Importing Audiobooks in iTunes

If you listen to audiobooks, and purchase or borrow them on CD, you’ll probably want to import them into iTunes so you can listen on your iPod, or your computer. It’s so much easier to listen to audiobooks on digital devices; you don’t need to carry around all the CDs, and you can stop listening whenever you want, yet still keep your place. Using an iPod–or another digital music player–for this is easy, and with iTunes, you can import your audiobooks in the format you want, and prepare them for listening with very little work.

However, you need to be aware of certain settings, and there are a couple of tricks that can make listening to audiobooks on an iPod much easier. Read on to find out how to do this.Prelude: Choosing how You Want to Listen

Before you begin, you need to be aware that there are several ways to listen to digital audiobooks, and you need to make some choices before you starting ripping, or importing, your CDs. Bear in mind that these are choices you will generally only make once; the next time you import an audiobook, you’ll probably not change your procedure.

Note that audiobooks ripped in this manner will not show up in iTunes’ or the iPod’s Audiobooks menus. That involves tweaking the files a bit, and, frankly, is not always worth the headache (especially since there are bugs on iPods regarding bookmarking these files). I’ll follow up soon with another article covering those questions.

First, you need to decide whether you will listen only on your computer or with an iPod, or whether you may want to listen on other digital devices, or even burn MP3 CDs to use in a car or home player. This affects your choice of importing format (see step 1). If you are happy with your iPod, you can use AAC format, which is the default format that iTunes uses. If you may want to use the files you import with other devices, you should choose MP3, which is more widely supported.

Second, you must decide whether you will be content with multiple files for each book, or whether you want to join them to make fewer, larger files. With iTunes, you can join all the files on each CD, which does reduce the number of files you end up with. In most cases, the difference is moot; in fact, it may be easier to have multiple files, since you can put just part of a book on your iPod, if you’re tight on space. Step 2 looks at these choices.

Step 1: iTunes Importing Settings

iTunes is set, by default, to import music files from CDs. When you import audiobooks, you may want to change the settings, since spoken word recordings don’t need the same quality as music, and since you may not want your audiobooks to take up much space. Since audiobooks cover several CDs–most books run from about 10 to 20 CDs–it’s easy to fill up a small iPod if you use the same settings as you do for music.

One hour of music, at iTunes’ default bit rate of 128 kbps, takes up about 56 MB. This means that a ten-hour book, at this importing setting, would take up 560 MB. This is no problem if you have an 80 GB iPod, but if you have an iPod nano or shuffle, you won’t have much room for anything else. And longer books, which are common, will fill your iPod much too quickly. Since voice recordings don’t need the same quality settings, you can save space by using a lower bit rate (the bit rate is what determines the sound quality, and the size of the files is relative to the bit rate).

As I said above, iTunes uses a default bit rate of 128 kbps, and this is in stereo; spoken word recordings, which cover a narrower range of frequencies (the voice is much more limited in its frequncey range than any musical instrument) can get by with much less. In addition, you don’t need to use stereo for most audiobooks: only those recordings with multiple voices where you have a “soundstage”, or voices in different locations, need stereo. (You might want stereo for recordings of plays, or for full-cast recordings.) So, for your audiobooks, mono is fine.

As for the actual bit rate, this depends on whether you are tight on space. I tend to use 48 kbps for my audiobooks; this is a good compromise between size and quality. Since this is in mono, it is the equivalent of 96 kbps in stereo. You could use a higher bit rate, such as 64 kbps (which equals 128 kbps in stereo) if you want better quality sound; you could even go higher if you want, but you certainly won’t hear the difference. (If you are familiar with’s file formats, 32 kbps is the equivalent of Audible’s format 4.) Note, also, that AAC files sound better at lower bit rates than MP3 files, so that 48 kbps AAC file setting I use is probably as good as 64 kbps MP3.

Now, you may be confused by all these numbers and acronyms. If so, I’m going to recommend simply that you use 48 kbps in either AAC or MP3 format. Remember earlier, when I said your choice of format depends on what devices you plan to use? Here’s where you make your choice. If you only plan to use an iPod, or your computer, choose AAC; if you plan to, or think you may want to, use other devices, choose MP3.

