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Audiobooks: The Good and the Bad
Audiobooks have been popular as far back as when we called them “books on tape.” Since we’re no longer fumbling with tapes or CD’s in the car, they’re even more convenient. Throw in a long commute or a tedious chore, and you have the perfect opportunity to fill your ears with some engrossing fiction or enlightening analysis. Their only real competitor is the podcast, which costs nothing, and so the competition is fierce.
If you choose audiobooks, you have about four options: your local library, LibriVox, Audible, and Scribd. I have found plusses and minuses to all of the above, but I now think that Scribd provides the best bang for the buck, and will explain why below. It doesn’t mean I don’t use the other three, but that I find Scribd to fill a personal need worth paying for.
Ultimately, though, we should be aware that audiobooks are still not a perfect replacement for books. I could say that audiobook comprehension is lower and reading from a text is higher, but it’s more complicated than that. Rather, what you use an audiobook for should be different from giving your attention to the printed word. Just looking at a few articles on the subject, it seems that audiobooks should skew more towards what we’d read for enjoyment, while the written word works better when we’re trying to learn something or master a concept.
Scribd: How It Works
Scribd advertises itself as offering “unlimited books and audiobooks.” This claim doesn’t hold up when compared to its users’ experiences. What seems unlimited, though, has hard limits amounting to about 5 books, but spread out over genres and publishers. The more widely and diversely you read, the more you’ll enjoy Scribd and the less you’ll notice the limitations.
For $8.99 a month, you can download the app to as many devices as you have (though there’s a per-device listening limit as well, which we hit recently but rarely). Then each of those devices can make lists of favorite content. As you’ll see below, I wish Scribd had a way of filtering and searching lists, but they don’t. Either way, find the books you want to read and place them in your desired list so you remember to come back to them. If you use one device for one book until you’ve finished it, then Scribd’s app-interface is meant for you. If you bounce around, you’ll find yourself hunting in the app for that book or audiobooks (the carousel of “recent reads” is relatively deep, but we sometimes have to search farther).
Scribd in Review: The Good
Scribd costs $8.99 per month and works more like your local library than like Audible (though Audible has recently changed its pricing and looks strangely a LOT more like Scribd as of a week ago). I see this as a strength. Audible’s old model encouraged me to buy audiobooks, for about as much as I’d pay for the physical book. This has always annoyed me. If I really like a book (say, The Iliad), then I’d like to get it in all three media—audiobook, e-book, and paperback or hardback. Why should it be the same cost as buying three books to have access to this? Anyway, that’s a rare case, and Audible never before allowed “borrowing” of books. For that, I was left with my library and Scribd.
Most of the audiobooks I consume, I don’t want to own as audiobooks. The exceptions to this rule will be books my children love that they’ll either listen to during quiet time (after they’ve phased out of naps), or that we’ll listen to as a family on a long road trip. Scribd fits a need here because replays don’t count against your limit for the month. If my children want to listen to Railway Children every day at nap time, they can, and it still only counts as one book for the month.
I’ve developed a safe rule that prevents me adding too many real books to my shelves: don’t buy any book I’ll only read once. Scribd is perfect for this kind of book: often the stuff on the best-seller list making the rounds. The great thing about Scribd is that, if I really do like the book, I then can go buy it anyway. So, I guess Scribd isn’t really saving me money there, but it’s helping me make a more informed decision about the books I do buy.
They have a great selection of ebooks, too, but I mostly use their ebooks to look through a book before purchasing it. I don’t like that the ebook can never leave Scribd, unless it’s in their .pdfs section, which also has great selection.
More than Audiobooks and Ebooks
Audiobooks and e-books aren’t all Scribd has, though. My wife and I use it to look up piano and vocal sheet music and even cookbooks. If you have a larger screen like an iPad, the interface allows for reading something like recipe books, though we’ve had issues with the digital formats of some of them. Further, as you’ll see below in the negatives, I think Scribd’s app has some room for improvement in how the users navigate the app and save media.
