[Update 12/26/9: Newer MP3 players have come a long way since I wrote this post below. Many now support resume and/or bookmarks on plain MP3 files, making them excellent choices for playing audiobooks.]
DRM (digital rights management also called copy protection) has been a big topic among music fans for years. It’s the software that tries to keep users from illegally copying songs from iTunes, Rhapsody, Napster and other download services. The same technology is used for audio books that come from download sites like Audible.com, iTunes and AudioBookStandDL.com and library services like Overdrive and NetLibrary. Audio books that come on regular CDs can be ripped just like music CDs to make MP3 files. MP3 files are the lowest common denominator of sound files and do not have DRM attached to them. In some cases like library checkout software OverDrive and NetLibrary, DRM can not be removed for obvious reasons.
In the past year the big music publishers have moved away from using copy protection, allowing music buyers to have their music unencumbered by DRM. Now audio book publishers are starting to free downloadable audio books from the same chains. This gives users easy-to-manage MP3 files to own – but at a cost. MP3 files are not the best format to listen to digital audio books – unless the player is programmed with features for the audio book listener.
All things being equal people will want DRM free files but until all the producers of MP3 players get onboard with making their players audio book friendly you might find such files an aggravation to use. The key is to find the right player. Most iPods work well as audio books, but there is a vast array of other players competing with Apple that are cheaper and potentially better products. If you buy a Creative Labs, Sandisk, iRiver, Samsung, Cowon, etc., player you need to make sure it will work with MP3 audio books.
Right now audio books purchased from Audible.com, iTunes, and sites using the OverDrive technology come with DRM encased files, but they are also customized to handle certain features you need to enjoy playing audio books.
Resume and Bookmarks
MP3 audio books are different from music even though they are stored in the same file format. Audio books can run many hours in length and users want to remember their place whenever they stop listening. The MP3 file format has no built-in feature to do that. Files from Audible.com are stored in a format that works with specific digital players that automatically remember the user’s stopping place, plus they are designed to also remember bookmarks with some players. Those features need to be required of all MP3 audio book players.
Many MP3 players have been designed with a resume feature – that is, the player will start up on the file you left off playing last. But if you are listening to a book, switch to listening to music, and return to the book you will have lost your place. Some MP3 players have a bookmarking feature. This is usually a menu choice that sets a return-to-point in the file to help you find your way back. It’s not the same as resume. Audible.com files have multiple-resumes and with some players bookmarks.
Users of iPods can set their MP3 files up in iTunes so they will have multiple-resumes which makes that player among the best for audio book listening. However, iPods are expensive and it would be easier on the user if multiple-resume was built into the player itself.
Multiple-resume feature means if you have five audio books and you switch between them the player remembers wherever you left off in each book. This is the gold standard for audio book listeners. Single resume is the feature that allows you to pick up where you left off on the last file played. This is the minimum feature needed to play audio books without a great deal of aggravation. Imagine trying to find your place every time you return to your book when it’s twenty hours long and has no pages numbers.
A bookmarking feature is a system that allows users to manually tag one or more places in a single audio book, and its a big plus, especially if you want to study or review a book and want return to specific passages. It also allows the user to remember her place if the player does not have resume.
Plain MP3 files have no notion of resume or bookmarks – they are an add-on features to the player you buy, so it’s important to buy the right player. If audio book publishers standardize on the MP3 file format without DRM, then digital audio player manufacturers need to catch up. Apple does the job in software, and users must make the settings in iTunes before they copy their files to their iPods. Other players handles things differently.
There are car CD players that will remember the user’s place when they turn off their car. Such hardware resume control should be added to all portable MP3 players. In fact, the hardware should support resume on every file and not the last played. And if the manufacturer really wants to endear themselves with audio bookworms they should build in bookmarking. Some players do this but it’s hard to find out if a particular model has these features because new models don’t always follow the standards of previous models. Below is a couple recent links that can help.
File Size and Number
I’ve seen audio books as long as 80 hours. A typical 15 hour book can be one 300 megabyte MP3 file or ten 30 megabyte files or even 200 small files, depending on how the seller breaks them up. Audible.com tends to break books up in 7-8 hour chunks. eMusic.com sells their MP3 audio books in a collection of many small files. They do that because they know people do not always have resume or bookmarks and expect people to remember what track they left off on. That also encourages people to finish a track before stopping. This is a very poor way to listen to audio books.
If you rip a CD audio book or buy an audio book from eMusic the best thing to do is merge the tracks into fewer larger files. This makes managing your book much easier. If all players had multiple-resume I doubt booksellers would market audio books with 200 tracks. When I rip a CD book of 15 CDs I make it into 15 tracks, rather than 150-200. But I’d rather have the book in 2 parts like Audible.com and iTunes sell.
I use CDex to rip CDs with multiple tracks into a single file, but iTunes can do it too. MP3Merge is the utility I use to merge MP3 files into bigger files when I buy a book that comes with lots of parts. This is also useful to merge podcasts – because many sites like to make their longer downloads as a series of files. With MP3Merge you can put them back together into one file, which is easier to manage in your library.
