An Expert's Guide to Finding and Listening to Amazing Audiobooks While Social Distancing

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An Expert's Guide to Finding and Listening to Amazing Audiobooks While Social Distancing

When it comes to audiobooks, you can easily find more than you’d expect for free and support your local community more than you realize. This is particularly important right now, as we’re practicing social distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19.

With that in mind, I wanted to share the tips, tricks, and secrets I’ve collected through writing about audiobooks for Paste for years. Here’s my personal guide to finding and listening to great audiobooks in three simple stages:

STAGE 1: DISCOVERY

Before you borrow or buy audiobooks, you first have to find titles that interest you. Curated audiobook lists are a great place to start, of course, but you can also discover books on your own using these tips:

1. Find a narrator you like and dive into their back catalog.

A way to ensure that future listening experiences are amazing is to seek out audiobooks narrated by a performer you already love. Great narrators tend to do both solo and full-cast recordings, which will introduce you to new performers to adore as you work your way through the available titles. Pretty soon, you’ll have too many favorites to count!

2. Check out past Audie Awards lists.

Every year, the Audio Publishers Association (APA) hosts the Audie Awards to celebrate the “best of the best” in audiobooks. Though the event isn’t open to the public, you can still browse the lists of nominees and winners they publish every year!

3. Wow, this blew up…while you’re here, check out my SoundCloud.

Genuinely, here is the “Following” page on my SoundCloud. It only contains audio publisher accounts, which allows you to listen to strings of clips from new and upcoming audiobooks without unnecessary distraction. Some publishers are better than others about releasing clips early (Penguin Random House is particularly prolific); some are better at including release dates and links to purchase in each track’s notes (Hachette has an edge here); some only remember to post clips in wild bursts every few months (oh, Scholastic). But together, they offer you a quick way to sample new titles and discover something both surprising and compelling.

STAGE 2: ACCESS

The second hurdle is figuring out how and where you can access audiobooks. Whether you’re looking for physical or digital audiobooks, we fortunately live in a time of plenty. No matter how much disposable income you have, there’s a way for you to access great audiobooks right now. Below are all the places I use (plus a few I don’t, but probably should) to get my audiobooks both for free and with my hard-earned cash.

FREE

1. Libraries

Your local library is one of the best resources you can use for just about anything, and audiobooks are no exception. Librarians want to help you find books you’ll love! Not only that, library purchases support authors as much as (or more than) individual ones do.

If you frequent a local branch on foot, a wide variety of physical audiobooks should be available in both disc and Playaway form. (To slow down the spread of COVID-19, many libraries are closed to the public at this time. So the digital options listed in the following paragraphs are the safest options right now.) If your branch is part of any kind of regional consortium, you can go online to request titles for free from other branches. And if your library doesn’t own whatever you’re looking for, their website should have an option for you to make purchase requests. Life’s too short to not give your whole community the joy of having access to your exquisite audiobook taste!

For digital audiobooks, your options are likely even greater. Many libraries keep their largest collection of titles in Overdrive, which can be accessed via browser. For an even better experience, access it through the user-friendly Libby app or its kid sister, Sora.

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Beyond Overdrive, many libraries also have access to audiobooks via Hoopla (which supports a stellar comics-reading interface as well), RB Digital (formerly OneClick Digital), Cloud Library or others that operate on a more local scale. Check your local library site for the options that are available to you!

Titles owned by libraries via Overdrive operate just like physical copies. Libraries have a limited number of licenses, meaning that if there are more patrons wanting to read a given title than there are “copies,” they’ll join a hold queue. (Libby/Sora makes it incredibly easy to see where you are in a given queue and to suspend/cancel your hold if needed.) Hoopla has a more limited catalog, but it provides immediate access to everything. (In my personal experience, Hoopla also has a greater selection of foreign language and self-published titles, for what that’s worth.)

COVID-19 Pro Tip: Even if you don’t currently have a library card, check online to see if you can get one remotely! At least one of my local library networks is making it easy for residents to get a temporary card issued digitally to last the duration of the current social distancing period. Libraries want to help you, so let them!

2. Audiobook SYNC

Run by AudioFile, Audiobook SYNC for Teens is an annual spring/summer program that makes curated pairs of a teen-friendly audiobooks free on a weekly basis for anyone with an Overdrive account. (This summer, the 13-week-long program will run through the student-oriented Sora app.) Including both contemporary bestsellers (Monday’s Not Coming, Serpent & Dove) and classics (Twelfth Night, Kindred), the SYNC books offers hours of entertainment for months to come. The 2020 program launches on April 30.

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3. Libro.fm Author Events

Bummed you had to miss your favorite author’s latest book tour? Indie bookseller partner Libro.fm (see below) has recently begun turning author events into free audiobooks. It’s still a small catalog, but it’s definitely a cool concept with room to grow.

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1. Audible

Cost: $14.95/month (after a 30-day free trial) for a subscription that includes one audiobook and two Audible Originals each month, and it gives you access to an extensive collection of Audible Exclusive content.

