Six Colors
Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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Apple launches AI narrators for some audiobooks

Your next audiobook from Apple may not be narrated by a human. Leyland Cecco, writing at The Guardian:

Apple has quietly launched a catalogue of books narrated by artificial intelligence in a move that may mark the beginning of the end for human narrators.

This has been an issue brewing for some time. Some may remember that Amazon tried a few years ago to offer a blanket ability for books to be read aloud by text-to-speech, only to get sued by the major publishers.

Apple’s feature doesn’t seem to be quite the same: for one thing, it’s currently limited to certain genres of books, as The Verge points out:

The service is only available in English at present, and Apple is oddly specific about the genres of books its digital narrators are able to tackle. “Primary category must be romance or fiction (literary, historical, and women’s fiction are eligible; mysteries and thrillers, and science fiction and fantasy are not currently supported),” its website reads.

The company seems to be tuning specific voices to specific genres, with two others for nonfiction and self-development coming soon.

For another matter, Apple’s website advertising this feature describes it as “Empowering indie authors and small publishers.” The titles must be nominated by rights owners, who retain the rights to audiobooks and—this is important—can still produce and distribute other versions of the audiobook if they want.

That obviates one of the main criticisms of Amazon’s previous attempt in this direction: secondary rights like audio can be a valuable source of income for authors1. Apple’s play seems targeted more at books that otherwise wouldn’t have audio versions, because the rights holders don’t have the money or inclination to have them produced. Apple is also doing quality checks (a good idea, given that it’s not hard to imagine AI getting tripped up by some words)2 so turnaround time is listed at a couple months.

The advantage of this, of course, is that it’s a big win not only for those who prefer audiobooks, but for accessibility as well. There are millions of titles out there that aren’t available to individuals with disabilities that make it difficult or impossible for them to read ebooks or print books. The addition of easy-to-produce audio versions could open up a wealth of content.

Finally, there’s the question of the impact on audiobook narrators. It’s a tough business already, and while there are certainly narrators so big that they have their own followings3, it does potentially squeeze out those who are just eking out a living book-to-book or those who are trying to break into the industry. Certainly it’s not hard to imagine a cost-conscious publisher wondering why they should shell out for a human narrator when an AI one is much cheaper.

That’s part of a larger trend, of course, of AI coming for various creative professions, from art to writing. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise to find that audiobook narrators are at risk as well. It’ll be interesting to see if this becomes a point of contention, or whether it can co-exist peacefully alongside the existing audiobook market.

  1. Though increasingly difficult for authors to retain, since publishers want to gobble up more rights wherever possible, even if they, say, don’t intend to produce an audio version. 
  2. Which is probably why sci-fi and fantasy aren’t currently eligible. 🤣 
  3. Putting my sci-fi novelist hat on, I can say with certainty that there are books that sell well because of who narrates them. 
—Linked by Dan Moren

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