To change the iTunes importing settings, choose iTunes preferences from the iTunes menu (if you’re using a Mac), or from the Edit menu (if you use Windows). Click the Advanced tab, then Importing to view these settings. To change the settings, first select the Import Using menu; here’s where you can choose AAC or MP3 (don’t worry about the other formats; you don’t want to use them for audiobooks). Select the one you want. Next, click the Setting menu and choose Custom. Here is where you select the bit rate and other settings. Choose your bit rate: let’s assume you agree with me and want to use 48 kbps. In this case, counter-intuitively, you must choose 96 kbps. Why do you do this? Because you’ll next choose Mono from the Channels menu, which halves the bit rate to 48. Finally, if you’ve selected AAC as your importing format, check Optimize for Voice–this is only available for AAC, and optimizes the encoding for the frequencies in voices, ignoring anything that’s too high or too low. Click OK, then OK again to save these settings.

(Note: when you want to import music again, you’ll need to change the settings back to your music settings. Not what settings you use so you don’t forget; unfortunately, there’s no way to save presets for importing settings.)

Step 2: Preparing CDs for Importing

Now that you’ve chosen which settings you want to use, it’s time to insert a CD into your computer and prepare to import the first disc. You’ll probably have noticed that, when you insert a CD, iTunes displays the name of the CD, the artist, the song names, etc. In principle. This works because iTunes checks and Internet database for track information, but for most audiobooks, you’ll see nothing more than Track 1, Track 2, etc. (One notable exception is Naxos audiobooks, where you’ll get actual track info, such as the names of chapters or the first words of each section. Some other audiobooks may find this information, but most won’t.) Because of this, you need to label, or tag your files, and the best time to do it is now, before you import your CDs.

There are several reasons for tagging files: you want to mark the name of the book and author, and you also want to indicate disc numbers, which is important when you listen to books, to ensure that the files stay in order. To do this, select all the files on the CD (Command-A on Mac, Control-A on Windows), then press Command-I (Mac) or Control-I (Windows) to display a window where you can edit tags for all the files. I enter the book’s title in the Album field, and the author in the Artist field. I also enter a genre; you can use Audiobooks or Spoken Word, or whatever you want. Just type in any genre you want to use. One other item that’s important is to enter the disc number; enter, for example, disc 1 of 10 (or simply disc 1) in the appropriate fields. When you have finished, click OK to save this information. Now, when iTunes imports the disc, it will save the files with the information you have entered.

Another thing to consider is whether you want to import all these files individually, or import the entire CD as a single file. If you do the former, you may end up with hundreds of files for any given book; the latter gives you as many files as you have CDs. Since you can set iTunes to remember your playback position (see Step 3), one file per CD is a good choice. But if you’re ripping for other players, you might not want to do this. To join tracks, just select all the tracks on the CD, then select Advanced > Join CD Tracks. You’ll see in the iTunes window that a bracket forms around the tracks, showing they are joined.

When you’re ready, click the Import CD button at the bottom of iTunes’ window. This will take a few minutes per CD. When you’ve finished the first CD, eject it, then insert another CD, tag the files, join the tracks if you want, and import. Repeat until you’ve ripped all the CDs.

Step 3: After Importing

So, now that you’ve imported all your CDs (which may take a while for long books), there are a couple more things you need to do to make it easier to listen to your books. First, find all the CDs; if you’ve tagged them correctly, this should be easy. Click the Music icon in the iTunes Source list (at the top left of the window), and, if you don’t see a two-or three column browser at the top of the iTunes window, select View > Show Browser. Next, find the artist (which is the author’s name, if you’ve followed my advice), and click that name. You’ll see all the files you’re ripped for this author; if you have more than one book by the author, click the book’s name in the Album column, and you’ll see only those files in the main section of the iTunes window.

You may want to change the names of the files; if you have joined them, they’ll show with names that are probably not very useful. So click one file to select it, then press Enter; the name will be highlighted. Type a name, such as Bleak House 1, for the first file of Bleak House. Do the same for the other files, so you know which is which. You don’t have to do this, especially if you follow the smart playlist instructions in Step 5, but it really is better to know what the files are and where they fit. (You might want to use number such as 01, 02, etc, because, if not, some players might not sort the files correctly if there are more than ten of them.)

Next, select all the files, and press Command-I (Mac) or Control-I (Windows). You’ve seen this info window before; what you want to do now is change two settings at the bottom of the window. Look for Remember Position, and select Yes from its menu; look for Skip when Shuffling, and select Yes. Then click OK.

The first setting, Remember Position, tells iTunes or your iPod to “bookmark” your file, or record the place where you leave off when you stop listening. This means that you can stop at any time, listen to something else, then come back to where you were. The second tells iTunes and the iPod to not add these files when you use shuffle playback; it’s clear that you don’t want to listen to your books in random order.

