For many book lovers, the biggest problem with their favorite hobby isn’t the money it requires. It’s the time. There are plenty of places to pick up cheap books and e-books. But finding a free moment in your busy week to sit down with a book can be a much more significant challenge. To read a printed book or an e-book, you need both your mind and your hands free, and most of the time, you must focus one or the other on another task.
Audiobooks solve this problem. With these recordings, you can listen to a book’s author or a professional voice actor reading a book aloud while you go about your business. They make it possible to enjoy a good book while you’re driving, doing the dishes, working out, or whatever else you have to do during the day.
Unfortunately, audiobooks can be expensive. Sites like Audiobooks.com and Google Play commonly price best-selling titles between $15 and $35. At those prices, a two-book-a-week habit could cost anywhere from $1,560 to $3,640 per year.
However, just like printed books and e-books, audiobooks are available for much less than this — or even completely free. It’s merely a matter of knowing where to look.
Ways to Listen to Audiobooks
You can listen to audiobooks on any device capable of playing digital music files. That includes your smartphone or tablet, computer, or any dedicated MP3 player, such as an iPod. These audio-only devices are largely obsolete these days, but if you still own one, you can put it to good use as an audiobook player.
To play audiobooks on any device, you need software designed for the purpose. Most services that deliver audiobooks, such as Audible and LibriVox, offer free software. Other options include the Apple Books app for Apple phones and computers and Smart AudioBook Player for Android.
If you want to borrow audiobooks from the library, check out Libby from Rakuten OverDrive. Libby allows you to read both e-books and audiobooks borrowed from electronic lending libraries, or e-libraries — collections of digital media that public libraries across the country allow their users to check out like regular books. OverDrive also offers an app called Sora specifically designed for use with school libraries.
Not all audiobook files work with all audio players. For instance, audiobook files with the extensions .aa and .aax work only with Audible’s book-reading software. However, most free audiobooks available online are in MP3 format, which works with any player.
If you’re looking for audiobooks you can access for free, first see if your local public library is a member of an e-library. If it is, you can use your library card to check out audiobooks and other media, such as e-books and videos, from its collection. When you check out an audiobook, you get access to it for a specific period during which no one else can use it. Once your time runs out, it goes back into the general pool.
There are several ways to find out if your local library is part of an e-library network. You can ask the librarian the next time you visit, consult the library’s website, or do an online search for the phrase “e-library” plus the name of your state. Or visit the OverDrive website, click on “Find a Library,” and enter your zip code. Once you find an e-library in your area, you can see what selections and formats it offers.
Some e-libraries have partnerships with a service called Hoopla, which gives their members access to all sorts of digital media: e-books, digital comic books, audiobooks, movies, and TV shows. If your library works with Hoopla, you can check out any audiobook in Hoopla’s collection through the website or the Hoopla mobile app, available for iOS, Android, Kindle Fire, and various streaming media players.
Other Free Audiobook Sites
One problem with audiobooks checked out of an e-library is that you only have access to them for a limited time. If you’d rather be able to listen to an audiobook at your own pace without having to rush, there are several sites online where you can download free audiobooks or stream them at will.
All these sites are both free and legal. Some feature volunteer-recorded works that are no longer under copyright, while others offer newer works freely contributed by their authors. You can download or stream from them without fear of stealing or otherwise harming hardworking authors and publishers. And there are many such sites to choose from.
One of the best sources for free audiobooks is LibriVox. Its collection includes more than 10,000 audiobooks read by volunteers from all over the world. You can stream these files right in your browser window or download them to hear later.
All books on the site are in the public domain, which means they mostly date from 1923 or earlier. Selections span a wide range of categories, including children’s books, novels, plays, poetry, erotica, history, philosophy, science, and self-help. You can find such classic works here as Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” and L.M. Montgomery’s “Anne of Green Gables.” There are many works in foreign languages as well.
You can also sign up to contribute your own audio recordings to the archive. All you need is a computer, a microphone, and some free recording software, such as Audacity. You can contribute a recording of any book that’s in the public domain. You’re not required to audition, but the site recommends you do a one-minute test recording to check your sound setup.
