Audiobook Services: Something for Everyone
March 28, 2013
by Alan Lemly, retired CPA and PXEer (Bio)
This article first appeared in the March 2013 PXE International eNewsletter
Before I describe the various audiobook services, I first need to explain the different formats in which books are available to those with print disabilities. In this article, I use the term “audiobook” to refer to any digital book accessible to and read by someone with low or no vision. There are two main categories of audiobooks, those that have human-spoken recorded audio and those that are digital text that can be read with a computer or another device containing synthetic text-to-speech (TTS) capability. While most prefer human-spoken recordings, especially for books read for entertainment, the quality of TTS voices has improved greatly and continues to do so. These two categories are further broken down into subcategories depending on the amount of navigation markup in the book.
The primary standard for marking up books for the visually impaired is the DAISY standard. DAISY is an acronym for Digital Accessible Information SYstem. DAISY books can contain either audio or text, and the audio can be either spoken audio or TTS audio. A special player is required to play DAISY books. Books in DAISY format give those with low or no vision the ability to move through a book by including navigation points in a manner similar to how a reader uses chapter and paragraph breaks to move through a book.
In this article I will provide an overview of primarily U.S.-based services and the technology needed by the visually impaired to enjoy audiobooks. You must be legally blind to be eligible for these services. I will also cover services not requiring a visual impairment.
Public and nonprofit services available to the visually impaired
You must be at least legally blind to qualify for the audiobook services discussed in this section. How to prove that impairment will vary among the service providers, but most have web-based forms that you can fill in to start the process. Some also will accept an impairment reference from another organization such as the National Library Service. When I became legally blind, I scanned the letter from my retina doctor stating the degree of my vision loss and converted it to an Adobe PDF document. That way I quickly proved my condition electronically by attaching it to an email or an e-form when I registered for different services.
1. National Library Service (NLS) Audiobook Program
For those eligible individuals who are U.S. residents or citizens, I cannot over-emphasize the excellent free service provided by the National Library Service (NLS) for obtaining audiobooks and other content. Review eligibility requirements here:
The NLS administers the free library program of braille and audio materials but depends on a network of regional libraries usually at the state level for registering members and distributing the physical items required for the program. Participants receive a free digital book player from their regional library which they need in order to listen to the digitally protected audio content. You will get books either by ordering on digital cartridges from your regional library or by downloading from the NLS directly. The NLS calls its download service BARD for Braille and Audio Reading Download.
The first step to joining the NLS program is to find the regional library serving your area. Call 1- 888-657-7323 to be connected with the library serving your area. Or go to the Find a Library page on NLS’s website where you select your state from a drop-down box to get information about your regional library:
The steps to join the program are listed here:
At some point, you must complete an NLS application form and provide the required certification of your eligibility:
The content provided by the NLS can be listened to in multiple ways. The majority of those using the program get audiobooks from their regional library on USB cartridges. These can be inserted into a digital talking book player, also provided by a regional library, similar to inserting a cassette in a cassette player. Introduced into the NLS program in 2009, these outstanding devices come in two models, basic/standard and advanced. I strongly recommend the advanced model as it contains more navigation keys. A picture and description of the basic model can be found here:
Those wishing to use a more portable player can purchase one. This page lists available models that will play the protected NLS content:
I personally use both an advanced NLS player and a Victor Reader Stream; the latter is a portable player I purchased in 2008 from Humanware. I use the Stream with earphones since its external speaker is not outstanding, while the speaker on the NLS player is excellent. In addition to the NLS player and those compatible devices one can purchase, the NLS is currently working on apps (due summer 2013) which will allow both iPhones and Android phones to play the NLS content.
Once in the NLS BARD program, you can order specific books on cartridge from your regional library. Or sign up for book categories in which you have an interest, and your regional library will send you applicable titles automatically. A third option is to log into the BARD program and download books directly to your computer. You then transfer the downloaded file from your computer either to a cartridge or USB flash drive you will have purchased for listening on the NLS player or to an SD memory card which most portable players use. There is a learning curve to get familiar with the transfer process, but there is much helpful information available on how to do this.
Since the NLS is allowed to provide these audiobooks outside normal copyright restrictions pursuant to public law, NLS is very serious about the digital protection placed on its content and the need for special players to play its content. Similarly, NLS does not offer any software that allows for its content to be played on computers. I believe this is due to NLS’s concern that someone might reverse engineer that software and remove the digital protection.
The NLS system houses about 30,000 titles and is growing daily. The audiobook quality is excellent, and professionals record the material. Both books and magazines are available in digital format. Braille material is as well although it does not play on the NLS player; you must use a purchased reader for that. All newer audio titles have extensive markup allowing navigation to specific areas of the book using the specialized players, but some older content converted from cassette does not contain this markup.
The NLS BARD website is excellent in its design and is very easy for those with low vision to use screen readers to navigate.
Bookshare is an online library of digital books for people with print disabilities. Like NLS, it operates under an exception to U.S. copyright law which allows it to provide copyrighted digital books to people with qualifying disabilities. Bookshare's mission is to ensure that all individuals who cannot read print to have equal and timely access to print materials. Its library currently lists over 180,000 titles and adds to that library in the following ways:
- Volunteers upload books they have scanned.
- Publishers and authors grant Bookshare rights to their digital files.
