Home Money Listen up: how to access audiobooks for less – or even for free | Audiobooks

Listen up: how to access audiobooks for less – or even for free | Audiobooks



Beth Leitch listened to more than 200 audiobooks last year. “I have chronic fatigue syndrome – also known as ME – and was having to rest all day,” the 17-year-old says.

Unable to read anything in print without getting a headache, she thought she was going to “go nuts” from boredom. “Then someone suggested audiobooks to me, and it completely changed my life.”

She now consumes about 15 audiobooks a month – and, impressively, manages this on a monthly budget of only £20. Her secret? She is saving an estimated £1,000 a year by using alternatives to Audible, the audiobook subscription service owned by Amazon. “I’m a big environmentalist and I make an effort to buy stuff from anywhere else [other than Amazon],” Leitch says.

While Audible and its vast catalogue of titles has dominated the UK audiobook market for years, a plethora of ethical retailers and subscription services have now sprung up, offering attractive alternatives to the online company – and often at cheaper prices, too.

Some even provide free access to audiobooks in certain circumstances.

So what options are out there, how much do they cost, and how do their collections of titles compare with Audible?

The Audible application is displayed on a smartphone
Audible has dominated the UK audiobook market for years but there are plenty of other options. Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

Our main findings

Guardian Money put 15 different audiobook collections to the test: Audible, Apple Books, Audiobooks.com, BBC Sounds, BookBeat, BorrowBox, Kobo, LibriVox, Listening Books, OverDrive, Scribd, Spiracle, Spotify, uLibrary and xigxag. We randomly chose 50 different audiobooks – 10 classic novels, 10 nonfiction books and the rest a mixture of popular bestsellers and literary fiction – and checked to see which titles were available where, and how much they would cost.

Only Audible offered access to 100% of the 50 titles we chose, for an average upfront cost of £16.57 a book to non-subscribers. However, most titles – more than 80% – were also available to buy from Apple Books (98%), Kobo (92%), Spotify (90%) and xigxag (84%).

Of those four, and indeed across all the commercial audiobook services we looked at, xigxag consistently offered the most significant savings and charged the lowest average price: £7.68 a book.

Apple Books was close behind, charging £8.81 a book on average.

However, the savings on individual books at xigxag can be significant. To give an example of how prices can differ, at the time of writing, the audiobook of the bestselling novel Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens was £24.99 on Audible, £24.99 on Kobo, £24.90 on Spotify, £9.99 on Apple Books, and £7.99 on xigxag.

Subscriptions and ‘credits’

You can dramatically reduce most of these upfront prices by subscribing to a particular collection, however, and buying the book with a “credit”. Audible members receive one credit each month in exchange for a monthly £7.99 subscription. Kobo charges less: £6.99 a month, again for one credit, which you can redeem against any of the titles in its catalogue. Both allow a single credit to be used to buy expensive £24.99 audiobooks such as Where the Crawdads Sing, so subscribers effectively pay a third of the price charged to non-subscribers.

Xigxag, by contrast, doesn’t operate a subscription model. Instead, loyalty is rewarded: while titles never cost more than £7.99 at this retailer, the more you buy, the less you will pay for the rest of that year. For example, if you buy more than 20 titles, your subsequent purchases that year will be £3.99 each.

Headphones placed over books
You can reduce upfront prices by subscribing to a particular collection of audiobooks. Photograph: AlexeyPelikh/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Leitch likes the flexibility of this non-subscription approach. She now gets most of the books she buys from xigxag and says she feels smug when she pays £3.99 for a book that costs £25 elsewhere. “You can’t buy audiobooks secondhand the way you can with physical books, so it’s great to have such a cheap option,” she says.

Xigxag has some good ethical credentials, too – it is a certified B Corp company, indicating the business successfully adheres to high social and environmental standards, and was designated an Ethical Consumer best buy for audiobooks.

Our research suggests it is often not, however, the cheapest place to buy a classic novel. Kobo and Apple Books offered better value when it came to this category, selling these audiobooks for as little as 99p.

Overall, the cheapest subscription service we found was BookBeat, which charges only £5.99 a month. This entitles you to 20 hours of listening a month (it also has pricier options offering up to 100 hours) – so enough time to hear Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie (eight hours, 13 minutes) twice but not Ulysses by James Joyce (37 hours, 35 minutes).

Only 17 (34%) of the titles we wanted to hear were available on BookBeat. Similarly, at Scribd – which describes itself as a library and allows you to “borrow” an unlimited number of audiobooks while you are a member, in return for £10.99 a month – only 42% of our choices were available.

BookBeat logo displayed on a phone, headphones and a book are seen in this illustration
BookBeat charges from £5.99 a month for its subscription service. Photograph: NurPhoto/Getty Images

Support UK independents

A new alternative to Audible – particularly if you plan to listen to two books a month and are keen to support authors and small, independent presses – is a Spiracle subscription for £12 a month or £120 a year. This entitles you to two audiobooks a month from a curated collection of 300-400 titles, plus you will get free access to short stories and podcasts. Alternatively, you can pay for each title as you go. But since most will cost about £10 or £12 upfront, a subscription is likely to offer a better deal.

“Spiracle is a publisher as well as a retailer,” says the spokesperson Kate Bland. “Our Spiracle Editions are unique, original audiobooks co-published with small and independent presses which are not available on other audiobook platforms. We pay narrators for the reading and also [give them] a 10% share in sales of the Editions.”