In the 1400s, Johannes Gutenberg developed the first printing press with movable type, which brought printed books to the masses for the first time. In the same spirit, Project Gutenberg aims to make public domain texts available to all readers at no cost. The site is best known for its massive collection of e-books, but it also hosts audiobooks in more than 60 languages.
There are two types of audiobooks at Project Gutenberg. Computer-generated voices read some, but these lack expression and are sometimes hard to understand. However, the site also hosts copies of Librivox recordings made by human volunteers. Selections include Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick,” Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre,” and 12 volumes of L. Frank Baum’s Oz series.
Even if your local library doesn’t belong to an e-library network, you can access a collection of about 19,000 free audiobooks and poetry readings through the Internet Archive. This massive collection of digital text, audio, and video files aims to make all recorded knowledge accessible to anyone with a computer anywhere in the world.
Some of the audiobooks on the Internet Archive are recordings made and contributed by its users. Others are from collections of free audiobooks on sites like LibriVox and Project Gutenberg. The collection includes literary classics like Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” mysteries like Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes,” children’s books like “The Secret Garden,” folk tales, and plays.
One unique Internet Archive feature is Mind Webs. It’s a collection of radio dramatizations of classic science fiction stories that originally aired on a Wisconsin radio station from the 1970s through the 1990s. More than 20 years later, the creator of the series contributed his entire collection of tapes to the archive for release in digital form. The series features stories from celebrated sci-fi authors, including Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The End,” H.G. Wells’ “In The Abyss,” Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron,” and Ray Bradbury’s “Kaleidoscope.”
Free Classic Audiobooks
Another site that features audio recordings of public domain works is Free Classic Audiobooks. Its collection is nowhere near as large as LibriVox’s, but even so, there are titles by hundreds of famous authors. The most popular downloads on the site include the King James Bible, Jane Austen’s “Emma,” and Nellie Bly’s “Ten Days in a Mad-House.” In addition to full-length books, the site hosts short stories and audio language courses.
Most selections on this site are available in both MP3 format and M4B, an audio format you can “bookmark” to keep track of your place in the story. However, the M4B files only work on Apple devices.
Although the entire site is free, you can support Free Classics Audiobooks by purchasing a collection of its recordings. You can choose a single DVD with 200 classic audiobooks, one with 600 short stories, or a collection of seven language courses in MP3 format.
At Loyal Books, you can access over 7,000 free e-books and audiobooks. Most of the audiobooks on this site are LibriVox recordings of works in the public domain, such as Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Return of Sherlock Holmes” and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “A Little Princess.” However, there are also some original works submitted by their creators, such as Eric L. Busby’s “Star Trek: Lost Frontier.”
You can stream audiobooks directly from Loyal Books or download them to your device. Audiobooks are available in a variety of formats, including MP3, M4B, and iTunes podcasts. The site also allows you to submit reviews of an audiobook you’ve listened to and read reviews from other users.
While most free audiobook sites are for book lovers in general, Lit2Go specifically targets students. It offers stories and poems in MP3 format with extras that make them useful in a classroom setting. All the works are either in the public domain or licensed for educational use.
For each work, there’s an abstract, a citation to be used in papers, a total word count, and keywords related to the subject matter. There’s also a Flesch-Kincaid grade level, which is a rough indication of how difficult the work is to read. Each audio file comes with a PDF transcript of the text so students can read along or refer to it in the classroom.
Featured texts on Lit2Go include poems by Emily Dickinson, famous presidential addresses and messages, and a collection of books adapted as movies, such as Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” and Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence.” You can sort through books on the site by author, title, genre, or readability. You can also browse collections of books on a particular topic, such as mathematics, the Civil War, or the concept of happiness.
Another site that gathers together audio files for educational purposes is LearnOutLoud.com. This site offers audio downloads of over 3,000 texts, more than 1,500 free documentaries, and over 1,000 free online courses.
Audiobooks on this site cover a wide range of topics, including history, science, sports, business, and technology. Many of the audiobooks available here are not public domain works, but newer books published directly by LearnOutLoud.com. One of the site’s most popular downloads in this category is “Think and Grow Rich” by Napoleon Hill.
