I just set up an account for my daughter with audible.com, and downloaded a book for her to listen to on the bus. The good news is that is appears to be all set up now, and ready to download to her iTouch. The bad news is … everything else.

We spent nearly an hour buying a single audio “book”, and getting it copied down to her computer. The problems were nearly all related to digital rights management, though I’d class them in two groups: fundamental, and incompetent.

The fundamental problem is that DRM makes downloading and using media much more difficult. It restricts which programs and devices you can use it with. Further, is it any surprise that downloading a program whose fundamental purpose is to prevent proscribed uses of a media file makes it more difficult to successfully use that media file? In the case of audible, we had to download a program to my daughter’s laptop that insinuated itself into firefox and itunes in unspecified ways, so that she could download the Audible files she had paid for to her laptop, and thence to her iPod. This program failed to install itself properly the first time — apparently it doesn’t check to see whether itunes is running, but fails mysteriously if it is. When we tried to download the book we had paid for to her computer, we kept getting mysterious error messages. These went away once we reinstalled the software.

The problems of incompetence were mostly caused by a user interface that tries to pretend that the challenge is easier than it actually is. The Web site makes a big thing out of the four simple steps required to get going with Audible. Step 1 is “Pick a plan”. We didn’t want to sign up for a plan, so it took us a while to figure out that you can buy books without a plan. Step 2 is “Download Audible software”. In the description it says “You can also use ITunes to download audio …”. We decided to go that route initially, before figuring out that apparently the audible.com software is required in addition to iTunes. It didn’t help that the iPod Touch is not listed in the “supported devices” list, so we had to guess which software we need. Step 3 is “Purchase and download”. Our problems with this step are described in the previous paragraph. Step 4 is “Transfer your audio to your AudibleReady device”. Here the solution was easy: we just had to figure out that Audible had created a new sort of “playlist” in iTunes, and that we had to tell iTunes to sync that playlist with the iPod Touch. A common step in iTunes — but it would have been nice for Audible to walk us through that step.

A very frustrating hour later, my daughter is pretty happy with having her book ready for the bus. I’m much less happy. Audible seems like a company that is going to fail if they don’t figure out these user interface issues. What, then, will happen to the DRM that requires a “phone home” to install the book on a different device? (Yes, even the iPod Touch will one day seem outdated.) Even though I’m eager to listen to “books on pod” while I exercise, I refuse to buy these DRM-crippled alternatives. Yes, convenience is worth a lot, but more important to me is the principle that media that I buy must be usable for me into the murky future, independent of the survival of any one company, format, device, or business model.

What do you think?

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48 Responses to “Why Audible.Com is Failing”

  1. Tom Carey

    I couldn’t agree more about the complications connected with Audible downloads. But the biggest bugbear to me is that when you finally get there, you can end up with an entire audiobook of 7 hours or more on one track. How ridiculous is that? How are you supposed to find where you left off if you should happen to want to listen to something else before you are finished with a book? Or am I missing something? Can you download a version that is in tracks like a CD?

  2. Dxpert

    My dear friend, You ARE missing something.
    I have been using audible for 7 years, and even since the beginning, the ONE thing that ALWAYS worked in Audible is the Bookmarking capability which lets you pick up any book where you left off.

  3. jtsroka

    I must admit I am VERY DISAPPOINTED in Audible that they have not addressed the issue of an app to enable direct access to my Audible library for the iPhone.

    Over two years ago, I was able to directly listen to my library wirelessly with my Palm Treo. I have had my iPhone for almost two years an still cannot do so. I’m left to download the WSJ read every morning and if I run out of time, I’m out of luck.

    Cannot understand what is the issue here and why have they have not addressed it in the past two years.

  4. nominally happy audible user

    I’ve been using Audible for a couple years and just got an iPhone, (previous devices were non-mac products) and while I found Audible manager clunky, it worked acceptably. However.. after several hours of search and reading through Audibles knowledge base, this was the first place I saw the playist thing mentioned. It took about two seconds to get it working. Audible- come on.

