A colourful illustration of a disembodied hand holding a phone on which an audiobook is playing.
A colourful illustration of a disembodied hand holding a phone on which an audiobook is playing.

It’s fair to say that audiobooks are flourishing. In 2020, 9% of the UK population bought one; there were 126 audiobooks sold every minute, or two per second, according to Nielsen Books & Consumers data.

Couple this with the huge growth in popularity of podcasts in recent years, and it's clear we're in the midst of a golden period of listening culture. Audiobooks themselves have developed massively from the author-reads-book format of old, often into fully realised soundscapes with movie-level production values – all accessible from the phone in your pocket.

But for diehard fans of physical books, the world of audiobooks can still seem a little daunting, or complicated. So here is our easy to follow guide to getting started. You won't look back.

So, the burning question. What are audiobooks?

An audiobook allows you, the listener, to hear a recording of a printed book. “Mary had a little lamb. Its fleece was white as snow”, were the opening words whispered onto a phonograph by Thomas Edison, back in 1870. That humble phonograph slowly sparked a revolution in publishing, and now thanks to the wonders of the world wide web, audiobooks are available at the touch of a button. 

The days of Edison's tinny recordings are long gone and full-cast performances and beguiling multi-sensory experiences are now the norm. You can experience the latest literary fiction recited in the dulcet tones of world-famous actors, drift off to soothing ASMR sleep tales, shed a tear at poignant memoirs and better yourself to confidence-boosting self-improvement. In short, there’s something for everyone, whatever type of book takes your fancy.

Are audiobooks for me?

It’s no secret that at Penguin, we love books. But we also know grappling with a hardback isn’t for everyone. The thing about audiobooks, though, is that you don’t have to be a bookworm to enjoy them. In fact, if you find reading difficult, audiobooks may suit you just perfectly.

However, if you do love books – and we don’t blame you – an audiobook is simply another way to access a story. Their brilliantly accessible format makes them ideal for everyone, from those who have a visual impairment or struggle with reading to those who read regularly printed books and just want another way to cram literature into their lives.

A colourful illustration of a man cooking while listening to an audiobook on headphones.

When and where should I listen?

The hands-free functionality of audiobooks means they can slot seamlessly into your day-to-day. Lots of people listen at times when reading would be impossible, like on long car drives. If you’re time-poor, you can tune in as you exercise, cook, or inject some pizzazz as you go about mundane chores. Audiobooks fill gaps that physical books simply can’t.

They're also a soothing screen-free way to unwind in bed, which is perfect for tired eyes after a long day at work. Listening together with others is another advantage – you can enjoy them as a family or while travelling with friends.

That sounds great! What do I need to listen?

Almost any device with an internet connection will let you play an audiobook. The most common route is through a smartphone, with computers and tablets popular too. An Apple Watch even allows you access, as do some reading devices like the Kindle, if they have a “read-aloud” function.

With all of these devices, how you listen is as easy as using its built-in speakers, or a simple pair of headphones will allow you more freedom to go where you please while listening to your story. 

A smart speaker such as the Amazon Echo, aka Alexa, will let you play from your Audible account or through Amazon’s Kindle service, which Alexa will pleasantly read to you with her text-to-speech wizardry.

And while you can access a bookshop’s worth of children’s literature on all of these devices, some parents or carers may prefer a screen-free option for the little one in their life. Of course, there are plenty of zingy, kid-safe options on the market such as the Yoto and Toniebox speakers.

Now we know this all sounds a bit tech-heavy so if physical formats are more your thing, CDs are still readily available and a convenient, offline alternative.

Okay, but where do the books come from?

Now you’ve decided on your hardware, it’s time to delve into a few books to get a taste for things. The most popular way to source them is through an online store where you can stream or buy. The latter is ideal if you’d prefer not to be tied into a monthly subscription. 

But don’t be daunted if this all sounds a bit complex, it's a bit like dipping into a real-life bookshop or library. Most stores allow you to search for specific titles, or browse by genre and interest. Here’s a run-through of some of the most well-known and what they offer, to make life a little easier.