Step 4: Listening to Your Book

Now, you can listen to your book in one of several ways. You can navigate on your iPod, or in iTunes, finding the book by Artist (the author) or Album (the title) and play a selected file. But you have to remember the last file you listened to if you do this; for this reason, using one file per CD can be easier. However, using iTunes’ smart playlists, there’s an even easier way to do this.

Smart playlists let you set up rules for finding files in iTunes and on your iPod. Any files that match these conditions get added to the playlist; you don’t have to add files manually. Setting up a smart playlist to listen to an audiobook is both easy and very efficient.

In iTunes, select File > New Smart Playlist. You’ll see a Smart Playlist window which offers to “match the following rule”. By default, this is Artist contains, then a blank field. Select the “contains” menu, and change it to “is”. Then, in the field, type the name of the author.

Next, click the + icon next to that rule to create another rule. From the first menu, select “Album”; select “is” from the second menu; then type in the title of the book.

Click the + icon again. Select the first menu and choose “Play Count”. The second menu will change to “is”, and the field will fill with 0. Now, click OK. You’ll see the playlist and its contents, and it will be named Untitled Playlist; this name is highlighted, so to change it, just type over it. (Name it with the title of the book, or the author, or My New Audiobook, or anything you want.)

Here’s what the smart playlist does: it groups all the files by the selected author and with the selected title, but only those with a play count of 0. This means that when you’ve finished listening to the first file, its play count will become 1, and it will no longer be in the list. So to listen to a book, just select this playlist on your iPod or in iTunes and start listening to the first file. Since files you have listened to won’t be in the list, the first file will always be the next one to listen to. And since you’re remembering the playback position, even if you haven’t finished a file, it will be at the top of the list at the correct position.

When you sync your iPod, these files and their playlist will be copied. When you’ve finished listening to the book, you can either delete the files, or store them someplace else if you think you’ll want to listen to the book again. And to delete the playlist, just select it and press the delete key.

So, with these instructions, you’re ready to rip all your audiobooks and listen on your iPod. If you have any questions, post a comment below, or send me an e-mail (click the Ask Kirk link at the top of the right-hand column of this page).

Buy iPods and accessories from

Share this article:Tweet about this on Twitter0Share on Facebook0Share on Google+0Share on LinkedIn0

15 replies
  1. Mark says:

    I used to go through a lot of trouble doing this, adding chapters, etc., but
    recently I started using Audiobook Builder from Splasm. It is crippleware, but at only $10
    decided to try it out and it works perfectly, well worth the price for me.

    • Kirk says:

      Yes, I’m going to mention software like that in a follow-up article, which
      discusses making larger, bookmarkable files. But as I pointed out, there are
      bugs on current iPods with bookmarking home-made files, so I currently don’t
      use these solutions.

  2. haveart says:

    I would love to see comments about downloaded audiobooks, as I have only
    done this once and had a very hard time with the downloaded files on my iPod. I
    used iTunes and purchased an audiobook that looked to have been prepared by I got the whole book in just 3 very long files. (I checked with the
    publisher, and I believe the CD audiobook comes broken up into Chapters). The
    first file would not allow me to fast forward or rewind. The other two files would,
    but it was cumbersome to do so. I spent an insane amount of time breaking up
    the files myself. Since they had DRM, they had to be burned to CDs first (causing
    overlapping issues) and then re-ripped as MP3s so that I could edit them in
    other software. I will not buy another audiobook download again unless I get
    tips on how better to handle these issues.

    • Kirk says:

      Well, books from iTunes can be fast-forwarded or rewound; you press and hold
      the forward or back button on the iPod. If you had problems with a file, you
      should have contacted the iTunes Store support and gotten a new copy of the

      Also, I don’t see why you wanted to break up the files – there should have been
      chapter breaks within them. (Granted, older books have less consistent chapter
      breaks, but new ones are generally done correctly.)

      • haveart says:

        The files I got were each about 2 hours in length. I contacted iTunes and they
        directed me to the page on Apple’s site about burning onto CDs.

        I tried many times to fast forward or rewind on the first file just as I have
        done with other files and it would only jump to the beginning or end of the
        file. There looked to be a line or mark in the middle of the file. The other two
        files did fast forward and rewind, but it was clumsy to control. This made me
        feel that it is benificial to have shorter files. Also, to find your place when
        going back. The book was an inspirational book, so I would naturally want to
        play different passages over again. On the computer in iTunes, they were fine,
        just a problem on my iPod.

