App Review: Bookmark

Bookmark is an alternative audio player app for the iPhone and iPod Touch. It is specifically for use with audiobooks, based on the insight that the iPod is great for music, but not very well-suited to audiobooks. Bookmark was designed around the central concept that, when listening to a long audiobook, you want different controls for moving around in the much longer tracks, and tools for marking positions in the recording that go beyond just saving where you left off.

If you search the App Store for “audiobook” you turn up hundreds of results, most of which are crap. (More on that in a future post.) Separating the wheat from the chaff can be a challenge. Aldo on Audiobooks will only bother to review worthwhile apps.

Bookmark is an alternative audio player dedicated to audiobooks, based on the insight that the iPhone is great for music, but not very well-suited to audiobooks. Bookmark was designed around the central concept that, when listening to a long audiobook, you want different controls for moving around in the much longer tracks, and tools for marking positions in the recording that go beyond just saving where you left off. Bookmark app If you’ve ever listened to a long audiobook track on an iPod, and especially if you’ve ever thought “I want to go back and hear that part again,” you know what this is all about.

Using Bookmark is simple. Start the app, choose a book from the list of titles (Bookmark filters out everything but audiobooks), and press play. In this regard, Bookmark is much like the built-in iPod app. The basics of playback are pretty obvious, with standard controls for play/pause, volume control, and track progress.

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iTunes Syncing 101

Researching the answer to a reader question, I came across the following article in Apple’s Knowledgebase, and it’s so generally useful, I thought I mention it:

!/images/audiobooks/apple-syncing-music-to-ipod.png
Syncing Music to iPod

It covers the most basic information about how to sync audio from iTunes to your iPod or iPhone, but that’s often the best place to start when you have sync problems. For more advanced syncing settings specific to audiobooks, see my article Managing audiobooks on a small-capacity iPod.

Improved Audiobook Builder

Audiobook BuilderJust a quick note to mention that Audiobook Builder, my preferred solution for creating audiobooks on Mac OS X, was recently updated to version 1.1. The improvements include:

  • Longer audiobook parts, 18 hours instead of the prior 12 hour limit.
  • New options for where to break an audiobook into parts; for me, this means no more chapters split across separate parts.
  • A number of new build options that allow you to change the settings right before you build the audiobook.
    Audiobook Builder Build Options dialog

There’s other changes and fixes. A nice (free) update to an already very good audiobook tool.

Free audiobooks at Barnes & Noble

Barnes & Noble is giving away nine free audiobooks. Most of the selections are short stories, but Tom Sawyer is the full length novel. All are offered in MP3 format, which should be playable on any device. (With iTunes 8 you can change the media type to Audiobook to make tracks in any format behave like “true” audiobooks.)

Free audiobooks at Barnes & Noble

Best-selling, critically acclaimed, and classic authors and stories are represented. The Louis L’Amour story is dramatized (think old time radio), the rest are performed by professional narrators. These are quality products, and a short but complete story in audio format is a great way to try audiobooks, if you’ve never given them a shot before.

Here’s the complete list of what’s available:

  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
  • Merrano of the Dry Country by Louis L’Amour
  • “Ysrael,” an unabridged story from Drown by Junot Diaz
  • “Truth or Dare,” an unabridged story from The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted by Elizabeth Berg
  • “Fathers,” an unabridged story from The View From Castle Rock by Alice Munro
  • “Great Day,” an unabridged story from Armageddon in Retrospect by Kurt Vonnegut
  • “Best New Horror” by Joe Hill, a story from the collection 20th Century Ghosts
  • “Super Goat Man,” an unabridged story from Men and Cartoons by Jonathan Lethem
  • “The Babysitter’s Code,” from the collection Hardly Knew Her by Laura Lippman

The process for downloading them is a little painful, you have to add each one to your shopping cart, and then check out. The check out process requires you to fill in payment information, even though the purchase is free. (I imagine that’s the trade: you create an account with us, and we’ll give you something for free.) After you check out, you’ll receive an email with download instructions, which includes requiring you to install the Overdrive Media Console, a tool to download and manage your electronic purchases from B&N (Amazon has a similar tool), and then going back to the Barnes & Noble site to download the link files, and then opening the link files in Media Console to actually download the tracks. Then if you want them in iTunes, that’s another step. All in all, it’s nowhere near as easy as the iTunes Store, or Audible, or even Amazon. But did I mention the audiobooks are free?