  5. Truffle

    depending on the type of account you have yes your credits have a time limit on them, back in 04 when I signed up my account there was one 2 options buy the by the book or a monthly subscription, if you didnt pick you book out in a month you lost your credits (they stopped selling my account years ago), I belive the new subscriptions now give you 12 months to purchase your books, there are more then enough books on the site to have picked them out in 12 months

  6. Anonymous

    I just got a gift certificate to Audible.co.uk. After failing to understand how using it works for about ten minutes, I realized I have to pretend I’m purchasing books for money, click a store credit checkbox, and then install some stupid program just to download the file.

    Not only don’t they support Linux, but my only other option fails too, because the S60 app they provide is for S60 v3. I have S60 v5 on my phone. If you’re going to use DRM, at least keep your moronic software up to date.

    Either the person who bought the gift card gets the money back or I’m complaining to the government. Either way, I hope they go out of business due to this DRM crap.

  7. Eli B.

    I just found out that a lot of my credits expired. I did not know that they can expire my fully paid for credits. I called customer support and closed my account. Does anyone on the earth hear about this kind of things before? I would not recommend that anyone sign up to even purchase a single book from audible. I should have read the custom review first before I tried Audible.com.

  8. Marc Deseke

    I am a customer of Audible for more than 1,5 years an NEVER had any problems as stated above. Even when I had to re-install everything because of a malfunction of my pc, everything went well.
    Buying is simple, correct and easy with the download helper. Even now with I-Tunes as the standard program for music, it is automatically transferred into I-Tunes…it couldn’t be more easy!

  9. bmartin

    All I have to say is AMEN to your article. Our family is just about ready to go back to the written word and ebooks at the library. We have our own accounts with ITunes and Audible and would like to share our purchases, but find it a very big hassle to do for the money we are paying = not only for the purchases, for memberships.

  10. Anonymous

    My audio books play well on my PC. When I download them to my iphone, the sound gets distorted (like an echo). The customer support rep says this is a problem with some older titles. Well, some of titles are max 2 years old and still have the problem. I tried the enhanced format. Same problem.

    Customer service is slow and not very proactive.

    Anybody had a problem with this?


  11. Michele

    My god if you can’t figure out how to download an audio book to your iPhone/iPod You shouldn’t own one.
    I’ve been with audible with a two book a month membership since 2002. I’ve talked to their customer support and have recieved excellent support in the past.
    For example, I purchased a book once and after five minutes decide the audio quality wasn’t up to standard. They returned my credit back even though I could have been lying and read the book.
    don’t get me wrong, I don’t blindly believe in them and I’ve had my scares too on the past when I get a little paranoid and download and burn all of my purchases on DVD. But I’ve never had a problem. They keep adding support for new devices. I started out with an old ipaq and found that listening to books on it was the most useful thing to do with it. I went through the sorrow of getting a car without casette which allowed you to connect the device to your cars speakers and through the discovery of radio devices that broadcast to your cars radio. All of this, including around 10 PCs, 7 audio devices, and I’ve never had a problem a quick call to support (or sometimes the online help people) couldn’t fix.
    There’s a good reason Amazon decided they were worth purchasing.
    To those who have issues with downloading/setting up for the first time I say, try to understand the new process, it’s worth it.

  12. Anonymous

    I just had to re-install Vista on my computer, then Itunes, now I can’t listen to the three books I bought from Audible, because I don’t have internet access at home. So I emailed customer support to see if there was anything that I could do. The response that I got was basically a rehash of information I already had. It seems like the person didn’t even read to see what my problem was in the first place.

    As far as your books being ‘permanently’ saved, I’ve tried several times to log back in, and it won’t let me,maybe because I don’t currently have a contract with them, who knows…

    I understand why they want you to allow Itunes via the ‘net…I’d just like for them to have an alternative for those of us who can’t afford internet access in the home.

    (And yes, I do know that an alternative would be actual books, of which I have many…:))

  13. forsyth

    I wasn’t impressed by the registration procedure. If the software dates from 2008 or earlier, I suppose it makes sense to me now, but these days, insisting on creating a user name distinct from the required e-mail address seems silly.

    The introductory pages suggest they support MP3 players. My daughter got a Sony Walkman for Christmas. It’s a fairly high-profile MP3 player, I’d have thought, and I’d expect it to outrank (say) a Buick (which is supported), but no.

    After the purchase, the real troubles started.

