Little Brother Audio book: Audible vs eMusic vs Zipidee

I am one of those people who walk around with earphones in my ears whenever I leave home, and at various breaks in the day. I'm not listening to music much these days, but listening to people giving speeches (including stuff converted from the House of Commons audio format), audio BLOGS (also known as "podcasts"), CBC radio shows (Spark and Search Engine), and sometimes even books (often via Cory Doctorow's podcast). I'm an ideal customer for audio books, and would love to hear books in that format, if only some of the book publishers would sell them to me in a format I'm willing and able to accept.

To show the contrast, I will compare three different services I have run into, and my experimenting with audio books. I hope to see some of you tonight at the GOSLING 6-year anniversary party, if you wish to chat about this and related "Open Source Logic" topics.

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Audible

I am an avid listener to a number of "Netcasts" from TWIT.tv, and one of the sponsors of many of the shows is Audible. Given I support TWIT, I decided to take a look.

I was quickly disappointed.

The first thing I looked at was their "How Audible works" which lists 4 steps:


  1. Pick a plan -- no problem
  2. Download audible software -- Huh? Isn't this a website that should just work as Sir Tim Berners Lee intended the web to work?
  3. Purchase and download your book(s) -- no problem
  4. Transfer your audio to your AudibleReady(R) device -- Huh? Aren't these audio files?

The second step was a show stopper for me, even before I got to the 4'th step. I would prefer not to download unverified third party software as I like to know the software I'm installing has been adequately peer reviewed for security and other concerns. When I went to their software download page, I found that they only supported specific versions of Microsoft Windows (2000, XP or Vista) or to use iTunes if you have an Apple Macintosh computer. Since I run no Apple or Microsoft software in my home or office, there was no way for me to subscribe.

I could go to a friends house which has a Mac or Windows computer to download the files, but why bother?

I find it interesting that modern businesses like Google can author a multi-platform word processor that runs off of a website, but Audible isn't capable of having simple audio files download easily.

The 4'th step is equally embarrassing for Audioble. They have a whole complex section of their website where they list different devices that may or may not work with the files they send you. As we have all learned many times in the past with other "DRM" systems, just because you own a device capable of accessing the content today does not mean that any of that content will be accessible in the future.

The list of compatible devices are typical of a DRM system -- these are devices or software that are locked down where the owner of the device doesn't have the keys. Of the hardware I have at home (Neuros OSD, desktops and laptops running Fedora and Ubuntu, OLPC XO, etc), my cell phone is the only audio device that fits that description. I plan to replace this locked down device in the future with a fully unlocked cell phone (unlocked so I can choose carriers, and unlocked so I can choose my own software).

It is simply impractical for me to acquire content that I know I won't have any device to access it in the near future.

I'm a technical person and know the B.S. reasons they are making this far more complex than it needs to be. This will (and should) make people less comfortable with technology less likely to take this type of service seriously. Most people thought Beta vs. VHS was bad and that was only 2 choices, while DRM offers far more deliberately incompatible options. The claim from the proponents of "DRM" systems is that it is necessary to stop copyright infringement, but as someone heavily involved in that technology and policy debate I know that no peer reviewed study has ever supported that. In fact, there is considerable evidence that "DRM" systems only increase copyright infringement, and otherwise decrease sales.

I am offered a free download, and yet I'm not able or willing to accept a file from them for free. Obviously I'm not willing to pay for this.

eMusic Audio Books

I am already a customer of eMusic for music downloads, with an eMusic basic account that gets me 40 uninfected (by DRM) songs a month for $9.99.

When I first signed up I couldn't get the site to work as it said it would send me MP3 files, but it kept sending me .emp files. I quickly figured out that this was the file format used by their (then proprietary) Download Manager software. Fortunately there was an easy way to disable the download manager in the eMusic account settings, so I get .mp3 files rather than .emp files. I had no interest in downloading and installing their unverified proprietary software.

There have been improvements on that front, as they now have something called eMusic Remote which is in Beta. For this article I decided to download the package, and it is a LGPL version 3 licensed customization of the same Mozilla Foundation software that is the basis of Firefox and Thunderbird. While I believe this software could better be done as a plug-in to Firefox rather than yet another application, the move to Free/Libre software is a step in the right direction. The best would be if they simply had an option where the website worked without any additional software or plugins at all, allowing me to use the standard browser for Audio Books as I do for music.

While investigating the Audio Book option on eMusic I noticed that there was an eMusic Q&A: Cory Doctorow by Sarah Weinman. I'm a fan of Cory Doctorow, and have been wanting to get an audio book version of his book Little Brother since he spoke about the Audio Book DRM problem at the beginning of one of his podcasts. He has already read many of his other books into his podcast, which is why I already knew I would be an Audio Book fan.

Little Brother is available from eMusic, and this is as good a choice for my first purchase of an Audio Book as the movie "AntiTrust" was for my first DVD purchase.

