Audiobooks Are No Longer Being Narrated By Humans

Companies like Google, Apple, and Amazon are looking for ways to speed up the time-consuming and costly narration process for audiobooks and are starting to replace human narrators with AI.

By Jennifer Hollohan | Published

audiobooks brown noise

Sitting down to read a good book in our increasingly busy world feels nearly impossible. Perhaps that is one of the reasons interest in audiobooks has skyrocketed in recent years. And as companies struggle to keep up with demand, news that they are turning to AI narrators is slowly leaking out. 

Audiobooks are big business. According to The Guardian, “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.”

Most people are familiar with Amazon’s audiobook company, Audible. Now others, like Google, Spotify, and Apple, are racing to get in on the action. The only problem is that audiobooks are not cheap to produce. 

Each book may take weeks to narrate. And production can cost in the thousands. So, the tech giants have all sought to speed up production while increasing their profits.

The answer many settled on was AI. Google, Apple, and Amazon had all hinted that they were interested in AI narration technology. Essentially, the goal is to replace human narrators with computer narrators mimicking the human voice. 

In theory, that sounds great. But the reality is not so simple. Those who buy audiobooks don’t just like the convenience, but they also enjoy the storytelling aspect. 

And skeptics of AI narration technology for audiobooks believe the technological shift takes away from the storytelling. A co-producer at a Canadian audiobooks company, David Caron, said, “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.”

Caron understands that companies want to pump out content rapidly to increase profits. However, he firmly believes that it is not what customers want. In his eyes, they are willing to invest in something that will bring them joy.

But joy is not necessarily something that AI narration technology can offer. Computers struggle to replicate human inflection and intonation. As a result, computer-derived voices cannot command attention for long. 

In other words, listeners are more likely to abandon AI-narrated audiobooks (or refrain from purchasing them). However, that did not stop Apple from quietly incorporating a catalog of AI-narrated audiobooks in its Books app. The company stealthily talked to independent publishers over the past few months. 

“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 then added the AI-narrated audiobooks without making waves in news headlines.

It will be a huge victory for Apple if the company succeeds with this audiobook experiment. The impact on the market may ultimately be far-reaching and fairly significant. But, first, they must overcome the sizable hurdle that most people don’t enjoy listening to a computer talk.