Libro.fm Recommendation

Created by Steven Baltakatei Sandoval on 2023-01-04T15:26+00 under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and last updated on 2023-01-04T21:11+00.

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Background

I enjoy listening to audiobooks. I first began listening to them regularly in 2010 upon my return to Stanford University after serving a 2-year mission for the LDS Church in Panamá. The iPhone had come out while I had been out of the country (I still remember seeing my first iPhone at an electronics shop in David, Chiriquí; I was amazed by how reponsive the operating system was to touch screen input when resizing photographs via the novel "pinch and zoom" mechanic.); I didn't purchase an iPhone immediately (I think I would use a fliphone until purchasing an iPhone from AT&T after I left college), but I did purchase with my allowance from my father an iPod Touch which was basically an iPhone without a SIM card slot. I bring up the iPod Touch story because I believe I used its portability and Audible–iTunes integration allowed me to listen to audiobooks while away from my desktop computer. Audible was the first company I purchased audiobooks from; I would continue using it until 2022.

Before I left Audible

I listened to Audible's audiobooks for about 12 years (2010/2022); these were encrypted by Digital Rights Management (DRM) schemes that inhibited copying. I had not yet learned the importance of using Free/Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS) formats (I wouldn't stop regularly using Windows until I purchased my first dedicated Debian GNU/Linux workstation from Think Penguin in 2018). Therefore, I spent thousands of USD over time buying audiobooks. Audible's feature of allowing me to download and listen to audiobooks indefinitely (from their servers and using only their closed-source apps) kept me satisfied. Even today, in 2023, I'm fairly certain I could install the Audible app from the Google Play store and download every audiobook I have "purchased" from them.

I believe my first misgivings about using Audible were when I realized in transitioning to using FLOSS that I couldn't listen to my audiobooks. In 2018 I would have had to use my Android smartphone or my Windows machine since Audible published their software for use on those platforms. There is no official Audible player in the Debian repository. I can't open an encrypted Audible file in ffmpeg on my Debian machine to compress it; I'd have to use a janky daisy chain of audio inputs and output devices to even be able to do automatic speech transcription in case I wanted to search what I was listening to at a later time. Still, that wasn't enough activation energy to get me to leave Audible until 2022.

The thing that triggered my departure was something mundane: a billing misunderstanding. At some point I had failed to realize that my Audible credits did not roll over from year-to-year. In the beginning, I didn't realize that such a policy existed since I generally used up my platinum subscription credits immediately, especially when I drove a long commute during 2011/2018 in the mostly featureless landscape of southern Utah. After I resigned from my commuting job and I wasn't forcing myself to drive two hours a day (nearly 10% of my life) anymore, I found myself listening to Audible audiobooks less. By the time 2022 rolled around, I hadn't checked my Audible app in months. It was in late 2022-03 that I realized that my credits regularly had been expiring instead of accumulating. A background daydream that I would one day buy a long audiobook series on Audible all at once was dispelled. I decided to leave.

The interm

I decided that if I were to return, it would be if I could guarantee my audiobooks were DRM-free. For some months in 2022 I subsisted on podcasts such as Opening Arguments (for law explanation by a lawyer), Citation Needed (for comedic takes on various Wikipedia articles) and Security Now (to be aware of IT-specific news). In the past I knew that it was possible to download audiobooks directly from authors if authors took the effort to do so; for example, in late 2020, I purchased DRM-free copies of Cory Doctorow's books Radicalized (2019; WorldCat) and Attack Surface (2020; WorldCat), paying him via PayPal and receiving a download link to DRM-free zip files containing unencrypted audio files. A friend recommended I use AudioAnchor, an F-Droid app designed to facilitate audiobook listening on an Android phone; it worked great. However, Cory Doctorow is only a single author; I wanted a DRM-free audiobook vendor.

Libro.fm: My new audiobook source

In late 2022 I discovered Libro.fm via a blog post by Cory Doctorow on boingboing.net talking about how Google launched a DRM-free audiobook store. In background that he provided, I latched onto some DRM-free audiobook store recommendations that he made, including Downpour and Libro.fm. I poked around both Downpour and Libro.fm and found that I liked Libro.fm best. I bought How To, by Randall Munroe, and Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro.