I clicked on the "upgrade" option to turn on Audio Books and for $11.99/month (in addition to the $9.99 music plan) I get 1 audio book credit. Unfortunately, Little Brother is a 2-credit audio book. I received a free credit for signing up, and paid for a credit for the first month, which allowed me to download this book.

What the eMusic Remote did was create a new directory, into which 180 individual MP3 files of approximately 4 minutes each were placed. It is read by Kirby Heyborne, and is professionally done by Random House, the world's largest English-language general trade book publisher.

What I can't seem to find is an option to just buy a single book, whatever number of credits it costs, without signing up for some sort of monthly package.

There seems to be no way to turn off the download manager and still access Audio Books. For those of us that prefer to use the site without redundant software it would be simple for the site to automatically create a 'zip' file with the same 180 (plus the cover image) files that I could download. I consider the current software environment to be unnecessarily complex, and likely costly for them to maintain and support.

Zipidee

On Cory's web-page for Little Brother is a little widget that allows you to download the audio book from Zipidee. The preview page for this Audio Book indicates that this reading is the same one by Kirby Heyborne that eMusic offered me.

I clicked on "Download and own it" button and it asked me to sign up (username, password, email address -- all regular stuff). The second time I clicked on "Download and own it" I was sent to a shopping cart where I said I wanted to download Little Brother for $20 and then proceed to payment. The payment options included Paypal, which seemed to work when my regular credit card payment didn't work.

What I got was a single 163M MP3 file, almost 12 hours total.

I would want to edit this file to break it down into smaller chunks that I can listen to reasonably on my cell phone which doesn't have a proper fast forward option. Someone else thought the same thing and documented how to split it up on their Mac, but unfortunately not for a multi-platform application.

Little Brother

I already owned Little Brother in hard cover, having pre-ordered it to be shipped when it was released. I hadn't had a chance to read it. Having the Audio Book version got me into the story, and only a few days after downloading I heard the entire story (reading along with Kirby Heyborne at times). I started to listen with the 12 hour format I received it in from Zipidee, but quickly moved to the 180 file version I received from eMusic to make it easier to flip between my various devices and continue from the part I left off on (noting what numbered file I had left on).

The hero of the book, Marcus, could have been me. Well, the geeky part anyway, as I would not have become a social activist fighting for freedom when I was 17. The most political thought I had in those days was a typical "information should be free" belief of any hacker. I also had an honest, even if mistaken, belief that copyright law didn't apply to anyone under the age of 18.

Now that I'm over 40 I am far more political, but unfortunately far less technically up-to-date than I was at 17.

The technology is very different in this near-future book than what was available in the late 1980's, but the feeling like an outsider to the "normal world" and living inside a more secret online (via modem in those days) world is the same. We didn't need an XNet or cryptography to feel safe from the not-so-understanding eyes of adults -- most adults at that point simply had no idea what happened when a computer was connected to a phone line.

I would love to fountain about this book, but I don't want to spoil the story for anyone. There are small clips around the net to entice you in, including the preview offered by Zipidee, and episode 78 of Cory's podcast from April 29, 2007.

I think it is important for publishers to look at what is happening with this specific book. As with every other book by Cory, the full text is available as a free download under a Creative Commons license. His sales are doing very well, and that is largely without people like me who have purchased the book multiple times in multiple formats.

I'm likely to purchase this book more times to give away copies. It is a fiction novel that includes a lot of important real-world knowledge that young adults (chronologically or otherwise) should be thinking about. Is technology something that we should control, or that should be allowed to be abused to control us. And if we do want to take ownership and control over our own technology, how do we do that?

Summary?

I have a few quick additional thoughts.

The most obvious thing to understand is that book publishers are screwing themselves over by thinking they want DRM on the audio books. DRM is only capable of reducing sales, not stopping copyright infringement. While the music labels are slowly learning from their mistake of infecting their music with DRM, the book publishers seem to want to have to learn this on their own. Publishers who go DRM-free, or at least follow the wishes of their authors who recognize that DRM is a bad idea, are simply going to make more money.

If you can avoid forcing people to download special software for your website, your website will just be easier to use. People don't need to own a specific brand of car (or even own a car) to purchase from a traditional retailer, so why the oddball software limitations with some online retailers?

I'm not convinced that the same business models that work for recorded music will work for audio recorded books. The monthly eMusic subscription of 40 songs a month has worked great for the last year and a half. I will let people know in a few months if the 1 (or 1/2) Audio Book eMusic plan works out for me at all. It would be great if they had the option to simply purchase books without some sort of plan.

If you download an Audio Book that you have been hearing around and dieing to read for more than a year before it is released, make sure you have some available time -- you won't have your eyes getting tired to slow you down, and you'll listen to the whole thing in short order.

I'm hoping to hear from other people about their experience with Audio Books, or if they have read Little Brother and would like to do their own review. Please, no spoilers ;-)