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Audiobooks, Google and the hard road to walk to get what you want.

I am going to stray away from game design for a moment. I should start with, I am big fan of audiobooks. I have listened to hundreds of them, over the years, maybe a 1000 or more. I like them as a thing to have in my ear as I do other things. I listen to them while I do housework, walks, exercise in general, and long drives. Anytime there is empty time when I am doing something more or less mindless, I have my headphones in.  This may make me anti social but between podcasts and audiobooks, I take in a lot of stories and information all the time.

So a friend shared the Boing Boing post about Googles new DRM free audiobook options. Cory Doctorow has banged the drum for a DRM free option on audiobooks for a while. In general, I tend to agree with him. Audible keeping the DRM format in place on the audiobooks is galling. There is no real argument for keeping it that make sense. The people who want to pirate can with little effort. It is only inconvenient to legal purchasers. They absolutely should have removed it years ago.  So, we have reached the DRM free utopia with Google Play store.  Huzzah!

Well….not so much.

I decided to try the Google audiobook offerings and see how they operate.  I have had an Audible subscription for a very long time now and I have something to compare it to.  Google offering a discount on your first audio-book is also a fine inducement.  Let compare.

Selection…. Audible

Well, first, you will see Doctorow and other say something along the lines of “you can find all the same books on Google/Downpour/ and others.” Let us get that one out of the way. It is not true. Audible has invested a lot of money in producing content for their service. An example relevant to stuff I talk about, Audible is the only place to get D&D novels in audio-book formats. They have the The only audiobooks of The Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. The only audiobooks of the Amber series and others.  They paid to produce those books so they will likely never be on another service. Google and the others do have a lot of stuff, but in selection Audible rules this category.  The major best sellers are on the other services, however, so if it is not in the niches Audible has locked it down, then yes you can find it in the other stores. Downpour actually has a better selection than Google’s, but Doctorow announced he will be releasing a book on Google first, and I expect others may do the same.
Libraries are more limited in selection, but they also have a lot of the more popular options, not just through CD’s nut through the Overdrive service.  One service you might look into is Librivox. They have a lot of public domain free recordings of Public Domain books. There are also a range of authors who have podcasted their books or provided them as free downloads. Mur Laferty, Cory Doctorow, and Scott Sigler all have done this and there are hundreds more if you look for them.  I may do a post just recommending these at some point because there really are a lot of good ones out there.

Price…again Audible, mostly… except for libraries

So, the pricing is a big issue.   If you go through a lot of audiobooks, you want to not break the bank in the process. Libraries, of course, are free.  The selection of audiobooks may not be as extensive but there is a lot available through libraries and free is hard to beat. Librivox and podcasted novels also have this advantage.

Once you get into “for pay” options, then Audible edges out the others. Google doesn’t offer a subscription service. You buy per book. The costs are no better than the member prices for the other services with subscriptions, but no worse either. You would think that was better because you are not paying a monthly fee, but that monthly fee gets you a credit. That credit can be used for any book on the site, for the most part. So, if my 15 dollar credit is used on a book that would cost me 40 dollars if I bought it out right, then that is a significant savings. Google has Brandon Sanderson novels and they run up near 40 dollars even on discount. I can get one of those through Audible for a credit, so I am saving nearly 25 bucks for the same book.

DownPour’s membership is actually a couple of bucks cheaper than Audible’s, so it would be cheaper, but Audible does pull another couple of tricks. First, you can purchase extra “credits” 11.99 a pop, if you can buy them in a pack of three. This gives you even more bang for your buck than if you bought some of the books with the discounted prices. Star Wars novels run 25 to 30 a pop. Same with Game of thrones and others, so buying the credits is cheaper, much cheaper, if you get a lot of books.

The other trick Audible gets, which the others have not matched, is a discounted price from buying the “narration” off the Amazon Kindle book.  These are just buying the audiobook through Audible. The cost is usually pretty light, anywhere from 3 bucks to 8 bucks to add the narration. That would be fine if you already own the eBook, but it gets better when you realize there are deals all the time where you can buy an 15 dollar e-book for 99 cents. As it is, I have picked up quite a few 8 or 9 dollar audiobooks this way that would have cost me my 15 dollar credit or more more if I bought directly. That integration with the eBooks is huge. Google can do this, but hasn’t so far. The other services just don’t have the option.

