I am one of those people who walk around with earphones in my earswhenever I leave home, and at various breaks in the day. I’m notlistening to music much these days, but listening to people givingspeeches (including stuff converted from the House of Commons audioformat), 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 inthat format, if only some of the book publishers would sell them to mein a format I’m willing and able to accept.
To show the contrast, I will compare three different services I haverun into, and my experimenting with audio books. I hope to see some ofyou tonight at the GOSLING 6-year anniversary party, if you wish to chat about this and related “Open Source Logic” topics.
I was quickly disappointed.
The first thing I looked at was their “How Audible works” which lists 4 steps:
- Pick a plan — no problem
- Download audible software — Huh? Isn’t this a website that should just work as Sir Tim Berners Lee intended the web to work?
- Purchase and download your book(s) — no problem
- 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 the4′th step. I would prefer not to download unverified third partysoftware as I like to know the software I’m installing has beenadequately peer reviewed for security and other concerns. When I wentto their software download page, I found that they only supportedspecific versions of Microsoft Windows (2000, XP or Vista) or to useiTunes if you have an Apple Macintosh computer. Since I run no Apple orMicrosoft software in my home or office, there was no way for me tosubscribe.
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 websitewhere they list different devices that may or may not work with thefiles they send you. As we have all learned many times in the past withother “DRM” systems, just because you own a device capable of accessingthe content today does not mean that any of that content will beaccessible 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 thatdescription. I plan to replace this locked down device in the futurewith 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 makingthis far more complex than it needs to be. This will (and should) makepeople less comfortable with technology less likely to take this typeof service seriously. Most people thought Beta vs. VHS was bad and thatwas only 2 choices, while DRM offers far more deliberately incompatibleoptions. The claim from the proponents of “DRM” systems is that it isnecessary to stop copyright infringement, but as someone heavilyinvolved in that technology and policy debate I know that no peerreviewed study has ever supported that. In fact, there is considerableevidence that “DRM” systems only increase copyright infringement, andotherwise decrease sales.
I am offered a free download, and yet I’m not able or willing toaccept a file from them for free. Obviously I’m not willing to pay forthis.
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 Managersoftware. Fortunately there was an easy way to disable the downloadmanager in the eMusic account settings, so I get .mp3 files rather than.emp files. I had no interest in downloading and installing theirunverified proprietary software.
There have been improvements on that front, as they now havesomething called eMusic Remote which is in Beta. For this article Idecided to download the package, and it is a LGPL version 3 licensedcustomization of the same Mozilla Foundation softwarethat is the basis of Firefox and Thunderbird. While I believe thissoftware could better be done as a plug-in to Firefox rather than yetanother application, the move to Free/Libre software is a step in theright direction. The best would be if they simply had an option wherethe website worked without any additional software or plugins at all,allowing me to use the standard browser for Audio Books as I do formusic.
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 problemat the beginning of one of his podcasts. He has already read many ofhis other books into his podcast, which is why I already knew I wouldbe an Audio Book fan.
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 bookcredit. 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 which180 individual MP3 files of approximately 4 minutes each were placed.It is read by Kirby Heyborne, and is professionally done by RandomHouse, the world’s largest English-language general trade bookpublisher.
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 sortof monthly package.
There seems to be no way to turn off the download manager and stillaccess Audio Books. For those of us that prefer to use the site withoutredundant software it would be simple for the site to automaticallycreate a ‘zip’ file with the same 180 (plus the cover image) files thatI could download. I consider the current software environment to beunnecessarily complex, and likely costly for them to maintain andsupport.
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 secondtime I clicked on “Download and own it” I was sent to a shopping cartwhere I said I wanted to download Little Brother for $20 and thenproceed to payment. The payment options included Paypal, which seemedto 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 chunksthat I can listen to reasonably on my cell phone which doesn’t have aproper 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.
I already owned Little Brother in hard cover, having pre-ordered itto 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 fewdays after downloading I heard the entire story (reading along withKirby Heyborne at times). I started to listen with the 12 hour format Ireceived it in from Zipidee, but quickly moved to the 180 file versionI received from eMusic to make it easier to flip between my variousdevices and continue from the part I left off on (noting what numberedfile I had left on).
The hero of the book, Marcus, could have been me. Well, the geekypart anyway, as I would not have become a social activist fighting forfreedom when I was 17. The most political thought I had in those dayswas 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 whatwas available in the late 1980’s, but the feeling like an outsider tothe “normal world” and living inside a more secret online (via modem inthose days) world is the same. We didn’t need an XNet or cryptographyto feel safe from the not-so-understanding eyes of adults — most adultsat that point simply had no idea what happened when a computer wasconnected to a phone line.
I would love to fountain about this book, but I don’t want to spoilthe story for anyone. There are small clips around the net to enticeyou 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 happeningwith this specific book. As with every other book by Cory, the fulltext is available as a free download under a Creative Commons license.His sales are doing very well, and that is largely without people likeme who have purchased the book multiple times in multiple formats.
I’m likely to purchase this book more times to give away copies. Itis a fiction novel that includes a lot of important real-worldknowledge that young adults (chronologically or otherwise) should bethinking about. Is technology something that we should control, or thatshould be allowed to be abused to control us. And if we do want to takeownership and control over our own technology, how do we do that?
I have a few quick additional thoughts.
The most obvious thing to understand is that book publishers arescrewing themselves over by thinking they want DRM on the audio books.DRM is only capable of reducing sales, not stopping copyrightinfringement. While the music labels are slowly learning from theirmistake of infecting their music with DRM, the book publishers seem towant to have to learn this on their own. Publishers who go DRM-free, orat least follow the wishes of their authors who recognize that DRM is abad idea, are simply going to make more money.
If you can avoid forcing people to download special software foryour website, your website will just be easier to use. People don’tneed to own a specific brand of car (or even own a car) to purchasefrom a traditional retailer, so why the oddball software limitationswith some online retailers?
I’m not convinced that the same business models that work forrecorded music will work for audio recorded books. The monthly eMusicsubscription of 40 songs a month has worked great for the last year anda half. I will let people know in a few months if the 1 (or 1/2) AudioBook eMusic plan works out for me at all. It would be great if they hadthe option to simply purchase books without some sort of plan.
If you download an Audio Book that you have been hearing around anddieing to read for more than a year before it is released, make sureyou have some available time — you won’t have your eyes getting tiredto 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 withAudio Books, or if they have read Little Brother and would like to dotheir own review. Please, no spoilers