Audio Book Club Service, $14.95/$21.95 per month, automatic renewal is selling the right to listen to audio. They're not radio; they're more like a book club for spoken word. For your trouble of signing up, the first month of subscription is free. After that, your subscription pays for two monthly items; beyond that, almost everything else is only slightly discounted. (If you're desperate, there are some political speeches available for free - and a supreme court hearing on Guantanamo that might actually be interesting.)


The price of a subscription varies depending on what you get per month. $14.95 for one book and one month's subscription to e.g. an NPR program; $21.95 for two books. That's it.

There's some throwing around of 30% and 80% discounts, but that's just what you already see -- the ~$15 or ~$22 of your subscription, managed correctly, can get you about five times as much in list price value; and the things you buy from the catalogue are going to be about 30% off. Of course, a bit of looking around on Ebay or Amazon's used section might beat that.

There's also a one-year "Ultimate Listener" plan that they don't tell you about; it's mentioned only in some of the FAQs and the Terms and Conditions, and you can find stuff about it on the web - if you listen to a lot of books, this supposedly gets you 12 for around $120 total, and would be worth a call to customer service.

Ok, so, for me, we're looking at $14.95 for one periodical and one book per month. This is so incredibly lame that I figured it couldn't be it. Surely, there must be a way of getting group discounts on large numbers of connections? What about an NPR Afficionado setting that gets you, I don't know, five periodicals and no books? How about life-time subscriptions I can give as gifts to my blind friends? Nada.

As you ponder whether to sign up, it is just about impossible to see what things cost and what the two subscription tiers actually buy you. You can get audio samples, but no price list. I watched the four-step little video that explains how to buy and download things - they did a pretty good job there - and I couldn't tell what the difference between the tiers was. (It did make navigating the rest of the site very easy, though.) Having poked around a while to find out whether it is possible to access the site without buying a subscription, I have now seen the start of various segments of the same video many, many times.

So I bit the bullet and gave my credit card details to yet another online retailer. I really wished they didn't automatically renew my subscription once my trial month is over - I'd renew or just buy a year of this outright, this is a useful service for me, but I really don't want them to try and trick me into it. I hate having someone I honestly want to do business with trying to cheat me into something I want by exploiting my laziness or forgetfulness.

The Data

I can get's book data to play on my iPod via iTunes, and I'm guessing there's an MP3 wrapper format at work, but I have no idea what the details actually look like. When first setting up the account via iTunes, iTunes asked me for my password, so we're talking account infrastructure of some sort. I'm not sure what that means if you're cancelling your account - does your data turn illegible? What if goes bankrupt? Will someone else be able to acquire the site name and just sell whatever response the now-orphaned player software needs, so people can continue to listen to the data they already paid for?

So, this doesn't just get you an MP3 that you can send out, although I'm pretty sure there's an MP3 in there somewhere.

(I didn't have plans to become a file sharing hub, but I wish that we all hadn't gotten so paranoid over the RIAA lobbyists that file sharing had become near impossible for honest people. Listening to mixes from other people is a wonderful non-mass-media controlled way of learning about new music.)

They've gone through a lot of trouble to make the download work for different bandwidths and qualities. I wish they'd just say what the formats are; instead, you're given bandwidths and compatibility matrices with audio players that one just *knows* will be out of date by the time this thing is published.

There's a long wait between clicking on the "download this now" button and the actual download starting. I don't know if this is a firefox problem or whether they're doing something stupid internally, but it takes what seems like a few minutes.


Yikes, the periodicals are expensive! I noticed that with audiobooks in a real bookstore, too. But here, we have virtual goods that have already been produced (in case of the NPR shows I want), don't require shipping and handling per customer, and are available in a fixed timeslot for free - yet if I'd subscribe to those NPR shows that I like for a month, I'd be out almost $40 for four shows ("on the Media" isn't listed -- but by 2005, it's available for free as a podcast, yay!), far more than my local NPR station gets from most of its subscribers. Scaled up to yearly subscriptions, I'd be looking at $130, still an amount in line with a serious donation - and that's how much just those people who don't freeload pay. At audible, everyone pays. What are they doing with all that dough? They're not spending it on planning new tiers, that much is obvious.

("Fresh Air", by the way, is by far the best deal of my group, at $12/month for 20+ hours, and $40 for a whole year; the worst is "Says You", four times half an hour for $7/month and the same price as "Fresh Air" for a year.)

The books are a much, much better deal. Audiobooks are expensive and have a serious reason to be; there, someone actually needs to sit in a studio and actually get themselves recorded. That's where the Audible subscriptions come in - about $10 a piece is a far cry from the $50 or so I normally see them for. So, this is pretty good.


After signing up and buying one monthly and one book, I've got three e-mails. The "welcome to" and the "thank you for joining Audible Listener" e-mails are both text/html only, all but impenetrable to me on my plain text terminal window into my ISP's ssh somewhere. I wonder - do blind people who sign up have e-mail clients that just deal with HTML swingingly? The third email was a notification from my NPR program subscription. It, at least, came as text, although with overly long lines.

I liked that it addressed me as "Hello Audible Subscriber," - it's a form letter, we can tell it's a form letter, it's okay for a form letter to have personality as long as it doesn't pretend to be a human having personality.

But I disliked the removal instructions at the bottom:

If you prefer not to receive email from us, or you got this in error, please send an email to from the email address you want removed.
This is a nice default behavior but shouldn't be the only way you can remove yourself from a list - few people have an easy time faking the sender of an e-mail transaction, and they need to, if they, like me, route messages through a forwarding service and don't send email from the same address they receive incoming mail to.

The service I really want

I don't need to own this media (or the rights to it) permanently, and most of what I listen to is not time-dependent. What I want is a group of friends that sequentially share audio data. First I own it, then I sell it to you, then you sell it to Bob, and so on. So, maybe just buying and reselling packs of CDs would work for me. That, combined with a portable radio Tivo. Until then, I hope I remember to pick up my monthly book and weekly show.


  • Large! Wide range of books
  • Some NPR programs
  • Save a bunch on one audiobook per month.
  • Seems to support unsophisticated users well, even in sophisticated applications like automated daily news downloads.
  • Actually worked.
  • NPR Subscriptions are too expensive
  • Stupid book club subscription model.
    Nya nya nya you didn't cancel, nya nya nya we get to keep your money.
  • A whopping two different subscription levels.
  • Lacking format transparency.