Apple is releasing audiobooks narrated by artificial intelligence, and it’s probably the start of a trend

Apple is releasing audiobooks narrated by artificial intelligence, and it’s probably the start of a trend

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Apple’s digital storefronts now offer audiobooks recorded by artificial narrators instead of humans in a sound booth. Audiobooks are listed in the Books app as “Narrated by Apple Books.”

Clicking the info icon next to this line brings up a text box that explains that the book is narrated by a “digital voice based on a human narrator.” There are multiple digital voices in the Apple Books library with names like “Madison” or “Jackson,” but each book only comes with one of them.

We listened to one hour each of two digitally narrated titles. The calm tones were clear and mostly good-natured, and could be mistaken for real human voices upon a brief listen. However, we heard some anomalies – for example, a strange pronunciation of the city “San Antonio”. And obviously neutral and emotionless voices are no substitute for human audiobook narration styles that can be passionate performances.

Based on our searches (you can type “AI Narrative” into the book search box to see a list), many publications in question are mostly low-volume books from small publishers, such as lesser-known genres or romance novels.

According to The Guardian, Apple has reached out to independent book publishers over the past few months and told them it would cover the costs of the digital recordings but pay royalties on sales. Some publishers agreed, some didn’t. But this is likely just the beginning of Apple’s efforts, and more may be added later. Apple probably won’t be the only company to do so, either. Google and Amazon — also major e-book and audiobook providers — have publicly talked about the possibility before.

Audiobooks are huge business; their sales and popularity have jump to the sky in the last years. But while some independent publishers and self-published authors are thriving, audiobooks are primarily a market for major publishers and, yes, technology platforms.

One potential plus of this development is the availability of audiobooks for publications and authors who may not have budgeted for audio versions. However, as with so many applications of AI these days, this development raises questions about what might happen to human storytellers working in business, as well as concerns about who benefits most. If AI narrators become something that readers generally accept and enjoy, it could increase the influence of Apple and other tech companies over publishers and authors who want as many people as possible to see or hear their work.

List image by Samuel Axon

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