Kindle Instant Preview reinforces Amazon’s dominance
Maximizing mobile micro-moments

When will content truly become mobile?

Mobile-605422_1920After 7+ years of working remotely from my home office I recently started a new job with a daily commute. It’s actually quite an enjoyable ride and I originally planned to make it even better with a variety of mobile/audio content. Podcasts were at the top of my list but I also figured I could finally dive into audio books and a variety of text-to-speech solutions.

Mobile content has been a hot topic for years so I figured the options would be endless. Boy, was I surprised. My car has all the modern navigational bells and whistles but it seems the most cutting-edge mobile content feature is Sirius radio, a technology that’s now almost 15 years old.

Satellite radio is nice but is that as good as it gets? Since Sirius puts their receivers in most new cars I’m wondering if the publishing industry has missed an opportunity to create a new distribution channel. Why aren’t audio books and other digital content products available via satellite radio? Yes, I realize satellite focuses on broadcasting, not narrowcasting, but surely there’s bandwidth available to send individual packets of content like an audio book to an individual receiver. That content could then be stored locally and played back at the driver’s convenience.

You could argue that Bluetooth is the solution to this problem. After all, I can buy an audio book on my phone and listen to it in my car via Bluetooth. I’d rather see a service directly integrated with my car’s in-dash system though so I’m not fumbling around with both the dashboard display and a phone. Sirius could represent an entirely new distribution partner. (What’s more likely to happen is that Amazon will eventually make its way into your new car’s touchscreen and their dominance will be extended yet again.)

Audio books probably aren’t the right solution for me after all though. I’m still reeling from sticker shock after surveying the audio book landscape. You’d have to be pretty committed to the book and format to pay more for the audio edition than you’d pay for the print edition. I thought the unlimited monthly subscription platforms might be an alternative but they have too many restrictions. Scribd is a great example. I’m limited to one audio book per month so it’s really unlimited for ebooks but very limited for audio.

I get it that most audio books incur a high production cost, especially if they’re read by a celebrity author. But why does the author have to be the audio talent? In fact, do we really even need human voice talent to create the audio editions? If you haven’t recently explored the text-to-speech world you’ll be amazed at the current capabilities. We’re no longer limited to those tinny, lifeless monotone streams, so why not automate the text-to-speech conversion without the need for pricey audio talent?

Here’s a radical idea: Sell the all-in-one edition where my print purchase also includes the ebook and audio formats. We’re seeing the beginnings of this with alternate format add-ons like Amazon’s Audible narration and Kindle MatchBook; the former brings audio to the ebook and the latter provides a discounted Kindle edition if you’ve already bought the print version. Let’s make things simpler though and stop hoping consumers will discover these tiny add-on links on the Amazon product page. Publishers should sell the all-in-one edition directly, and perhaps exclusively, giving consumers a compelling reason to buy direct.

The untapped mobile opportunity goes beyond books. In fact, I think there’s an even bigger mobile opportunity for short-form content. For example, why don’t newspapers and magazines offer audio editions? They seem to think the “digital” version of their content is limited to website articles and print replica editions. Yes, some of the replica edition platforms offer text-to-speech but not a complete, mobile audio experience.

Periodical publishers should ask themselves this question: what would Steve Jobs do? I’m pretty sure for starters he’d offer a full audio edition, structured in playlist format enabling the consumer to simply say “next” or “listen” as the app reads each of the headlines to you. Today’s audio options are simply grafted onto the written edition and not offered in a mobile-optimized format.

Many of these periodical publishers continue losing brand relevance with the younger generation. I wonder if a better mobile audio solution could help them reverse that trend.

For now my commute is limited to a variety of podcasts and one-off audio feeds and I’m left asking this question: Can we really call it “mobile” content when there are still this many gaps?


Jonetta Allen

Please don't minimize the role of talent for audiobook narration. I listen to a LOT of audiobooks and a poor narration can destroy a story and a great performance can actually elevate an average one. When I refer to talent, I don't mean celebrity authors. Most of the highly sought out narrators aren't celebrities but professional actors who've discovered a new outlet for their skills. I invite you to explore this further as you won't find a huge audience interested in canned audio translations.

I also invite you to explore your library's inventory of audiobooks. Last year, I listened to about 60 audiobooks and roughly 75% were downloaded from my library's site. It's an excellent way to satisfy your volume appetite and preserving your dollars.

I download my books to my iPhone and then connect it to my car's speaker system. I'm pretty happy with the current setup but am definitely open to more efficient solutions to my commuting listening.

Michael W. Perry

I agree that in the month I belonged to Audible, I was surprised by how pricey its audiobooks were. They're for the well-to-do busy who don't need to look at the price. My hunch is that, when the market will bear the cost, publishers regard an audiobook as value added to the hardback, hence those higher-than-print prices.

