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Audible Books on Your iPod

by Erik T. Ray

The iPod is a simply delightful little machine packing lots of music into a robust package. I've been a happy owner of the 10-gigabyte model for a few months now. It's been nice to carry around a few hundred of my favorite songs when I go to the gym or ride on the train. But lately, I've discovered an amazing new use for the iPod: listening to books.

With Apple's recent release of the iPod firmware update 1.2, you can subscribe to the online service at, where there are hundreds of books ready to download.

No More Motion Sickness

Sure, "books on tape" have been around for a long time now, and if the growing shelf space in bookstores is any measure, they're quite popular. For about the same cost as the print edition, you can save a few trees and have your favorite book read to you aloud. No longer do you have to suffer from motion sickness reading on the train, and you can enjoy your book in bed without keeping the lights on and annoying your partner. The only problem with books on tape, you have to keep them in their physical medium, a cassette tape or CD, which takes up space and you can't easily juggle several books at once.

More Than Music, More than Books

Apple has included contact management functionality in the iPod software. This isn't news itself, but what you might not realize is that the iPod will soon sync with iCal, so as you manage your appointments on your Mac. That data can be automatically transferred to your iPod too.

The iPod eliminates these problems. Consider that you can store many dozens of books on one little gadget the size of a single cassette tape, and the difference is obvious. If you're like me, and you read several books at once, this is a liberating feature. And it's not just books; there are news articles, interviews, journals, lectures, poetry, and a range of categories from science fiction to foreign languages. Best of all, you can listen to your book within minutes of seeing it online.

Easy as Grabbing Off a Bookshelf

Getting audible documents is easy. Once you've gone to the Web site and signed up as a registered user, you can browse through the online catalog to select books you'd like to own. They use a shopping cart system similar to Amazon's. After you pay for the book, it appears in your personal "library" online, with the option to download it to your computer. It looks like this:

Screen shot.
The personal library view from

Sometimes you have the option to select a size of the file. The bigger the file, the nicer it will sound, as greater compression tends to distort the reader's voice. Here are the options for Dirk Gently's Detective Agency:

File size options
For some items, you have an option to select the file size.

I think the middle option (#2) is pretty good. For some reason, books read by a higher-pitched voice seem to sound better to me than those in the low register, which often sound washed out. But you don't have a choice about who reads the book, unfortunately.

The book downloads in one file, typically on the order of a few tens of megabytes for a pulp novel. You'll need to import it into iTunes next. This is as easy as dragging the files onto the iTunes window. You can organize them just like regular songs. I've created a playlist called "books" to put them into to make them easier to find:

Screen shot.
Creating a playlist for audio books can make them easier to find.

The last step is to sync your iPod. Plug it into your computer and iTunes will start to install it on the device. Note that you need the latest firmware update (1.2) from Apple for this to work. Only after the iPod has been updated will files as large as books be accepted for transfer.

Sit Back and Enjoy

Now that you have a book on your iPod, you can go ahead and start listening. You probably won't want to sit around for the whole thing. A typical book can be about six hours long (remember, it's all in one file). The iPod has a smart feature that "bookmarks" the book you're listening to. So if you shut off the iPod or switch to another book, you can always come back and it will resume where you left off. This is great because fast-forwarding through enormous tracks really isn't much fun.

So far I've encountered only one problem you should be aware of. If the battery power gets low enough (you'll see the picture of a battery with an exclamation mark on the screen), the iPod will sometimes lose your place in the books you have stored. Actually, it seems to randomize the locations. So I try to keep my iPod charged all the time.

The vast amount of space on the iPod (up to 20 gigabytes) means that you can store tens if not hundreds of books. Just be aware that you need the same space on your computer that runs iTunes. For copyright-legality reasons, Apple requires you to use the same computer to sync your iPod. But if you don't have much space on the computer to begin with, that can be a problem. Well, actually it isn't. That's because keeps an online account of all the books you've purchased. You can download as many times as you want. So to make room on your computer, you can delete books that have been read already, and then just re-download them if you want them back.

Characteristically, Apple's implementation is simple and intuitive. Audible's pricing is reasonable and its Web site is very friendly. Together, it's an incredible combination that fits the digital hub strategy well. Now, if only Apple would add an FM tuner to the iPod, my life would be complete.

Erik T. Ray is a software wrangler and XML guru for O'Reilly Media.

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