Image description: a girl looks upwards with her eyes closed. She is wearing headphones.2 smaller inset pictures. One is of a stack of books with headphones around them. The other is a subscribe button on a computer keyboard. The title reads Listen up: how to access audiobooks for less – or even for free. ME Association logo bottom left.

Listen up: how to access audiobooks for less – or even for free

by Donna Ferguson – The Guardian

Beth Leitch listened to more than 200 audiobooks last year. “I have chronic fatigue syndrome – also known as ME – and was having to rest all day,” the 17-year-old says. Unable to read anything in print without getting a headache, she thought she was going to “go nuts” from boredom. “Then someone suggested audiobooks to me, and it completely changed my life.”

She now consumes about 15 audiobooks a month – and, impressively, manages this on a monthly budget of only £20. Her secret? She is saving an estimated £1,000 a year by using alternatives to Audible, the audiobook subscription service owned by Amazon. “I’m a big environmentalist and I make an effort to buy stuff from anywhere else [other than Amazon],” Leitch says.


While Audible and its vast catalogue of titles has dominated the UK audiobook market for years, a plethora of ethical retailers and subscription services have now sprung up, offering attractive alternatives to the online company – and often at cheaper prices, too.

Some even provide free access to audiobooks in certain circumstances.

Our main findings

Guardian Money put 15 different audiobook collections to the test: Audible, Apple Books,, BBC Sounds, BookBeatBorrowBox, Kobo, LibriVox, Listening Books, OverDrive, Scribd, Spiracle, Spotify, uLibrary and xigxag.

Only Audible offered access to 100% of the 50 titles we chose, for an average upfront cost of £16.57 a book to non-subscribers. However, most titles – more than 80% – were also available to buy from Apple Books (98%), Kobo (92%), Spotify (90%) and xigxag (84%).

Of those four, and indeed across all the commercial audiobook services we looked at, xigxag consistently offered the most significant savings and charged the lowest average price: £7.68 a book.

Subscriptions and ‘credits’

Xigxag, by contrast, doesn’t operate a subscription model. Instead, loyalty is rewarded: while titles never cost more than £7.99 at this retailer, the more you buy, the less you will pay for the rest of that year. For example, if you buy more than 20 titles, your subsequent purchases that year will be £3.99 each.

Leitch likes the flexibility of this non-subscription approach. She now gets most of the books she buys from xigxag and says she feels smug when she pays £3.99 for a book that costs £25 elsewhere. “You can’t buy audiobooks secondhand the way you can with physical books, so it’s great to have such a cheap option,” she says.

Support UK independents

A new alternative to Audible – particularly if you plan to listen to two books a month and are keen to support authors and small, independent presses – is a Spiracle subscription for £12 a month or £120 a year. This entitles you to two audiobooks a month from a curated collection of 300-400 titles, plus you will get free access to short stories and podcasts. Alternatively, you can pay for each title as you go. But since most will cost about £10 or £12 upfront, a subscription is likely to offer a better deal.

Helen Boaden, the former director of radio at the BBC, is “completely addicted to audiobooks” and was an early subscriber to Spiracle. “I was keen to see an independent British company succeed in giving a voice to independent contemporary writers and some slightly offbeat classics. And I wasn’t disappointed. The quality of the audiobooks is exceptional and I think the deal is a bargain – it has exposed me to readings I wouldn’t have seen on Audible or elsewhere. I’ve been really impressed by the service.”

Free audiobooks

If your top priority is to pay as little as possible, we found that borrowing them for nothing from your local library using BorrowBoxuLibrary or Libby is by far your best and cheapest option. Your library may allow you to access all three using your library card.

Most of the audiobooks Leitch consumes each month are loaned from her local library. However, she says the titles she wants to read are not always immediately available.

In general, listening to a free audiobook you find online may seem like a harmless way to save money. But in many cases you will be depriving writers, their estates and their publishers of their rightful income. To avoid breaching copyright laws, always double-check you can legitimately access any free audiobook you want to listen to.

The good news is that if you are a BBC licence fee payer, the radio programmes available from BBC Sounds are a fantastic source of free audiobooks and short stories – which you can legally consume to your heart’s content.

A charity that can help

Listening Books, the national audiobook charity, is another resource you may be eligible to use if you have a disability, learning difficulty or mental health condition that makes it hard for you to read print (such as dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety, depression, frailty and autism). It costs as little as £20 a year to join, with some free memberships available to people who cannot afford to pay.

Leitch is an enthusiastic member and borrows three or four audiobooks from the charity every month. So does Katie Louise, who suffered a brain haemorrhage a few years ago. “I nearly died, and since then I find it difficult to read print books and retain the words in my head – it’s much harder than listening,” she says.

She credits the charity with opening up reading and the world of books to her again after her illness. She often listens to a book now, when she is walking or feeling lonely. “I live alone and an audiobook is company.” She has joined a book club in her village, so the service helped her to make friends as well. “Having access to Listening Books has been very good for me. I think it is brilliant.”

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