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Mon Mar 20, 2006 - 11:45 AM EST - By Harv Laser


Decades ago I managed a book store, and my first day there, its owner told me “You might not believe this but fewer than 3% of Americans ever step foot in a book store in their entire lives.” That unbelievable stat floored me, and stuck with me. A generation or two had devolved into couch potatoes and, for whatever reason, simply didn’t buy books. What did this say about our society? Draw your own conclusions.

Later, with the advent of the compact cassette, books on tape became popular. Entire stores filled with nothing but audio books sprang up. Then in 1982, audio CDs were the new rage, and tape sales faded. Now digital downloads dominate, and for those who wanted to HEAR instead of read, books on tape morphed into books as bytes, although there will always be something special about a visit to a bookstore – the tangible pleasure of buying, owning and collecting books, just the smell of all that ink on paper, there’s still nothing quite like hanging out in a book store, if just to browse.

But whether for pleasure or to learn, you can’t always read a book or magazine when you want to; you need shelf space as your personal library grows, and these days, books are ridiculously expensive.

So along came the proverbial better mousetrap: Audible.com, an insanely popular online service that sells narrated versions of books, (read by either their authors, or talented voice actors), popular newspapers, and magazines, and some selected tasty radio shows as digital downloads.

Although its inventory of titles is nowhere near what you’ll find in a physical book store, Audible stocks nearly 70,000 hours (about 25,000 different titles) of practically instant digital gratification - fiction and non-fiction for information starved book lovers who want to listen while they relax, or when they want to read a book or the morning newspaper, but can’t, like while driving.

Audible is the world’s biggest online service for buying legal digital spoken word versions of English language audio books, and subscriptions to popular publications. You don’t have to deal with jumbles of cassettes or CDs that break, get out of order, go missing and have no sentimental value. There’s no squirming waiting for the mailman to deliver your purchases.

Within minutes of visiting Audible.com and buying a title, you can be listening to and enjoying it.

Check out Audible.com and browse around for free to see what they offer. Find a book you want? You can buy it “ala carte” at whatever the listed price is, (and they constantly have reduced price sales and special deals), or you can join up with your plastic and be a member, at different price levels, or tiers of service. For instance, join up and get two books a month or a book and a subscription to a newspaper, magazine, or popular radio show for a fixed price, and bail out of your membership any time you want to. A new plan lets you roll over unused credits to the next month.

After you buy one or more books and download them, you use their free Audible Desktop, a full-featured explorer-like program to manage your library which lives on your hard drive - listen to your downloads with its easy-to-use player, or load your purchases onto 150 different supported portable players - anything that will handle Audible’s proprietary “.aa” format files. Treos and other Palms need the Palm Audible player, a free download which is a snap to install, but at the same time, very full-featured and blissfully easy and fun to use.

Audible’s titles come in different audio quality levels, usually numbered from 1 to 4, from telephone to CD quality. The better the quality, the less compression, the better it sounds, and the bigger the file is. Treos can play levels 1 to 3, and level 3, which is about FM radio quality, is more than adequate for spoken word.

Audible adds new material daily, and nothing they stock ever goes “out of print”. Once you download a book, it’s yours forever, even if you quit your membership. Although they are digitally “signed” to your account and players (anti-piracy at work), there’s no cap on how many times you can play your purchases, and you can even burn them to Audio CDs with a free Roxio plug-in.

Every book you’ve ever bought on Audible.com is stored online in your personal password-protected “My Library” area so you can download it again later in a different quality, or re-download if your computer’s hard drive blows up, or you switch to a different brand or kind of portable player.

Next Page: Enter AudibleAir >>

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