Importing MP3 audiobooks into iTunes

by Michael Alderete on 8/29/2005 · 15 comments

Note: These instructions have been superceded by a new version available in the Aldo on Audiobooks section of this site. Please use that version instead of this page.

Our preferred method for obtaining audiobooks is from Audible.com, as part of our monthly subscription. For about $11 each, we receive an electronic-only version of a book, broken in to manageable chunks of 5-6 hours long each. The files arrive pre-encoded in a format which is bookmarkable in iTunes and on an iPod, and have all appropriate meta-data attached. The subscription format is both cost-effective and highly usable. Audible.com’s major liability is the selection; while there are thousands of books from which to choose, if you get interested in an author who has been writing for a while, chances are good Audible.com won’t have the older books, at least not yet.

The next best method for getting audiobooks is to borrow them on Audio CD from the local public library. While the procedure for importing them into iTunes is laborious, the price is right. This is an ideal way to experiment with authors you don’t know, to find books worth paying for. However, like Audible.com, the selection can be limited.

So, what do you do when you want a book that’s not available from either method?

We recently ran into this when we wanted to acquire all of the books in the Harry Bosch series. Half of the books were not available via Audible.com, and none of the older books were available via the library. Time to buy. (Because we are in love with Harry Bosch, waiting was not an option.)

The obvious way to go is to buy Audio CDs, the same thing you can get at the library. But those average $30, more than twice as expensive as what we get from Audible.com, and you have to import them into iTunes the long way. But as we explored the options, we found a different CD format called MP3 CD.

An “MP3 data CD” is a data (computer format) CD, but formatted in a particular way, with MP3 audio data stored on the tracks. These tracks are in the MP3 format, which is already compressed and digitized. This format can contain more than 13 hours of audio data on a single disc, far more than the 75 minutes of a standard Audio CD. And because there are fewer CDs, the cost is lower, sometimes a lot lower. We bought most of the missing Harry Bosch novels for $16 each, only $5 more than the Audible.com format, but we get a physical CD as a backup of the book.

The first trick to know about audibooks on MP3 CD is that they are a lot harder to find than standard Audio CD audiobooks. When browsing real-world bookstores, I’ve never seen an MP3 audiobook. Even on Amazon.com, finding them is not obvious. The trick is to find the book in hardcover or standard Audio CD format, and then click the See All Editions link in the Other Editions box of the item’s detail screen:

Click the See All Editions link to find the MP3 CD edition of your audiobook

This will take you to a new screen with a list of all of the available editions of this particular work. That includes the different book printings, audio recordings, and even electronic editions:

The all editions list for this work shows the MP3 CD edition of the audiobook

You are looking for the “MP3 CD” edition; in the example above it’s the last item in the list. And notice, the MP3 audiobook is $15 less than the standard Audio CD version, even though the recording is the same, it’s just a different format. (Also note the weird inconsistencies that Amazon.com occasionally has, the Audio CD version is noted as “MP3 Audio” in parentheses when it should be “Unabridged.”)

The MP3 CD format is a standard, supported by a lot of recently produced CD and DVD players. The discs contain a series of data files (those ending in “.mp3”), as well as a series of files used to index and order the data files, when played on a compatible audio player (the files ending in “.smil”, for Synchronized Multimedia Integration Language). And, while iTunes will mostly ignore MP3 discs, you can get the MP3 data off the CD and into iTunes easily enough, if you know the trick.

Importing MP3 audiobooks into iTunes

When you insert the CD, it is likely that (unlike with standard Audio CDs) iTunes will not automatically open the disc. iTunes can be configured to automatically open standard audio CDs, but the MP3 data CD format is quite different. On Mac OS X, I have not been able to get iTunes to show an MP3 CD in the Source list via any trick.

The most serious consequence of this is that there is no way to get iTunes to look up online the CD’s information, e.g., book title, author, etc. But that’s not as big a deal as it sounds. iTunes can pick some of this information up from the MP3 playlist file “playlist.m3u,” which is always included as a part of the MP3 CD standard. And you can batch add most of the additional information you might want on an audiobook.

