Lately, my favorite iPod audio track is filled not with pounding drums and throbbing bass, but rather Bill Bryson’s monotone voice, reciting arcane facts from the 18th century. Increasingly, rather than start my day with music, I listen to a good book, most recently Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything —just one of several titles in my digital library. When I’m driving, working out, cycling, or working in the garden, it’s words I turn to rather than music.
While the ebook never really took off, despite several years of being touted as “the next big thing,” the audiobook is booming. Among other places, the
iTunes Music Store and
Audible.com are excellent online resources for audiobooks, the latter carrying over 25,000 titles. One drawback, however, is the price. Not only are they more expensive than digital music albums, audiobooks typically cost more than their printed counterparts, often by several dollars.
But audiobook buffs need not spend a fortune to get great content. Several free audiobook projects aim to bring open-source—or nearly so—audiobooks to the Web.
Project Gutenberg, long famous for building a repository of free, public domain ebooks, has been quietly building an audiobook library as well. With over 400 titles, it’s extensive enough to spend hours browsing. You’ll be hard-pressed to find new works here, but most of the titles are literary classics—Dickens, Twain, and Shakespeare—that resonate well in any era.
Gutenberg carries a handful of
human-read books, but most titles are
read by computers. Although I occasionally set up my computer to read the day’s news, or a long email from a friend, the very thought of sitting through an entire emotionless recitation of
Moby Dick is enough to send me out to sea myself.
Yet since Gutenberg uses public-domain texts, others can build from its existing work, which is what a site called
Libravox has done. Libravox is podcasting audiobooks, one chapter at a time, from texts available on Project Gutenberg. Volunteers contribute all the audio, taking turns reading chapters and uploading them to the site. As Librivox posts each chapter online, it also sends each out via a podcast. However, Librivox is just getting started, and is only now podcasting its first title, Joseph Conrad’s Secret Agent . Although this will certainly be a site to watch, it’s not yet content-rich.
Thankfully, there’s a low-cost alternative with an existing library that blends the best of both Gutenberg’s public domain readings with the quality experience of having a human being read a book to me.
Telltale Weekly sells human-read audiobooks for as little as a quarter. What’s more, all works are DRM-free, and available in MP3, AAC, and Ogg Vorbis formats. After five years or 100,000 downloads (whichever comes first) Telltale will release its books under a
Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial License, essentially setting them free in the public domain.
The site is the brainchild of Alex Wilson, a 28-year old Cleveland native who lives in North Carolina. Wilson said he had the idea for the site after searching for an audiobook version of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass online, without success. Realizing that others had probably had the same experience, he decided to try and produce the content himself, relying on his experience as an actor and writer and some home recording equipment.
“I realized no one had tried this,” Wilson tells Playlist . “And I couldn’t do it as a for-profit venture.”
“With the way that copyright law is, there’s almost a perpetual copyright in the United States now. Anything after 1923 is sort of off-limits,” says Wilson. “Stuff that was recorded in the 30s and 40s is often still protected under copyright, and will be for a long time. You really have to be active to add to the catalogue of free content.”
Wilson’s solution was to record public-domain works himself, which he then protects with a Creative Commons license. He charges a small fee for each title—Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum costs a buck, Kafka’s Metamorphosis costs four, The Kiss by Kate Chopin is a mere twenty-five cents. This both adds to the library of publicly available works, while allowing Wilson to recoup his costs.
A little over a year old, Telltale Weekly now has about 100 titles online. Wilson says he is trying to add about one title per week, but notes that he’s aiming for quality and length over quantity. (According to Wilson longer titles, such as H.G. Wells War of the Worlds , are more popular than shorter pieces.) With roughly a dozen freelance voice-over actors, and a few modern pieces contributed by friends, Wilson says the project has grown beyond his initial hopes.
“I expected this to be a small project to do in my spare time, and if I was lucky I’d be able to find others to continue making recordings and pay off my recording equipment,” he says. “It started as more of an experiment but it seems like something that could be self-sustaining, and I’m going to continue at it and see where it takes me.
Mathew Honan is a San Francisco-based writer and photographer. His work has also appeared in Macworld, Wired, Time, and Salon.