On Audiobooks, and a Review of Scribd

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I wrote in my last monthly round-up that I was giving audiobooks a go in September, and here I am now to report my findings! I have been pretty adamant in the past about how I don’t like them much– I understand the appeal, but could never really get into them myself. For one thing, I felt like I couldn’t experience the whole of a book when I “read” it through an audiobook. That, and there is the physical satisfaction of a book which can’t be replicated with the audio format. Even e-readers can do a better job of filling my hands with something vaguely book-shaped.

So what made me decide to rethink my relationship with audiobooks? Well, I am behind in my Goodreads reading challenge. Which you know if you read this blog, because I am almost always behind in my Goodreads challenge and I mention it a lot because it is STRESSFUL. What I needed was more time to read, but there was very little I could do in that regard. I read about an hour and a half every weekday, mostly on my commute to and from work on the train. This is enough daily reading time, in my opinion, as it ensures I can finish about one book per week. I could read more, but don’t want to force myself. Mostly because I have a job, and I have hobbies other than reading — I like to run, and write, and watch Netflix, too. Trying to make more time to read was going to be a rough task unless I got creative.

I walk a lot. I also run a lot. Usually when I do these things I listen to music, but honestly sometimes I get sick of even my own playlists, despite how bomb as hell they are. I had the idea that I could listen to audiobooks while I’m walking around town. That way it wouldn’t be cutting into my train reading time. I didn’t actually want to replace any of the time I spent reading with listening to audiobooks. I wanted to replace time I spent doing other things, like listening to Taylor Swift, with more book time. This results in more books consumed, which results in me getting a badge on my Goodreads page about how I read lots of books in 2015, which is all I ever fuckin’ wanted.

I had a problem, though: I didn’t want to buy any audiobooks, because I was still skeptical they were for me, and they can be expensive. What I wanted was audiobooks in a digital format that I could download onto my iPhone for free. Legally, of course. I went to my library’s Overdrive page, which is also how I get every ebook I read. (I have the same inclination to not buy ebooks, either. I don’t like to own things I can’t actually touch, because I am old?!) I was bummed to see the selection for audiobooks was pretty pathetic. The only book I could see in the Overdrive audiobook selection that I even had a slight interest in reading was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. And it’s a very slight interest. So I didn’t end up taking any audiobooks out from the library.

This is not to say that the library is an awful place to find an audiobook. I’ve thought about this, and I realized the trouble is that in general, older people are more likely to want to get an audibook out from the library. So there’s not a great selection on Overdrive, which specializes in downloadable media–stuff you can borrow with your library card without actually visiting the library, basically, such as ebooks. The selection of physical audiobooks (ones on CDs or Playaways) are much better at the libraries I have visited. Those just didn’t work for what I wanted, which was the ability to listen from my phone. I could’ve borrowed audiobooks on CD and then uploaded them to my computer and then subsequently my phone but that was more work than I wanted this to be.

So I looked into Audible, which ended up being too expensive for me for not enough benefit. It’s $15 a month and you get one audiobook each month. You get to keep the audiobook, but like I said, I didn’t really want to keep the audiobooks I listened to, so I didn’t sign up for a membership.

I listen to the Book Riot podcast a lot, and one of their major sponsors is Scribd, a book subscription service which is much cheaper than Audible at $8.99 a month for unlimited ebooks and audiobooks. I always ignored their ads because I’m kind of dumbfounded by book subscription services. I like ebooks, but I prefer paper books. I read one or two ebooks a month at most, and I always borrow them from my library’s Overdrive collection–they have a decent selection of ebooks, unlike the audiobook selection. The only reason a book subscription service would make sense to me, then, is if I were certain to read/consume several books from the service a month, every month, and I just wouldn’t. But I thought Scribd could be a good way for me to listen to two or three audiobooks a month (what I estimated I would be able to get through) without having to buy them, and with a much better, newer selection than the library’s Overdrive collection.

I signed up for my free month trial convinced Scribd would be a great new addition in my reading life. I started with Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari, which was awesome. It was a great introduction to audiobooks, because it was light and easy to follow, and the fact that it was read by Ansari himself made it seem like one extended comedy routine. It was funny, like I expected it to be, but it was also a very intelligent, empathetic look into the struggles of being single and dating as a young person in a social media obsessed world. It made me happy I am no longer on the market on OKCupid but in a heartening, “We’re all in this together and it all works out in the end!” sort of way.

