Books | January 6, 2023 11:46 am

Apple Is Controversially Debuting a Line of AI-Voiced Audiobooks

Some publishers are upset by the loss of human narrators, although the tech may expand the burgeoning audiobook market

Apple Books icon displayed on a phone and headphones are seen in this illustration photo
The audio version of a book may now be voiced by artificial intelligence
Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images

At the beginning of the year, I expressed hope that we’d find practical and non-controversial uses for artificial intelligence. Not getting the memo, at least on the latter part: Apple, which just announced a range of AI-narrated audiobooks that seems likely to upset the audiobook industry and people who understand that book narration is an art form.

Per The Guardian, these AI audiobooks — described as “narrated by digital voice based on a human narrator” — are financed by Apple and writers still receive royalties from sales. Publishers were required to sign non-disclosure agreements before participating, and not all of the booksellers agreed to the terms.

It’s easy to see why Apple would want to try this: The audiobook market is exploding, with sales growing by double digits each year and expected to hit a market size of just under $20 billion by 2028.

This move by Apple is likely to reduce jobs in the industry and create an inferior product (much like AI creating songs), at least in the short term. “The narrator brings a whole new range of art in creating audiobook, and we believe that’s a powerful thing,” David Caron, a co-producer at Canada’s largest audiobook publisher, told The Guardian. “They’re creating something that is different from the print book, but that adds value as an art form.”

Still, some authors note that AI-narrated books are inevitable. As Mark Piesing at The Bookseller suggests, “The argument that a human narrator is intrinsically better is flawed and subjective – I have pressed stop many times because I thought an AI could do a better job. Artificial voice applications use human voices to learn from, and use cloned human voice replicas to deliver realistic tone and emotion.” As well, the costs and production time are significantly reduced, and it could be a boon for non-English works (Piesing estimates 90% of audiobooks are in English).

Hopefully, the market can find a happy medium, where human-narrated books are seen as a premium product (and artwork) and AI-narrated books are used to expand the size and scope of the global audiobook catalog — and labeled as an AI product.

You can find these AI-narrated works in Apple’s Books app.