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Apple rolls out AI-narrated audiobooks, and it’s probably the start of a trend

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

Clicking on the information icon next to that line brings up a text box that clarifies the book is narrated by “a digital voice based on a human narrator.” There are multiple digital voices across the Apple Books library, with names like “Madison” or “Jackson”—but each book is offered with just one of them.

We listened to an hour each of two digitally narrated titles. The calm tones were clear and mostly benign, and they could be mistaken for real human voices with a short listen. We did hear some anomalies, though—for example, an odd pronunciation of the city “San Antonio.” And obviously, the neutral and emotionless voices are not replacements for styles of human audiobook narration that can be passionate performances.

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

According to The Guardian, Apple reached out to independent book publishers over the past several months and told them it would front the cost of the digital recordings but pay authors royalties on sales. Some publishers agreed, and others didn’t. But this is likely just the start of Apple’s effort, and more may be added later. Apple probably won’t be the only company to do it, either. Google and Amazon—also major purveyors of both ebooks and audiobooks—have publicly talked about this possibility before.

Audiobooks are a huge business; their sales and popularity have skyrocketed in recent years. But even as some independent publishers and self-published authors have thrived, audiobooks have mostly been a market for major publishers and, yes, tech platforms.

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

Listing image by Samuel Axon

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