After Modern Romance, I tried a collection of essays by Zadie Smith called Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays. Unfortunately, I didn’t get through very much of it. I decided to quit it solely because I hated the narrator. This is a very real problem with audiobooks. Sometimes you don’t like the voice of the reader and it ruins the book. In this case, the reader was an older British lady, and she had a particular tone which made Smith’s essays sound kind of snobby. Okay, maybe they are a little snobby, but they didn’t need that extra layer of snob. I can’t help it, I want all audiobooks to be read by Aziz Ansari.

I chose The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick after that. I didn’t love it, to be honest. It was trying to be a very charming story, but I don’t think there was enough risk to it. I was kind of hoping the main character’s separated wife was dead the whole time, you know? But nothing really exciting like that happens in The Silver Linings Playbook. Maybe I read too much Gillian Flynn but are you seriously telling me, Matthew Quick, that NOBODY dies in this whole novel? Come on.  I’m only being partly sarcastic. This book really would have been better if the wife had been dead the whole time. Instead nothing happens except people have feelings and go to football games. I didn’t mind the reader of this one, except for the fact that whenever he was reading a female character’s dialogue, he put on a weird tone that irritated me. This is what I’ve learned from audiobooks: they’re best if they’re read by comedians, but otherwise, if you’re easily annoyed, there’s plenty to be annoyed by.

I was pretty impressed with Scribd’s interface and selection. The browsing process is fun, kind of like Netflix for books, with a bunch of changing recommended categories based on what it thinks you might like. This gets more nuanced the more books you rate with the service. Also, although I was not looking for ebooks, their ebook selection is awesome. I would have borrowed an ebook or two just because of this, but my to-be-read pile is pretty tall at the moment, so I decided to concentrate on audiobooks. The audiobook selection is smaller, but still pretty good. There are popular, newly released books like Modern Romance available in seconds without the inevitable hold process I would have faced at the library. That is a major plus.

This is where the big problem lies: just around the time I started my free trial with Scribd, they announced that they would be moving towards a credit-based system for audiobooks. So, you get to choose one audiobook per month, like Audible, and if you want another that same month, you need to buy a credit which costs the same as your monthly membership free ($8.99). Each audiobook equals one credit. They offer a small selection of “unlimited” audiobooks per month that you can get without a credit, but from what I saw, this selection was unconvincing. This sealed the deal for me that I would cancel my membership after my free month ended.*

I get the business decision behind this. This is why Oyster doesn’t provide audiobooks. They tend to be more expensive than ebooks and they’re less popular. It is nice that you can still get a free audiobook a month on Scribd without paying as much as you would for Audible, although Audible has the best audiobook selection of all options. Really, with Scribd, you’re getting the most for your money if you are looking for mainly ebooks with the occasional audiobook.

The problem is I have too many books to read. I don’t need (or even want) a new unlimited selection on top of my already endless selection of books to read. I have an overflowing book shelf and two awesome libraries that I frequent regularly. I never have a moment where I think, “I have no books to read!” I literally will never run out of books to read before I die. I won’t even come close.

As far as the digital aspect, my library has more than enough ebooks to keep me satisfied, especially since I don’t need or want every book I read to be in digital form. If your local library doesn’t have a big selection of ebooks, and you think you’re likely to read several ebooks a month, than a Scribd membership would be perfect for you. If you’re impatient when it comes to books and you can’t stand waiting on hold for new releases, Scribd could be a good alternative to buying brand new books every time you’re curious about a new release. I waited on hold for The Girl on the Train for an entire month this past winter, so I get the impulse.

Final verdict on Scribd: I certainly recommend trying it out, but it’s not for me.

As for my audiobook quest, I am going to head over to the library soon and try out a Playaway. I don’t love audiobooks, but for some books, like Modern Romance, they’re an enjoyable option to have, and I like that they give me more book time in the spaces of my day. For the majority of books I want to read, though, I’ll still choose reading over listening, and my library is a fine enough subscription service for the time being.

[*Note: I tried to cancel my Scribd subscription, but they offered me another 30 days free. I will take advantage of this offer and let you all know if I change my mind about canceling.]

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