As with standard audio CDs, you will want to ensure that your import settings are optimal for audiobook and spoken word. The settings and steps for configuring this are the same. Go to Preferences / Importing right now, and verify that you have the right settings configured.

  1. Insert the CD, and allow it to mount on your Desktop (or My Computer in Windows).
  2. In the Finder or Windows Explorer, open the CD, and locate the “playlist.m3u” file (selected below).
    An MP3 Audibook, with Playlist File Highlighted
    Double-click it to open it with iTunes. If iTunes does not come to the front, bring it to the front manually.
  3. The CD will likely start playing at the same time that iTunes begins importing the files from the playlist.
    Importing an MP3 Audibook
    Click the Pause button to stop playback (even if you’re eager to start the book; your listening experience would be interrupted by the next steps).
  4. Allow iTunes to finish importing the files from the CD. It will take a little while, depending on the speed of your optical drive. When it finishes importing the tracks, iTunes may then analyze the sound volume on the tracks. Let that finish, too. (It may feel like it takes a long time, but remember: you are not swapping CDs to get all of the audiobook imported.) You will end up with a window like this:
    Imported MP3 audiobook
    Of particular note: all of the tracks have the book title in the name.
  5. Type the book’s title into the iTunes search field. Your goal is to have a window which shows all of the imported tracks, and nothing else (as illustrated in the screenshot above).
  6. Select all of the tracks for the audiobook. From the Advanced menu, choose Convert Selection to AAC. This will convert the book’s tracks from large MP3 files to much smaller AAC files (which we can make bookmarkable in a later step), saving a considerable amount of disk space.
    Converting tracks from MP3 to AAC
    Note: You may have read somewhere that converting from MP3 to AAC (or from any lossy audio format to another lossy format) is a bad idea, because the audio quality will be degraded. Normally that’s good advice. In this case, however, the whole point is to throw away audio information, to make the files much smaller. So much information is being thrown away in the conversion from 96 kbps stereo to 32 kbps mono that the loss due to conversion from MP3 to AAC is irrelevant.
  7. The conversion will take some time. When it finishes, you will have duplicates of every track from the book.
    Original and converted tracks from MP3 audiobook
    Click the Kind column heading to sort the files by type. This will make it easy to select all of the MP3 files. Hit the Delete key to remove them from your iTunes Library, and then click the Move to Trash button in the dialog which appears, so that you can recover the disk space.
  8. Again select all of the book tracks (except this time they will be the AAC format tracks). From the File menu, choose Get Info (or press Command-I) to open the Multiple Song Information window.
    iTunes Multiple Song Info window
    Enter the information which will be the same from track to track (chapter to chapter), usually Artist (author), Album (book title), Year, Total Tracks, and Genre (“Audiobook”). You might also add the reader to the Comments, if you want keep track of that. Click the OK button.
  9. Now select just the first track (chapter 1, or whatever the first part of the book is). Again from the File menu choose Get Info. This time you will see the individual track info window.
    Info window for first track of audiobook
    Verify the info there (it should be correct), and then click the Next button to move to the next chapter.
  10. This is the tedious part. Depending on the book, the chapter names will require more or less massaging. I recommend using the format {book title}, {track #}/{total tracks}, e.g., “Angels Flight, 02/40”. This makes it easy to keep the tracks in the right order on your iPod, and also see the track number for each chapter. Depending on the title of the book, you might want to abbreviate it, especially if you have an iPod mini; long titles will push the track numbers offscreen. You will also want to correct the track number for each chapter.
    Info window for second track of audiobook
    Click the next button, and repeat on the next track. Work your way through the entire book. (I repeat, this is the tedious part.)
  11. Use your preferred method to make the track bookmarkable. (Some detailed steps are available here.) This mainly involves changing the file extension from “.m4a” to “.m4b”, which tells iTunes that the file is a Protected AAC file, not a plain AAC file. This is the step that makes the tracks bookmarkable, and also tells your iPod to show the book under the Audiobooks item of the iPod interface.
    Note: Curiously, iTunes seems to have some part in telling an iPod that the files are Protected AAC. I have found that I must play a few seconds of each track to force iTunes to discover the change in file extension, or the tracks stubbornly refuse to appear in Audiobooks on an iPod.