    I booted up Windows 7 (containing iTunes linked to an iPod) to run Internet Explorer to give the Audible Download Manager and Audible Manager as plain a chance of working (off Mac and Linux) as I could, and I’m already intrigued as to what non-specialist users make of this rubbish. More and more software arrived on my machine, including crud that wouldn’t continue until I shut some other crud down by hand, and … I still haven’t got my audio purchase downloaded, let alone transferred into iTunes and from thence to a supported device. Even after all they’ve added all their Managerial layers (“How many Managers does it take to download an audio file?”) the obvious “download” button sends a .pl file, which unsurprisingly flummoxed Windows. Possibly they haven’t tested this stuff under Windows 7 with the latest IE?

    By contrast, a similar outing to silksoundbooks.com had quick registration, and provided clear instructions for downloading a zip’d set of MP3 files (in the obvious way), which were easily transferred from my daughter’s netbook to her Sony (in the obvious way), and without requiring crud like iTunes. I’m about to try audiogo (formerly BBC Audio Books).

  14. Anonymous

    No, we are not a bunch of whiners. Audible is crap. I’ve bought and downloaded countless Mp.3s from, for example, the BBC without needing to go through the rigmarole that Audible has just put me through with the result of an audio book that I cannot listen to. God alone knows what format it is in but it’s not one that my generic MP3 player recognises. It wouldn’t be so bad if it was cheap but it isn’t. I could have bough the same audio book on CD for the same price and ripped it to my PC and shared it with anyone I liked, if such was my choice. Audible is not just crap it’s also pointless.

  15. Russell

    Really, the worst, and everyone has plenty of examples of really bad customer service. I could forgive the intellectual property rights management problems, although it’s their software that makes it all a lot harder than it needs to be.

    But Audible’s customer service is horrific.That’s unforgivable.

    I’ll never go back to Audible, and would advise any newbie to try other means and avoid this company.

  16. Dave

    I was a member of Audible from 2001 – 2006. Technical problems and aggravations were business as usual with Audible. I’m an executive at web application software company – not an unsophisticated user. Yes, I could fight through it but it was always a hair puller and a time suck. I stuck with it because unfortunately it was the best solution I could find at the time. As other options have now come along, I have switched. I have heard from others that audible is still not as smooth as it could be.

  17. Scott

    I’ve just had the displeasure of using Audible. Well, using isn’t really the right word, I think “fighting” fits the bill more accurately.

    I have no idea how non tech savvy people are actually getting audible to work. Can anyone recommend an audio book provider who just lets me pay for a book and listen to it on MP3 without having to jump through hundreds of hoops?

  18. Anonymous

    I’ve had audible for months now and have no clue why you guys are having problems. I’m probably the least tech say person in the world. All I did was start an audible account and then I went to the apps store on one phone and the android marketplace on the other and down load the audible app. I then logged in in the app and thats it! I really don’t understand what you guys are doing. It’s just as simple as a facebook or Twitter app. Not to mention how great it is to be read to and not have to focus on tiny letters and tiny words and get sheaf aches from it. I’m a big audible fan and would recommend it to any and everyone. I really don’t understand ways going on and why you’d have problems with downloading and logging into and app.

  19. Erica Blair

    I recommend WeRead4You.com. You can download just a plain MP3 and there’s no monthly fee or crap like that. You just pay for the book. Plus their sales are really good. This is probably my favorite website for audiobooks.

    Or possibly even Librivox.org. There’s some fairly good narrators on there, but you kind of have to sift through them.

  20. Major Profit

    I found that i could get one credit and i also found that i did not have the book (I thought i did), The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, in audiobook form. So i went to the page and it was big problem for me. I downloaded the program and installed it on my windows 7 pc. But it did not start to download anything , after clicking around i found a second program had to be downloaded so i did. The first file, that that program downloaded was very strange i thought but i figured it was some little file to help download the whole file. It was evidently not a little file it was the whole book. Then i saw that i had to make the program recognise my windows 7,5 phone. But that did not work. It said i did not have a phone attached to my pc. So i looked a little more and found out that to play the audiobook on my phone i had to download an app and install that. And i was directed to the microsoft app store, where i am not registered. But then i quit. I do not have to install jet another program on my phone to listen to my audio books or music, when the mediaplayer works just fine. So from now on until they change the format of the files i am going to buy my audiobooks from emusic.com. As far as i know they still sell there audiobooks in mp3 format.
    (Sorry about any spelling and wording error)

  21. Anonymous

    I’ve had the service for a few years now too and I get two books a month or more. I love the service and the tech support has been great. (for the two times I needed it). It think some people believe they know more about computers than they actually do and rather than call tech support, they compound their problems and then blame the others. Sorry for those who have decided to leave. The loss is yours.