The offer ends on May 16th (at 3am Eastern; call it the 15th for most people), so get there soon.

Backing Up in an Audiobook

After posting my explanation of Nearly Perfect Audiobooks, I got feedback from a number of readers who preferred to have their audiobooks in lots of short, 1-3 minute tracks. I find many tracks to be incredibly annoying when organizing and managing my books, especially when manually creating a “Listen Now” playlist to compliment the smart playlists I describe in Managing Audiobooks on a Small Capacity iPod or iPhone. The approach I take for my own audiobooks is to condense the books into as few tracks as possible, the exact opposite of the lots of tiny tracks approach.

So why would someone prefer lots of tiny tracks? The common thread seemed to be wanting to have the ability to skip backwards in the book just a couple minutes, if they missed something, got interrupted, or otherwise needed to re-listen to what they had just heard. The easiest way to do this is the iPod’s most obvious track navigation technique, click the Back button once to skip backwards to the beginning of the current track, or click twice to go back to the previous track. While smaller tracks make that reasonable, the hour+ tracks that come out of my audiobook import process make that technique painful. Hence a preference for shorter tracks.

But! The iPod provides at least two other easy-to-use techniques for going backwards in your audiobook, and once mastered, they are at least as useful as the basic clicking, eliminating the need to click backwards through short tracks to re-listen to the last few minutes. And they work best on the long tracks I prefer. Everybody wins!

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Speeding up and slowing down audiobooks

Once your iPod or iPhone recognizes a track as an audiobook (see FAQ #1 for details), you have the ability to speed up or slow down the playback of the track. Audiobook Speed For people looking to power through a book (say, while driving to your book club), speeding up playback can be useful. For language learning, slowing down the playback can help to hear nuances of pronunciation and emphasis.

But the options provided by the iPod is not that great, just “Slower”, “Normal”, and “Faster”. Not a lot of control, and the speed change isn’t huge, in either direction. (And I find that it adds a nearly imperceptible but irritating clipping to speech). If you want to make an even bigger speed change, you need to turn to third-party tools that can process the tracks, and then sync the processed versions to your iPod or iPhone.

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Read me a story, Brad Pitt

It’s an older article, but Slate Magazine has a terrific piece about the importance of narration in the quality of audiobooks, from hard boiled fiction to urban sociology. Read Me a Story, Brad Pitt is subtitled “When audiobook casting goes terribly wrong,” and gives examples of the three most common — and easily avoided — mistakes that audiobook publishers make.

I recommend that you always listen to the audio sample provided at Audible.com or the iTunes Store before making a purchase. Audiobooks can be expensive, and mistakes add up to real money fast.

Making Nearly Perfect Audiobooks

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.

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Another way to import audiobooks from cassettes

The New York Times has an article about the Alesis TapeLink, which is a tape deck you can attach to your computer via USB, and use to convert analog cassette tapes to a digital format you can use with iTunes, or any other media player.

I haven’t tried it, and at $299 list price, I’m not likely to, but if you have a large investment in audiobooks on cassette tapes, it might be a worthwhile investment for getting those books into a format that will last beyond the lifetime of the cassette medium.

Useful news feeds at Audible.com

If you are looking to stay “on top” of all the latest audiobook releases, there are a variety of sources. Most of the different audiobook publishing houses and audiobook stores have email newsletters, or even paper catalogs they will send you in the mail. I’ve signed up for a lot of these, and find them useful.