        Audiobooks I have gotten on CD are broken up into chapters, and so I was
        shocked to see that this book was not. I wonder if it is an thing
        since the file looked to be provided to iTunes from them. The download is
        about $10 cheaper than buying the CD and I was happy to be able to
        download and save the money. But the savings of $10 and convenience of
        downloading are way negated by the lack of chapter breakdowns. I want to
        purchase more audiobook downloads, but am too afraid to now – you don’t
        get to see how the book will be broken up before purchasing.

        • Kirk says:

          The lines you saw are chapter markers.

          The reason that downloadable books are in fewer files (often only one), is that
          they are much easier to manage – users won’t get confused as they might if they
          get a hundred files.

          In general, Audible breaks files up every 8 hours or so. If a book is less than 8
          hours, you’ll have a single file. The iTunes Store breaks them up every 3 hours
          or so.

  3. Barbarossa says:

    When you first insert a CD into your box, whether PC or
    Mac, iTunes gives you a choice of what to do. In the early days I
    would just have it get the info from the CD Data Base (CDDB,) rip
    the album and eject, ready for the next disk.

    This was a BIG mistake.

    I found that the CDDB was full of Mis-information,
    Mal-information, and Non-information, and it was only after I had
    ripped some 1,200 albums did I discover that the Artist, Album,
    and Track info on the mp3 tags was all screwed up.

    I took me four years, on and off, to get that all straightened
    out so now when I insert a CD it gets the info from the CDDB and
    just STOPS. I then carefully examine and correct all the info
    including Spelling, Punctuation, Capitalization, Dates, Names,
    &c., making sure that every thing is in the right column.

    I have seen Books-on-CD of 6 disks that looked like the
    information was entered by five different people. I have seen
    SINGLE disks that look like the info was entered by THREE
    different people! It’s a mess!

    Believe me, if you have a comma or space out of place you may
    never see that track again.

    Further it is always best to correct all the info BEFORE you
    rip, as you will be simply correcting words on the screen. If you
    try to correct mp3 or m4a tag info AFTER you rip you will be
    correcting 3 or more levels of metadata, not to mention moving
    files and folders around – it literally takes ten times as long,
    no kidding!

    Also, try not to use a period, colon, or slash [ . : / ] in
    any Track, Album, or Artist name if you can avoid it, even if
    that’s how it’s written. Your computer’s filing system may not
    handle it correctly and will probably replace the offending
    character with an underscore.

    Back to chapters, and misinformation. Most properly formatted
    audiobooks on CD will have "inaudible" chapter markers every
    three minutes (on average, of course) giving 23 to 25 tracks per
    70 to 80 minute disk. I find this a little high myself, but I use

    Some books on CD have no chapter marks at all giving you a
    default of 99 tracks. This is deplorable, but can be corrected by
    using the "Combine Tracks" feature on iTunes BEFORE you rip. I
    usually reduce the 99 to 10, but the tracks must be renamed AFTER
    the rip which as I mentioned above is a pain in the butt.

    Some books, especially books that come as Mp3-CDs (already
    ripped,) are divided into actual chapters as the exist in the
    hardcover and last on average about 25 to 30 minutes. This is
    highly variable, of course. Mp3 disks are more quickly added to
    your iTunes library, but the info must be added, unfortunately,

    Overall, it is best to have redundant information in the tags
    so that nothing gets out of place, nor CAN anything get out of place:

    List all ARTISTS tags by Author, last name first (just like in the
    Library) – Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan, or Tolkien, JRR, or Francis, Dick

    List ALBUMS in a series with a prefix that groups and
    self-orders the books –

    Francis (1962) – Dead Cert
    Francis (1965) – Odds Against
    Francis (1969) – Enquiry
    Francis (1972) – Smokescreen
    &c., or

    Sharpe 01 – Sharpe’s Tiger
    Sharpe 02 – Sharpe’s Triumph
    Sharpe 03 – Sharpe’s Fortress
    Sharpe 04 – Sharpe’s Trafalgar

    List ALL the Disks in one Album with EXACTLY the same name,
    but make sure that each Disk has the proper disk number BEFORE
    ripping, i.e., ‘Disk 7 of 10.’ This way iTunes will have a single listing for the
    book, but all that disks and tracks will be in order.

    Include the Disk and Track numbers in the Track listings so that
    you (and iTunes) can read them:

    Heretic – Track 01-02
    Heretic – Track 01-03
    Heretic – Track 01-04 …

    Heretic – Track 04-13
    Heretic – Track 04-14
    Heretic – Track 04-15

    When ripped these track files will appear in the finder as:

    1-02 Heretic – Track 01-02.m4a
    1-03 Heretic – Track 01-03.m4a
    1-04 Heretic – Track 01-04.m4a

    but the prefix and file suffix will not be shown in iTunes.