  22. armed_partisan

    I got an Audible account several years ago. They had a promotion going on at the time, where if you bought a Platinum membership, you got a free iPod. So I bought it, and they tried to say “The link you clicked on to sign up was expired, and we don’t have any iPods, but you’ve still got a Platinum Membership! Oh, and well give you one free credit!” Now, I’m fully aware that this is a bait and switch tactic, but I was also fully aware that I had no way of proving it, so I just shrugged and said “Screw it.” I got through about 8 of my 24 credits, when next year, they automatically renewed my membership, for $225 or whatever it was, and I got ANOTHER 24 credits. No email, no heads up saying “Hey, we hope you know we’re about to make you bounce a bunch of checks”. Fortunately, I had enough in savings to make rent that month. I was sure to switch my renewal setting from “automatically fucked” to “ask first”.

    I made a habit of giving away audiobooks to friends and family, since I now had so many god-damned credits. I’d say “Here’s my username and password. Just pick a book you want to listen to and download.” It worked out well, and even though each account has a limited number of activations, you just have to call and ask for more, and they never ask why. So, I finally used all my credits. My dad thought it would be nice to get me some more credits as a gift. He said he spent about 45 minutes on the website trying to buy more credits as a gift, and kept getting error messages. He called customer support, and they were rude and said the system was down and that he’d have to try again later. He got me a Visa Gift Card instead, and told me the tale.

    So, a few years go by, and I’ve got more time to listen to audiobooks, and I decide to try again, without buying two years worth of credits. I try to do an advanced search to see what books I can find under a certain price. Guess what? They took away the search option for “Price”. They had a sale called “Win:Win” recently, with 250 titles under $5 and there was only one way to view the titles; Alphabetically, by author. Not by genre, not by subject, not by release date, if you want to buy a book for under $5, you have to look at EVERY SINGLE TITLE that’s on sale to see if you want one. That’s like going into a book store, and having to pick up every single book to figure out how much it costs. If you’re gonna do that why buy it online AT ALL?! I sent them an email complaining about this, and like every other email I sent to them, I never got a response. PLATINUM MEMBER. No response. Make that “Former” Platinum member. Audible SUCKS.

  23. Anonymous

    August 2011. I had heaps of problems, setting it up, finally got it to work! Lucky I read your blog, and am an IT professional, if I wasn’t I would have given up, not good enough Audible write better software.
    thanks for the blog though.

  24. aces

    Granted, maybe Audible has improved since the OP’s article was written (I only joined Audible in the past year), but I find it ridiculously EASY to figure out and use. What the hell is so confusing about it? The OP’s complaints remind me of an anti-Mac friend of mine who says he finds Macs “too hard to use” and can only understand PCs. Maybe some people’s heads are just wired to be *confused* by intuitive design and ease of use?

  25. Greg

    I’ve just gone through the arduous process of setting up an audible.com account and holy cow, what a mess. And I’m a PC professional, been in IT for 15 years. I can’t remember the last time I saw such a convoluted mess.

    Apparently there’s a password limit they don’t tell you about. I usually go with password in the 20 character range, using numbers, letters, special characters, etc. I went round and round setting up my complex password with no error messages at all. However, when I tried to log in using this complex password, it failed every time. It wasn’t until I reverted to a simple pass with only a few letters and numbers that I was able to log in.

    Now after fighting with iTunes (a piece of crap in itself), I see that even though I’ve downloaded all the pieces of all my audible books, the audible app still wants to download them… Hell, I can’t even tell this part of the audible.com mess in such a way as to make sense. Suffice it to say, I’ll cancel this free trial and look for other alternatives.

    Sure, it may be that I could parse this whole thing out and make it work, but really?! Seriously?!?! Should I have to? there are plenty of other vendors out there that understand “Ease of Use”.

  26. David M

    Well if you are an IT professional of 15 years and cannot set up and Audible account, you’re and idiot. IT professional my arse.

    It take 5 minutes to set this up, really nothing difficult. To be honest most people here sound like ‘those customers’. If you cannot set up Audible, you are thick.

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