Last Week on My Mac: The tragic case of audiobooks

There are few events in 1978 that I can recollect as clearly, but at 1030 on the evening of Wednesday 8 March I listened to the first broadcast episode of Douglas Adams’ radio series A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I didn’t realise it at the time, but in the summer of 1996 I would meet its author to talk about our common ground of Macs. My audio CD set of the complete series of those radio programmes is one of my most treasured audiobooks, one no longer available from online stores such as Apple’s.

Audiobooks have never been first class citizens in macOS, and those only available from third parties, particularly on CDs, are among the most disenfranchised. I ‘ripped’ many, but never had the time or patience to plod through iTunes relabelling every track. So I have these huge playlists which sort of work. When Macs still came with internal optical drives, it was often easier just to play audiobooks from their original discs.

Now Apple wants us to buy all our audiobooks from its store, and play them in the Books app. That will even rip them from disc if you wish, but as it isn’t aware that each audiobook consists of a great many tracks, it stupidly turns every individual track into a separate audiobook. It then stores them, along with all my other audiobooks, in a viper’s nest buried in the private container of not the Books app, but a secret book service named BKAgentService, in a path something like ~/Library/Containers/ Unlike Music and Photos, there’s no option to curate your own library, store it on another volume, or access its contents yourself.

Last week I took a look at how this worked out in practice, and realised that the Books app adds little in the way of features to support audiobooks that aren’t already available in the Finder, for unprotected items. Its m4b format supports bookmarks, but Books doesn’t, apart from your current place in each audiobook that you’ve been listening to.

Turning audiobooks on disc into single m4b audiobook files isn’t possible without third-party software. At present, the best app which I could find can’t use the track-based files generated by the Books app, so those discs either have to be ripped in the Music app or by third-party software, before being joined and imported to Books. What should be slick and simple in Apple’s software turns out to be a jury rig.

When you finally get all your audiobooks into the Books app, and sync them onto your iPhone and iPad – something that iCloud can’t apparently do automatically – you then discover that each keeps track of your place independently, leaving you to sync them manually on each device.

Even before the last couple of months, audiobooks have proved very popular with users, many of whom complain about their poor support in Catalina’s Books app. They may not have much impact on Apple’s services revenue, but that shouldd’t cause Apple to simultaneously stunt its bundled support for them while locking third-party developers out of producing something better.

Audiobooks desperately need an evangelist: someone who can enthuse Apple’s engineers to make a better job of its own support and encourage third-parties to do more exciting things for users. Otherwise we’ll be left struggling to do the best we can with this woefully rudimentary support.

The reason that I met Douglas Adams was that I nearly went to work for his production company, the Digital Village, in 1996. He was known to have been the first person to buy a Mac in Europe, but died tragically young just a couple of months after the first full release of Mac OS X. I’m sure if he knew how kludgy Apple has made accessing the original recordings of his Hitchhiker’s Guide, he’d threaten to unleash a Vogon Constructor Fleet on Cupertino.