How to Choose an Audiobook

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headphones on books

The holidays are upon us (almost), and that means it’s time for long drives to visit family, long airport visits, long train trips … well, you get it. I like to read when I’m in the airport or on a train, but not even I have figured out how to safely read a book while driving a car.

Or maybe I have figured it out — audiobooks. The right audiobook is like a really great podcast that you’ve just discovered and has like 20 episodes you haven’t heard yet: it’s entertaining, and it’s perfect for binging, which is what you’ll be doing when you’re facing that 10-hour drive to visit family.

My relationship with audiobooks is intermittent. Normally, I’d prefer to read a good book, and if I’m looking for something to listen to and learn from, I usually choose podcasts. But sometimes, an audiobook really is best. They’re great for road trips because, once you’re invested in the story, you actually WANT to stay  on the road longer. I also really like them when I’m doing a long-ish project around the house like painting a room. If you need to distract yourself for three hours or more, an audiobook is just perfect.

It’s perfect … except when it’s not. When the book is boring or the reader is irritating, suffering through an audiobook can be pretty terrible, and I think bad audiobook experiences are why most people avoid them. But how do you know you’re choosing the right book? Here are my tips:

Consider the Genre

It’s fine to look at audiobook bestsellers for ideas, but don’t just pick the number one book and assume you’ll like it. Think about whether you’re in the mood for fiction or nonfiction, for something light and funny or deep and dramatic. Do you want a book that teaches you something, or are you just looking for a good story? Here’s a link to help you browse by genre to find something you’re actually in the mood for.

Listen to an Excerpt

This is the most important tip when it comes to audiobooks — listen to the reader first. My favorite audiobook source, Libro.fm, has playable excerpts so you can listen to the books before you buy them from the website. Definitely, absolutely do this, even if the book is read by the author. A bad reader will irritate you throughout the entire book. It will not get better. I know this from experience.

Don’t Choose a Classic

There are certainly exceptions to this; if you’re a huge Jane Austen nut, go ahead and listen to Pride and Prejudice. But if you don’t already know you’re a fan of a certain author, I wouldn’t choose an older novel. War and Peace is long on purpose — it’s designed to get you through a Russian winter. Tolstoy was a genius, and he really delivered on the deep psychological insights, but that might not be what you need to keep your adrenaline up through a family road trip.

Choose a Children’s Book

If you’re an audiobook novice, you’ll soon learn that audiobooks are really, really long. Generally speaking, it takes more time to read a book aloud than to read it to yourself, and the books I get on audio tend to be 25-50 hours. Even the longest holiday road trip is probably not going to get you through a book like that, and if the book is good, you probably won’t want to wait until your next trip to see how the story ends. Because of this, I sometimes love to listen to books written for middle schoolers. I absolutely loved A Series of Unfortunate Events on audio; each book is funny and smart and engaging, and the readers are fantastic. (A few are read by Tim Curry.) I also like the Artemis Fowl books on audio, and you can never really go wrong with Harry Potter.

Think about Who’s Listening

If you’re traveling with other people, be kind. Think about what they’d like; you might be better off choosing something funny and short that everyone will be happy with. In my experience, most other travelers are resistant to audiobooks. Ask if they’re willing to try it for half an hour; after that, if they’re still not engaged, they never will be. Switch to music or conversation to keep the peace. (Also, don’t force an audiobook by your favorite author onto your traveling companion thinking they’ll love it as much as you do. I promise you, they will not.)

Check the Reviews

Don’t just look at book reviews — look specifically at audiobook reviews, especially if you’re looking for something like science or history. I love a good history audiobook (I know how nerdy that sounds, btw), and some of my favorite audiobooks have been about business, but you want something entertaining, not just informative. If you feel like you’re doing homework, you won’t be engaged enough to make it through a long drive.

Choose a Good App

You can find free audiobooks through an app from your local library, and obviously that’s the most cost effective way to listen. But if you’re looking for a bigger selection (sometimes the most popular books are already checked out), I love Libro.fm. I wrote about all the reasons I love the app here, but to summarize, I like it because it works smoothly, does everything I want it to (it has options for timers and bookmarks), and supports independent bookstores. Here’s my referral code if you’d like to try a free month.

Audiobooks can be really fantastic, both as entertainment and for learning new things. I hope these tips help you hit on some wonderful new stories, and that they help keep the peace during the long and fraught holiday road trips ahead.

Carrie Rollwagen is author of The Localist, a book about buying from locally owned stores. She’s Communications Director at Infomedia, a web development company in Birmingham, Alabama. Find her as @crollwagen on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and most other social media platforms.

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