Importing MP3 audiobooks into iTunes 4.x

Many people don’t realize there is more than one audio CD format. Everyone knows about the Audio CD format, which has been around for 20-odd years. It’s familiar, most people have CDs now instead of cassette tapes or vinyl records, and any CD player sold in the last two decades can play them. This is the most popular digital format for audiobooks.

But a second audio CD format exists, which works extremely well for audiobooks. Called MP3 CDs, this format was developed within the last 5 years or so. Most CD players sold today can play this format, but older players usually don’t. What makes this format so good for audiobooks is that the audio data is stored in compressed MP3 format, instead of the uncompressed full-resolution format of traditional Audio CDs. This means a lot more audio will fit on the disk, albeit in a lower quality format. For music, the lower quality can be an issue, but for audiobooks, even the “low” resolution of MP3 CDs is higher than spoken word requires to sound terrific. Most audiobooks can fit on a single MP3 CD, making the format more convenient to carry around, and less expensive to purchase.

I’ve written more details about the MP3 CD format for audiobooks, including where to buy them (they can be hard to find), on the Where to Get Audiobooks page. The rest of this document describes how to convert these MP3 CD audiobooks into something you can listen to on your iPod.

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.

Once your import settings are set correctly, you’re ready to do the actual import:

  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!