You probably don’t need us to tell you about it, but here’s the scoop just in case. Audible has worked hard these last few years leading the audiobook revolution not only by expanding the reach of their regular audiobook content, but also by developing an extensive slate of specially produced audiobooks. From the Wil Wheaton-narrated version of The Martian and Sophia Chang’s memoir The Baddest Bitch in the Room to scripted audio comedies like the Paul Rudd-starring Escape from Virtual Island and the Meg Ryan-narrated Cut and Run, they’ve created innovative audio content for everyone. They even have a whole university’s worth of Audible-only Great Courses! Truly, if spending your pocket money on great audio content is all you want to do, you could play in the Audible sandbox forever and stay happy.

Pro Tip: Some Audible Original content is being made available to all Audible members for free for extended periods of time, so be on the lookout! Recent free titles include February’s James Taylor memoir and March’s Tales of Beedle the Bard from J.K. Rowling.

COVID-19 Pro Tip: To entertain families who are staying home right now, Audible has set up a unique Audible Stories platform stocked with dozens and dozens of free audiobooks for kids (and kids-at-heart) of all ages—including a solid selection of titles in French, Spanish, German, Italian and Japanese. The best part? They’ve announced that “all stories are free to stream on your desktop, laptop, phone or tablet.”

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2. Libro.fm

Cost: $14.99/month (after one free month) for a membership supporting an independent bookstore of your choice, which gets you one non-expiring, DRM-free audiobook credit each month, a 30% membership discount on any additional titles you might want to buy (including titles already on sale), and the knowledge that you’re supporting your favorite local bookstore. (Bonus: If you refer a friend, you get a free credit.)

It’s no secret that we love Libro.fm. The service has gracefully risen to face the greatest existential challenge facing indie booksellers since the digital audiobook era began, allowing you to support a brick and mortar bookstore with every online purchase you make.

Pro Tip: Be on the lookout for deals in the Sale section, which get even better with the monthly membership discount. You should also check out the free Clubs Libro.fm has put together—Kids, YA, Romance, and Business—which offer bestselling backlist titles at a discount each month regardless of your membership status ($10 or less for general audience titles; $3.99 or under for Kids Club titles).

COVID-19 Pro Tip: To support indie booksellers who are losing sales during this period of social distancing, Libro.fm has launched a #ShopBookstoresNow campaign. To help their 950+ partner bookstores, Libro.fm has introduced two options where the customer’s entire payment is passed along to their bookstore (they typically split profits with bookstores):

Option1: A 2-for-1 membership for $14.99 with the code SHOPBOOKSTORESNOW. Bookstores get $14.99 for every new member who uses this code.

Option 2: A 1-month gift membership for $15. Current members can purchase a gift membership to get additional credits or gift it to others. Bookstores get all $15.

As of this morning (March 23rd), the #ShopBookstoresNow effort has raised over $40,000 towards their goal of $50,000 set for the end of March. You can track the campaign’s progress live on the Libro.fm blog here.

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3. Scribd

Cost: $8.99/month (after a 30-day free trial) for unlimited access to “the world’s largest digital library,” which includes digital audiobooks, e-books, magazines, newspapers, sheet music, and other assorted documents.

I have yet to try Scribd, but when you learn that it has 80 million monthly readers in over 100 countries, it sounds like I’m in the minority. With its catalog organized both by buzziness and interest—and with the Scribd Editors weighing in at regular intervals with timely, curated lists—the discovery experience looks top notch.

COVID-19 pro tip: You can skip the standard credit card sign-up for now and go straight to this link to get 30 days of Scribd access completely free. By skipping the need for a commitment or a card, they’ve made it possible for everyone to enjoy their entire library—no strings attached.

4. Google Play/Apple Books/Volumes

If you want to buy a specific digital audiobook, and you prefer to do so using software you already use to access music/e-books/social media to keep things simple, here are your options:

Google Play, whose discounted titles are found in a smooth user experience and solid lists.

Apple Books’ Audiobooks Store, whose user interface mirrors that of Apple Music (take that how you will)

Penguin Random House Audiobooks’ proprietary Volumes app, which may trap you in a single (if enormous) publishing stream, but offers terrific UX design, exclusive podcasts (Beaks and Geeks, Ask a Manager, The Taste), and robust in-app listening controls.

STAGE 3: EXPERIENCE

As Flula Borg put it when announcing his recent audio-only memoir, Wanderlust USA, all you need to do to enjoy an audiobook is just pour it into your earholes and shake it around. That said, I do have some additional tips:

1. Test out the playback controls.

No matter which app you use to listen to digital audiobooks, you should have access to at least a small suite of playback controls. Libby’s are the most robust in my experience; you can adjust playback speed in x.05 intervals (both up and down), can jump to different places in the recording without losing track of where you started, and can set extremely precise sleep timers. But each app offers something, so figure out what works best for you.

2. When in doubt, zone out.

Sometimes you need to zone out for a bit to protect your mental health. But since listening by definition doesn’t require the use of your hands, you can pair your audiobook time with other activities. Whether you want to knit, bake bread, or scroll through Instagram, listening to an audiobook at the same time provides a welcome mental escape.

Happy listening!



Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.

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