How Do Audiobooks Work? – Choose the Best Service

Are you thinking of adding audiobooks to your publishing strategy? We explain the basics to help you get started.

With the Canadian company Rakuten Kobo finally launching their audiobooks service worldwide, appearing as a long awaited competitor for Amazon’s Audible, audiobooks became a hot topic once again, living their revival. But how do audiobooks work, where to get them from and are they still overly expensive?

Although they have been around for a while now, they only became popular during the last couple of years: with almost everyone in the world having access to some kind of mobile device, listening to podcasts and audiobooks became increasingly popular. What once was thought of as a necessity for people with sight loss became a viable and popular alternative to listening to radio and podcasts. Because yes, audiobooks are not here to take readers away: quite the opposite, they are here to bring reading-like experience into situations where you couldn’t normally read. Like when you are driving. Never read and drive!

Jokes aside, let’s have a look at what are these audiobooks anyway, why are they good and what do the biggest players on the market have to offer.


John Karakatsanis | Sony Headphones | 2013 | CC-BY-SA

1. Streaming or downloading: how do audiobooks work?

While some people likes to listen to audiobooks before going to bed, a lot of people choose them to lighten up their daily commute. Unless you have unlimited mobile data, streaming audiobooks can show up on your phone bill: streaming means to download something on the go, as you are listening.

The great advantage of streaming an audiobook is that it doesn’t require space on your phone or tablet: if you constantly have to delete apps and photos just to win a couple of extra bites, streaming is your way. You can stream audiobooks on your computer through Audible or by using

On the other hand, streaming is only good if you have reliable 4G coverage: audiobooks tend to be fairly large, even 500 MB. Therefore most people prefer to download them over  WiFi to keep for on-the-go listen. While downloaded books don’t go easy on your phone’s memory, you don’t have to keep them there forever: audiobooks providers give you a ‘cloud library’ to easily access your books – just like for ebooks.

2. Listening or reading

While the thousand-year-old debate of reading print or digital has finally become to settle, a new debate has emerged: listening or reading? Opposers of audiobooks argue that they can’t really focus on listening to audiobooks if they have something else to do (like the dishes). Others have problems with the speed or style of reading: if it is too fast, difficult to follow, if too slow, boring. And while professional audiobooks are done by actors and voice actors, there are limits to how many different characters can you act out.

Thankfully, this is not a one-way street: reading and listening a book can be parallel experiences, even across devices.

girl listening to audiobooks

lambda_X | listen | 2008 | CC-BY-ND

3. MP3 or M4B (file formats)

While currently most people have access to audiobooks through a subscription service, it is important to know whether you can open your books with the app of an other provider and if there are important differences between file formats.

Currently, there are two popular formats in audiobook distribution: MP3 and M4B. The main difference is in the amount of information they code: MP3 is great way to store good quality audio in a small file across platforms. M4B is Apple’s special file format for audiobooks: it is ‘smart’ and can remember where you left off, and can also handle chapter markers and bookmark.

This doesn’t mean that when you are listening to an MP3 audiobook you always have to look for the place you last listened to: but that information is not coded in the file but in the app itself.

4. Buying or renting

There are no pros and cons for this, really depends on your preference. I’m a hamster when it comes to collecting books in any (print, digital and audio) form, so an audiobook rental service feels like a sacrilege. (If your local library has a contract with OverDrive, Hoopla or , borrowing definitely has the advantage of being free.)

5. Abridged or unabridged

Not all audiobooks are created equal. Abridged audiobooks are shortened and modified for better listening experience. Unabridged audiobooks, however, are being read as they have been written, word by word. While most stores offer both abridged and unabridged audiobooks, some pride themselves in offering only unabridged, like this store (I’m sure they’re great, but have you seen the prices?).

Most distributors have their own apps for buying or renting audiobooks and for listening. In the following, we list our favourites so that everyone can find what’s best for them.

a) Free services


A great way to get free English language audiobooks is to check out your local library. If you expect them to have only old, public domain titles, you are wrong; most of them have a contract with a big content provider: OverDrive, Hoopla or RecordedBooks. While unfortunately you can’t sign up to these services without a library card, once you have, you can enjoy free audiobooks straight on your phone or tablet. Check out your library’s website to learn how audiobooks work and how to get them.

Rokuten OverDrive


If you are looking for the classics, head to LibriVox: they offer free audiobooks recorded by volunteers in 36 languages – and a great app to access them from. It comes with a sleep timer, an option to get the corresponding ebook from the Project Gutenberg app and you can choose between streaming and downloading books. My favourite feature is that shaking the device extends the sleep timer with an additional ten minutes – how cool is this!


b) Subscription services



If it comes to audiobooks, Audible is the most well known player in the market. With over 200.000 audiobooks in their library, there is plenty to choose from. Amazon was always known about providing a great cross-platform experience: you can listen anywhere, anytime, switch between reading and listening (if you own the book) without thinking twice about where you left off.

The subscription gives you one free book per month and 70% off every additional book. If you don’t like it, exchange it – no questions asked.

Price: £7.99 / month (1st month free)
Size: 200.000 books
Platform: all


With a great move, Kobo has launched their audiobook service for less than Audible. They also offer one credit (one free book) per month, but there is no talk about a discount on all other titles. While they hint of other subscription options in the FAQ, the page is not found.

At least the selection is much bigger: with Rakuten owning OverDrive, Kobo users can pick their daily listening from 1.5 million titles.

Price: £6.99 / month (1st month free)
Size: 1.5 million books
Platform: all is also using a credit system: you get one credit for free every month and you get to purchase as many additional credits, as you want to. While the library is a bit smaller, the app is very intuitive. Plus points for letting everyone easily browse their library.

Price: £7.99 / month (1st month free)
Size: 100.000 books
Platform: all

The Golden House


Mostly targeting US customers, Downpour offers both a credit based subscription service and a rental program: you purchase the audiobook at a discounted price and return in within 30 or 60 days. Since their library is hugely different from the other big audiobook services, it is worth a look.

Price: $12.99 / month
Size: thousands of books
Platform: all

Sribd audiobooks


When thinking of audiobooks, Scribd is not the first that comes to mind, although the subscription giant has a great selection. The membership gives you access to 3 books and one audiobook each month. Any additional audiobooks cost $12.99 each. Additionally, Scribd has a rotating library of free audiobooks for their users – usually around 5000 titles.

Price: $8.99 / month
Size: 100.000
Platform: all

Is your favourite audiobook provider on the list? Tell us in the comments.

Rate this post