Hands on: Audiobooks.com for Apple TV

Audiobooks.com’s Apple TV app can turn up your listening experience but doesn’t make browsing better

It’s nice to be able to listen to an audiobook with friends and family, but it’s way easier to find something you want to listen to than to discover a new book.

In one episode of The Simpsons, Homer suggests to his family: “Let us all bask in TV’s warm glowing warming glow.” Apple wants you to do the same — as long as you have an Apple TV. Its latest generation is meant to help you shop on your big screen… or listen to an audiobook, en masse. It’s a lot easier to listen to The Girl on the Train while cleaning your living room if it’s coming through your TV than your phone’s speakers, too.

I tried out Audiobooks.com’s Apple TV app to see what it’s like to listen to a book through my television.

Let’s all listen

Some people just can’t listen to audiobooks. Their minds wander, and they have constantly rewind to see what they missed. I grew up listening to my mom read aloud to me: Anne of Green Gables, Little House on the Prairie, and so on. I devour audiobooks now — on my phone, tablet, laptop — so I was game to try to listen on a new medium.

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Jenny McGrath/Digital Trends
Jenny McGrath/Digital Trends

If you and your family or friends can all agree on a book to listen to, the Audiobooks app isn’t a bad way to do it. Obviously your listening experience will only be as good as your living room setup, but it’s nicer than all huddling around a laptop or phone, and it gives you a larger screen on which to browse.

“I want to listen to an audiobook,” I tell my Apple TV remote. “Sorry, I can’t do that from here,” my TV replies. I’m on the main Apple TV screen, so I head to the Audiobooks.com app and ask again, saying I want to listen to a mystery book. I’m hoping to get some recommendations, but instead, Siri tells me I don’t have anything called “mystery book” in my music library. It seems Siri isn’t going to find books the way she does with movies. I can’t say, “Anything by Gillian Flynn” the way I could demand to see all the movies with Corey Feldman in them.

What should I listen to?

Along the top of the app is the menu bar, which has options for genres, search, and wish listed books. The books listed below the search bar changes with each letter you enter. P: Past Perfect, Puppy Place, Plain Promise. Ph: Philosophy Talk, Phil Gordon’s Little Green Book. Unfortunately, you have to be careful what you enter. Nothing will come up if you spell Philip Pullman’s first name with two l’s, for example. Otherwise, the search function works well, as long as you know what you want to read.

There are several Best of 2015 lists, for romance, science and technology, history, young adult, and more.

There are lots of ways to find new books. Browsing in a bookstore, you often see tables set aside with the latest and the staff members’ current favorites adorned with labels or brightly colored paper listing why it’s a “must read!” There are entire websites — Goodreads, What Should I Read Next — that will help you find your next read. Amazon, which of course started as an online book seller, will list books inspired by your browsing.

When you open the Audiobooks.com app on Apple TV, you’re presented with a sideways scrollable list of books. There are a few different categories: Top releases for the week (though on March 24, it still had those for March 8 listed), Perfect Gateway Audiobooks (Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Mindy Kaling’s Why Not Me), New York Times bestsellers (The Steel Kiss, The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah), Nonfiction bestsellers (When Breath Becomes Air and Charles Arthur Conant’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, thanks to the musical, presumably) and so on. For those that love source material, there are also lists for the audiobook versions of Oscar-nominated movies and for TV shows.

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Jenny McGrath/Digital Trends
Jenny McGrath/Digital Trends

In addition to these lists, there are more compilations in the genre Book Lists and Best Sellers. Some are the same as on the welcome screen (though the “This Week’s Books” list was from January 12 on this page), but there were also several Best of 2015 lists, for romance, science and technology, history, young adult, and more. “The lists are generated in house and are based on a combination of sales and search trends from our visitors, as well as some manual curation from our marketing team,” a representative from Audiobooks.com told me. “The lists are updated regularly and their duration of visibility in the app and on the website is based on the ‘success’ of the list. If visitors continue to visit the list and find it useful, it is more likely to be active longer.”

In all, there are 27 genres, from fee books to politics to sci-fi and fantasy to health, mind, body, and soul. They don’t break down further than that (like 19th century history, for example), so you could find yourself scrolling aimlessly through these. You’re at the mercy of how the books are listed, too.

Picking a book

If you find a cover that strikes your fancy, you can learn more about it before shelling out credits for it. When you land on a book, it may give you a star rating — but not always. Sarah Vowell’s Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, for example, didn’t have any stars below it. It’s not that it had zero stars; there just wasn’t a rating given. That’s different from, say Netflix, which tries to guess what you’ll like, though you have to rate a bunch of movies and shows first. There’s no such setup process with Audiobooks.com. Also, there’s a limit to the star system. If a book gets four stars, how many people have rated it? It might actually nice be able to read a few reviews on the app – although writing one on the Apple TV would be a nightmare.

The “you may also like” suggestions were a little hit or miss.

One of the best mystery books of 2015, per Audiobooks.com, was Pretty Girls by Karin Slaughter. When I clicked on it, it listed the book’s name and number of stars (four out of five), its author and narrator (Kathleen Early), the version (unabridged), the running time (20 hours), its published year (2015), and the description. There were options to play or add to my wishlist. Below was a list of books tagged as “You may also like.” There were lots of other “girl” books: The Good Girl by Mary Kubica, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, and Find Her by Lisa Gardner. These are curated by traffic, according to the company.

The “you may also like” was a little hit or miss, based on the book. The Golden Compass offered up The Hobbit; The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and Auggie & Me. It just listed a bunch of other Philip Pullman books for The Broken Bridge.

I wanted to find a book based on an audiobook I’d recently listened to: Black Chalk by Christopher J. Yates. Unfortunately, it wasn’t in the catalogue. Even if it wasn’t available, it would’ve been nice to see similar books instead.

Conclusion

There are a couple reasons you might want to listen to an audiobook through your TV: a better audio experience and a more communal experience. But if you’re looking for an easier or more robust browsing experience, the Audiobooks.com app on Apple TV leaves a few things to be desired. Siri is zero help, and the preset lists of recommendations aren’t terribly extensive. While it’s just as easy to zip around as any other Apple TV app, it definitely helps to know what you have in mind. Also, $15 a month gets you a single audiobook, so don’t expect a Netflix-like experience in that regard. Scrolling through endless books on a screen still isn’t as much fun as wandering from shelf to shelf at a bookstore.

Highs

  • Expansive catalogue
  • Several ways to discover new books

Lows

  • Doesn’t work with voice activated remote
  • Limited rating system
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