Apple quietly launched a series of audiobooks narrated by artificial intelligence, which not only challenges Amazon’s hold on the market but also suggests the audiobook industry is on the cusp of substantial change.
The AI-generated voice narration is currently available for romance and fiction books written in English on the Apple Books app. Four voices are available for publishers and authors to attach to their books, two optimized for the romance and fiction genres (“Madison” and “Jackson”), and two for non-fiction (“Helena” and “Mitchell”). A search for “AI narration” on the Books app reveals hundred of audiobooks using Apple’s new technology.
Human narrators are expensive, so the technology will make audiobook production more accessible to independent and indie publishers, according to Apple’s website. Apple does not disclose how much it charges, and the company did not respond to the Observer’s request for an interview.
Audible, Amazon’s audiobook service, “is by far the biggest audiobook narration entity in existence, and so Apple is really going head to head with Amazon on this,” said Miles Chicoine, founder and CEO of Voquent, a voice-over service that connects voice narrators with audiobook clients. While Amazon owns an AI voice-over service, which narrates the Washington Post’s articles, it currently doesn’t allow non-human narration on Audible. It won’t be able to compete with the cheap narration publishers can get by using Apple’s technology.
While audiobook listeners may appreciate more selections and lower prices, voice robots threaten the actors who have traditionally voiced audiobooks. Voice actors typically charge more than $1,000—and sometimes much more—to narrate a book, while AI narration costs $50 to $100 total, Chicoine said.
The AI narration is produced by voice actors recording 50,000 to 100,000 individual words that are assembled into sentences by AI-powered software. It sounds human-like, but it still lacks the rhythm, pace and inflection unique to human narration, said Chicoine. A voice actor can bring emotion and subtext that technology can’t, as well as unexpected pronunciation choices that give an audiobook a personality. But as the technology advances and becomes more human-sounding, experts say it will take away opportunities from voice actors.
The current audiobook market is worth $5.36 billion, and it is expected to reach $35 billion by 2030, according to a report by Research and Markets, a market data collector. In 2021, 74,000 audiobooks were published, up 4 percent from 2020 and up 21 percent from 2010. Totals for 2022 haven’t been released yet, but revenues show a similar upward trend. In 2021, audiobook sales totaled $1.6 billion, up from $1.3 billion the year prior.
AI narration is both a threat and an opportunity
For voice actors and other audio industry workers, “AI is the elephant in the room,” Chicoine said. It is cheaper, faster and more accessible than human narrators, so the technology has the potential to eat a share of available jobs. For the next five to 10 years, established professionals will be able to find work, but it will be more difficult for those looking to break into the industry, Chicoine said.
Voice actors have been talking about AI for years, said Elisabeth Rodgers, who has been working as a voice actress since 2006. She records two to three books each month for Audible and other companies, and she estimates 90 percent of her income stems from audiobook narration. “It’s scary because it’s my living,” she said of the AI threat.
Voice narrators could make money by recording their voice to become AI. They are paid between $5,000 and $6,000 for taping 100,000 words, which is low for an experienced voice actor but high for beginners, said Mony Raanan, founder and CEO of Voice Crafters, an agency and voice actor marketplace. But actors can “shoot themselves in the foot by doing this,” he said. Depending on a narrator’s contract, they might receive a flat payment rather than being paid based on usage, which means their voice could be played in any audiobook—including a best-seller—without being compensated for it. When actors are paid each time a publisher or company uses their AI-created voice, it could be a huge money-making opportunity, he said.
Voice Crafters is preparing for the AI wave by building a database of actors who have recorded to become an AI voice and tapping into this pool when their clients ask for an actor. If a requested narrator is sick or doesn’t have time for a project, their automated voice could be used.
Voquent, the voice-over service, receives three to four requests for AI voice projects each day, which is about 10 percent of its incoming daily requests, its CEO Chicoine said. Demand for AI voice-over work isn’t yet outstripping the growth in demand for human narration, so he expects it will grow the market rather than hurt it.
“Once people get involved at the low level, they’ll be more willing to pay for a human voice actor,” he said. “We are a long way from voice artists being a dying breed.”