Making Nearly Perfect Audiobooks

by Michael Alderete on 1/30/2009 · 15 comments

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.

The Motivation

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:

iTunes Grid View

Similarly, in List view with the Artwork column shown, the audiobook tracks are correctly grouped together:

iTunes List View

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:

iPhone Audiobooks Lists

When playing back the audiobook I see almost full screen cover art, or chapter art if there is any:

iPhone Audiobooks Artwork

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:

Audiobook Chapters

(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.)

The Process

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:

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows CDs

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):

Audiobook Builderimport settings

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:

Audiobook Builder chapter list

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…

Build Audiobook

…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:

Audiobook Builder application preferences

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:

iTunes Multiple Track Info

OK! Done! Sync to my iPhone, and away I go!

Advanced Steps

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:

Fission Editing Window

(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…

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Mark February 5, 2009 at 4:50 am

Thanks so much for all your insights on audiobooks. I too love audio books on my iPhone. I have used Markable with good results on my PC, and you might want to check out the new version of this software (a trial version is fee).

However, I bought a few mp3-cds that I would prefer just to backup rather than put into iTunes. If I could rip the mp3-cd to another disk, I would then have a single cd with an mp3 audiobook that I wouldn’t have to worry about when traveling, giving to kids, etc. Do you know of a a fast and easy way to copy these mp3-cds using either a pc or a mac?

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Ben March 6, 2009 at 12:03 pm

I came across an interesting technology that solves a lot of problems that I used to have with audiobooks. These used to include download problems, chapters (as you mentioned), keeping track where I was in an audiobook. But the guys over at Audio Pod (www.audiopod.ca) have done a lot of work on audiobooks. They are in testing now, and when they roll out, I think the audiobook industry will change for the better. I really like the ability to just ‘drag and drop’ an audiobook and there it is. Fully functional table of contents (chapters), illustrated editions, bookmarks for multiple open books so my whole family can use it without hassles, and I can even email bookmarks to my friends and family. I can’t wait til they go live. Its going to be great.

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Bernard Doddema, Jr. July 3, 2009 at 11:52 am

I noticed that this article is 5 months old. Do you have the guide you mentioned at the top available?

I’m looking forward to learning more on how to make the “perfect” audiobook!

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Margit August 13, 2009 at 11:57 am

After ordering audiobooks from iTunes, expensive, but Austrian libraries do not usually provide English audiobooks :-( , I had been trying to discover a downloadable Stephen Fry version of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”, alas, to no avail! Searching the web I came across your site, and what a fortunate day that was! I have just completed my first audiobook builder project (1.1.1), and the result is EXTREMELY nice. I have synced it to my ipod nano, and, since none of my downloaded audiobooks have this feature, I was pleasantly surprised to find that my nano actually gives me the chapter headings as well (which, by the way, iTunes found on the internet, and they actually match the chapter headings in the book). And I can go to any chapter I wish … my little iPod nano, who would have thought it! Thanks, dear Michael Alderete! I am really obliged to you!

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Tim August 27, 2009 at 1:35 pm

Thank you so much for providing a detailed plan on how to create perfect audiobooks for the old iPod Touch, unfortunately I use a PC and so can not use the audiobook builder - I use a PC and can not really afford thousands of pounds for a Mac just for audiobooks.

Any suggestions on an alternative software that will work as well, or any ways on how to get the software working on a PC?

Cheers for the advise though much appreciated

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Kelly November 30, 2009 at 10:16 pm

Thank you for your fantastic detailed instructions!! I have spent hours and hours scouring the internet looking for information on how to organise my AudioBooks and your blog is the best I have found….by far!

I am not very tech savvy however I am an absolute perfectionist when it comes to having everything organised, and your Harry Potter dilemma was similar to mine. This is the first time I have ever posted anything online but I thought I would share with you what worked for me…. I have a 4th Gen iPod Nano, and run iTunes 9 on my Windows Vista PC. I have most of my audiobooks in mp3 (each chapter in separate files). I formatted my mp3 files into AAC in iTunes, and then imported the AAC files into Chapter and Verse (a freeware software I downloaded). This programs sounds very similar to the Audiobook Builder you refer to in your blog. After renaming each chapter and adding chapter images my multiple chapter files for each book was converted into one M4B file and then imported back into iTunes. A little time consuming - but worked brilliantly!

In an effort to further organise my Audiobook library in iTunes I have put all 7 Harry Potter books as the same Genre (Harry Potter Series). Now in Grid View I see one Cover labelled “Harry Potter Series” and then double clicking into that cover all 7 books with their individual artwork is shown. I have done something similar for the 4 books in The Twilight Saga as well. (Do you know a better way I should be doing this?)

All that is left for me to do is work out how I can customise the Cover image shown in the Grid View for the different Genre folders for “Harry Potter Series” and “The Twilight Saga”. Currently the image shown is the Cover image for the first book in each series. I have found great images I can use for each Series/Genre (eg. The Complete Harry Potter Series with pics of all 7 books - all in the one image) and would love to be able to display this in the Grid View window to identify each series of books…… any bright ideas with this one??? I’m happy to email you screen shots of my iTunes library so that you can see what I’m talking about…. Or maybe I’m just being obsessive compulsive and need to let this go, I have wasted a LOT of hours on all of this….. however it is rewarding when I look through my perfectly organised iTunes Library!!

Thanks again for your very helpful blog! Cheers, Kelly

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Greg Arterburn March 9, 2010 at 6:03 pm

Thanks for the info. How does the Ipod Nano handle chapters. Does it act like the Ipod/Iphone or like Ipod Classic?

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Alderete March 10, 2010 at 10:38 am

@Greg: The iPod Nano and the iPod Classic are essentially identical in user interface.

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Darrin April 21, 2010 at 7:13 pm

I have been having so much trouble with this program. In the chapters section I see the whole book, but when I click “finish” or the arrow it states there is only 2 chapters totaling 20 minutes and that all that gets transfered to my itunes. What am I doing wrong?

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Darren Bates May 23, 2010 at 7:49 am

hi, I’ve got the HP books from a friends itunes library, however the first three play fine on my iphone, however the other four in the series don’t want to play.

I can see that they are the same format but can’t understandy why they won’t play other than they are double if not triple the length of the first 3.

Any suggests

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Michele June 13, 2010 at 11:08 pm

is there a software system those of us with PCs can use?
Help!

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Dave August 15, 2010 at 7:37 pm

I have to give fantastic kudos to “Chapter and Verse”. An awesomely complete package to create chapterized audio books from CD rips. It even converts from MP3 if that’s the starting point. Check it out at their website: http://lodensoftware.com/

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Syd October 16, 2011 at 2:25 pm

Thanks for this great tutorial. I found all the PC-based information, then finally found your information for the Mac. AudioBuilder has almost built a 236MB in the time it took me to write this post.

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Don Deleski January 16, 2012 at 1:09 pm

I am looking to replace an old IPod. Your site provides the most helpful information that I have found. I appreciate your efforts very much.

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Marcus M. July 27, 2014 at 9:23 am

I just downloaded this program for my Mac. I am pumped to start organizing my audiobooks and perfecting the HP series. I noticed above in one of your screenshots after clicking the list icon that it shows all the chapters available, making for easy navigation. I don’t know how to make this work for my audiobooks? After creating the first two audiobooks, it simply shows the one entry that was created for the whole book, without chapter breakdown. I am using iTunes 11.3 on Mac OS X 10.6.8. Can anyone please let me know how to do this, if there is a way to make this happen. I appreciate the help.

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