Spiracle’s collection is designed to be unique and very different from Audible’s, and so, perhaps unsurprisingly, only 11 (22%) of the 50 titles we selected were available to listen to. These included the nonfiction classic Black Skin, White Masks by Frantz Fanon, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and a new narration by Martin Jarvis of Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat. However, the savings on these works were significant. Each was available for about half the price you would pay on Audible to buy those books upfront, without a subscription.

Helen Boaden
Helen Boaden, the former director of radio at the BBC, is a great advocate of small audiobook providers. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Helen Boaden, the former director of radio at the BBC, is “completely addicted to audiobooks” and was an early subscriber to Spiracle. “I was keen to see an independent British company succeed in giving a voice to independent contemporary writers and some slightly offbeat classics. And I wasn’t disappointed. The quality of the audiobooks is exceptional and I think the deal is a bargain – it has exposed me to readings I wouldn’t have seen on Audible or elsewhere. I’ve been really impressed by the service.”

She found a narration of Ti Amo by the Norwegian author Hanne Ørstavik particularly entrancing, and was impressed with other contemporary novels she has found on Spiracle. “I think the curators have got great taste – they’re very eclectic and thoughtful about their audience.” Coming from a radio background, she is “quite picky” about the voices she listens to: “What you find with big audio companies is that everything is in an American accent,” she says. “I can’t stand it.” By contrast, she says listening to Martin Jarvis reading Three Men in a Boat is “amazing. It’s stunningly good.”

Audiobooks.com, another subscription service we looked at, promised better value than Spiracle, xigxag, Kobo and Audible at £7.99 for two credits a month. But only one of these credits can be used to get books from the main collection; the other must be used against titles in its VIP selection.

However, this site does offer something unique to subscribers who consume a lot of books in a particular genre. Instead of choosing a book from Audiobooks.com’s main collection, you can use your monthly credit like a passport and enter one of nine clubs, including romance, mystery and thriller, and sci-fi and fantasy. You then get 30 days of unlimited listening to all the audiobooks in that club.

Several other services we looked at – including Scribd, Audible Plus and Kobo Plus – also offer unlimited listening subscriptions to their collections (or certain parts of them) for a fixed price. This may seem like a bargain if you are a heavy consumer of audiobooks but it is worth considering the impact of such subscriptions on the authors and publishers whose work you enjoy. “Subscription services pay authors but at a far lower rate than if you buy it. The best way to support writers and writing is to buy the book,” says Martin Reed from the Society of Authors.

However, he makes an exception to this rule for audiobooks lent by local libraries: “If you borrow the audiobook from your local library, it will be free to you but the author will have been paid for the original purchase of the book and will receive a modest fee every time the book is borrowed – almost certainly the fairest approach if you’re on a tight budget.”

Free audiobooks

If your top priority is to pay as little as possible, we found that borrowing them for nothing from your local library using BorrowBox, uLibrary or Libby is by far your best and cheapest option. Your library may allow you to access all three using your library card.

Most of the audiobooks Leitch consumes each month are loaned from her local library. However, she says the titles she wants to read are not always immediately available.

Eight of the titles on our list – all classics, including The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway and The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald – were also free to download from LibriVox. This free resource hosts recordings of books, often narrated by volunteers, that were typically published more than 95 years ago and so are now out of copyright and in the public domain in the US.

However, as the site itself makes clear, some of these classic texts may still be protected by copyright law outside the US, and it is the responsibility of each individual listener to determine this and comply with local laws. In the UK, for example, copyright protection for published works now usually lasts for 70 years after the author’s death.

In general, listening to a free audiobook you find online may seem like a harmless way to save money. But in many cases you will be depriving writers, their estates and their publishers of their rightful income. To avoid breaching copyright laws, always double-check you can legitimately access any free audiobook you want to listen to.

The good news is that if you are a BBC licence fee payer, the radio programmes available from BBC Sounds are a fantastic source of free audiobooks and short stories – which you can legally consume to your heart’s content.

Overall, via the BBC, LibriVox and our local library, we found we could legally access 25 different books for free – half the titles we randomly decided we wanted to listen to.

The interior of a public library in the UK.
Check out the audiobook options at your local library. Photograph: Ros Crosland/Alamy

A charity that can help

Listening Books, the national audiobook charity, is another resource you may be eligible to use if you have a disability, learning difficulty or mental health condition that makes it hard for you to read print (such as dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety, depression, frailty and autism). It costs as little as £20 a year to join, with some free memberships available to people who cannot afford to pay.

Members are allowed to borrow two MP3s – or four CDs, which are sent in the post – at a time, from the charity’s collection of more than 10,000 audiobooks. As soon as you have finished a book, you can return it and borrow another and, unlike with a library, there are never any late fees or fines. “We have our own studios and record books that are unavailable elsewhere and regularly add to this from recommendations from parents, teachers and students,” the spokesperson Louise Barling says.

When we tested the service, 33 of the titles (66%) in our list were available to borrow – far more than our local library alone could supply.

Leitch is an enthusiastic member and borrows three or four audiobooks from the charity every month. So does Katie Louise, who suffered a brain haemorrhage a few years ago. “I nearly died, and since then I find it difficult to read print books and retain the words in my head – it’s much harder than listening,” she says.

She has found Listening Books’s range to be not as good as Audible “in that you don’t get all the very up-to-date books – but there are loads on there, and for £20 a year, it’s very good value. I cannot afford Audible at the moment with the recent increases in interest rates.”

She credits the charity with opening up reading and the world of books to her again after her illness. She often listens to a book now, when she is walking or feeling lonely. “I live alone and an audiobook is company.” She has joined a book club in her village, so the service helped her to make friends as well. “Having access to Listening Books has been very good for me. I think it is brilliant.”



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