New York Times.
May 14, 2006.
AUDIO books have been around for years on tapes and CD's, but new downloadable and digital audio books and players make it more convenient to catch up on "The DaVinci Code" in the rental car line or settle down with an Agatha Christie mystery on a trans-Atlantic flight. Not only do the batteries of digital devices often last longer than those of portable CD players, but most MP3 players hold many more hours of content than a single CD, meaning you don't have to worry about not being able to hear the end of a story because you left the next disk at home.
Once you've decided to go digital, it helps to know where to find content. A good place to start is the Audio Publishers Association (www.audiopub.org). The site lists many publishers providing audio or downloadable books, including AudioBooksForFree (www.audiobooksforfree.com), which features many public-domain classic literary works, such as "Alice in Wonderland," in MP3 format, which is free in basic audio quality, or $7 for better quality.
Most audio book downloads have some type of digital rights management built in. This is done by using a file format that puts a digital "lock" on a file to control the number of times or ways a file can be played or copied. For example, Audible.com (www.audible.com), a well-known audio book download site, protects its digital audio books by using its own proprietary format, although the books can still be played on a wide variety of devices, including iPods, MP3 players and some telephones.
An easy way to obtain digital audio books is through an online store like Apple's iTunes (downloadable from www.itunes.com) or Audible.com. However other download sites have become popular in recent years, including Simply Audiobooks (www.simplyaudiobooks.com), Jiggerbug (www.jiggerbug.com) and SoundsGood (www.soundsgood.com). Be sure to note what type of digital player is required to play an audio book before you purchase or sign up for a service. For example, Audible.com features books for iPods, MP3 and Windows-based players, while some sites (like SoundsGood) support only devices that play secure Windows Media Audio (WMA) files.
For travelers who are interested in self improvement or concerned about proprietary formats, the portal LearnOutLoud offers MP3-based audio content at www.learnoutloud.com. MP3 is a common file format for digital music and audio files. "LearnOutLoud focuses on the educational market — not K-12, but adult, life-long learners," said Jon Bischke, its founder and chief executive. While you won't find blockbusters like the Harry Potter books there, LearnOutLoud offers something that few other sites offer — downloads in MP3 format, making it easy to copy the files to just about any device (May's free download is "The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin").
The downside to looking for audio books in MP3 format is that many large publishers like Random House will not release audio books without some type of digital rights management or security protection, so LearnOutLoud's content selection tends to come from smaller publishers and individual authors.
If you are not gadget-oriented, Audiofy (www.audiofy.com) is an interesting solution, since you simply buy audiobook "chips" (electronic memory cards similar to the cards used in digital cameras) that have audio books loaded. Listeners can put the chips into any computer that has a memory card reader, or into P.D.A.'s or handhelds like the palmOne Zire that support SD memory, or use a small, custom Audiofy player ($29.95 at www.audiofy.com). For computers that don't have card readers, adapters are available for about $3.95.
Readers can select from titles such as "Must Love Dogs" ($27.95, seven hours) or "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" ($49.95, 14 hours). In addition to a range of classics and public domain works (from Agatha Christie to Mark Twain), Audiofy has a range of business books (such as the Soundview Executive Summaries) and Pimsleur language titles (for example, Pimsleur Eastern Arabic, $159.95)
"The portability is unbelievable. One 64-megabyte chip can hold ten hours of audio," said Stan Kornaga, vice president of Soundview Executive Book Summaries, which has partnered with Audiofy to put 30 business book summaries on one postage-stamp sized chip. "But the great thing about the Audiofy bookchip is that I can bookmark any of the content and simply hand the chip to my wife or my employees and the bookmarks stay with it."
You can also digitize a book CD yourself, or look for audio books in MP3 formats. While most publishers only offer audio books on cassette tapes or traditional audio CD's to prevent digital piracy, some publishers, including Blackstone Audio (www.blackstoneaudio.com), offer books on CD's in MP3 format, which can then be copied to digital players. The MP3 format generally allows a CD to hold more music or audio than a CD that's formatted the traditional way. For example, Blackstone Audio's unabridged edition of Steve Moore's "V for Vendetta" is available on eight regular CD's or one MP3 CD ($29.95 for either version). The MP3 audio files can then be played on a compatible CD player (many new CD players can read MP3 files), or they can be copied to a digital MP3 player, like the Sandisk Sansa e140 ($77.76 at amazon.com).
I listen to audio books on my Samsung i730 PocketPC, since a two gigabyte memory card will hold about three books in MP3 format," said Dan Poynter, an author and frequent traveler. "I get many from Amazon.com for $10 to $20 and just put the MP3 CD in my computer and transfer the files to my P.D.A. Once I listen to the book, I donate the CD to the local public library."
If your favorite book is sold only on tape or audio CD, and you want to copy it to a digital device such as an MP3 player, Pocket PC, Smartphone or iPod, you'll need to use software such as Apple's iTunes or Windows Media Player to "rip" (or copy) the audio tracks to your computer, and then download them to the player. You may also need to do some tweaking of the files to name them or get them in the right order, and the resulting files may not support typical audio book features such as bookmarks unless you've used special settings. Of course, you're not supposed to share those files with others or sell the original CD's unless you destroy your digital copies.
One of the oldest audio book services in America is the National Library Service's Talking Books program, designed for individuals with a physical handicap, blindness, low vision or other problem that makes reading difficult. The Talking Books program delivers books on tape for free to patrons. The program is updating its services to provide digital audio books and expects to have 19,000 digital talking books available by 2008, making it a good future alternative for travelers with disabilities.
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