Death of the narrator? Apple unveils suite of AI-voiced audiobooks

Exclusive: tech firm quietly launches new audiobook catalogue narrated by AI – but move expected to spark backlash

Apple has quietly launched a catalogue of books narrated by artificial intelligence in a move that may mark the beginning of the end for human narrators. The strategy marks an attempt to upend the lucrative and fast-growing audiobook market – but it also promises to intensify scrutiny over allegations of Apple’s anti-competitive behaviour.

The popularity of the audiobook market has exploded in recent years, with technology companies scrambling to gain a foothold. Sales last year jumped 25%, bringing in more than $1.5bn. Industry insiders believe the global market could be worth more than $35bn by 2030.

Apple was due to launch the project in mid-November, but delayed it as layoffs at Meta and chaos surrounding Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter cast a dark cloud over the technology sector.

On the company’s Books app, searching for “AI narration” reveals the catalogue of works included in the scheme, which are described as being “narrated by digital voice based on a human narrator”.

In recent months, Apple approached independent publishers as potential partners, including some in the Canadian market, but not all agreed to participate.

Authors were told that Apple – which at the time was not named as the company behind the technology – would shoulder the costs of production and writers would receive royalties from sales.

Publishers involved in the project were required to sign non-disclosure agreements – common in the technology field – but also reflective of Apple’s notorious pursuit of secrecy.

Apple’s development of AI to narrate books could represent a significant shift in how major technology companies see the future of audiobooks.

Publishers, authors and literary agents who spoke to the Guardian said the strategy, if successful, could have significant implications for the market.

Others, however, were skeptical.

“The narrator brings a whole new range of art in creating audiobook, and we believe that’s a powerful thing. They’re creating something that is different from the print book, but that adds value as an art form,” said David Caron, a co-producer at Canada’s largest audiobook publisher.

“When you have really great writing and really talented narration, you’re coming up with something special. That’s worth investing in.”

Before the launch, one Canadian literary agent told the Guardian she did not see the value from both a literary or customer perspective.

“Companies see the audiobooks market and that there’s money to be made. They want to make content. But that’s all it is. It’s not what customers want to listen to. There’s so much value in the narration and the storytelling, ” said Carly Watters.

While there is potential for backlash by professional voice actors, authors themselves are increasingly being asked to narrate their own books. There is a financial incentive for the writers, both in the upfront payments and the expanded availability of their work.

But producing an audiobook with a human voice can take weeks and can cost publishers thousands of dollars. The lure of AI promises to significantly cut the costs.

Still, computer-generated voices have long struggled to hold the attention of listeners for long periods of time, and to overcome the ‘uncanny valley’ effect of synthetic human speech. Human intonation and inflection are notoriously difficult to predict and replicate.

For years, Apple has sold books and audiobooks through its Books app, and the company was rumoured to be interested in developing its own audiobooks service and shifting from a reseller to producer.

But the move represents a direct shot at rival Amazon, with Apple listing what it said were the benefits of its own system compared to Kindle’s Direct Publishing.

Apple and Amazon – which owns audiobook market-leader Audible – had previously indicated they were exploring AI narration technology, but Google had been the most public about its efforts and breakthroughs.

Even before Apple’s entrance, the battle for control of the audiobook market has renewed existing feuds between major players. In recent months, Spotify, which announced plans to bring 300,000 audiobook titles to customers, has bitterly clashed with Apple over app store policies after its own app was rejected three times.

In a newly launched site Time to Play Fair, meant to defend its position, Spotify said Apple’s “cumbersome” process for purchasing audiobooks “makes it harder for you to find your next favourite author or book”.

It alleges Apple’s policies have meant that “in addition to consumers being hurt, authors and publishers are also being punished”.

Apple justified the rejection by arguing that the way Spotify offers audiobooks breaches the rules surrounding online purchases and how it communicates with customers.

While Apple already sells audiobooks, the latest move is likely to further raise questions over its anti-competitive behaviour. Lawmakers in Europe and the United States have put in place increasing scrutiny of the company in the wake of allegations that Apple limits competition.

Apple collects a 30% fee on all services and product sales through its app store, and a recent antitrust lawsuit involving Epic Games highlighted the tight regulations surrounding the app store, as well as its immense profitability.

Apple recently pulled in $78.13bn from its high-margin services business, which includes sales from apps, as well as its music, gaming and streaming services.


Leyland Cecco

The GuardianTramp

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