How to Improve Audiobooks

Kirk McElhearn, a noted author on topics like the iPod, iTunes, podcasting and the Mac, has written a short article Digital Audiobooks: Taking Them to the Next Generation, musing about what should be done to audiobooks to take advantage of the possibilities offered by the iPod and other digital players. In particular, he calls out the need for better chapter markers, and better handling of material which cannot be read, or is often skipped, like illustrations and endnotes.

I’ve had similar frustrations.

Finding a good stopping place in a book — ideally a chapter break, or other “pause” in the narrative — is usually an exercise in frustration, because (a) you don’t know when the next one will be, and (b) the only way you know you’re at one is a longer-than-usual pause. But by the time you’ve discovered that, often the narration has begun again!

Kirk writes that puts “chapter” boundaries into their books, but only at the original CD break points, which are often not at real chapters. My instructions for how to import audiobooks into iTunes from CDs suffers from the same limitation. I experimented, on the Harry Potter novels, with joining together the tracks in such a way as to have one track per chapter. It turns out that’s rather useful and nice. Kirk’s idea that should start putting real chapter boundaries into their books is very solid; it’s a way for’s products to take advantage of the medium on which they are offered, rather than being limited by the medium on which they originated.

Although I haven’t run into endnotes that I’ve missed, I do miss materials which are not or cannot be read. For me the biggest example would be the wonderful illustrations by Mary GrandPré in the Harry Potter novels. While Jim Dale’s amazing spoken performances of the books are more than compensation, I don’t really want to go without the whimsical illustrations if I don’t have to.

The thing is, the technical problem of how to show a book’s visual elements is already solved; my iPod will today show materials like this on the screen when I’m listening to an enhanced podcast. Showing maps, charts, and other illustrations in an audiobook ought to happen the same way: flash them on-screen when you get to the appropriate point in the book. Indeed, something like that could also serve as a visual signal that a chapter break was at hand, letting you know, without interrupting the audio flow. (But real chapter breaks would be better.)

All this is potentially a lot of work for publishers and It’s not that hard for one, or even a couple books, but when you start talking about thousands of books a year, it’s more than a full-time job.

Here’s my suggestion to publishers: build this into your production process for any book which is being offered in audiobook format. Start with the blockbusters if you need to try it out, but get someone on the team who can help you work with your partners to enhance your audiobooks at and the iTunes Music Media Store. If this is part of the production process, instead of an afterthought, it won’t be many extra steps, or expensive.

Heck, if it’s for the next Harry Bosch or Harry Potter novel, I’ll help you do it for free.

2 thoughts on “How to Improve Audiobooks”

  1. Hi I need to get through 79 CDs of a lecture given over 3 weeks and i need to speed it up to 2x if possible .Sadly they are all on CDs and I’m running out of time . What do you suggest in a discman or portable CD player that has variable speed without too much distortion as I’m on the move to work every day ? Thanks .Liam.

    1. @liam: Sorry, I don’t know how to speed up CDs directly–I’m not sure I even have a CD player in the house, outside of a computer! If playback speed is really important to you, you can import the CDs (usually 8x playback speed), and then use the playback speed for audiobooks on an iPod or iPhone to power through the lectures. But it’s definitely going to take an investment of time!

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