And that’s it. A bit tedious, but it beats swapping 10-15 CDs, and doing most of the same work, but spaced out over more time. And remember, those MP3 CDs are cheaper!

Jonesin August 29, 2005 at 7:32 am

Problem #1: not enough selection Solution: “Simply Audiobooks”:http://www.simplyaudiobooks.com/

Problem #2: laborious file/format transfers Solutions: “Simply Audiobooks”:http://www.simplyaudiobooks.com/

It’s like Netflix, but for audio books, you can rip disks to MP3 players, then send ‘em back. Shipping can be a bitch sometimes, but it’s still worth my $25 every month. Audible was a decent deal when I first tried them, but it got to be too much of my time, which kinda outweighed the low(ish) price.

Linda McK August 30, 2005 at 6:08 pm

Help. I want to use audible.com and have purchased a subscrition. I can down load the books to itunes but they go into the music section and I can’t really tell what’s there. Is there a way to download from audible.com onto my ipod. Also, there use to be a category on the ipod that was “audiobooks” but in my attempts to fix it I have deleted it. Do you know how I can get it back. Sorry to sound so ignorant but about downloading to an ipod I am! Thanks for the help.

Book Blogger September 1, 2005 at 7:23 pm

I think the solution to all of the above is http://www.kitabe.com. They have the lowest rental price in North America - can you believe, $9.95 per month for unlimited audiobooks! Best of all, they have complete unabridged audiobooks in MP3-CD format, no more ripping, no more buying, just listen & drop it off in mail. I have an MP3 player in my car and I can carry an entire book on 1 MP3-CD, and it is unsafe to stick iPOD earphones in the ear and drive. Kitabe.com’s customer service is pretty good too. One of my MP3-CD’s took more than 4 days and when I sent an email, they sent a new one, with no questions asked. Go ahead and give it a try.

Sam September 20, 2005 at 6:51 am

This is nice but if your mp3 audio book from the CD is split into 3 minute segments you get 100-300 tracks all 3 minutes long. What is the purpose to bookmark a 3 minute segment. Do you know of a way to join the aac files to one track after they are already in itunes?

Bykks September 27, 2005 at 6:38 pm

My problem is that I have books that I have downloaded from the cds in mp3 format. This means I have a folder with 9 files with names like cd1, etc. The problem is that when I try to use them in Itunes, it does not recognize the folders,and wants to play all track 1’s first(each cd starting with track 1) I know I can rename the filenames, but there are hundreds of them in some books, and if I make separate playlists for each cd, I can’t get them to play automatically in sequence. Other than burning audio cds and re-importing them as in another tutorial, is there some better solution to my problem? Thanks for any info, this site has been very informative.

Jim October 1, 2005 at 7:00 pm

The info regarding audiobooks is very helpful. I am converting vinyl records to multi-track MP3s. The end result is a file sturcture that MP3 devices support and mimics the sturcture iTunes creates when you tell it to rip a CD to MP3. Now, I would like iTunes to import my files to it’s library. The problem is that they are imported as “Track 01”, “Track 02”, etc., ignoring that folder (artist)->subfolder (album)->track names(01 xyz.mp3, 02 yyy.mp3 …) that I have already created. There must be a better way than to re-type the data that already exists into iTunes! Thanks, Jim

Karl Junker October 25, 2005 at 4:34 am

Comments on a) Linda: the “audiobook” section is something which is pre-set in the iPod. Go to iPod settings and enable the “audiobooks” section there. Mind you: only audiobooks dowloaded from Audible will be shown there. If you rip audiobooks from a CD (either .mp3 or .aac), even if you categorize them as “audiobook” or “audiobooks”, they will NOT show up there. They will show up in the respective “audiobook” or “audiobooks” genre list however.

