March 1, 2007

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Audiobooks for free
How to find them or make your own
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

What are your excuses for not reading?

I used to go with “too busy” and “I deal with words all day.” A reporter’s life is filled, after all, with transcriptions, press releases, meeting minutes and stories from a variety of news sources, not to mention one’s own articles. The last thing one wants to do in one’s precious free time, then, is ingest more words.

For those times your brain is otherwise unoccupied, though, the audiobook can be a nice way to “read” a book or story. The problem with audiobooks is that they’re even more overpriced than hardcovers and paperbacks.

Where can you get just about anything for free? The Internet, of course! Audiobooks are no exception; while the latest Dan Brown or Michael Crichton novel probably won’t be out there free, there’s a growing library of classic books available for download. The key phrase is “public domain.” If a work’s copyright has expired, anyone can do anything they like with it, and some folks have decided to read these books into microphones and place the recordings on the Web.

They’re actually pretty easy to find. There are some available as podcasts through the iTunes Music Store, and you can also Google “free audiobook” and to be presented with a bunch of sites that offer downloads. They each have their little quirks.

AudioBooksForFree.com has a nice index that you can filter by play time, male or female narrator or author and even adult content. You can also browse by genre. The lazy but loaded can opt to buy all the site’s audiobooks pre-loaded on an iPod or other MP3 player, a bare hard drive or on nine DVDs in a swankily bound case.

Unless you’re willing to pay, you only get access to recordings at 8 kilobits per second, which is actually not as bad as it sounds. Most audiophiles, if they deign to listen to MP3 music at all, will tell you that 128Kbps is the absolute, horrible minimum. But that’s for music. The human voice has considerably less dynamic range than the Boston Symphony Orchestra, or even Nickelback, so while 8Kbps will sound a little electronicky, it’s adequate, and takes up very little space on your hard drive. Imagine it’s your mom or dad reading to you over the phone.

You’ll also need to download a bunch of files for each book — typically a couple dozen. You can click and save each one or you can use a download manager (like the one at FreeDownloadManager.org; it’s free).

LibriVox.org has an impressive catalog as well, with a good search function but little in the way of filtering the actual results you get. That’s more than made up for by the ability to download the whole darn book, still separated into chapters, in one compressed ZIP file. The files are generally encoded at 64Kbps, so they sound pretty good.

• Then there’s Gutenberg.org, the granddaddy of ebook sites. It doesn’t have a ton of audiobooks, but it does have 20,000 text files. You can actually save those to an audio format, courtesy a text-to-speech program like ReaDit 2005 (www.niurosoft.com) or Ultra Hal (www.zabaware.com). The former is limited to 15,000 characters; for reference, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is about 330,000 with footnotes, so you’ll have to split up longer works yourself. The latter only converts to WAV format, considerably less space-efficient than MP3.

Shall we talk about file conversion software next week? I believe we shall.



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