Monday, September 8, 2008

How to Create Audio Books for Free and Low Cost

I was listening to an Mp3 I had downloaded recently from a national talk radio show that I enjoy. They had been interviewing an author and it was the time in the show when folks can call in and share opinions, ask questions, etc. A caller was put on the air and he said: "I am a blind person, and I love listening to your show. I would love to read your book but I have to have it in another format on tape or Braille. I get books from American Printing House and I wondered if I can get your book someway."
The author said he didn't have his books in an audio version but he would send anyone a book for free that was blind if they wanted to have someone read it on a tape recorder or something, but he didn't know anything about books for the blind and couldn't do Braille. The caller had sounded like someone who didn't really know about the technology available to them. Neither did the host or the author.
I was listening to an archived file of the interview several days after the fact and wished I could have called in and given some tips. I guess because I work in AT, I assume most people who need access to tools already know about them and that I am not sharing anything new - but I need to stop assuming that. I am giving a presentation this afternoon to a group of folks in special education that don't know how to do this at all. Since I am not able to call in and answer the gentleman's question that called in, I'll share with you. I know I have shared this before, but for new readers, here it goes:

In order to do the things I suggest, you need the following:
1. A computer - that is a given!
2. A Scanner - the scanner can be a 4 in one printer/fax/photocopier/scanner, or a dedicated flatbed scanner. You can buy a new one for around $65 at the big general stores like Target, Wal-Mart, etc. Make sure it has OCR (Optical Character recognition).
3. A FREE text reader. I use Read Natural. You are stuck with the voices on your computer until you purchase the upgrade. The upgrade pay version has great voices AND an Mp3 converter tool - very cool.
4. An Mp3 player - This is optional. You can hear the text on a computer for free, but if you want something portable, you will want one of these. What I like is that these little jump-drive players use the USB port right into the computer, no cables or wires (except the headphones). You can then open the device on the computer screen and drag and drop in converted e-text files to listen to. I bought a little jump-drive RCA makes. I can drag and drop music or documents from my computer right onto the jump drive and then listen to them from the player - quick and easy. It cost $29.95 and has1 Gig Memory. This is a lot better than using an iPod and iTunes and having to sync your device and build playlists etc. I have an iPod and I find I don't use it to listen to quick downloaded talk shows, articles, converted files, etc. because the iPod doesn't lend itself to on-the-fly syncing.

If you have a book, but no audio version what do you do?
In this instance, you can scan the pages using the scanner with OCR that will recognize the text and turn it into an RTF (Rich Text Format). It will open in a Windows, Mac or Linux operating system. After you scan the text you can use your free downloaded Natural Reader to hear the text read to you. You have to open the mini toolbar that floats on the screen and the highlight the text and let it read - or you can open the reading window and paste the text in to be read.

Converting Text to Mp3
There are tools out there that can take your text and convert it to an Mp3 file. There is the Natural Reader upgrade I already mentioned above. Premier Literacy has an Mp3 conversion button on several of their readers and has a program called "Text to Audio" for $69.95 that will convert large amounts of text and create sections every 10 minutes or when you specify. The Kurzweil 3000 has a text to Mp3 feature also but the program costs about $1200 - $1500.

A work-around buying software to convert text to Mp3 is to start a blog just for this purpose - like I have with My Reading Chair and copy paste your text into a post. Add the Odiogo free player onto your blog and then be able to download your text as an Mp3 format onto your computer for free.
Anyone can do this, but one caution: If you are scanning copyrighted text, there is a fair use allowance for the owner of a book to adapt the text for their own private use, BUT - If you use a blog, you need to keep it closed to others and delete the post as soon as you have your converted text to Mp3 files so you are not opening it up to the world-wide-web. That would definitely be a copyright violation! Also, if you are scanning a book and creating files of audio text you need to keep it for your own use and not give it to others.
If a book is in public domain, you are fine to do what you want with it. is a great source for public domain works and many titles have audio versions ready to download for free.

I hope this has helped some of you get to accessing some books and listening - I know I am having a lot of fun with it and it helps me and my students.
All the best,

Lon Thornburg is an assistive technology specialist and professional development trainer who lives in Oregon and serves 12 districts in 7 counties. He hosts the No Limits 2 Learning Blog and The No Limits 2 Learning Live Talk Show on Blog Talk Radio. He is sharing as a contributing writer on LD LIVE!


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Ron Starc said...

The current best text to speech software is Text Speaker. It has customizable pronunciation, reads anything on your screen, and it even has talking reminders. The bundled voices are well priced and sound very human. Easily converts blogs, email, e-books, and more to MP3 or for listening instantly.