- In-house staff and partners scan and upload books.
- Universities and schools contribute their scanned books.
- Educators assign books to Bookshare from the NIMAC (National Instructional Materials Access Center) repository.
Books from Bookshare are available in mp3 format, DAISY text, DAISY audio, and Braille brf format. The mp3 and DAISY audio formats use a high-quality TTS voice for the audio rather than human-recorded speech. All the Bookshare formats except mp3 require a special player or software downloadable from Bookshare’s website to your computer.
The Bookshare U.S. Individual membership plan costs $50 annually with a $25 one-time setup fee. It also has a free plan for qualifying U.S. students and an International Individual plan. Depending on the country, the cost of the international plan is about the same as the U.S. plan. Members who scan and contribute books to Bookshare’s library can earn credits to offset the plan’s cost.
3. Learning Ally
Learning Ally, formerly Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D), provides audiobooks recorded in human speech as opposed to synthetic TTS audio. What sets is apart from the other services is its claim to have the world's largest library of audio textbooks, over 75,000 titles. Therefore, this service is more suited for those requiring reference materials for educational purposes instead of for those reading for pleasure. Annual fee is $119. Its books play on several devices including computers, special book readers, and smartphones, provided one has the special software or apps required.
I was a member for a brief time but found the quality of the recordings to be much less professional than those of the NLS. Also, its website is much more difficult to navigate, especially for those with low vision. My recent dealings with it to research this article made me think that no one with a visual impairment had anything to do with the site’s design. I have also noticed many posts on email lists to which I belong complaining about difficulty in downloading books from Learning Ally. They may have improved the download process by now.
4. The Association for the Blind of Western Australia
The Geoff Gallop Braille and Talking Book Library Services of the Association for the Blind of Western Australia offers a download service of DAISY digital talking books and Braille files of books on a wide range of topics and interest. The collection contains both non-copyright protected books, which anyone can download, and current copyrighted works, which are restricted to the print disabled. Any person worldwide may become a patron of this service by completing the application at www.guidedogswa.org/signup/ and providing proof of disability. The service is free.
Many thanks to Gregory Kearney, Manager Accessible Media of this organization, for providing the above write-up.
Commercial services available to all
The only commercial audiobook service I've used is Audible, owned by Amazon. It is the largest of the commercial audiobook services with a library of over 150,000 titles. Audible has many book genres in its library and normally has the audiobook of a newly published title the same day its print counterpart becomes available. The quality of its recordings and narrators is outstanding, and their customer service is excellent as well. If you want to be the first to read a new audiobook, Audible is the way to go.
Audible has four membership plans, two monthly (one book or two books per month) and two annual (12 books or 24 books, all available upon plan purchase). The annual membership plans allow up to six unused credits to be carried forward to the next subscription year. Members get discounts on the retail price of books and Audible often has sales throughout the year with books discounted as low as $5 each.
Audible books will play on a variety of devices including iDevices like iPods, iPads and iPhones as well as on a host of mp3 players and players dedicated to the visually impaired. I will note that Audible seems to have shifted its focus to working with iOS and Android mobile devices since the newest specialized players for the visually impaired will not play Audible content. Moreover, its website is not the most accessible for those using screen readers, since it uses a lot of popup windows. Some of its links are difficult to find for those with vision limitations.
2. Other commercial audiobook services
To review a table comparing some commercial audiobook services, check out the TopTenReviews.com analysis here:
Don't forget your local library
Many local libraries have downloadable audiobooks and other eBook formats available through the OverDrive system. OverDrive is a service that sells itself to library systems and not to individual users. If your library participates in this service, you should be able to access the downloadable books. Some libraries may charge a nominal amount. OverDrive books come in a variety of formats including protected wma audiobooks, unprotected mp3 audiobooks and eBooks in Kindle or PDF formats. You can listen to these books on a special player or on your computer once you’ve installed the OverDrive Media Console software. Learn more about OverDrive and find compatible devices here:
Many local libraries also have good collections of audiobooks on CD to be checked out and played on conventional CD players like those in the home or car. If you are technically inclined, these books on CD can also be ripped to your computer to mp3 format. Then you can transfer them to a portable device such as an mp3 player.
What about eBooks?
By “eBooks” I mean digital electronic books such as those available for the Amazon Kindle, the Barnes and Noble Nook and any other specialized player. (Others use this term to include any digital books including audiobooks.) These books, which also come in a format called epub as well as an Adobe PDF format, can either be protected or not. Since most, including those for both the Kindle and the Nook, are sold commercially, they are protected using digital rights management (DRM). DRM is any technology that inhibits uses of digital content. DRM-protected content requires special readers but most can be read with Apple iDevices, and those who are visually impaired can listen to them with the VoiceOver screen reader built into these devices. Most Amazon Kindle books can be obtained with TTS ability so the visually impaired can listen to them on their Kindle or other player.
Finally, many sites offer audiobooks or eBooks for free if they are in the public domain. Gizmo's Freeware is a site that reviews and rates the best free software. It also includes many articles on other free things like audiobooks. Here's a link to its article, updated regularly, on 168 Places for Free Audio Books Online:
Today's technology offers the visually impaired access to a wealth of books. Never has there been such easy access to books for both visually impaired and sighted readers. The technology to access these books continues to improve and any effort to learn to use will be well worth it.