This is an overview of my current process for importing audiobooks. It’s a preview of my forthcoming (no, really, I promise) update to my instructions for importing audiobooks from CDs into iTunes. For OCD types, anal-retentives, and Harry Potter fans (hello brothers and sisters!), this preview may be sufficient for you to follow along on your own computers. For normal people, it’s a look at how much effort it still is to create audiobooks that behave as you’d expect and desire in iTunes and on an iPod.
But before seeing the tedious steps, here’s the why of it. Audiobooks processed as I do below are easier to organize and navigate, and they behave the way I want them to, instead of behaving as individual tracks.
For example, in iTunes Grid view, each audiobook’s tracks are grouped into a single item:
Similarly, in List view with the Artwork column shown, the audiobook tracks are correctly grouped together:
But where my “perfect” audiobooks really shine is on my iPhone (the interface is the same on the iPod Touch). The audiobook appears as one entry in the Audiobooks section of the iPod application, with three “episodes,” and clicking on it displays those episodes:
When playing back the audiobook I see almost full screen cover art, or chapter art if there is any:
And perhaps best of all, clicking on the list icon (top right, just under the battery indicator) displays the chapter list, making navigation through the book a breeze. Just tap on a chapter to start playing back right there:
(Unfortunately, the “classic” iPods, even the latest ones, don’t handle audiobooks as well as the iPhone and iPod Touch. Mostly, it shows every track for an audiobook as an entry in the Audiobooks menu, which can be hundreds of items long, a major pain. But you can at least reduce the pain by consolidating a book down to a track or two, as described here.)
I started with the CDs of an audiobook, specifically, the 20 CDs for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows read by the magnificent Stephen Fry:
I use an application called Audiobook Builder, which is unfortunately available only for the Mac. There are audiobook importing applications for Windows, but none that I’ve seen give you both ease of use and the amount of control that Audiobook Builder does.
I create a new project, using custom settings that provide a reasonable trade-off between audio quality and disk space (these settings approximate my recommended settings for importing audiobooks in iTunes):
After pasting in the cover art on the first screen, the initial import of the CDs happens in the Chapters panel. This is accomplished by repeatedly clicking the Import CD button, and sticking in the next CD. 20 times for 20 CDs. This takes a while.
The result is a chapters list where each chapter is composed of the tracks from a single CD, which does not correspond to the actual chapters in the book. In the case of the Harry Potter books, the initial chapters list is wildly incorrect (no screenshot for this stage, sorry), and the process of correctly grouping them is tedious, especially if the imported tracks didn’t get useful names applied to them when looked up in the Gracenote CDDB database — which will be the case for most audiobooks. In those cases, I literally play the start of every track, listening for the chapter announcements, because I want proper chapters:
Most audiobooks don’t have chapter art, or at least, don’t have chapter art that I make an effort to preserve. The Harry Potter books are different (and I’m an OCD anal-retentive type), so I painstakingly collected artwork and sequence information from various web sites, and pasted graphics into the chapter art box, at the bottom right of the above screen, for each chapter.
Finally, it’s time to build the audiobook. While this can be a single click operation…
…my preference is to build audiobook files as long as possible, but to have all tracks in a single audiobook be approximately the same. Also, Audiobook Builder limits you to tracks no longer than 12 hours. So, there’s math involved, dividing the audiobook into equal chunks no longer than 12 hours, and then fiddling with Audiobook Builder’s Maximum Track Length preference to set the desired track length:
This really shouldn’t be necessary, and if the developers of Audiobook Builder would like some advice, I would suggest that rather than a manual setting (which I have to tweak for every audiobook), this setting should be a choice between “Make parts which are no longer than xxx” (with the slider controlling xxx), and “Make all parts approximately the same length.” And there should be an additional setting, “Do not break chapters across parts.” I hate that, and currently it’s nearly inevitable in books with long chapters.
Once I click the Build Audiobook button, I sit back and wait for the audiobook tracks to get joined together, artwork embedded, etc. Eventually the book is built, and automatically added to iTunes. In iTunes I do one last step, using File > Get Info to set the Media Kind and some playback options:
OK! Done! Sync to my iPhone, and away I go!
OK, as if the above steps were not enough work, for some books, I add another, really painful step in the middle. Namely, when a book has chapters that break across CDs, there’s usually an audible intro on the next CD, something like “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, disk four. Chapter seven, continued.” Useful for people who are swapping CDs to listen, but useless on an iPhone, where I have 12 hour tracks. So, for books I really want “perfect,” I will actually edit the audio tracks with the CD intros, using Rogue Amoeba’s Fission:
(Hard to tell in the screenshot, but I’ve selected the intro audio, and the mouse is hovering over the Remove button.) Yes, this is a pain in the butt. No, it’s not worth it. Yes, I have to do it, for some books…