Untangling the Web
A Site for Sore Ears: A Review and Tour of Audible.Com
Sherry Gomes said that she used to dream of being locked in a library overnight--a library where all the books were accessible to a blind person. Today, Gomes, an access technology trainer in Colorado, has found, as have many other blind people, that through a variety of sources, they no longer have the problem of wanting a book and having nothing available to read. Certainly, there are a number of sources that make books in recorded and digital formats, especially for people who are blind. But Audible.com did not have blind people in mind when it went live in 1997. Its target audience was the busy on-the-go executive--the professional who wanted to listen to books, newspapers, and trade periodicals in transit, absorbing information while accomplishing other tasks like driving a car, sitting on an airplane, or waiting for a train. The happy coincidence is that a few people who are blind discovered the site when it was new and found a staff that was genuinely interested in making the product more friendly to blind people. The result is a source of audio books that are available 24 hours a day--books to suit every reading taste and are available at a reasonable price.
What Is Audible?
Audible.com began the unique business of providing spoken audio online in 1997. By mid-2000, the company had formed an alliance with Random House to provide that publisher's digital audio books (available in bookstores and libraries on audiocassettes and CDs) as downloadable files. Early offerings were audio compilations of news and some broadcasts. Today, the site offers a wide assortment of books, periodicals, radio broadcasts, and miscellaneous special features. Books of every category are available, from classics to best-sellers, including mysteries, fantasies, classical literature, and every type of nonfiction. The titles that are offered are both abridged and unabridged and, best of all, are offered at prices that are lower than are those that retail bookstores charge for the same titles in audio formats.
What Audible.com categorizes as "subscriptions" includes a variety of periodicals and radio broadcasts. You can sign up, for example, for a month or year of the National Public Radio program "Morning Edition," "Fresh Air," or "Marketplace," and it will be delivered daily to your My Library section on Audible.com. Jim Kutsch, who became a huge fan of Audible.com in 2000 (and is the author of an introductory article about Audible.com that appeared in the January 2003 issue of AccessWorld) said that what initially hooked him was the fact that the offerings are current.
"As a professional," said Kutsch, vice president of strategic technology for Convergys Corp., "I needed to talk about the same new books that my colleagues were talking about on airplanes, before meetings, and at conferences." He was especially excited about daily newspapers. Four years ago, when he had a 45-minute commute to work each day, he found that, for the first time, he was able to scan the same morning newspaper as his print-reading colleagues. At 6:30 a.m., the daily Wall Street Journal (an excerpted audio version of the same day's print publication) is available online to Audible.com subscribers. Kutsch would download it to his portable handheld player and listen to it on the way to work. "For the first time," he said, "I was the one to say, 'Hey, take a look at that article about Ford Motor or IBM.'"
In just four years, the Audible.com collection has grown dramatically. Today, subscribers can enjoy their favorite radio broadcasts--news, interviews, comedy, and other types of entertainment--on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. The magazines that are available cover such categories as business, technology, science, and finance. If you enjoy sampling a variety of content, the Basic Listener membership ($14.95 a month) allows you to choose one book and one subscription each month. Since all books and all subscriptions are included in this program, this option works well. John Grisham's newly released The Broker (unabridged, 11-plus hours of reading) costs $34.97 if you buy it outright; Bob Dylan's new memoir Chronicles, Volume One, costs $18.20; and Maya Angelou's Hallelujah! The Welcome Table (unabridged) costs $13.97. Book prices range from $5 to $40, but most seem to be in the $12 to $22 range. You could select any book for your monthly selection and add, say, a month of Harvard Business Letter (regularly $6.95), Jazz Time ($4.95), or the daily broadcasts of "Fresh Air" for one month ($12.95). Then, of course, you can purchase any additional books or subscriptions at their stated prices. For those who prefer books to other audio content, the Premium Listener Option allows you to choose two books per month for $21.95 per month.
In addition to books, periodicals, and radio broadcasts, there are other types of content, so-called Audible Originals, to enjoy. Would you like to learn Spanish? Hear interviews with Robin Williams? Or listen to audio reenactments of the "Twilight Zone"? In addition to these rich offerings of fiction, nonfiction, drama, and poetry, Audible.com introduced its "Free Audio" section in March 2004. The first of these offerings was the public testimony before the 9/11 Commission, followed by President Bill Clinton's address to Book Expo America, the U.S. presidential and vice presidential debates, and other political broadcasts. All these downloads are listed under the heading Free Audio and, accordingly, show up with a $0.00 price in the Shopping Cart.