One reason why publishers want to give up DRM on audio books is the hassle they face with supporting players. If they make their audio book plain MP3 files then the hassle of support is up to you, the user. Selling the books as MP3 files with multiple tracks is marketing the book to work on the widest possible range of players. Anything that can play a MP3 file can play the book. That doesn’t mean the book will be easy to use.
It does mean people can go buy cheap $25 MP3 players and start listening to audio books on the go. The cheapest current players tend to offer 1 gigabyte of space with no display. The best way to listen to an audio book on such a device is to load it with one large file and expect it to have resume. Thus it becomes a single-function device – an audio book – you turn it on, listen for awhile, shut it off, turn it back on and start where you left off. When you’re finished you delete the book and load another.
If you get an audio book from eMusic.com and it comes as 200 files and you’re trying to manage them on a player with no display and you lose your place, you’re going to get very pissed off. Another reason why publishers are now wanting to abandon DRM is because they want to sell audio books outside of iTunes/Audible because they know that most people have iPods and this would allow more audio book merchants to compete with Apple.
PC versus Mac
The PC-Mac dichotomy spreads over the digital audio player world. Microsoft promoted its DRM and non-iPod MP3 manufacturers followed behind their lead. If a publisher supported Microsoft’s DRM then that book wouldn’t play on an iPod because Apple uses a different DRM. Many people can check out digital audio books from their libraries through the Overdrive or NetLibrary systems. These systems use the PlayForSure DRM designed by Microsoft. People with iPods go to their library and are told they can’t participate. Conversely, people with Creative, Sandisk, iRiver and other players go to iTunes to buy songs and books, and they are told, sorry, but you don’t count.
This is why publishers want to abandon DRM. They may have to deal with pirates, but they don’t offend their users or handhold them while supporting numerous devices. This is a good things, except like I’ve been talking about above, plain MP3 files aren’t ready for prime time audio book listening.
Right now I’m sticking with Audible.com and its DRM system. Audible.com has made deals with many hardware companies, including Apple. Some players will even work with Audible and OverDrive/NetLibrary. Because they also play plain MP3 files too, they will work with DRM free files. Audible.com is also the cheapest way to buy audio books, but Audible.com sells DRM files.
Amazon, now that it has bought Audible.com, may change things because they are in the DRM-free music business. They may make buying digital audio books a breeze, but without Audible.com’s extra effort to make digital audio books practical, I’m not sure if Amazon will improve things. If they do end up selling DRM-free audio book downloads, lets hope they promote the best players to use for listening to these books and use their clout to get all DAP (digital audio player) makers to support audio books.
Digital Media Libraries
Ultimately we do not want to mess with ripping CDs or merging files. We want to just buy a digital audio book and download it. From there we will have two options. Some people like having a media library program like iTunes or Windows Media Player to manage all their files and other users like to store their files in folders they control. MP3 works with either option so that should make most people happy. Some DAP players only work with a media library to transfer files to the player’s drive, other DAP players work like flash drives and you can just drag and drop books onto them.
I tend to think the majority of people will want a media librarian. Such library software can track songs, audio books, podcasts, videos, photos, etc. However, libraries break down when the user gets too many files, but I expect that will be fixed by Apple and Microsoft in the future. I would like to advocate that a file structure be designed to work across platforms and design them so any media librarian can use that structure without altering it. That way you can switch librarians as the years progress without screwing up your file folder of songs, books, photos, podcasts and videos. But this might be too much pie in the sky idealism. Imagine:
Another reason to desire standard folder structures for media is the emerging wireless media servers. These devices allow you to play songs, books, videos and photos on your big screen TV in another room, or channel sound to a bedroom stereo system. Companies like Sonos even make remotes that allow users to select what they want to hear and play it in any part of the house without being at a computer. Wouldn’t it be great to have a system near the bed and tell your computer to play a book and set it with a sleep timer? Standardizing on DRM free files and standard folder structures for storing those files help these media servers.
Right now you buy a media server to match a particular system and DRM, like iTunes or Windows Media, but they try to be as compatible as possible. My RoKu SoundBridge can get DRM songs from Rhapsody and its folders, and DRM-free iTune songs from the iTunes folder, and songs from my Windows Media folder. It’s a pain in the ass to try to remember where I put a song though. Did I get it from iTunes or Rhapsody? See why I want a standard folder structure?
For now we must campaign and even protest to get DAP makers to delivery on multiple-resume and bookmarking features for us bookworms. We can work on media servers later.
Update #1: I’ve heard back from several online friends and there is no consensus as to which player to recommend. The Cowon and Creative Zen Plus were both mentioned. All I can recommend is the iPod with a screen. I don’t recommend the Shuffle for audio books.
Update #2: OverDrive announces it will sell DRM free audio books to consumers. This is huge. Digital audio players (DAPs) and audio books are changing the way people read books. OverDrive’s is advertising their MP3 files will play on virtually any DAP, including the iPod, Zune, Creative Labs and smart phone devices.