But the best source for audiobook releases news I’ve found are the RSS feeds offered by Audible.com. They have feeds for the latest releases, but they also have feeds for best sellers from various lists (NYTimes, etc.), best sellers in various categories, and feeds for specially priced titles, including free content. Audible’s feeds used to be awful, abbreviated entries that were almost useless. But at some point they got a whole lot better, and now tell you the book title, author, and give the full description for the book. They even link to an audio sample of the book, for you to listen to before you buy. Since Audible has the largest catalog of audiobooks, this is about as comprehensive a source as you can find.

Unfortunately, while I would like to link directly to Audible’s feeds page, their horrible web site makes it impossible to directly link to some pages, including that one. So I can only describe how to navigate there yourself.

  1. Start at the Audible.com home page.
  2. Scroll down to the bottom of the page.
  3. Click the “RSS” link, which looks like this:

Audible RSS Link

Find a feed that appeals to you, and subscribe to it in your usual newsreader, e.g., Google Reader, NewsGator’s excellent readers, etc. (If you don’t know what a newsreader or RSS feed is, this What is RSS? article is a pretty good introduction.)

iPod-friendly downloads from libraries

A couple of weeks ago, OverDrive, a technology vendor that provides many libraries with the software behind their download-to-loan content, released a new version of the OverDrive Media Console that is now Mac-compatible and iPod-friendly. It accomplishes this by providing loanable downloads in MP3 format, instead of a DRM-wrapped WMA (Windows Media) format.

It’s not clear to me how OverDrive protects the downloaded content, enforces lending period constraints, or otherwise restricts the use of audiobooks downloaded using their system. Some of the instructions and FAQs make it sound a little cumbersome, and generally content producers (the audiobook publishers) require pretty strong restrictions. So I’m a little hesitant to install the new software on my computer (I really need to get a test system…), fearing some hidden DRM kernel extension, or other invasive software.

It’s also not clear to me how much content is available to the new Media Console, at least in the MP3 format supported for Mac users. The older WMA format is much more broadly enabled, as it includes DRM restrictions that publishers are comfortable with. But you can search OverDrive’s national directory of libraries and see if content is available from a library or other source near you.

If you give it a try, let me know how it works for you. Otherwise, I’ll try to give it a whirl in the new year, and post an updated then.

iTunes 8 is great for audiobook lovers

The number one question I receive from visitors to Aldo on Audiobooks is “How do I get my audiobooks to show up in the Audiobooks section of iTunes and my iPod/iPhone?” iTunes 8 makes answering this question almost trivial. Here are the details.

The number one question I receive from visitors to Aldo on Audiobooks is How do I get my audiobooks to show up in the Audiobooks section of iTunes and my iPod/iPhone? With the release of iTunes 8, I can replace hundreds of (a thousand?) words with a single screen shot:

iTunes track info options panel

Well, maybe a few words are still in order. Here’s the new process, which will work every time:

  1. Import your audiobook using your favorite process, in your favorite audio format. (I’ve written detailed instructions for both standard Audio CD audiobooks and for MP3 CD audiobooks.)
  2. Select the imported track(s) in iTunes, and choose %(ui)File > Get Info%, and then click on the %(ui)Options% tab, to get to the Track Info Options panel.
  3. From the %(ui)Media Kind% pop-up menu, choose “Audiobook”.
  4. Check the %(ui)Remember playback position% and %(ui)Skip when shuffling% options.
  5. Click the %(ui)OK% button.

From now on, iTunes, iPods, and iPhones will all treat the track(s) as full audiobooks, including remembering playback position automatically (saving your “bookmark”), skipping the track when you’re playing a random shuffle of music, and allowing you to speed up or slow down playback with the %(ipod)Settings > Audiobooks% speed options on your iPod or iPhone.

Note: When you make the above changes, the audiobook track(s) will be moved from the Music source list to the Audiobooks source list. If you haven’t enabled the Audiobooks list, it will seem as though your tracks have disappeared. See Optimal iTunes Import Settings for Audiobooks for more details of enabling the Audiobooks source list.

If you’re interested in more of the details of what’s new in iTunes 8, I suggest iLounge’s Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iTunes 8 as the best and most detailed guide I’ve seen.