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How to listen to audiobooks and where to get them: A beginner's guide

Getting started with an audiobook is easy, and some of your first audiobooks can be free. Here's what you need to know.
Three images of two audiobooks
Audiobooks are available on virtually any device that can download apps, and they’re a great option for people who want to read more but are always on the go. Amazon

Audiobooks are experiencing a huge growth spurt, largely because people want to unplug, relax and just listen to a good story, according to Michele Cobb, executive director of the Audio Publishers Association (APA), which reported double-digit growth in the audio publishing space for the tenth consecutive year in 2021. Yet perhaps even more surprising is the age of those listening in: According to the APA, 54% of audiobook listeners are under the age of 45, up 52% from 2019.

SKIP AHEAD Where to get audiobooks | Best audiobooks for getting started

Given the increased desire for audio content, publishers are continuously exploring new ways to grab listeners’ attention. “Twenty years ago an audiobook was taking a Stephen King novel and reading an abridged version. Now many authors are skipping print altogether and writing exclusive audio content,” Cobb said, adding that publishers are ever-widening the definition of an audiobook. “Publishers are adapting non-fiction and graphic novels by using audio soundscapes to fill in what might be lost with no visuals. We are seeing multiple-voice performances with sound effects and music becoming a larger part of the landscape,” she explained.

Audiobooks are for people who hate reading and for those of us who love reading.


How do audiobooks work?

After Thomas Edison created the first spoken word phonograph record in 1877, he predicted technology might one day allow books to be listened to “with great profit and amusement by the lady or gentleman whose eyes and hands may be otherwise employed.” He was right.

Talking books first emerged in 1932 when the American Foundation for the Blind began creating books on vinyl records for war-blinded soldiers and blind civilians who couldn’t read braille. In 1952, Caedmon Records became the first company dedicated to selling spoken word records to the public, according to NPR. Their first release — a collection of poems by Dylan Thomas — was narrated by the author. In 2008, the Library of Congress credited that recording with “launching the audiobook industry in the United States.”

How to listen to an audiobook

The evolution of the spoken book mirrors innovations in the music industry: Books on tape replaced vinyl audiobooks, streaming superseded compact discs and smartphones are replacing all else. As the audiobook industry flourishes, the number of ways you can listen to audiobooks is increasing, with apps for smartphones, iPads, desktops and Kindles from Amazon, Google and Apple — everyone’s competing for a chunk of the thriving sector.

Are audiobooks for you?

If you like books, the answer is yes. If you like reading but don’t like reading an actual book or don’t have the time or space to do so, double that yes. Matthew Rubery, author of “The Untold History of the Talking Book,” said that ultimately, audiobooks are for everyone.

"Audiobooks are for people who hate reading and for those of us who love reading,” Rubery wrote. “Audiobooks are for people who can't read, and for people who can't read enough.”

Academics have studied the differences in comprehension between reading a book and listening to one. One study concluded that, for the average reader, the two elicited a “comparable comprehension and retention of text.” But why posture audiobooks as a replacement for printed texts in the first place? Often audiobooks can be listened to while multitasking, with people listening while driving or during exercise — when reading a physical book is impossible.

Where to get audiobooks

Most audiobooks are available to listen to on your smartphone, tablet, smartwatch and desktop or laptop — how to listen to audiobooks depends mostly on which device you have and which apps can be downloaded on it. Both Apple and Android devices will allow you to access virtually every audiobook app.

If you're wondering where to get audiobooks, you again have many options. “There are at least 50 different services across the globe now,” Cobb said. The choice comes down to title availability and their business model, she noted. And most subscriptions to audiobook collections allow free trials, which is a good way to see for yourself if it's worth your time.

Here are some of the leading services in the space and what you need to know before tapping into them.

Amazon’s Audible

How it works: Audible offers audiobooks on virtually any device sporting the Audible app. You can access audiobooks through one-time purchases or a monthly subscription. Titles run the gamut from self-help and relationships and biographies to literature and fiction.

Getting started: Audible offers two main types of memberships — Audible Plus and Audible Premium Plus — each with a 30-day trial membership. The Audible Plus trial membership gives you 30 days of free access, after which the subscription costs $8 each month. During those 30 days, you can listen to podcasts, meditation programs, sleep tracks and audiobooks, plus access Audible Original content. Or you can opt for the Audible Premium Plus trial membership, which allows you to select from the same group of titles as well as choose and keep one title a month from Audible’s entire catalog. An Audible Premium Plus membership also gives you 30% off any additional premium titles you may want to buy. And if you’re wondering, you can also gift an Audible subscription.