Since then, I've purchased various titles including:

  • What We Owe the Future by William MacAskill
  • The Silver Ships series (minus the first book since that's an Audible exclusive, but it's pulp sci-fi so, no book is really that critical to the entertainment)
  • American Crusade by Andrew L. Seidel
  • What If? 2 by Randall Munroe
  • Educated by Tara Westover (from Obama's 2019 summer reading list)
  • Seveneves (a book I already purchased on Audible back in 2015 but I really wanted a copy I could preserve)
  • Artemisa por Andy Weir (spanish version of Artemis)
  • El marciano por Andy Weir (spanish version of The Martian; Andy Weir's works in english seem to be Audible exclusives, so those two years walking around Panama didn't go completely to waste =P)
  • Proyecto Hail Mary (spanish version of Project Hail Mary)
  • NPCs by Drew Hayes (some Dungeons and Dragons-themed comedy)

I noticed that Libro.fm lacks the selection of Audible. For example, it doesn't carry my favorite Terry Pratchett novel Small Gods (1992) but it does carry recent titles of his such as Snuff (2011) and The Shepherd's Crown (2015).

Aside: DRM piracy

I imagine the main reason why Audible chooses to restrict access to their audiobooks via DRM is: piracy. Some people, when they get their hands on an unencrypted digital file, share it with others. Digital copies can be manufactured at basically zero cost but commercial publishers like Audible grew rich on profit margins on production and distribution costs; books had mass which incurred costs upon which a percentage fee could be applied at the final sale; when the distribution cost fell to zero, instead of becoming like Apple and the music industry in 2006 and simply selling songs at 0.99 USD each, they chose to require customers to run secret software that would decrypt books at the point of consumption. That isn't to say that all music Apple sold wasn't locked by DRM; many were. But the point of my retelling this history is to point out that DRM is not required to make money.

Services such as Libro.fm sell audiobooks without DRM. No special software is required to play the audio. It's true that I could upload these files to some server and share them with my friends. However, what I think keeps most people from doing so are issues of trust and effort. Downloading and double-clicking on files you download from the internet is a fast way for the average user to corrupt their computer with malware. A sort of natural selection process of behaviors is at work. Behaviors that result in broken computers due to downloading and running files from unknown sources are seen as destructive and the sites involved avoided. Behaviors that result in non-broken computers and a simple high quality experience are seen as good. Some people dedicate time to master the esoteric computer science techniques of verifying cryptographic digests, preserving their anonymity via onion routing, maintaining a firewall around their home networks, and regularly updating their software with the latest security updates; these people can be effective pirates. However, with all those skills they can also become effective software developers and make money that they can spend at places like Libro.fm or Downpour.com to save themselves the trouble of having to bypass DRM restrictions in the first place. The real valuable service DRM-free audiobook vendors can provide is two parts:

  • Files are guaranteed to be available for fast download.
  • Files are guaranteed not to be malicious.

With piracy to safely avoid DRM media, a user might expect to spend anywhere between an hour to weeks identifying and downloading media that might be a trojan horse. With DRM-free vendors, a user can expect to spend a few minutes with a commercial guarantee of the product's authenticity. When you use Audible, you form an on-going contract that Audible can end at any time, resulting in your "purchases" becoming unusable noise. When you use Libro.fm, Libro.fm can't retroactively make files they sold me unusable; without DRM, there is no mechanism for controlling user behavior. A principle of Free/Libre Open Source Software is the avoidance of such methods of control in order to grant the user freedom.

Conclusion

Although lacking in selection, Libro.fm surpasses Audible in the fact that money I spend with them results in audiobooks that I can preserve forever without worrying about finding an app to verify I have a license to download some decryption key. This is why I'm redirecting my cash flow towards DRM-free vendors.

Copyright

"A tower of used books - 8443" by Jorge Royan is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.