Publishers are dubious of Apple’s new AI audiobook narration

Shaun
Jan 7, 2023
Apple
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Starting now, you can listen to audiobooks narrated by AI on Apple Books. The feature was originally supposed to hit the market in November 2022, but was delayed to this year for unknown reasons. While it may sound neat to be able to listen to all your favorite books in the same voice, journalists and publishers are far from convinced.

In a recent scathing commentary on Apple’s new AI audiobook feature, The Guardian describes the initiative as being ‘an attempt to upend the lucrative and fast-growing audiobook market.’ While the audiobook market may be extensive and booming right now, tech writers need to remember the complexities of the industry within which they find themselves. Technology changes. Sometimes it changes too fast, and the rate at which new technological advancements are made is certainly increasing, but it is inevitable. While I understand that it’s disconcerting to see AI break into yet another industry, it’s not something I have the power or influence to fight. ChatGPT and its future iterations threaten my job, but, for now, these are merely tools that you possess the agency to either embrace or ignore.

According to The Guardian, Apple approached numerous publishers in an attempt to strike up partnerships for the new AI narration initiative. However, ‘not all agreed to participate.’ This ultimately showcases the hesitance that companies still have about implementing AI into the services they provide. However, part of the problem could also be due to the secrecy that seems to have been involved in the negotiations.

If The Guardian’s coverage is anything to go by, companies weren’t informed that the initiative was Apple’s brainchild. Some were told that ‘the company’ would shoulder the production costs and writers would receive royalties from sales. The Guardian states further that publishers who agreed to use the service had to sign non-disclosure agreements at the onset. This is a fairly common practice where Apple is concerned, but the choice to enforce these does add to the generally murky waters of Apple’s business practices.

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An industry divided

Apple’s business practices aside, the core issue with the service seems to be the nature of the service itself. People in this business don’t like change, particularly when that change comes at the potential cost of a few good men. One publisher is on record as having said that the narrator ‘brings a whole new range of art in creating an audiobook, and we believe that’s a powerful thing.’ He asserts that the use of a human narrator adds value to writing as an art form and that it would be soulless to create an audiobook using AI.

I’ll agree that there are some human audiobook narrators that add much more soul to literature but listening to the snippet posted to Twitter by @StephenWarwick9, there’s nothing soulless about this initiative. The AI ‘reading’ the snippet doesn’t sound like a soulless robot, more like a person engrossed in the stories that others tell. This is a personal preference, and I don’t expect everyone to agree with me. In fact, the comments largely disagree, with one person going so far as to say they’d rather die than listen to AI read a book.

Use AI to turn your book into an audiobook with digital narration

A new hope

While the industry may be reluctant to embrace this initiative, Apple maintains that it has a lot of good to do. The company argues that this initiative - converting books to audiobooks with AI - will shake up the industry by giving other writers a new platform. ‘More and more book lovers are listening to audiobooks, yet only a fraction of books are converted to audio — leaving millions of titles unheard.’ The company’s website even states that ‘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.’

As a friend of a brilliant author, I’d like to see them succeed as others have. I would prefer that more writers have the opportunity for their works to be converted into a listenable format. So few people actually make time to read these days, with attention spans dropping so much that I am constantly cautioned against writing articles that exceed 500 words. We need literature, and if people want to shift from reading to listening to books, then let them do so. But, let them have the opportunity to find the little gems that we used to uncover in the far corners of old bookshops in the time when people still used to read.

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Comments

  1. Novice said on January 8, 2023 at 6:07 am
    Reply

    The problem I see is that AI readers won’t be able to change voice for different characters. A human reader will change intonation, dialect, speed etc. If a book has no dialog then AI will work, but for works of fiction I just can’t see it coming close to the ability of an experice human audiobook reader. In fact I think works of fiction, especially those with many characters, would become confusing.

    And as for “Full Cast” audiobooks, AI would be hopeless.

    No thanks, I’ll stay with good quality human read audiobooks.

  2. Novice said on January 8, 2023 at 10:48 am
    Reply

    Narrative is the systematic recitation of an event or series of events while dialog is a conversation or other form of discourse between two or more individuals.

    So I’m guessing Apple AI narrated audiobooks won’t include dialog. I would find such audiobooks extremely boring.

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