Unlike most sites on this list, Scribl doesn’t exist mainly to provide free audiobooks to listeners. Its primary purpose is to help aspiring authors publish and distribute their books. One way for Scribl authors to promote their works is to turn them into audio recordings using either their own voice or an actor’s and distribute them through the site. Not all Scribl books are available in audio format, but all the audio recordings on the site are original new releases.
Not all audiobooks available through Scribl are free. The site uses what it calls CrowdPricing, meaning it bases the price of a book on how many users download it. Thus, the most popular books cost about as much to buy as you’d pay at a typical online bookstore. However, books that aren’t selling as well are much cheaper or even free. Additionally, all newly posted books are free for a brief promotional period.
That means users can always find plenty of newly released audiobooks on Scribl at no cost. Some audiobooks are available as full-length downloads, while others are broken into chunks for streaming. Additionally, every audiobook on the site comes with a free copy of the text in PDF form.
Scribl makes it easy to search for books that interest you. You can sort through books by publication date, author, or title. You can also filter the options by book length, language, genre, rating elements (such as violence or sexual content), target age group, setting, and demographic attributes of the main character (like age, gender, race, religion, and sexual orientation).
Streaming site Spotify is best known as a place to find free music online. However, if you browse the Word category within the Spotify app, you can find numerous playlists of spoken-word recordings. The 62-hour Audiobooks playlist includes classics such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway,” and Hermann Hesse’s “Siddhartha.” Some recordings feature the voices of celebrated actors like Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles.
There are other literary playlists in the Word category as well. For instance, Poetry: In Their Own Words has works by female poets read aloud by the authors, while Scary Stories covers spooky tales by authors from Mary Shelley to Alfred Hitchcock. Some playlists cover stories by specific authors, such as Arthur Conan Doyle or H.P. Lovecraft. You can listen to any of these playlists for free with some interruptions for ads or pay $10 a month for a Spotify Premium account to listen ad-free.
Many free audiobook sites include some works for children, but Storynory caters exclusively to kids. Selections on the site include fairy tales, classic works, mythology, poetry, and original stories. In the “educational” section, you can find retellings of culturally important tales like Robin Hood and the lives of Catholic saints as well as stories that enhance kids’ vocabularies.
Works on Storynory are downloadable files in MP3 format. Each one has accompanying text on the website so kids can read along. There’s a brief introduction for each story summarizing the content and sometimes warning about elements that might be scary for the youngest children.
What Storynory does for kids, Sync does for teens. Sponsored by AudioFile magazine and powered by Sora, this free summer audiobook program provides audio recordings to complement teenagers’ summer reading. Each year, from April 30 until July 29, the site gives away two free, thematically linked audiobooks each week. Titles for the summer of 2020 include “Monday’s Not Coming” by Tiffany Jackson, a dramatized reading of “Faust” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and “Kindred” by Octavia Butler.
To participate in Sync, sign up for an account on the website. When the free audiobooks become available, you’ll receive a notification by text or email. New titles appear every Thursday at 12am Eastern and remain available on the site for one week only. However, once you’ve downloaded a given title into the app, it’s yours to keep.
There’s a smaller selection of free audiobooks — about 1,000 titles — at OpenCulture. This site doesn’t host audiobooks itself, but it provides links to free audio files available on other sites, including Apple Podcasts, LibriVox, the Internet Archive, university servers, magazine websites, and YouTube.
Although everything on OpenCulture is available elsewhere on the Internet, the site makes these recordings much easier to find. It has put together a list of top-notch audiobooks and arranged them into three broad categories: fiction and literature, poetry, and nonfiction. Each list sorts works alphabetically by author name. All you have to do is scroll down to locate works by notable authors like Maya Angelou, Ray Bradbury, Jorge Luis Borges, Neil Gaiman, Langston Hughes, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Woolf.
Subscription Services for Audiobooks
Although free audiobook sites offer a lot of choices, they don’t have everything. In particular, if what you really want to hear is a recent top-selling audiobook read by a noted actor, there’s very little chance you can find it for free.
However, you can do the next best thing: find it for cheap. Through a subscription service, you can gain access to a wide array of audiobooks, including new best-sellers, all for a low flat monthly fee.
