Heard any good books lately?

The summer road trip season is upon us. Whether you are on your way to Burning Man or Bonnaroo, you might be in for hours trapped behind the wheel. Wouldn’t it be nice to instead wile away those hours in another time and place entirely? With a car adapter for your iPod, a good audio book can be just the ticket to mentally take you away.

Audio books can do the same for your workout, taking your mind off the task at hand and helping you forget the drudgery. They can help you keep up with the latest business topics or best sellers, or even bone up on the classics. Plus, they are a great way to make the most of time spent commuting.

Buying and Renting

Audio books in downloadable format are a dream come true for both online retailers and consumers. The premier source of audio books online, Audible.com, has been experiencing fantastic growth˜no doubt due in part to Audible’s partnership with Apple’s equally successful iTunes Music Store. For information on using iTunes and Audible.com together, see our article How to: Audible.com.

In many ways, Audible is also a boon for audio book listeners. The site allows users to download, stream, and even burn CDs from a huge catalog of books and other spoken word programs. Audio books have essentially become available “on demand.”

Since most audio books are recorded in mono and don’t require the fidelity of music, you can fit more into much less storage space than an equivalent amount of music. For instance, using Audible’s highly compressed Format 2 file type, a 512MB iPod Shuffle can hold up to 135 hours of Audible content.

Audible may not be a panacea though. Unlike most CDs, Audible uses a Digital Rights Management (DRM) scheme which limits what can be done with a particular book. For instance, titles are limited in the number of times they can be burned to CD. In addition, Audible’s proprietary audio formats are not playable on all portable players.

Audible’s catalog is admittedly huge, but it is not completely comprehensive. A notable absence is the popular Harry Potter series. Listeners who hope to hear about Harry, Ron, and Hermione on their iPod are forced to get their MP3s or AACs the old fashioned way, by ripping the CDs. It is up to you to decide if ripping all 23 compact discs of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is worth the effort.

Since iTunes is optimized for music, there are some tricks to getting audio books imported and making them bookmarkable. Fortunately, blogger Michael A. Alderete has written a very thorough guide to importing audio book CDs into iTunes.

If you are willing to spend a little extra time ripping CDs or wait a few days for your books to arrive in the mail, a wide variety of other audio book sources open up to you. Audio books can be found on publishers’ websites, on eBay, and even your local library.

Publishers of audio books, such as Blackstone Audiobooks, Recorded Books, and the anachronistically named Booksontape.com, all offer a large collection of titles on their websites. While the majority of the titles on the publishers’ sites are also available via Audible.com, there are some exceptions. If nothing else, publishers’ sites can be worth checking, especially if you are having trouble tracking down a particular title.

Blackstone also sells MP3 versions of many of its titles, which will save you from having to rip CDs; however, keep in mind that iPods do not support bookmarking of MP3s. In order to bookmark such an audio book, start by converting the MP3s to AACs using iTunes. Mac users can then run the Mark Bookmarkable Applescript, which changes the AAC files to the bookmarkable M4B format. Windows users can change the filenames manually or opt for a shareware tool called MarkAble, which streamlines the entire conversion process.

Several audio book rental sites have also sprung up. Most sites, such as Simply Audiobooks, Audio-To-Go, and Booksfree.com, have adopted a subscription system, similar to the online movie rental site Netflix. Subscribers pay a monthly fee and are allowed to keep out a set number of CDs or titles at a time.

Budget Options

For those on a budget, your local public library can be an excellent source of audio books. Unfortunately, most libraries still stock mainly cassette and CD versions of audio books, not to mention that the legality of ripping audio books from the library is questionable at best.

Fortunately, some libraries are beginning to offer MP3 titles on CD. One library has even begun loaning iPod shuffles containing audio books, which can work out to be cheaper for the library than traditional media. Online card catalogs and reservations make libraries an even more enticing option for some.

A company called Digital Library Reserve recently began providing a new audio book service to libraries. The service, called OverDrive, allows patrons of subscribing libraries to download ebooks and digital audio books online. See the company’s website for a list of participating libraries.

Since new audio books can be quite expensive and most people usually listen to a given book only once, there is a large market of used audio books. There are deals to be found through eBay, Half.com, and the used listings on Amazon.com. If you are patient enough, eBay’s saved searches and Half.com’s pre-order function can be particularly useful for getting good deals.

