As I surveyed the ruins of the Twitterverse the other day, I noticed a link floating around amongst the ashes of Publishing Twitter in which a particularly aggrieved author opined about the future of AI-narrated audiobooks. The writer, Mark Piesing, was particularly aggrieved that an early review of the audio version for his non-fiction book N-4 Down: The Hunt for the Arctic Airship Italia specifically complimented the dulcet tones of the narrator — without, alas, lavishing poor Piesing's prose with similar prose.
In the wake of this traumatic experience, Piesing has apparently committed himself to the cause of AI-narrated audiobooks, lest another human's vocal talents distract listeners from the lusciousness of his wordsmithing.
The argument that a human narrator is intrinsically better is flawed and subjective – I have pressed stop many times because I thought an AI could do a better job. Artificial voice applications use human voices to learn from, and use cloned human voice replicas to deliver realistic tone and emotion.
The production of a traditional audiobook is an expensive and time-consuming business. Each needs roles including actor, editor and proofer; a ten-hour audiobook can take 60 hours to complete, over a couple of months. The use of artificial voice can cut the cost of production down from roughly $2,500 for a standard-length piece of fiction to $400, and reduce the time required to a matter of days.
I tracked down Matt Jamie, the human narrator of my book, to ask what he thinks about artificial voice. He tells me that he has considered licensing his voice, and that at least one agency has considered creating a separate section for artificial voice, but for now he is not losing any sleep. Perhaps he should.
As of press time, it remains unclear if Piesing is seeing a therapist. But within a week of his article being published, The Guardian reported that Apple had indeed launched a new AI-narrated audiobook program. From Apple Books For Authors:
More and more book lovers are listening to audiobooks, yet only a fraction of books are converted to audio — leaving millions of titles unheard. Many authors — especially independent authors and those associated with small publishers — aren't able to create audiobooks due to the cost and complexity of production. Apple Books digital narration makes the creation of audiobooks more accessible to all, helping you meet the growing demand by making more books available for listeners to enjoy.
Our digital voices are created and optimized for specific genres. We're starting with fiction and romance, and are accepting ebook submissions in these genres.
As The Guardian noted, the audiobook industry is huge and growing rapidly. So of course, it would make sense that Apple might try to find a foothold in the market — especially one that would distinguish them from Kindle's human-only vocal monopoly:
In recent months, Apple approached independent publishers as potential partners, including some in the Canadian market, but not all agreed to participate.
Authors were told that Apple – which at the time was not named as the company behind the technology – would shoulder the costs of production and writers would receive royalties from sales.
Publishers involved in the project were required to sign non-disclosure agreements – common in the technology field – but also reflective of Apple's notorious pursuit of secrecy.
Apple's development of AI to narrate books could represent a significant shift in how major technology companies see the future of audiobooks.
But here's the thing: you can already select any of the voices available on Siri and have them read to you. It's technically an accessibility feature, aimed specifically at Apple Customers with low-vision or other needs. But I use it all the time to listen to things while my body and eyes are busy elsewhere. It's not a great experience, but it's fine. Last year, I took a class at Harvard, and used Siri for all my weekly reading assignments. It was dense economic, ecological, and geopolitical policy stuff … but hey, I aced the class, so clearly, Siri was good enough to help me absorb the material.
So what's the difference? For one, Apple's scheme will direct replace the labor of voice-over actors with robots who are willing and cheaper to do the job.
Death of the narrator? Apple unveils suite of AI-voiced audiobooks [Leyland Cecco / The Guardian]
AI Narration Is Inevitable [Mark Piesing / The Bookseller]