The best-known source of audiobooks is Audible, a subsidiary of Amazon. Its collection includes over 400,000 titles, many of them read by famous actors like Tim Robbins and Emma Thompson.
However, Audible doesn’t just distribute audiobooks — it also produces them. Its Audible Originals are exclusive audio titles produced in the Audible studios. These selections span a wide variety of genres, including literature, theater, comedy, and journalism.
For $14.95 a month, you gain access to three titles each month. You can choose two Audible Originals along with one book from Audible’s broader collection. To play these, you must install Audible’s free app, which works with iOS, Android, Sonos, Kindle, and Alexa-enabled devices. It can save your place in any piece you’re listening to and pick up where you left off when you switch to a different device.
Your first 30 days on Audible are free. After that, you get billed each month automatically. However, you can cancel your service at any time. You lose access to any credits you have left but retain access to any audiobooks you’ve already downloaded.
There are two ways to listen to audiobooks on Downpour. You can buy and download individual titles one at a time, or you can sign up for a monthly subscription.
A $12.99 monthly subscription gets you one credit per month, which is good for nearly any book on the site. Since some books are more expensive than others, this can be up to 70% cheaper than buying the audiobooks individually. You can save credits you don’t want to use immediately, but they expire after one year. You can also purchase additional credits for the same price as your monthly membership fee.
Unlike Audible, Downpour doesn’t offer a free trial. You start paying for membership as soon as you sign up, and you keep paying each month automatically. However, you can cancel at any time and keep the books you’ve already downloaded.
Downpour offers audiobooks on physical CDs as well as downloads in MP3 or M4B format. The Downpour app works on iOS, Android, and Windows Mobile devices.
Like Downpour, Audiobooks.com is both a store and a subscription service. When you subscribe to its VIP Rewards program for $14.95 per month, you receive one credit each month that’s good for any audiobook on the site. Additionally, you get a second audiobook of your choice each month from a collection reserved exclusively for VIP Rewards members. The books in this collection change at the start of each month.
Once you’ve made your monthly book selections, you can either stream them or download them onto an iOS or Android device. If you want more than two audiobooks per month, you can purchase “top-up credits” good for additional books. Alternatively, you can buy books for cash at lower prices than the site offers to nonmembers.
Like Downpour, Audiobooks.com allows you to roll over your unused credits at the end of the month, but they expire after only three months. All your selections remain accessible as long as you maintain your membership. If you cancel, you lose access to all the books you got with credits, though you keep any books you purchased with cash.
Like Audible, Audiobooks.com offers a one-month free trial period for all new members. It also has a family plan feature that allows you to add other people in your household to your account. That way, they can listen to all your audiobooks and save their own bookmarks without messing up yours. You can decide whether family members have listening privileges only, the ability to use your credits to purchase books, or the ability to both buy and use credits.
To stretch your monthly credits even further, visit the deals section of the website. It offers a rotating selection of audiobooks you can get at the rate of two for one credit. Or if you prefer to buy your books a la carte, there’s an assortment of books priced at $7 or less.
The online subscription service Scribd (not to be confused with Scribl, discussed above) offers not just audiobooks but also e-books, magazines, legal documents, and even sheet music. You can’t purchase books directly through Scribd, but you can read or listen to as many books as you want for a monthly fee of just $8.99 a month. And like Audible and Audiobooks.com, Scribd offers a one-month free trial.
In addition to its basic membership, Scribd offers a $12.99-per-month Scribd + NYT bundle. It includes all of Scribd’s regular features plus a basic digital access subscription to the New York Times. For people who already read the Times, this costs about 20% less than subscribing to both services separately.
Becoming a regular audiobook listener doesn’t mean giving up on the printed word. You can continue to curl up with a good book for an hour before bed, pull up an e-book on your phone in a doctor’s waiting room, or read aloud to your kids every evening.
But by adding audiobooks to the mix, you can make more time for reading. You can tune into an audiobook whenever you’re stuck in traffic, doing household chores, or carrying out any other mindless task. Time that would otherwise go to waste can suddenly become an opportunity to learn, expand your imagination, or just enjoy sinking into a good story.
Do you enjoy audiobooks? What are your favorite places to find them?
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