Audible: Audible lets you make one-off purchases or start a monthly subscription, though it's most well-known for its subscription package. For £7.99 a month you get one credit, which means you can download and keep any title. Every book you choose is yours to keep, forever – even if you cancel your membership. If you want more bang for your buck, there are higher-priced packages that give you access to additional books and, as a subscriber, you get discounts on any books you buy outside your monthly package. 

Apple Books: Apple’s easy-to-navigate storefront displays all the latest releases for your Mac, iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch. All audiobooks are one-off purchases and are added to the personal library on your device, which you can organise exactly how you like, just like your bookshelves at home.

Google Play Books: This store lets people access audiobooks on their digital devices, be it Android or Apple. There's no subscription package, just one-off purchases. It has discounted offers and a wide selection of free audiobooks too, which we think is a real plus. 

Kobo: Similar to Audible, a monthly subscription of £6.99 gives you one credit to choose a book, and you get a bonus title on signing up. 

Yoto: If you're after a child-friendly option, Yoto offers a screen-free speaker that plays audiobooks (and other audio content) through cards that slot neatly into the device. You can purchase cards individually – and most come in under £8 – or sign up for a membership, which allows you two new cards each month, as well as additional discounts and free shipping.

LibriVox: The antithesis to all the companies offering knotty monthly fees, Librivox hosts 24,000 free, public-domain audiobooks. There are no subscriptions, no purchases, no credits and no tie-ins here! The books are read by volunteers throughout the world, so while they might not have the slick quality of other platforms, they make up for it in heart.

Libby: It can be all too easy to forget what an amazing place the library is. Then along comes a smart little lending app that lets you tap into the catalogue of audiobooks (ebooks and mags, too) at your local library, from the convenience of your pocket. 

How do I start listening?

The good news is we’ve now arrived at the final piece of this aural puzzle. If you’re playing digitally, accessing the file is similar to streaming music online. First up, select your book by tapping it in your device’s library. You can then play, pause, fast forward and rewind to your heart's content. If you stop part-way through, your player will even remember where you left off and pick up from there when you return to your story.

A colourful image showing various audio-listening app icons with a large banner saying 'Free' in the middle.

Our tips to get you started with audiobooks

Sign up for a free trial. Lots of big stores – including Audible – offer free trials. They’re a great way to experiment. Dip in and out of a few books, and you’ll begin to get a feel for what you enjoy most. 

Listen to samples. It seems obvious, but trying before you buy ensures there are no deal-breakers at the other end. A bad narrator can kill a story before you’ve left the first chapter. Samples give you a feel for not just the story, but the style, narration, and sound design too. 

Start small. Listening to your first audiobook can be daunting. It’s a skill, and it takes time to adapt to pick up detail. Try some taster sessions: just a few minutes, building your way up. Resist the urge to dive straight into a tome though – try a short story, or anthology instead. 

Listen to something you’ve read and loved. Ok, we know this sounds counterintuitive, but there’s logic at play here. If you listen to a story you’re familiar with, you’ll already have a grasp of the plot. This means it will be far easier to listen and follow as you begin to bridge the gap between the book and the audio.

Toggle the narration speed. We promise there’s madness to this mayhem. Some people genuinely prefer to listen to a faster narration, which as a bonus means you read (or listen) quicker too. Others prefer a slower speed, so they don’t miss any action. Play about with the speed to find a pace that suits you. 

Try headphones. Speakers may seem like the obvious way to listen (unless you’re on the move) but headphones can drown out all other elements and immerse you in the book in a way speakers can’t. If you’ve struggled with audiobooks before, headphones may help you focus.

Experiment with genres. If you’re starting out, there’s no harm in sampling a range of genres to get a feel for things. Begin with a fiction and non-fiction book, and move to other specialities from there. If you’re already a reader, why not try something outside your comfort zone? You might just surprise yourself...

What did you think of this article? Email editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk and let us know.

Images: Alexandra Francis / Penguin

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