The beginner’s great big guide to audiobooks.

The beginner’s great big guide to audiobooks.

When we were first married, Will and I listened to a lot of audiobooks together. We were rehabbing houses, and the books made the hours spent painting go by faster. We listened to The Professor and the Madman together while we were fixing up our kitchen and were hooked.

The technology has changed: it’s not as easy as popping a cd into the player anymore. Many readers want to try audiobooks, but are intimidated by the process of getting started. This guide is for you.

(If you’re an experienced audiobook listener, I hope you learn a few things and find some new titles you love.)

Why audiobooks?

There are lots of reasons:

• To “read” when your hands are occupied. This is my #1 reason.
• To redeem the time, like for a road trip, a daily commute, or folding the laundry.
• For kids who are too young to read to themselves. (Parents get hoarse, and tired.)
• For those who are unable to physically read, permanently or just in the moment, like when you’re feeling blah, or when your eyes are tired, or old.

What makes a great audiobook?

Individual tastes aside, not every book makes a great audiobook.


I love gorgeous novels, but I don’t like to listen to them. My brain does much better processing a complex, literary book when I can see the words on the page.

(One exception: I love to listen to great literary fiction on the re-read: Jayber Crow is great on audio the second time through, but it’s too much to handle on the first.)


A bad narrator can ruin a good book, but a great narrator can’t save a bad one. If anyone claims to have a favorite audiobook narrator, it’s probably Jim Dale. Everyone loves Jim Dale.

On Audible, reviews are broken into 3 categories: story, performance, and overall. Tastes differ, but it still helps to distinguish the good from the bad.

How I choose:

I personally choose audiobooks that have:

• compelling stories. (No zoning out!)
• smart, but not literary fiction. No gorgeous prose.
• fantastic narrators. Bonus points for a winning accent.
• not a requirement, but books that have a lot of dialect make great listening (and frequently, annoying reading). Think Tom Sawyer, The Invention of Wings, These Is My Words.
• many hours of listening, if I’m using an Audible credit. I want to get the most listening out of that credit! (I listened to hundreds of hours of Outlander  on Audible. It didn’t hurt that Davina Porter’s narration was fabulous.)
• I often listen to brand-new releases that I don’t think I want to own, but have a serious library waiting list. I love using my Audible credits to get hot new books with no waiting.

I don’t typically choose content that would make an HSP squirm. When I’m reading a physical book, it’s easy enough to skim—or even skip—over violence or lots of language. It’s harder to avoid when it’s right in your ears.

How does it work?

There are many ways to find and listen to audiobooks. We’ll start with my favorite,

the beginner's guide to audiobooks

How to use

When it comes to audiobooks, Audible is the service to beat. The Audible app is my favorite way to listen to audiobooks, for its everywhere access and ease of use.

I like Audible for their …

• extensive, high-quality library
• ability to search by title, author, or narrator
• reviews of the books and the narrators
• ability to listen to a sample before you buy
• clear indication of whether a title is abridged
• ability to listen at multiple speeds (.75, 1.25, 1.5, 2.0 …)
• ability to quickly rewind or fast forward 30 seconds (or whatever increment you choose, mine is set at 20 seconds)
• you can listen to your Audible purchases on up to 4 computers and 3 devices of each type

It’s not a free service (alas!) but it’s a good value for me because of …

Free 30-day trial
• daily deals that anyone can purchase, member or not (although sadly, they are U.S. and Canadian only at this time). This is a great way to try the service.
• members-only sales (more on that below)
• cheap audio versions if you own the ebook for many titles.
• their “great listen guarantee”: if you don’t like an audiobook, just exchange it—with no questions asked
• you own your audiobooks, even if you cancel your membership

How Audible credits work

Most new subscribers choose the gold plan, which gives you 1 credit per month. 1 book = 1 credit, regardless of whether the cash purchase price would be $8 or $48.

If you don’t want a recurring monthly charge—and don’t need to accumulate more credits—, you can put your account on hold. (To do this, click to chat with a customer service rep from the site. I’ve had great experiences on at least 3 separate occasions.) Though on hiatus, you still retain member benefits like being able to purchase titles at the member’s 30% discount rate (which I never do) and participate in their member-only sales (which I do all the time).

How to listen to your Audible audiobooks

Sign up for a free trial or choose a membership plan (don’t stress about which plan to pick—you can switch at any time). Purchase an audiobook, then download the free Audible app. You can then download your purchases to your device and start listening. (You can’t buy an audiobook straight from your phone: plan ahead for those road trips!)

About those big sales

Audible runs frequent member-only promotions (although you can participate if you’re on a free trial). Past sales have included:

• a 2-for-1 promotion, which offered 2 books for 1 credit from a selected list. I got Americanah (terrific) and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (haven’t listened yet).
• a huge children’s lit sale, where I picked up a slew of Beverly Cleary books for $2.95 each.
• half-price sales, where popular audiobooks are on sale for half off.