But if your taste extends beyond current NYT bestsellers, you'll find audiobooks that are not only cheap, they're free. Try public-domain classics by Librivox and Loyal Books. (The latter repackages books by the former.) Yes, they're read by volunteers, but most do a quite acceptable job. I actually enjoyed Anne of Green Gables because the person who read for Anne was a young girl who sounded precisely like the Anne of the tale might have sounded. No professional could do that. And if you still want to listen to current bestsellers, do a split. Saving money on the classics means your spending for new ones will be less.

There are also podcasts that are books serialized. I listen to Classic Tales, read by a professional, but there are others. I've also been revisiting my youth, either by listening to tales I read as a child or listening to ones that I didn't read. Along with that, I read a lot of the once popular adventure tales for adults, such as John Buchan, the Tom Clancy of years past. The best books published before 1923 often beats the socks off current bestsellers.

Finally, check out the Instapaper app. The feature is not a visible as perhaps it should be, but if you're a subscriber, it can use text-to-speech to read online articles to you. That gets the short-form audio you want. There's no need for the news source to provide that. I quote from Instapaper:

"One of our users’ most common feature requests has been for a text-to-speech function, and we’re happy to announce that we now have text-to-speech support in both our iOS and Android apps! Text-to-speech is accessible directly from the share sheet in Instapaper and you can control the playback right on your lock screen."

I agree that perhaps better options should be available for commuters, but keep in mind the chicken and egg problem. The costs of offering these alternatives mean there needs to be a sufficient base of subscribers to justify the costs. No technology, no subscribers. No subscribers, no technology. For now, we must kludge our own answers.

--Michael W. Perry, author of Lily's Ride


Creating Sirius channels for audiobooks is a great idea. Would that format allow you to stop listening at the end of your ride and continue where you left off the next time you get in the car? If that's possible, I might pay for Sirius. But your suggestion that text-to-speech would be adequate might be true for certain non-fiction. But I doubt that even the best text-to-speech system could capture an author's voice or bring characters to life the way a good voice actor can.

Michael W. Perry

I should add that both Librivox and Loyal Books have mobile apps that let you find, download and listen to audiobooks from your smartphone or tablet. That saves a lot of diddling around. For those with iOS devices, the links are:

Also, if you're still looking for a podcast app, check out Overcast by the same developer who invented Instapaper. It's got two features I love:

Smart Speed. Other podcast apps let you make crude speed adjustments. This not only lets you set the speed for each individual podcast to precisely that which keeps your interest, it removes the blank spaces, making the podcast flow more smoothly.

Voice Boost. This levels out the sound, so all the speakers and podcasts are at the same level. That's particularly handy in noisy environments like commuting. No more twiddling with the volume.

Together, the features make even so-so podcasts sound like they're professionally edited. They also speed up listening—in my case by about 20%—while making it more interesting. For me, most podcasts are just a tiny bit too slow, but not so slow I can handle them at the 1.5x speed which is all some podcast apps offer. This app lets me set the just write. Just keep in mind that it may take a week or two to get used to the UI.

And if you like to mix actual reading with listening, check out the Gutenberg Project app:

I've not used it, however, so I can't comment pro or con. Between the Loyal Books and Instapaper apps, I'm happy enough, I often go on walks just to listen. Keep in mind that this listening isn't just for daily commutes. You can listen while you do almost any task that doesn't need your full attention—yard work, house work or whatever. It can make even the dullest work interesting.

JJ Bach

Your idea of an audio version of newspaper and other short form content is fabulous. The morning commute is a great fit for listening to the recent version of the newspaper. Morning talk shows more than prove the current market exists, audio newspapers could provide sorely needed alternatives to the crop of gomers in the talk show world. Given the retreat and shrink-oriented mentality of the newspaper world I imagine they're all about cost control rather than investing in anything new. But your idea, the first time I've seen it expressed anywhere is a great one, imo.

As for books, I think the book-related ecosystem simply cannot move any faster than they already are. They have demonstrated an ongoing lack of initiative when it comes to "new" anything. The same focus on cost cutting and managing an orderly retreat applies even more to publishers than it does to newspapers. Controlling access, not increasing access seems to be their outlook.

Randi Roger

Joe, I have had the very same experience you have had! I once downloaded an audio book to my iPad, used the AUX cable into my car's system and things were humming along nicely until I had to change files (book was too large for a single file download). There I was driving 70 MPH on the highway trying to unlock my iPad, find the file and get it started playing. Lucky I didn't crash that car!
I like your idea of single purchase multi format or better yet a service like you suggest. We can't be the only two who want this.

Deborah Emin

This is an interesting idea but as of now, my distributor and I cannot bundle anything. I would like to do that, I would like to gift my print buyers with the e-book format and then let them share that e-book with whomever they want. I would also like to add that as a long distance traveler, going for 2-3 months on the road in the summer, it is very easy to get our iPads or iPhones into our car's system and listen to as much as we have there. We buy new content along the way as we learn of things we want to hear or save. But the thing is, it takes two of us to do this. The driver is not able to be the dj. But it makes our long distance drives more fun. Then of course at night, if we choose, we can unplug from the car and listen via our headsets in our tent. That saves the eyes and keeps the night very dark. thanks for this article

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