How Does It Work?
The basic principle behind Audible.com is to make spoken audio materials available online and charge a fee for downloads. To make this idea profitable, the company encrypts files in such a way that you need the company's special software, AudibleManager, to open them on the computer or an "Audible-Ready" portable device to listen to them on the go. In the beginning, there was only one such player--the Mobile Player from Audible.com, followed by the Otis. Today, a few dozen compatible players are listed on the Audible.com site, and that list does not include some devices that were especially designed for people who are visually impaired that have also been enabled to play Audible.com's files.
Even though the site is one of the most friendly commercial sites for people who are blind that I have ever visited, getting started is not entirely a piece of cake. As one long-time user who is blind, Dan Rossi, a programmer for Carnegie Mellon University, put it: "I can just about guarantee you that at some point you will think that Audible is not worth the trouble. It will drive you nearly to tears." Although I did not find the process quite as daunting as did Rossi, there is admittedly a learning curve at the beginning, with a number of sometimes odd steps to get the books playing.
The process is like this: When you begin buying books, the software, AudibleManager, is installed on your computer. On the site itself, as you browse titles, you can mark a book or subscription to be added to your Wish List or to your Shopping Cart. When you proceed to the checkout and pay for the items, they are then placed in what is called My Library. From there, the books or other audio content can be stored as "New," "Heard," or "Archived." Once you get the hang of it, these concepts are all excellent ways to organize your Audible.com materials, but the process can be a bit confusing at first.
Once you have purchased a title, it is yours to download as many times as you want to and remains permanently stored in your library unless you get rid of it. To read the book, you select it from your library, click the Get It Now button, choose a format, and download it to your computer. Most titles are available in four different formats, ranging in quality from Format 1, which is of the poorest quality and takes the smallest amount of space, to Format 4, which is of an excellent quality and thus is the largest file. Downloaded materials go directly to AudibleManager's Inbox on your PC, where they remain ready for you to listen to in whatever manner you choose.
AudibleManager may be a little confusing at first, too. The menus may be troublesome initially, but there are shortcuts to most functions for users of screen readers that ultimately make it a friendly environment. I also found it helpful to turn on the sound effects in AudibleManager, which gave me constant confirmation with various musical sequences of what was going on.
Getting to the Book
All this, incidentally--from buying a book to hearing its opening words--takes less than five minutes once you have done it a few times. So, now that you have that best-seller on your PC, how do you listen to it?
Audible.com provides three options. The first option is to listen to the book on your PC. The second option--and the one that is used by most customers, blind or sighted, with whom I have spoken--is to transfer the book or program to a portable player. The third option is to burn the book onto CDs.
Listening on Your Computer
If you want to listen to books and other programs on your computer, AudibleManager gives you the option of listening with Windows Media Player, RealPlayer, or Audible's own Desktop Player (a free plug-in). To use the Desktop Player, you simply choose it from the Tools menu in AudibleManager, and it will be downloaded from the site. There are simple keyboard shortcuts to play, pause, fast forward, and rewind by entire sections or small increments. Books and periodicals are always divided into sections, which facilitates navigating a large amount of material. Sometimes the sections are chapters or articles, and sometimes they are just chunks of narration divided into reasonably consistent segments. With the Desktop Player, you can download a book or program, begin listening immediately, stop if you need to, and easily locate your place later.
The ability to download a book or several books, along with, say, a few news programs, a magazine, and a comedy routine, into one handheld player is the aspect of Audible.com that attracts the most customers. In July 2000, when the AudibleListener program was launched, Audible.com offered the Otis player free of charge as an incentive to sign up. Today, it offers the Creative Labs MuVo MP3 player (reviewed in the January 2005 issue of AccessWorld) free of charge to new listeners. If you already have a MuVo or do not want that player, you can instead deduct $100 from the price of an Apple iPod, HP iPaq, Dell Axim Pocket PC, Gateway Jukebox Player, or a number of other mainstream handheld players. Storage ranges from the 128 megabytes in the free version of the MuVo to 40 gigabytes in some Apple iPods. The advantage of the MuVo, other than that it is free of charge, is that it is the only one of the commercial handheld players that is entirely accessible to a blind user. In addition to the Otis, which is no longer available, and the MuVo, many customers who are blind have found success using the Rio 500. Along with this growing collection of commercially available handheld players that are compatible with Audible.com files, a growing number of devices that are designed for people who are visually impaired now include Audible.com file compatibility. Among these devices are the Book Port, BookCourier, and Freedom Scientific's PAC Mate.
