Conduct a basic audiobook search in 2021 and you will almost certainly be greeted by an Audible listing. If you’re lucky, you’ll end up with a second result for the same Audible book, this time on Amazon’s main website. As is the case with ebooks, Amazon and the audiobook market have become nigh inseparable.
In the decade or so since Amazon acquired Audible for $300 million, the service has grown to include billions in revenue every year, essentially cornering the entire audiobook market. And as Audible has grown, so too has the magnitude of its issues for both consumers and authors. At a base level, it’s problematic that Amazon protects its audiobook files with DRM — thereby allowing readers only to enjoy their books if they stay locked into Amazon’s platform.
Amazon’s general monopolization of the internet makes it even more difficult to break out of Audible’s vicious cycle — most internet roads lead back to Audible. The platform’s prowess also means publishers are reticent to avoid Audible in its entirety; to do so would be to opt out of a huge chunk of potential sales.
Still, there are other options for ebook-listening, even if a cursory Google search won’t reveal them.
Seriously, check the library
If you’ve read any of my previous book-related guides, I’m probably beginning to sound like a broken record with this one. But libraries are truly the best source of books, no matter what format you’re in the market for.
The majority of library systems in the United States use a platform called Overdrive for both ebooks and audiobooks. Each library has a personalized URL for accessing its particular flavor of Overdrive; the Brooklyn Public Library system’s is brooklyn.overdrive.com, for example. Your library’s OverDrive portal will almost definitely be linked on the library’s main website; if not, you may need to inquire with a librarian.
Almost every aspect of Overdrive is meant to mirror the experience of visiting a physical library. After logging in with your library card number, you can browse librarian-curated collections or search for a specific title or author. The library purchases a set number of audiobook licenses for each book, which means you might not always be able to access a title right away. But there’s a hold system, too, and Overdrive will even estimate how long you’ll be waiting and send you an email when your book is ready for download.
Overdrive completely overhauled its main mobile app a few years ago and reintroduced itself as Libby. The Libby app is top-notch: smooth and user-friendly with very few hiccups, in my experience. Any audiobooks you check out of the library will populate in Libby, and you can listen to them without even leaving the app. Libby is available for both Android and Apple devices.
(If your library doesn’t use OverDrive to manage its digital collection, it may support CloudLibrary instead. It’s not quite as polished as the OverDrive/Libby experience, but hey, take the free books where you can!)
Libro.fm is king
I only found out about Libro.fm very recently, and it’s so good I wish I’d been told about it much, much sooner.
Much like Audible — actually, exactly like Audible — Libro.fm runs on a monthly subscription fee of $14.99. This monthly charge gives you one in-app credit to spend whenever you’d like. Each audiobook on the platform costs one credit, which essentially means you end up with one audiobook per month for just $14.99.
As long as you listen to about one audiobook per month, the subscription is absolutely worth it. Audiobook pricing is similar to hardcover book pricing — somewhere between $20 and $30 per title. One credit is a substantially better deal.
Even better, though, is the fact that a portion of those sales actually go right to an indie bookseller of your choice. You choose one store as part of the sign-up process, searching via location, and then every penny you pay Libro.fm is split with that bookseller. You can always change your preferred bookseller later on, and you can also request that Libro.fm reach out to your favorite store if it isn’t listed yet.
Spending that $15 each month feels so much better with the knowledge that much of it goes right back to your favorite bookstore. You can buy extra books à la carte after you’ve used your first month’s credit, too, and — yes — they’re also discounted.
Libro.fm’s app interface is also really slick. It’s pretty easy to browse for your next listen, thanks to curated lists and general genre categories — a must-have for a reader like me who can never remember which books he wanted to read. The easiest way to listen to Libro.fm’s books is right in the same app, and the interface for that is just as streamlined, with all the basic controls (playback speed, play, pause, etc.) you’d expect for audiobooks.
And yes, every purchase you make through Libro.fm’s app (via monthly credits or à la carte) is yours forever, DRM-free. You can download your ebooks at any time and play them elsewhere, if you get tired of Libro.fm for some reason. They’re all yours.
A note on hardware
As with much of modern life, a smartphone is your best friend when it comes to listening to audiobooks. Whether you’re borrowing through your library, taking out a membership with Libro.fm, or coming upon them in some other manner (cough cough), using apps to play them is just so easy.
Libby and Libro.fm both have solid players built right in, so I’d recommend using those for books downloaded from their respective platforms. If you have a plain-old MP3 file (or, more likely, a series of them), though, try BookPlayer for iOS or Smart AudioBook Player for Android. Both will load up your DRM-free audiobooks and offer similar playback features, like keeping your library organized and outlining your books by chapter.
If you’re dead-set on not using your phone for audiobooks, you can also do so from a laptop or PC. OverDrive offers a web app with standard playback features, and it links right to your account, too. Otherwise you can play your mp3 files on just about any media player, like VLC or MusicBee. This won’t offer the best functionality, though; books with many chapters might be difficult to juggle in an app not built specifically for audiobooks.