-based service. The Audible Player was the very first portable digital audio player in volume production.

Memory cost was a huge issue, as was download time over Internet connections that were still using phone-line modems at perhaps 56 Kbits/s. Audible created its own format, designed to deliver acceptable speech quality at a very low bit rate, as well as providing DRM (digital rights management, aka copy protection).

As MP3 players began shipping in volume, Audible was able to eventually get out of the device business. Now, with the near-ubiquity of smartphones, almost everyone carries a great audiobook player with vastly more memory, and much higher Internet speed. Audible now offers an app for iPhones and Android phones.

Scaling Up

At its debut, Audible touted “thousands of hours of audio”. Today, Audible has hundreds of thousands of hours of audio content.

The success of the iPod, plus lots of new content, drove Audible’s early growth. The iPhone took it to the next level. Then a big boost came in 2008, when Amazon bought Audible for $300 million. They had 80,000 programs at the time; today, they have more than 180,000 programs.

Audiobooks are not quick to produce, so how did the number of titles on Audible increase by 100,000 in seven years?

Before the acquisition, Audible had a stated goal of 150,000 titles. Jeff Bezos was quoted after the acquisition as saying that the goal is now “everything”.

Recording an audiobook at Audible Studios

Audible started by acquiring the rights to existing audiobooks, but now the company produces most of the new titles. Audible Studios is now the world’s largest producer of audiobooks.

It is now rare that I go looking for a book and find it not available from Audible; the selection is truly impressive.

My Audiobook Habit

I was one of the first people to have an Audible Player because I was at an industry conference where recently-launched Audible gave one of the $200 players to every attendee. But I didn’t start buying audiobooks from Audible until 2003, using an iPod.

I confess to being an audiobook addict. I have more than 1,000 books in my Audible library, purchased over the past 13 years. I don’t get through every book, but I’d guess that I’ve listened to the entire length of about 80% of them.

I like to read in print as well, but audiobooks enable me to “read” so many more books. I make it through maybe a dozen books a year in print, compared with 50 or so as audiobooks.

Since I stopped spending much time outside of Sonoma County in 2007, driving has ceased to be my primary listening time. I listen while I’m walking the dog, working in the garden, picking up around the house, or lying in bed sick or unable to sleep.

A Personal Guide to Great Audiobooks

Coming soon: my recommendations for some great audiobooks.

In the meantime, you can sign up for a 30-day free trial and get two free audiobooks by clicking the button below.