b) Sam: Joining tracks after the CD is already ripped into .mp3 or .aac files which are now residing on your harddisk is not possible in iTunes. iTunes can only join tracks when ripping them from CD. The freeware approach to merge .mp3 files is to use Audacity, however this is tedious I think (http://audacity.sourceforge.net/). The most convenient alternative is Markable, not freeware though (http://www.ipodsoft.com/index.php?/software/markable)

c) Bykks and Jim: The most convenient piece of software to rename/relabel Audiobooks descriptions and filenames is the free Windows software mp3tag (http://www.mp3tag.de/en/download.html). This can do a lot of scripting and by using Excel and CVS/Text files cleverly you can automate the relabelling of files/descriptions/filenames a lot. The procedure I employ when ripping audiobooks to iPod: a) rip with iTunes, b) drag the folder out of iTunes to some other location on the harddrive & delete the items from iTunes c) relabel fields/album/filenames using mp3tag, c) re-import into iTunes from the harddrive.

Laura October 25, 2005 at 4:36 pm

Hello! I just got an ipod (this is my third day of owning it), and I found your instructions very helpful! I have a bunch of audio files on my computer that I had made by taking the .wav off of a video file and converting it to mp3 format (instant radio show!), and thanks to you I have managed to make my ipod recognize them as audiobooks. Yay! My only problem is that, in addition to showing up in the audiobooks folder, they also show up in the general “music” list. This might be a silly question, but is there any way I can make them go away? There’s nothing more mood-breaking than running into 45 minutes of dialog in the middle of your shuffled music.

Thanks! ~* Laura

Alderete October 26, 2005 at 10:30 pm

Laura: In iTunes 6, in the Get Info window, on the Options tab, is an option “Skip when shuffling”. Make sure this is checked for all your audiobook tracks, and that should do the trick.

I don’t know if this option existed in iTunes 5; it does not exist in iTunes 4.x. But iTunes 6 is a free upgrade, so no sense in not upgrading to get the new feature. Note that you may also need to update your iPod at the same time (though that’s less likely if you just bought a new iPod!).

Harry October 27, 2005 at 6:13 am

Many public libraries now offer downloadable audio books free, just like checking out the tape version. IPod will not accept them. Anyone know if there is a solution to this problem other than buying another MP3 player?

Alderete October 27, 2005 at 7:09 am

Harry: The short answer is no, there is no way to get these versions to play on an iPod. The audiobooks are wrapped in a Microsoft Windows-only digital rights management (DRM) encoding, to prevent the books from being copied. Breaking the DRM to play the books on an iPod is illegal under current US law (as well as in many other countries).

The best bet is for all iPod owners to pester our libraries about compatibility with the iPod. It seems to me that it’s a poor use of taxpayer money to license digital versions of audiobooks which cannot be played on the handheld audio player with 80% of the market. Better to spend that money on additional audiobooks on CD, which a wider range of library patrons can enjoy.

Even though, yes, this does mean we’ll need to keep going to the library in person to get the books.

m rohr October 27, 2005 at 7:43 am

a software program called mp3 sugeon will solve all your problems

Alderete November 1, 2005 at 10:08 pm

m rohr: While “MP3 Surgeon”:http://www.myzips.com/software/MP3-Surgeon.phtml will probably join together the imported tracks of an MP3 audio CD, it looks like a fairly labor-intensive process, on a per-book basis. It’s also Windows-only, which means I’m less likely to try it out myself; I try to be mostly agnostic here, but I’m definitely a Mac OS X user in real life. ;-)

hugh November 8, 2005 at 8:24 am

thought you would be interested in the LibriVox project: LibriVox asks volunteers to record chapters of books in the public domain in digital format. We then release the audio files backs into the public domain. We are a totally volunteer, open source, free content, public domain project. Our objective: to have all books in the public domain available, for free, in audio format, on the internet.

we have a small catalog now (10 titles) buts should have 30 by end of 2005, and who knows how many by end 2006.

check: “librivox.org”:http://librivox.org/

happy listening, hugh.

Aleister November 21, 2005 at 7:31 pm

The trick to keep your audiobooks from showing up under your regular music sections (albums.. artists.. etc..) is to leave those fields blank in the file info under iTunes. :)

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