As a teacher, it has allowed me to play excerpt of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien reading their own work, without me having to drop money on those specific recording (though you may want to now that you know they exist). It also allows me to look up an essay in a larger work, when I only want that one essay. That is a savings both of time and money. The ebook format means I won’t end up reading the other essays. I’ll dive in, read what I need and leave.
Finally, I like that it works across devices and that many people can be using it at the same time. My wife and I can be listening to audiobooks on our phones while doing chores and the kids can be listening in their rooms during quiet time. While all four or more devices listening at once has been rare, it’s nice to know that it’s possible. Further, we can just log-in the grandparents on their phones and now they have access to all the quiet-time goodness the kids are used to.
Scribd in Review: The Downsides
Overall, Scribd can lose books you’ve saved to a list and there’s nothing you can do about it. I have been informed once or twice that I had a certain window of time to read a book before their contract with the publisher would force them to take the book away. It was nice to get the warning, but I’ve not received it every time. Once I also received a free month because of a book that was removed from the list. These customer-service practices are good, but ultimately I’m trying to pay for a “Netflix of Books” experience where I have access to as many of the books as I want.
Scribd locks you in to their app, which is decent, but you can’t use your podcast app to listen to audiobooks (I would like this because it would put all my audio in one place). Further, there’s no such thing as Kindle versions of Scribd books. Here, they are worse even than the library app, because most library apps that I know (Hoopla, Libby, and OverDrive) allow you to read the ebook in Kindle format and take it away when your loan is up. Finally, if the Scribd app garbles the formatting of a particular book, as often happens when books move to a digital medium, they can’t help you. This happened to my wife and when she contacted customer service they told her she was out of luck.
And finally, the user interface can be slow and clunky depending on which device we’re using it on. Sometimes it seems to vary by time of day. I understand that when we use it on an old iPhone 4 or an ancient Kindle Fire (which are the devices we use for playing children’s books) it’s going to be slow. Strangely, it’s sometimes laggy on our fairly new iPad Air. Our phones are also fairly recent, yet we’ll sometimes receive playback errors or a book we’re halfway through will be unavailable until we restart the app, our phone, or both. We rarely access the web app through our browser, so I can’t speak to that much. It has been useable whenever I have needed it.
Another aspect of the user interface is navigation to books you’ve saved. The home page tries harder to help you find new books than it does to get you back to your old books. There’s one carousel of what you’ve read recently, under a banner-recommendation of “Staff Picks” and followed by several more carousels of recommendations. It honestly does feel a bit like Netflix, except we have 6 or 8 books going at a time between what the kids listen to, one or two books for my wife, and one or two for me.
Use the Lists in Scribd
So we’ve developed a couple systems. Lists cannot be filtered by media type, so we save audiobooks to different lists than ebooks. This prevents tears since we know we’re looking at a list of audiobooks with the kids and when we say Magician’s Nephew is available, we mean right now and in audio format! On the phone, the only differentiation between an audiobook and ebook format is a headphone symbol in the lower right-hand corner. The second thing we do is create a ton of specific lists. This helps us segment, find things faster, and reach out to customer service when we notice books we want to read are gone.
If you’re going to try Scribd, see how big you can make your lists in the first month and then ask yourself, “If my family worked through 3-5 of these per month, would I consider that worth $8?”
Who Scribd Would be Bad For
Scribd would not work well for a single-person who reads primarily one type of literature or from one publisher. Your interests are too pigeon-holed for you to feel anything but the limits of Scribd telling you what’s available NEXT month. In general, voracious, single-genre readers will get the least out of Scribd.
The more types of word-based media you consume, the better off you are. Scribd gives you access to magazine articles you wouldn’t otherwise have access to (TIME, The Atlantic, etc.). They have podcasts, though I don’t listen on the app. And they have .pdfs, ebooks, audiobooks, sheet music, and blogs. The more varied your taste in media and genre, the happier you’ll be on Scribd.
I hope this Scribd review helps you make an informed decision. Use your free month, signing up at this link, and see if it’d be worth it for you to continue.