In addition to the major publishers mentioned above, there are also several niche publishers worth noting, especially for those on a budget. For fans of podcasting, a site called Podiobooks provides free audio books in podcast format. The site does accept donations, half of which go to the authors and half toward maintaining the site.

Another small publisher, Telltale Weekly, is attempting to establish a free audio book library. The site vows to release its titles for free once they have been out for five years or have been downloaded 100,000 times, whichever comes first. The selection is limited, but the prices are more reasonable than most major publishers.

AudioBooksForFree.com and Books2Audio both specialize in audio versions of older books whose copyrights have expired. As the name implies, AudioBooksForFree offers its highest compression format for free. Most of the free titles also include advertisements, though children’s books do not. Higher quality versions of the same titles are available for a fee. Books2Audio offers low budget titles by forgoing human readers and using text-to-speech technology instead.

If you are comfortable listening to a computer generated voice, you might even try making your own audio books. Start with a free book in text format from Project Gutenberg or The Online Books Page. Next, use a text-to-speech converter, such as TextAloud for Windows or iSpeak It for Mac. For an additional fee, the quality of the latest add-on voices from AT&T Natural Voices or Cepstral might surprise you.

Choosing Books

Choosing an audio book can be a daunting task. In addition to the variety of formats touched on above, there is also the question of abridged versus unabridged versions. It is a matter of taste, but some titles may lend themselves to abridging more than others. You may want to opt for the abridged copy of the latest business best seller, then savor the full unabridged version of a classic novel.

An audio book’s reader can have a big effect on its overall presentation. Some authors choose to do their own reading, while some titles are read by professional actors. In each case, the results can vary widely. A good reader can save a bad book, just as a bad reader can ruin a good book. Until you find readers that you like, you may want to take advantage of the preview clips that many online sites provide.

To help find the best audio book selections, AudioFile magazine comes out every two months, packed with reviews of the latest releases. In addition to highlighting the best titles, the magazine’s website also features a section called Golden Voices which points out some of the best audio book readers.

While some reviews are available on the website, AudioFile also publishes a comprehensive reference guide to audio book titles. The printed guide can be ordered from their website and is available to premium subscribers online.

In addition to audio books, a variety of other spoken word content is available online. Audible.com offers subscription programs, which include radio programming, spoken word versions of magazines, and even audio versions of television shows. Just about any kind of spoken content is available, including language learning material, plays, and poetry.

A site called American Rhetoric makes available MP3 versions of some of the greatest speeches from recent history. Additional learning opportunities are available via college lectures offered through The Teaching Company and Modern Scholar.

A U.S. History course could be just the ticket for that cross-country move. Or the upcoming Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince might get you to Salem, Massachusetts and back. In any case, there are audio book options to meet just about any taste.

Recommended Titles

Title: Harry Potter series
Genre: fantasy
Author: J.K. Rowling
Read By: Jim Dale (Guinness record holder for “Most Character Voices In An Audio Book”)
Format: unabridged
Summary: Follow Harry Potter as he makes friends and battles his enemies at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry

Title: Rocket Boys
Genre: memoir
Author: Homer H. Hickam, Jr.
Read By: Beau Bridges
Format: abridged
Summary: The true story of Homer Hickam and his teenage friends, who rise above their mining town roots to become amateur rocket builders.

Title: Life of Pi
Genre: fiction
Author: Yann Martel
Read By: Jeff Woodman
Format: unabridged
Summary: Pi Patel, an introspective east Indian teenager struggles to survive, trapped on a life raft with a tiger named Richard Parker.

Title: Good to Great
Genre: business
Author: Jim Collins
Read By: the author
Format: Abridged & Unabridged
Summary: Jim Collins examines eleven stand-out companies to find the key criteria for making and sustaining greatness.

Title: In a Sunburned Country
Genre: travel
Author: Bill Bryson
Read By: the author
Format: unabridged
Summary: Bill Bryson finds humor in every corner of Australia as he journeys across the vast country on a quest to learn more about a country most Americans know little about.

Title: Blink
Genre: non-fiction
Author: Malcolm Gladwell
Read By: the author
Format: unabridged
Summary: Malcolm Gladwell weaves a series of stories and studies from a variety of fields into a lesson on how our brains make split-second decisions and how we can make the most of these instantaneous judgments.

Matt Vance ( www.minezone.org ) is a technology consultant, manager, and freelance writer living in Austin, Texas.

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