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Why AI Audiobook Narrators Could Win Over Some Authors and Readers, Despite Voice Bumps

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For for the first few seconds, the narrator of Kristen Ethridge’s new romantic audiobook, Shelter from the Storm, sounds like a human being. The voice is light and carefully enunciated, with the slow pace of any audiobook narrator, as it begins, “There’s a storm coming, and its name is Hope.”

Then, something in the rhythm of the words creaks in your ear. It’s a little too regular, even robotic. “I know that sounds a little crazy,” the breathy voice continues, grinding up the words. “That something so destructive could be labeled with such a peaceful name.”

From phrase to phrase, the cadence of the narrator’s voice glides forward, then latches on to an artificial syllable. It’s the auditory equivalent of watching the gears of a machine turn under a surface that looks like human skin.

“Does it sound exactly like a human voice?” No,” Ethridge, the novel’s author, told the Guardian. “But I think the quality is great for the AI.”

A USA Today best-selling novelist from Dallas, Texas, Ethridge was one of the authors recruited a year ago to join a secret pilot of Apple Books’ recently launched artificial intelligence audiobook feature. Apple calls the books “narrated by a digital voice based on a human narrator.”

Google Play also offers its own “self-narrated audiobooks” for digital authors, which include multiple regional accents for books in English, Spanish, French, German, and Portuguese.

Even before she knew Apple was behind the AI ​​Narrator Pilot she agreed to join, Ethridge was intrigued. “I know the technology is improving,” she says. “As we increasingly listen to Alexa, telling us what to do, directing us, and receiving instructions from Waze, the voices of AI are becoming more pervasive in our society.

“Did it sound different in my head when I was writing it? Sure,” she says of “Madison,” the artificial voice that narrated her novels. “But the technology is emerging.”

The audiobook market has exploded in recent years, with sales estimated at $1.6 billion in the United States in 2021, a 25% increase from the previous year. By 2030, the global market for audiobooks could reach $35 billion, a market research firm estimated last year.

Apple and Google’s bids to automate the creation of audiobooks at scale are likely to cause pushback from professional voiceover actors and have already drawn skepticism from some publishing professionals, who argue that the AI does not replace the quality of human storytelling.

But Apple is targeting its “digital storytelling technology” at smaller publishers and independently published authors such as Ethridge, who might be interested in making dozens of their titles available as audiobooks, but might not be. able to afford the cost of hiring voiceover professionals to narrate each. novel.

In the fiercely competitive world of digital publishing, which has low barriers to entry and large amounts of content to sell, many authors are struggling to make a living from their writing, even in popular genres like romance.

Many of Ethridge’s readers are seniors, living on fixed incomes, who are voracious novel readers and want to read several books a week, but who are very “price sensitive,” she says. As older readers, they have “accessibility issues” with reading small print, which makes audiobooks a good option.

But for independently published authors, hiring a voice actor to narrate one of their books is an “expensive proposition,” which can cost $2,000 to $2,500 per finished book, Ethridge says. That might be a fair price for hours of highly skilled work by an actor, she says, but it’s a hurdle for a freelance writer interested in turning dozens of manuscripts into audiobooks.

“My choice was not between a human narrator and a digital narrator,” she says. “My choice was between not doing audio and doing AI.”

Ethridge’s only novel that has been made into an audiobook with professional actor narration is wonderful, but it costs $21.99, she says, a price that is also out of reach for many of her readers.

“Human actors provide a full dramatic range,” says Ethridge. “They know when to inflect a word. They know when to take a longer break. They know how to pronounce strange words in a science fiction book.

But cheaper AI storytelling is likely a good option for cost-conscious readers who “don’t necessarily need the fully narrated dramatic experience,” she says. “A lot of people get used to listening to these voices.” And the quality of the AI’s speech might not matter as much, she adds, “if you listen to the book at 1.5 speed, which is what I do when I’m walking.”

While some voiceover artists may worry that AI narrators will take over their work, Ethridge, whose entire catalog of indie novels has now been released as Apple AI audiobooks, says she doesn’t. don’t believe AI storytelling will ever make human voiceovers obsolete.

“If you’re expecting the AI ​​narration to be exactly the same as someone who has a Sag-Aftra card and is reading this, you’re probably setting yourself up for disappointment,” she says, making reference to the American union which represents professional voice-over actors. . She says she expects the book market to “evolve so that there are two different products”: AI storytellers and human storytellers, just as the publishing industry sells both hardcover books. and paperbacks.

A spokesperson for Sag-Aftra did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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