Usability a tie…mostly.

These stores all have their own app. Google puts its audiobooks in the normal book store and the book app.  The others have separate apps. Audible’s app is separate from the Kindle app, but you can listen through the Kindle app to “narration” you bought through it. You can even sync where you left off reading your eBook and that point in the audiobook. Super useful is you are bouncing between. The other services offer DRM free downloads.  That is nice and it obviously makes listening to them more down to your preference. You want to listen to them on Plex, or you media player of choice, by all means. You want to back them up, share them, or otherwise do anything you can do with your mp3s, then that is an option.  That is definitely not something you can do with Audible.

The other apps provide a familiar interface for playback. You can play at faster speed, do a sleep timer, and bookmark in the app. I will say the other apps I have tried do not sync across devices as well as Audible. I listened to the Google play app on my phone, switched to the web player, back to the phone, and then later again to the web player and it did not keep up with the syncs on the second device change. Not a huge thing, but it is worth noting.  So, with the other services you get DRM free downloads, and Audible you get a slightly better listening and syncing experience. The real question is which is more important to you. I chalk it up to a tie.

Shopping….Absolutely Audible.

I have looked at the stores listed above. By far, the worst is Google and the best is Audible. When you go shopping for an audiobook, you are looking for a few things. If you already know precisely which book you are looking for, the Google store is fine. Enter it into the search field and they bring up the eBook and the audiobook. If you only vaguely know which one you are looking for, or if you are just looking for something in general with no clear choice in mind, Googles store is not helpful.

Say I look at a Brandon Sanderson book.

In Audible, I might search by the author, click on the book, then see it is listed as part of a series, then click on the link for the series and see every book in it. I can see which ones I have already and which ones I dont. I can even click on a book that is part of its own sub-series, and see the books just in the sub-series or transition back to the series as a whole. There is a wealth of information on every book entry.

In Google, you would search for the author, and bring up all the books they have in both eBook and audiobook and maybe you can tell from the titles which one is in which series. You certainly wont be able to click on a link to the series and see a listing in order. Now if you are on the author page, if you scroll down you can find a diagram of their books, some of them at least. If you are on the books description page, however, it doesn’t specify a series or the position of this book in the series.

There are other factors. For instance, many audiobook aficionados are also fans of their favorite narrators. Kate Reading has a huge following, for good reason. Some people will finish an Audible audiobook, decide they want to hear something else by that narrator, click on his/her name, and find other books read by them. Google does not offer that option.

They also dont give you the option to see all the books listed. They give you about 100 books in the categories, per page.  So, if I go to the Science Fiction genre audiobook page  I can see a few “best value” a few “new releases” and a few “top picks.” If I click on the show me more it only shows about the 100 books in that category.  If I click on a sub-genre option like “epic fantasy” it again only shows me a round a hundred or so. There is no show me more option. There is certainly no alphabetical order or anything. Audible, on the other hand, offers actual numbers and much more control over what and how many books you see. They give numbers beside their sub-genres so you know how many exist. Google obscures that info.

The other stores are a little better than Googles but still suffer from similar problems and are slow to respond, as well. Without a doubt, the shopping experience is better with Audible. It is not surprising. They have been doing it the longest and Amazon brings a lot of their know how to bear.  Google really needs to up it’s game.

In conclusion

I am all in favor of having Audible getting rid of DRM. I do dislike it a lot. Cory Doctorow has said it DRM might be a threat to humanity. I am not quite that far, but I am not a fan of it. Having alternative stores is a good thing. I might even consider buying from them in the future, but the fact is they have a ways to go to match Audible on other points. Audible is a better designed store, has a better app integration, is cheaper, and has a better selection.  I want the alternatives to get better. It is why I plan on buying more books from them, when it is convenient, but I am not ready to jump ship yet.

PS….some people will see all this and say, “why not torrent down a pirate copy?” It is cheaper, but I genuinely don’t like pirating things.  I pay for the things I watch, read, or listen to, unless it is a loaned item.  I mean, if someone loans me a book or I go to the library that is different. I don’t feel like I am on ethical solid ground if I pirate things.  I used to. I don’t anymore and I don’t plan on ever starting up again.

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