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Apple Expands Audiobook Market with AI-Powered Narration

Apple announced they’re getting into AI-voiced audiobooks and offering a service to authors to have their works digitally narrated.

Apple has quietly launched a catalog 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 behavior.

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. – The Guardian

When you look at Apple’s marketplaces/platforms for creative products – music, books, podcasts – they’ve always been in the game but never truly made a move at dominance in any of the categories. Spotify largely won the music application market ahead of Apple Music because of its freemium moat. Apple had a clear head start with Apple Podcasts (iTunes prior) but has slowly been superseded by Spotify one tech acquisition and exclusive podcast purchase at a time.

That brings us to books, a category that Amazon has always owned both digitally and physically. Apple Books exists, but obviously, it’s no Kindle or Audible. Spotify entered the audiobook market strong this year, offering over 300,000 audiobook titles to purchase and listen to.

Clearly, all three of these players see something in this audiobook market. Amazon and Spotify are offering premium human narrations, and it comes with a price ($15+ per book). Apple’s AI-narrated audiobooks range from free to sub-$10.

But with Apple’s strict 30% tax on all in-app purchases, Spotify and Amazon have been apprehensive to sell digital books on iPhones. Amazon prevents it altogether. Thus, it’s an open sales channel for Apple and it’s encouraging to see them finally capitalize on this distribution.

Some say Apple’s move will strip the art away from audiobook production.

“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. – The Guardian

I understand this perspective, but I think it’s a little idealistic. I’ve only listened to a few audiobooks where they thoughtfully produced it in a way that wasn’t just reading the text. Honestly, rappers’ memoirs make some of the best audiobooks – Rick Ross, Gucci Mane, and 50 Cent specifically come to mind.

The vast majority of audiobooks are just a narrator bringing the text to life in their voice. More artistic productions with music and sound effects can still exist. But it’s such a small percentage anyways.

What AI narration offers us is the democratization and expansion of the audiobook market.

More Audiobook Availability

This could be a game changer for the publishing industry because often times creating an audiobook comes down to the availability of narrators. With this, ideally, you not only cut the total time of production but also focus on creating audiobooks for very niche topics that might not make sense for larger productions.

Having published two books – The NFT Handbook and The Metaverse Handbook – I can speak to some of the inefficiencies in producing an audiobook today.

Both of my audiobook releases trailed the release of the digital and physical releases by at least a month to a month and a half. Typically, the publisher needs time to select an audiobook partner, which then has a queue. If you’re A-List, then you’re bumped up. But usually, you’re not and have to wait. Not to mention, you don’t just sit and read your book. There’s an entire post-production process that can be 3-5x longer than the actual reading of the book. Mind you, this process can’t be started until the manuscript is completely finalized. Hence, the staggered release dates.

It’s a headache. The result is a lot of authors simply not offering an audiobook version. Apple is getting rid of this massive inefficiency in the production of audiobooks. And I think this will ultimately result in a much wider variety of audiobooks available.

If you go to Apple Books, then the Audiobook Store, and type in “AI narration,” you’ll get a list of the audiobooks they’ve generated thus far. Here’s my take on what I heard.

Obviously, the AI voices don’t have quite the vocal variety, intonations, and cadence of a trained human narrator. But it’s definitely not as bad as the monotonous robotic text-to-speech voices you might imagine. If over a billion people can put up with the annoying AI voices on TikTok, then they can certainly handle Apple’s audiobooks.

I found the AI narrator to be most palatable to listen to at 1.5x speed. This is when audio stories come to life for me. Typically, audiobooks are incredibly boring for me at 1x speed anyways. So this passed my pacing litmus test.

Lastly, Siri does have the greatest optionality in the types of voices you can program for it, which I think caters well to them fitting AI narrators with books.

Overall, I’m super invested in the Kindle/Audible platform, so it doesn’t make sense for me to switch platforms just off this news. However, for niché books that might not normally find their way to Audible – like technical books or older books – I could see myself using this platform.

I think Apple can dominate audiobook versions of all the older titles and niché content.

Nonetheless, if I were a narrator, then I’d be familiarizing myself with the AI voice synthesis platforms and learning how to clone your unique voice. This is their chance to expand the amount of work they can fulfill – offering a quick AI-powered turnaround or human narration at a premium price point.