Scribd books, audiobooks and magazines

How it works: Scribd offers an unlimited subscription to 1 million-plus e-books and over 200,000 audiobooks, and it’s available on virtually any device sporting the Scribd app. The company recently introduced Scribd Perks, which gives you complimentary access to premium services with partner companies like Peak Pro and FarFaria with your subscription. You don’t have the option to buy titles here but may not need it, considering the large selection.

Getting started: Scribd offers a straightforward 30-day free trial, giving you access to its entire catalog of e-books, audiobooks, sheet music, podcasts, magazines and more, with the ability to cancel anytime. After the 30-day trial, a Scribd membership costs $12 a month.

Apple Books Audiobooks

How it works: Another frontrunner in the audiobook services world is Apple Books, which sells audiobooks individually instead of offering a subscription plan. The app’s interface is very user-friendly, so you can easily browse the bookstore and keep track of what you’ve read or want to read — however, its library isn’t as robust as Audible’s. The price for each title varies, but Apple offers special discounts, and some books are even offered for free at times. If you are an avid listener of audiobooks, this option may be a little more expensive, and you may want to consider a subscription instead.

Find other audiobooks options

Best audiobooks for getting started

If you’re on the hunt for your next audiobook or on the fence about joining the world of audiobooks, it’s a good idea to start off with audiobooks that are much more satisfying in their spoken iteration.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Currently No. 4 on Amazon’s Best Sellers in Audiobooks and Originals, “Where the Crawdad’s Sing” is a heartbreaking coming-of-age story, with the added twist of a murder mystery. According to many listener reviews, Cassandra Campbel gives an exquisite rendition of Carolina accents, making it so true to life.

The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11’ by Garrett M. Graff

Cobb loved this 2020 Audie Book of the Year award winner, calling it a “truly stunning listen” and a great example of how “impactful” an audiobook can be. This oral history of the day that changed the world forever consists of never-before-published transcripts, declassified documents and original interviews and stories from nearly 500 government officials, first responders, witnesses, survivors, friends and family members.

“Hearing details in a multitude of voices made me rather emotional,” Cobb said. “At separate points my husband and daughter came into the room where I had it on speaker and stayed for large chunks because they were immediately drawn into the experience as well.”

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone’ by J.K Rowling

Veteran Broadway actor Jim Dale narrated all seven books in the Harry Potter series, amounting to a total of 117 hours and four minutes of reading time. He crafted over 200 voices to capture the iconic characters as well as the magic, tragedy and comedy of the source material. “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” gave Dale the first of his five Grammy nominations for narrating the series.

Fairy Tale’ by Stephen King

The No. 2 book on Amazon’s Best Sellers in Audiobooks at the time of writing, this terrifying tale in which good is pitted against overwhelming evil is one of Cobb’s favorites. “King read part of this himself, and I loved the narrator,” she said, referring to Seth Numrich, who narrated the part of a 17-year-old who inherits the keys to a parallel world. “It kept me there for the entire 24 hours.”

Becoming’ by Michelle Obama

A deeply honest memoir, the 19-hour “Becoming” audiobook is made more powerful, inspiring and intimate by former First Lady Michelle Obama narrating her own work. The audiobook has become the "fastest-ever seller" from Penguin Random House, according to The Guardian.

The Goldfinch’ by Donna Tartt

There is something truly wonderful about the way David Pittu narrates Donna Tartt’s magnum opus, which deftly combines vivid characters, mesmerizing language and breathtaking suspense, Cobb said. Pittu’s ability to inhabit each character is astounding, she added, and each of his voices is so distinct that it’s hard to believe there’s only one person narrating the book. His work clearly impressed the judges of the 2014 Audie Awards, who awarded him with the Best Male Solo Performance.

Heartburn by Nora Ephron

Full of crackling ‘80s dialogue and wry, self-deprecating humor, Ephron’s semi-autobiographical novel about adultery, divorce and therapy is skillfully narrated by the star of the 1986 screen adaptation, Meryl Streep. As Publisher’s Weekly explains in their review: “Much of the novel is told through exposition rather than dialogue, so it’s imperative that Streep capture Rachel’s sense of irony without resorting to bitterness, which she does flawlessly.”

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