Other sources for audiobooks

Audible’s not the only game in town. Other options include:

The library

The library is a great resource for old school audiobooks on compact disc. These are easy to listen to if you’re in the car, or have a cd player handy. My kids can operate these easily. Just keep a pen and paper handy to jot down your place.

Libraries also carry nifty little orange devices called Playaways. Imagine a dedicated one-book iPod: all you need are headphones and a triple A battery.

Some libraries have another great resource at their disposal: it deserves its own category.

The OverDrive app (via your local library)

OverDrive is a service that lets you easily borrow materials from your local library. With the OverDrive app, you can borrow ebooks, audiobooks, and videos—if these items are in your library’s collection. (If your library doesn’t own it, you can’t borrow it—even though the item will be indexed in the OverDrive app.)

I’m jealous of the many MMD readers who tell me they frequently borrow audiobooks through the OverDrive app. I adore my local library, but they have zero digital audiobooks. They’ve chosen to invest their funds elsewhere, which I can certainly appreciate. And they do have an extensive ebook collection.

To get started, use the library finder on (or in OverDrive’s app) to browse your library (or school’s) collection.

If you’re having trouble, ask for help at your local library.


Spotify has an extensive collection of audiobooks, but the quality of the narrators is hit or miss. (They do have an extensive Jim Weiss collection: my kids love him.)

To browse the collection, click Browse > Genres & Mood > Word. You can also search for any audiobook’s title from the home screen.

A free account works fine for desktop use, but it can be difficult to listen on-the-go because only premium accounts can turn off shuffle play for mobile.

(To unshuffle: create a playlist for your chosen audiobook. Select the playlist in the app. Start any track, then open that track by tapping the bar at the bottom of the screen. You’ll see two symbols that utilize arrows at the bottom screen. Tap the arrow symbol that resembles an “x” until it appears white, not green.)

The Audiobooks app

This free app (by Cross Forward Consulting, LLC) features recordings from Librivox’s extensive collection of free public domain audiobooks. The narrators are hit or miss, and chapter breaks are marked by recorded Librivox disclaimers. But it’s free.

The app also has 263 higher-quality, disclaimer-free titles available for $.99 each, or $7.99 to access the complete collection.

Cracker Barrel

You can rent audiobooks (on cd) from Cracker Barrels nationwide for $3.49 per week.

Here’s how it works: buy an audiobook at any Cracker Barrel location. Return it when you’re done, and they’ll refund you your purchase price less $3.49 for each week you had it.

Crowd-pleasing favorites

If you’re not sure where to start, choose from these crowd-pleasing favorites.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. The Harry Potter series. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. View more of my favorite audiobooks (and some of yours) here.

We also listen to a lot of kids’ audiobooks. If you’re a grown-up and you’ve never listened to Peter and the Starcatchers, or The Little House Series, or Neil Patrick Harris read Beverly Cleary, you are missing out. View 40 favorite audiobooks for kids right here.

What else do you want to know? What are your best audiobooks tips? Share away in comments. 

Many readers want to try audiobooks, but are intimidated by the process of getting started. The beginners' great big guide to audiobooks is for you.

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  1. Christie says:

    i would put in my suggestion for the YA Jacky Faber series read by the fabulous Katherine Kellgren. I read the books first and when I put in the first CD, it was so Jacky come to life. Eagerly awaiting our local Overdrive to get the last in the series.

  2. Traci says:

    Have you tried Scribd? I love Audible, and will likely always be a member, but Scribd had a special last Christmas, so I decided to try them out also. I got 6 months of unlimited books for $25, so was definitely worth trying. The normal price is $8.99 per month (unlimited). They have tons of audiobooks now as well as ebooks. A negative is that due to being a subscription service for reading an unlimited number of books, you don’t actually own the books. Also, their app doesn’t work on my iPod touch (may work on the newest version), so I use my Android phone. Scribd’s audiobook selection is nowhere near the volume of Audible, however, I’ve found plenty that I’m interested in.

  3. DanielleD says:

    I laughed out loud when I read your comment on Jayber Crow!! We read it for a book club recently (my suggestion. Eeek!!) I tarried too long and tried to devour it on Audible. Big mistake. By the end I was like, ENOUGH ALREADY!! I keep meaning to go back and read it slowly. But on your suggestion, maybe i’ll just re-listen to it.

  4. iseepassword says:

    My daughter likes to follow along in the paper book. She’s in second grade and reading the second HP book. Following along while listening to the audiobook, she’s getting through it faster than she would reading alone, thanks!

  5. Valerie says:

    Hi Anne,
    I’m wondering what your system is for your kids to listen to audiobooks on their own. I love to listen together, but there are certain instances (quiet time or kids listening to different books) that might require headphones. You’ve mentioned a CD player, but what about all the books that require a device to download to? My kids are too young to have a phone, perhaps an inexpensive Mp3 player (that would be used ONLY for listening to audiobooks) that you can easily download to is a good option? Again, just curious what your approach is in this area. Thank you!

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