When I got my new Android phone, the first app I installed was Audible, the audiobook service owned by Amazon. Many of you are already Audible listeners but perhaps some background will be helpful if you haven’t been introduced yet.

Audiobooks are nothing new. Old-timers will remember renting overpriced cassettes by mail from Books On Tape. Barnes & Noble always had a few shelves of overpriced audiobook CDs in the stores. Back in the iPod era, using Audible meant downloading .AA files to your computer, then syncing them to your iPod.

Today you can find a ragtag selection of audiobooks at your local library and there are a few non-Audible audiobooks available to download online. In general, though, Audible owns the audiobook business.

Amazon acquired Audible six years ago, at about the same time that we started to fall in love with our smartphones. It is a perfect match for our smartphone culture, for the hours that we spend in our cars or with earbuds inserted in our ears. Audible has streamlined and improved everything about the audiobook experience and has become one of the bright spots in the publishing industry. A large percentage of new books are released by Audible at the same time they are published in print and the number of older titles is constantly growing. At the same time, Audible is attracting better talent to do the reading and doing more special projects, and Amazon has leveraged Audible to increase the synergy between printed books and audiobooks.

Getting started with Audible

It’s easy to get started: sign up for a free trial and get two free audiobooks. Use your computer to shop for an Audible book at Amazon, then use the Audible app on your phone to listen to the book.

When you search for books on Amazon, the Audible version will be listed along with the Kindle version and the paper edition. You can also go directly to for the same selection. Either way, you can sample a couple of minutes of each title to make sure you like the narrator.

When you buy an Audible book, it’s added to your Amazon library, just like a Kindle book. If you’re going to listen to it on your phone, there’s no need to download the Audible book to your computer. Audible has apps available for Android, iOS, and Windows phone. The next time you open the Audible app on your phone, the new book will show up right away. Clicking on it will start it downloading to your phone. You can start listening right away while the rest of it downloads in the background.

Audible’s pricing schemes are convoluted. There are incentives to become a subscriber and pay a fixed amount each month in exchange for “credits” to download books. Books can be purchased individually but the prices drop by 30% if you’re a subscriber. Typically one credit equals one book – from a quick spy novel to forty-five hours of a Stephen King or Diana Gabaldon novel – but naturally, there are exceptions.

What to expect

Audible is getting better at matching the right reader to the right book. At the same time, the quality of the readers is going up as the audiobook industry explodes. In 2013, the CEO of Audible speculated that the company was the largest single employer of actors in the New York area.

If you’re not sure where to start, get The Martian by Andy Weir, the single best audiobook in my experience. The narrator’s voice is now imprinted in my head as the only possible choice, and it happens to be the perfect book for reading out loud. It’s become a publishing sensation and the audiobook is a big part of the reason why.

It’s common for a reader to become identified with a series. Outlander fans treasure the voice of Davina Porter. Roy Dotrice is the voice of all the books in the Game of Thrones series.

Some authors read their own works. There is no guarantee that an author is a good reader, but it’s wonderful when it works well. Neil Gaiman is a great storyteller and one of the best readers of our time – try The Graveyard Book or Stardust. John Le Carre has a distinctive voice and a perfect ear for accents; I normally don’t like abridged versions of books but I make an exception for him. Try The Tailor Of Panama. Feeling brave? You should hear Harlan Ellison read his own stories.

Now Audible is getting more ambitious and doing more inventive productions. Some of them are modest – having male and female voices trading off in the back-and-forth sections of Gone Girl, for example. Last year Audible hired well-known British actors to read Ian Fleming’s original James Bond novels, so I just listened to Dan Stevens (Matthew on Downton Abbey) read Casino Royale. It turns out that James Bond novels are greatly improved when they’re read with a cultured British accent. (Careful! Look for the editions with black-and-white covers to get these new recordings.)

There are also more dramatised productions coming out, like a return of old-time radio shows, with a full cast, music, and sound effects – for example, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Audible has also scooped up the rights to audio productions from a variety of sources, so you can listen to a fully acted BBC production of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, first broadcast in 1978.

Perhaps you’ve seen the ads for The Great Courses in the New York Times. For decades the best professors at the best colleges have recorded lectures in their best classes and sold them through The Great Courses. Audible acquired the rights to them and you can listen to any of The Great Courses for a single Audible credit. Bill Gates was so taken with Big History: The Big Bang, Life On Earth, And The Rise Of Humanity, lectures given by Australian professor David Christian, that he is spearheading the movement to bring it into the high school curriculum across America. I’m approaching the end of the 48 lectures, more than 24 hours of material, and it is indeed extraordinary – a fascinating synthesis of history, biology, chemistry, astronomy and many more disciplines.

It probably goes without saying that the Audible apps will remember your place if you switch from one device to another. Amazon has added another trick to leverage its Kindle books: if you own both a Kindle and an Audible version of a book, you can go back and forth between them and keep your place. Drive home listening to an Audible book; when you go in the house and pick up your Kindle, it will offer to jump to where you left off when you shut off the car; and the next morning, the Audible app will jump to where you left off on the Kindle. Amazon offers a steep discount on Audible titles after you buy the Kindle version of a book, so it’s not impossible that you’ll wind up owning both versions.

What can I say? I’m a fan. If you can figure out how to connect your phone to your car, or if you wear earbuds when you walk, Audible is a great way to pass the time. Happy listening!

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