    All this may seem a lot of work, but after some 260 books
    I strongly recommend the use of a clipboard manager such as
    CopyPaste which makes the going very easy.

    • Kirk says:

      I have to react to some of your comments. I agree with some, and disagree
      with others. (However, a lot of this is personal taste…)

      Re the CDDB: Yes, it sucks. Well, sort of. It’s quite good for pop, jazz, rock,
      etc, but terrible for classical music. As for audiobooks, most publishers don’t
      bother to submit data, so you do have to tag by hand (which is why I mention
      this in the article).

      As for tag changing taking ten times as long after ripping, that’s an
      exaggeration. It will take an extra couple of seconds, but no more. (Though if
      you have a very slow computer, it could take a bit longer).

      As for non alpha-numeric characters, that’s no problem at all – does it bother
      you that your computer replaces a : with a _? You see the names in iTunes;
      why worry about what the file names are?

      As for "redundant information" so "nothing gets out of place", I don’t get it –
      tags don’t just disappear; they are written in the files themselves. You may
      want extra info, but I don’t see it as being necessary.

      As for series, yes, if you want to keep track of them in order, using a date or
      number is a good idea. Most people don’t do that, but I can see the point.

      • Barbarossa says:

        I am using a Quad G5 and YES it really does about 10 times longer to change
        information tags after ripping. When one changes the tags on a displayed CD,
        one is basically just changing "Words on a Screen." However, AFTER ripping,
        the changes made affect the ordering of Files and Folders, the Spotlight
        Index, and several layers of Metadata in the Mp3 tags. Additionally, adding
        Album Art (and any other information after ripping) will most likely fragment
        the file, although one may never see this without using iDefrag or some other

        As for the redundant information, well that’s just me (after the original "CDDB
        Info Disaster") but it means that Tracks CANNOT become disordered no
        matter how they are listed.

      • Barbarossa says:

        Kirk wrote:

        "Re the CDDB: Yes, it sucks. Well, sort of. It’s quite good for pop, jazz, rock,
        etc, but terrible for classical music. As for audiobooks, most publishers don’t
        bother to submit data, so you do have to tag by hand (which is why I mention
        this in the article)."


        I agree that the CDDB has gotten better, but tags for Books-on-CD ARE just
        awful! If there is any info at all it is badly formatted or in the wrong column or
        just wrong. When dealing with 10, or 15, or 22 CDs with hundreds and
        hundreds of track fixing all this could be a daunting, if not mind numbing

        This is why I mentioned a "Clipboard Manager" such as ‘CopyPaste.’ I find this
        app far more than useful – it is indispensible when fixing bad or missing data
        on multiple tracks on multiple disks such as Audiobooks.

        Further, once I completely correct a disk, I always submit the info to the
        CDDB database – although where it goes after that, I dunno.

      • Barbarossa says:

        Kirk wrote:

        "As for non alpha-numeric characters, that’s no problem at all – does it
        bother you that your computer replaces a : with a _? You see the names in
        iTunes; why worry about what the file names are?"


        I was experimenting with sorting out my Classical music files using slashes
        and colons. Although these DO render properly in iTunes, the cannot be used
        as such in Unix file names and get converted to underscores.

        Learning this the hard way, I simply stopped using the period, colon and
        slash in Titles, Albums and Artists to maintain a semblence of consistency.

        BTW, have you ever seen what the CDDB does with info from Brazilian albums
        that was entered from a Portuguese keyboard? There were some characters
        there that I have NEVER seen before!

        • Kirk says:

          Foreign characters can come out weird because of text encoding. It depends on
          how the CDDB encodes the characters; interestingly, much classical music I have
          comes out fine, at least for standard accented European characters, which are
          the same as for Portugese. Every now and then, however, I get some serious
          gobbledygook. Also, some classical discs I have found to be listed only in
          Japanese; not much help for me. :-)

  4. Anthony Tassinari says:

    I have hundreds of podcasts in iTunes. I want to use them as teaching aids in my adult catechism class. After importing these podcasts into garageband, how do I divide them into tracks?

    • kirk says:

      I don’t do much with GarageBand, but no matter what tool you use, you’ll have to take the time to find where you want to split them. There’s no way to do that automatically, unless the podcasts have chapters.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply