Listen Up: 9 Audiobook Hacks

Headphone image via Sound On

I might’ve been a few years late to the audiobook craze, but I got there, and now that I'm here, I’m staying. About a year and a half ago I shared “My 13 Favorite Audiobooks So Far,” and I’m probably due for a totally fresh list, but today I thought I’d talk instead about getting the most out of your audiobook experience, from saving money to choosing wisely to the habits of when and how you listen.

1. Mind the Freebies, Matey

Let’s get this out of the way: pirated audiobooks are not “free,” they’re stollen. Don’t be a pirate unless… well… just don’t be any type of pirate. Not cool.

That said, there are legitimate ways to get free access to audiobooks. The old standby is your local public library. Even if you don’t ever want to set foot inside one (which, for a while, none of us will be able to), they have tons of digital content you can download from home just because you have an account. A free account. To get free books. Most pair with streaming services like Hoopla or OverDrive. You’ll need your library name, account number, and password to get set up, and then you can “check out” audiobooks (and ebooks and more!) any time you want. What are you waiting for?!

There are very few drawbacks to renting through libraries, but if you live in a particularly busy area they will sometimes reach the limit that they’ve been allotted for number of rentals per day, so you might need to be on the ball with when you check stuff out. They also "return" the item after a set amount of time, so if you don't listen often you might have to check it out again. Another drawback is, despite having a huge catalogue, just like the physical library, their options aren’t limitless. Lucky for us, Audible’s practically are, and they offer free trial months to new subscribers. Even better, they’ve made many titles free for the duration of the pandemic. They’re geared toward kids, but with books like Jane Eyre, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and Frankenstein, there’s plenty to choose from.

2. Cheat Code: Speed

This book was just good enough to finish because I morbidly wanted to know how it would end, but it was so bad that I really didn’t want to waste hours more of my life on it.

I used to be baffled by people who listened to books sped up. I mean, why? I’m a slow reader on the page, and I like to take my time to savor and think, so the idea of having even less time to process as I listen didn’t make any sense to me. Until, that is, I found a book I wanted to rage read.

This book was just good enough to finish because I morbidly wanted to know how it would end, but it was so bad that I really didn’t want to waste hours more of my life on it. Sped it up to 3.5x and got just enough to catch the drift. (I was very glad I hadn’t wasted my time.)

What the rage read speed did for me, though, was break the seal on trying different rates of narration. There’ve been a couple other books that I actually used 1.5x or 2x speeds for, including a classic that I really wanted to know but didn’t actually like, and a book that was good but pretty boring. It’s a nice trick to have up your sleeve.

3. Comedy in Numbers

Several of my tips are going to involve choosing your genre/style/type of book wisely for any given circumstance. I’ve found that a book I might love in print sometimes grates on me in audio, or vice versa. A good or bad narrator can change everything, and some books just aren’t designed for the listening format. (House of Leaves, for example. Can you imagine?)

Comedy, however, is. Funny books work beautifully out loud, especially if you listen to them with other people. Ever noticed how you’re far less likely to laugh at things when you’re alone, even if you think they’re hilarious? Don’t waste the lolz. They’re physically good for you. And they’re contagious, so listening with other ready-to-laugh folks will make it more fun for everyone.

4. Veer from the Fear

I might catch some flack for this, but hear me out first. I love horror. I love horror. I write horror! But I, personally, rarely enjoy listening to horror. Your mileage may vary, of course, but for me, one of my favorite things about horror is the fear. I love to be scared, unsettled, creeped out, and every time in my life a book has done that, it was from scenes that snuck into my imagination and put down roots.

Imagination is a funny thing. Maybe I’m in the minority here, but mine needs to absorb and stall and whir at its own pace. Having a narrator lead me along ruins the effect. What’s more, a good narrator usually puts emphasis and emotion into their voice. Usually that’s great, but when it comes to “scary” stuff, it too readily comes off as cheesy—especially in a prolonged format like a novel. For action-heavy creep-light books, it can still work great. For insidious, subtle, fuck-with-your-mind fear, it dampens the effect. So after many failed attempts, if I’m really excited about a horror title, I try to save it for text. I want to give the books a fair chance.

5. Be Prepared to Blush

Want a little spice? Romance/erotica in audio are entirely dependent on the narrator. Much like horror, I’ve found that it really doesn’t work for me. Too easy to laugh or get squicked out. But if you want to try it, grab some headphones. If you’re with others, be prepared for a uniquely awkward discomfort when things get graphic. Hey, maybe you’re into that.

6. Busy Work

Unless you find a particularly narrative-driven title, nonfiction tends to be a little less “fun” to listen to, but it’s also super valuable in many ways. Research, self-improvement, general expansion of knowledge, etc. I find my nonfiction most enjoyable as a companion to busy work that requires a moderate amount of my attention, like cleaning house, working in the yard, cooking that sort of thing.

7. Un-Busy Work

It’s like when your favorite book is made into a movie, but without all the angst and outrage of things being left out or changed.

On the other hand, fiction tends to require more of my attention, maybe because if I get lost it’s harder to just keep going versus backing up to figure out what I missed. So I save my fiction for times when I can focus more, like on long drives, solo walks, while coloring, etc. Tasks where I’m less likely to have to stop and make decisions or otherwise change my focus from listening.

8. Commercial for Clarity

On that note, if you’re someone who struggles to focus on audio, I recommend choosing more commercial books. The more commercial the plot, the faster they tend to move and the easier it is to get “sucked in,” which will help keep your thoughts from straying too far. Suspense, thriller, mystery, action, and things with a clear designated genre label. There is zero shade in this statement: the more formulaic a book is (adhering to expected genre patterns) the easier it is for your mind to follow, because it intuits where you are and what type of things to expect. In audio, that can be just what the doctor ordered!

9. Reeeeeee-Reads

Okay, I saved my favorite hack for last. Audiobooks are my new favorite way to re-read something. Whether I’m reading again for the sheer love of it, to understand it better, or to learn from it as a writer, listening to it after reading it in text is fantastic. It brings a deeper appreciation. It’s easier to focus, harder to get lost. It can bring new interpretations due to the narrator’s inflection, etc. It double-supports an author you like. It’s like when your favorite book is made into a movie, but without all the angst and outrage of things being left out or changed, because it’s exactly the book you love. It’s fresh, familiar, fun. It’s awesome. Give it a shot.

If you’re not listening to audiobooks yet, now is the time to start. Whether it’s on the treadmill, while cooking, or as a family to get away from screens in an easy way, the options and benefits are limitless.

Do you listen to audiobooks? What are your favorite methods and tips? 

Annie Neugebauer

Column by Annie Neugebauer

Annie Neugebauer likes to make things as challenging as possible for herself by writing horror, poetry, literary, and speculative fiction—often blended together in ways ye olde publishing gods have strictly forbidden. She’s a two-time Bram Stoker Award-nominated author with work appearing and forthcoming in more than a hundred publications, including magazines such as Cemetery Dance, Apex, and Black Static, as well as anthologies such as Year’s Best Hardcore Horror Volumes 3 & 4 and #1 Amazon bestsellers Killing It Softly and Fire. She’s an active member of the Horror Writers Association, and in addition to LitReactor, a columnist for Writer Unboxed. She’s represented by Alec Shane of Writers House. She needs to make new friends because her current ones are tired of hearing about House of Leaves. You can visit her at for news, poems, organizational tools for writers, and more.

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