Putting It On a Disk
If you want to listen to your book on a portable or car CD player, Audible.com makes that option easy, too. An easy-to-use feature from AudibleManager is the option to burn the book or program to CDs. The process is straightforward and simple, informing you how many disks will be required, telling you when to put in the next blank disk, and printing the proper labels.
The first thing you will notice when you log on to Audible.com is the frequency with which you hear the phrase "Click here to jump to the body of this page." Navigating Audible's site, however, was not always so welcoming to screen readers as it is today. Mary Otten, a long-time Audible listener who is blind, said that when she started to use the service in 1999 or 2000, she gave up because it was too difficult. Today, she is a frequent and happy customer.
That transition did not happen by magic. Jim Kutsch and other users who are blind provided ample feedback to the Audible.com staff. The perhaps-unusual element in the process is how willing and eager the company has been to cooperate. Not only has the company made use of a few outside consultants to render the web site more friendly to blind visitors, but Audible.com's employees have taken an interest in understanding more about screen readers and the obstacles that blind users may encounter. "There are a number of my coworkers who work on making the site more accessible to blind and vision-impaired listeners," explained Jonathon Korzen, director of public relations for Audible.com. "We've made improvements of late, but I know we still have a way to go."
Frequently Asked Questions on the site are often sufficient in providing needed information. In addition, Audible.com, together with Jim Kutsch, launched an electronic discussion group, called BlindAudibleListeners, that Kutsch continues to moderate. Participating in this discussion group are a number of Audible.com customers who are blind. Many of these bibliophiles are savvy users of Audible.com's software who are eager and willing to share their knowledge. They exchange opinions of the books they have downloaded, recommend devices, and pass along specific keystrokes for navigating the site and its software.
Nothing Is Perfect
The friendliness and effort exerted to make products accessible at Audible.com is in line with the kudos that the company has been receiving from the marketplace at large. In April 2003, Audible.com was named Best Consumer Web Service by the editors of CNet.com, and in 2002, it was named one of the web's 50 best sites by PC Magazine. Customers who are blind have found that the site is accessible; that the telephone support staff are helpful; and that the software, if somewhat clumsy at times, is able to perform the tasks for which it is intended once the quirks are understood.
There are a few bumps in the Audible.com road, of course. Sometimes, the links to skip navigation bars do not work. In many places, book titles appear twice, which makes browsing more time consuming than is necessary. A few blind listeners have complained that the Wish List feature can be cumbersome when there is more than one page of titles. If you have, say, four pages of titles on the Wish List and begin weeding out some titles, the system returns you to the top of page 1 after each individual deletion. This, however, is not an accessibility issue as much as one that is inconvenient for anyone who builds an extensive Wish List.
Minor imperfections and all, Audible.com has perhaps made greater strides to invite the business of customers who are visually impaired than has any other commercial online service. If you wake up in the middle of the night and want something to read, everything you have ever purchased from Audible.com is waiting for you--as well as thousands of hours of possibilities to choose from. With a MuVo or other handheld player, you can pack a variety of books, programs, and even some of your favorite songs into one small device that fits in your pocket for use during a trip to the dentist or a week in the woods. As Sherry Gomes put it, "When I was growing up, I never could have dreamed that so many options for reading would be available to me someday!"
For More Information
To browse content or learn more about Audible.com, visit the web site <www.audible.com>. To join or learn more about the Yahoo electronic discussion group for Audible.com customers who are visually impaired, visit the web site <http://groups.yahoo.com/group/BlindAudibleListeners>.
Books on Tape Without the Tape! by Jim Kutsch
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Copyright © 2005 American Foundation for the Blind. All rights reserved. AccessWorld is a trademark of the American Foundation for the Blind.