Importing Audio CD audiobooks into iTunes 4.x

For some people, their iPod is all about music. For me, and others, it’s almost all about audiobooks. A great source for free audiobooks is the public library, where they are often available on CD. For example, the San Francisco Public Library has quite a lot of them, and you can even reserve them online.

The only downside with audiobook CDs is they cannot be played (directly) on an iPod. Enter the second half of Apple’s one-two combination, iTunes, which makes importing CDs relatively easy, and keeping them organized, syncing them with an iPod, and making custom playlists extremely easy.

But iTunes is optimized for music CDs. It can take quite a bit of trial and error — mostly error — to come up with a recipe that works well, and produces audiobook files that are reasonable in size and quality, and as easy to use on an iPod as the books you might get from Audible.com. I’m going to save you some time, and share the recipe that I’ve come up with.

Importing Audio Book CDs into iTunes

Note: These instructions are written for iTunes 4.7-4.9. They use screenshots of iTunes 4.7, but work fine in iTunes 4.8 and 4.9, there are no meaningful changes. For instructions modified for the more significant changes in iTunes 5 and iTunes 6, see the current Importing audio CD audiobooks into iTunes page.

Set Up iTunes for Optimal Import Settings

You want to set iTunes to import the audio content of audio book CDs quite differently than you would for importing music. You don’t need to use a high bitrate; that leads to huge files, with little improvement in quality. You also don’t need stereo, because most audio books are mono; saving the left and right tracks only doubles the file size, without changing the sound at all. Last, you want to make sure the files are bookmarkable on your iPod; AAC files can be made bookmarkable, while MP3 files cannot.

Note: Even AAC files need a trick to be bookmarkable. You can do it manually on a PC (it’s not hard, just rename the files manually, details below), but on a Mac, you can download and install the Make Bookmarkable script to make the process very simple.

  1. Launch iTunes, and open the Preferences dialog.
  2. Click on the General tab.
  3. Set the On CD Insert action to Show Songs.
    iTunes Preferences, General panel
    You don’t want to auto-import, because there are a couple of steps which are easier to do before you import.
  4. Click on the Importing tab.
  5. In the Import Using pop-up, choose AAC Encoder. This format is required for an audio track to be bookmarkable.
  6. In the Setting pop-up, choose Custom…
  7. In the AAC Encoder settings dialog that appears, choose a Stereo Bit Rate of 64 kbps, a Sample Rate of Auto, and a Channels of Mono.
    iTunes Preferences, AAC Encoding panel
    The combination of the stereo bit rate and mono channel means that the real bit rate recorded will be half, or 32 kbps. This is equivalent to Type 4 format on Audible.com, their highest quality recording. Click OK.
    Note: There are reports that mono AAC files can cause lockups on iPods when played. It happens to me occasionally, but not always; an iPod reset fixes the problem. Your mileage may vary, and if you don’t mind trading disk space to make the problem go away, just leave your Channels setting on Auto.
  8. Uncheck the Play songs while importing and the Use error correction when reading Audio CDs options.
    iTunes Preferences, Importing panel
    These will both slow the import process tremendously, so turn ‘em off. Some people also recommend unchecking the Create file names with track number, but I am not sure why. Click OK.

Import the Audio Book CDs

Importing CDs for audio books can be kind of painful, because there are usually a lot of them. To make matters worse, each CD usually has dozens of tracks on it, which makes it a nightmare to manage on the small screen of an iPod. Worst of all, the track names are rarely recognized by the automatic lookup service, so you need to enter them by hand. This import process attempts to reduce the amount of manual input, while also making sure that the track information is highly usable on an iPod.

  1. Insert the CD, and wait for the tracks to appear in iTunes. Sometimes you’ll have to dismiss a dialog or two which invites you to do some automatic action. Don’t, just display the tracks.
  2. Select all of the CD’s tracks, and choose Join CD Tracks from the Advanced menu. This will consolidate the many tracks on the CD into one, which will make it much easier to manage when the tracks are copied to your iPod.
    Note: If the Join CD Tracks menu item is dimmed, you need to re-sort the list by the track number; see Apple’s knowledgebase article iTunes 4: Join CD Tracks Command Is Dimmed for details.
  3. Select Submit CD Track Names from the Advanced menu.
  4. In the CD Info dialog that appears, fill out the information you know about the audio book.
    iTunes Submit CD Track Names, CD Info dialog
    1. Artist: the book’s author
    2. Composer: I use this to record the reader of the audio book
    3. Album: the book’s title
    4. Disc Number: which disc this is out of how many total discs
    5. Genre: “Audiobook”
    6. Year: the year the book or recording was published, if you care
  5. Click OK, and the information will be submitted. You will probably be prompted to Select CD Category, since the online database uses a different category for audio books. Choose “Books & Spoken”, and click OK.
    iTunes Submit CD Track Names, Category dialog
  6. You’ll get a dialog telling you it’s done, click OK.
  7. When the submission process is completed, all of the tracks on the CD should have the appropriate information attached to them. This means everything has worked so far. So…
  8. Click the Import button (top right corner) to import this disc, using the import settings you set up initially.
  9. When the import finishes, eject the CD.
  10. Switch to your Library, and find the newly imported track. There should be only one. Select it, and press Command-I to do a Get Info on the track.
    iTunes Song Info panel
  11. Verify all of the information there. The song Name will be the same name as the album. Since the Name will be what you see on your iPod, you want to add the disc sequence number to it. A shorter format is better, especially if you have an iPod mini or nano, with a more narrow screen. I generally add “xx/yy”, where xx is the disc number, and yy is the total number of discs. Be sure to add a leading zero to the disc number if the total number of discs will be more than one digit, e.g., “04/13” rather than “4/13”. This way, the tracks will sort correctly when sorted by Name.
  12. You may also want to add a note to the Comments field, to record where you obtained the book, etc.; I type “Library AAC” into my imported tracks.
  13. Repeat this process for the each CD in the audio book, until you have imported all of the CDs.
  14. In your Library, select all of the tracks which you just imported. From the iTunes Scripts menu (the stylized S icon), run the Make Bookmarkable script. This script changes the type of AAC file from “m4a” to “m4b”. The iPod treats m4b format files a little differently: they show up in the Audiobooks main menu, and they are bookmarkable, which means they will remember where you were when you stopped listening, even if you play other things in the meantime.
    If you’re using iTunes on a PC, you’ll need to do this manually. Changing the filename extensions from “.m4a” to “.m4b” will do the trick. Use the File/Show Song File menu choice to reveal the folder with the book files, and rename away. If you can’t see the “.m4a” file extension, then uncheck the Hide extensions for known file types option in the Advanced Settings section of the Folder Options control panel.
    Windows XP Folder Options Advanced Settings
  15. Sync to your iPod, and enjoy a great book!

A final note for the benefit of RIAA lawyers, and those looking to avoid same: We use this process to copy borrowed audio books from CD to our iPod, so we can listen to books we’ve checked out from the public library. That’s a fair use of the copying capability that is built into iTunes. When we’ve listened to the book, we delete it. Keeping the book, or file swapping it, would be illegal. We don’t do that.