What Is an Audiobook? – Choose the Best Service

how do audiobooks work?

The Canadian company Rakuten Kobo finally offers audio content worldwide. They now appear as a long-awaited competitor for Amazon’s Audible. Just like vinyl records and cassette tapes, audiobooks are becoming a hot topic once again. One in five people in the United States listens to audio. But how do audiobooks work? And where can we find the best audiobook service?

(If you already know how audio work and want to skip to the best kind of service, go here. With PublishDrive, easily distribute audio, print, and ebook formats. Sell to over 400 book stores and 120K libraries.)

Audio became popular during the last couple of years. Almost everyone in the world have access to some kind of mobile device. Listening to podcasts and audiobooks has become a norm. We're also seeing an increasing number of audio websites, apps, and membership plans like monthly subscription fee models.

Audiobooks are able to bring the reading experience into situations where you couldn’t normally read, like when you're driving or taking a walk. Let’s have a deeper look at how audiobooks work. Let's also look at why you should add them to your publishing strategy.


1. Streaming or downloading: how do audiobooks work?

While some people like to listen to audio before going to bed, a lot of people choose them to lighten up their daily commute. Unless you have unlimited access to mobile data, streaming audio files can show up on your phone bill. Streaming means to download something on the go, as you are listening.

The great advantage of streaming audio content is that it doesn’t require space on your phone or tablet. If you constantly have to delete apps and photos just to win a couple of extra bites, streaming is your way. You can stream Audible premium audiobooks on your computer or by using

On the other hand, streaming is only good if you have reliable 4G coverage. Audiobooks tend to be fairly large, even 500 MB. Therefore most people prefer to download them over WiFi to keep for on-the-go listen. While downloaded books don’t go easy on your phone’s memory, you don’t have to keep them there forever. Audiobooks providers give you a ‘cloud library’ to easily access your books. It's similar for ebooks.

2. Listening or reading

Those who prefer reading over listening argue that they can’t really focus on listening if they have something else to do (like the dishes). Others have problems with the speed or style of reading. And while professional audiobooks are done by actors and voice actors, there are limits to how many different characters can you act out.

Thankfully, this is not a one-way street. Reading and listening to a book can be parallel experiences, across devices.


3. MP3 or M4B (file formats)

Most people have access to audio through a subscription service. It's important to know whether you can open your books with the app of another provider. There are important differences between file formats too.

There are two popular formats in audiobook distribution: MP3 and M4B. The main difference is in the amount of information they code. MP3 is a great way to store good quality audio in a small file across platforms. M4B is Apple’s special file format for audiobooks. MP4Bs are ‘smart’ and can remember where you left off. They can also handle chapter markers and bookmark.

This doesn’t mean that when you listen to an MP3 audiobook you have to look for the place you were last at. That information is not coded in the file but in the app itself.

4. Buying or renting

There are no pros and cons for this because it depends on your preference. I’m a hamster when it comes to collecting books in any (print, digital and audio) form, so an audio rental service feels like a sacrilege. (If your local library has a contract with OverDrive, Hoopla or, borrowing definitely has the advantage of being free.)

5. Abridged or unabridged

Abridged audiobooks are shortened and modified for better listening experience. Unabridged audiobooks are being read as they have been written. While most stores offer both, some pride themselves in offering only unabridged.

Most distributors have their own apps for buying or renting audio content and for listening. In the following, we list our favourites.

a) Free services


A great way to get free English language audio content is to check out your local library. If you expect them to have only old, public domain titles, you are wrong. Most of them have a contract with a big content provider: OverDrive, Hoopla or RecordedBooks. You can’t sign up for these services without a library card. But once you have, you can enjoy free audiobooks straight on your phone or tablet. Check out your library’s website to learn how audiobooks work and how to get them.

Rokuten OverDrive


If you are looking for the classics, head to LibriVox. They offer free books recorded by volunteers in 36 languages. The app comes with a sleep timer, an option to get the corresponding ebook from the Project Gutenberg app. You choose between streaming and downloading books.


b) Subscription services



Audible is the most well-known player in the market (along with the Audible app). With over 200.000 titles in their library, there is plenty to choose from. Amazon was always known about providing a great cross-platform experience. You can listen anywhere at anytime. You can switch between reading and listening without thinking twice about where you left off.

How does Audible work? Signing up to the Audible membership subscription happens under your Amazon account. It gives you one free book per month. Users also get 70% off every additional book.

Price: £7.99 / month (free trial for 30 days)

Size: 200.000 books

Platform: all

Publish Your Audiobook in No Time!


With a great move, Kobo has launched their audiobook service for less than Audible. They also offer one credit (one free book) per month. But there is no talk about a discount on all other titles. With Rakuten owning OverDrive, Kobo users can pick their daily listening from 1.5 million titles.

Price: £6.99 / month (1st month free)

Size: 1.5 million books

Platform: all is also using a credit system. You get one credit for free every month and you get to purchase as many additional credits. While the library is a bit smaller, the app is very intuitive. Anyone can easily browse their library.

Price: £7.99 / month (1st month free)

Size: 100.000 books

Platform: all

The Golden House


Downpour offers both a credit based subscription service and a rental program. You purchase the audiobook at a discounted price and return in within 30 or 60 days. Since their library is vastly different from the other big services, it is worth a look.

Price: $12.99 / month

Size: thousands of books

Platform: all

Sribd audiobooks


When thinking of audiobooks, Scribd is not the first that comes to mind. But the subscription giant has a great selection. The membership gives you access to 3 books and one audio title each month. Any additional audiobooks cost $12.99 each. Additionally, Scribd has a rotating library of free audio content of around 5,000 titles.

Price: $8.99 / month

Size: 100.000

Platform: all

Before you go, want to try distributing audio plus other formats to reach more readers? I'm talking formats like ebook and printed books.


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