Apple Books ditches voice actors for AI narration

in General Discussion
Apple has quietly released a series of audiobooks where the narration is entirely generated by Artificial Intelligence -- and it sounds surprisingly good.

We all read books during the pandemic, but for some actors, reading them aloud in front of a home microphone was their chief income in lockdowns. Now there's a strong chance that they won't be needed any more, because Apple is replacing them with AI-generated voices.

There's more to audiobook narration than the voice, there is a lot in the recording and then the compression of the audio file. But ultimately, an audiobook must be engaging, and from an initial sampling, Apple's new range sounds unexpectedly good.

As first spotted by The Guardian, Apple Books now has a large selection of novels with AI narration. The newspaper says that Apple had intended to launch the catalog in mid-November 2022, but delayed it.

The Guardian says it specifically delayed the launch because of layoffs at Meta and also the turmoil surrounding Elon Musk's takeover of Twitter. Combined, the publication says there was a dark cloud over the technology sector.

It's likely, then, that Apple expects a backlash from actors and publishers. This is perhaps why the release has, so far, gone without any announcement.

Most of the books so far appear to be chiefly romance titles
Most of the books so far appear to be chiefly romance titles

To even find a book that has this feature, users have to search for the phase "AI Narration." When they do, they get a seemingly endless list of chiefly romance novels, each with the same note in the listing.

"This is an Apple Books audiobook narrated by a digital voice based on a human narrator," it says. Users can then preview the book and the voice.

Apple does not explain how the voice is "based on a human narrator," but the preview samples sound much better than if Siri were reading them.

Reportedly, Apple has been approaching publishers over creating partnerships, though initially it was not revealed as the company behind the project. Firms were asked to sign non-disclosure agreements, and told that Apple would pay the production costs.

It's not known which publishers were approached and turned down Apple, but reportedly some did, and The Guardian spoke with ones from Canada.

"The narrator brings a whole new range of art in creating audiobook, and we believe that's a powerful thing," David Caron from a Canadian audiobook publisher, told the newspaper. "They're creating something that is different from the print book, but that adds value as an art form."

"When you have really great writing and really talented narration, you're coming up with something special," continued Caron. "That's worth investing in."

Literary agent Carly Watters says the move is Apple looking to make money and not seeing what makes audiobook narration valuable.

"Companies see the audiobooks market and that there's money to be made," Watters told the newspare. "They want to make content. But that's all it is."

"It's not what customers want to listen to," continued Watters. "There's so much value in the narration and the storytelling."

Read on AppleInsider


  • Reply 1 of 11
    avon b7avon b7 Posts: 6,677member
    It's difficult to knock the decision on business grounds.

    If you can't tell the difference between an AI generated voice and a real human reading aloud then the balance tips in favor of a machine that won't suffer from tiredness, slip ups etc. 

    The same goes for digitally created 'life-like' people where the only cue to them not being real is that they look too good.

    AI will take over in a lot of areas, well it already is, but as it gets better at 'learning' (translation for example), real humans will get nudged aside.

    The deeper, non-productivity, non-business related questions are something else though. 

  • Reply 2 of 11
    ph382ph382 Posts: 43member
    Perhaps the value of this technique is the ability to readily generate narration in multiple languages.
  • Reply 3 of 11
    If it brings the cost down I am all for it. Perhaps an AI read book at $9.99 as compared to an actor driven voice at regular price. Anyone who listens to audio books appreciates a superior voice narration every time…
  • Reply 4 of 11
    DAalsethDAalseth Posts: 2,694member
    The bad: AI narrators will make it harder for people to get jobs in this field.
    The good: I have to admit I’ve been using the Read Screen part of Accessibility to narrate some old books that will never be made into audiobooks. It’s a little odd, but overall works well. If this makes it more natural that would be nice.
    So I’m rather torn on this. This is different than AI generated art or text. Those are simulating creativity, where this is reading someone else’s work. Maybe people who narrate audiobooks will go the way of elevator operators. It’s good work, but just not needed any more.

    i wonder if they might drop the audiobook idea, and just let us turn this on for any book or text we have in our device.
  • Reply 5 of 11
    boboliciousbobolicious Posts: 1,082member
    ... one user advantage may be to select different narration styles, tone, accent, etc - I wrote a publisher about this some time ago ...  

    Hopefully it's not about data mining, and Apple increasingly tracking every aspect of our lives...
    edited January 5
  • Reply 6 of 11
    The bad.  
    The AI narrators sound dull if awful.
    Nothing a great story reader and most audio books the readers are also not so great
  • Reply 7 of 11
    entropysentropys Posts: 3,841member
    I have been using Audible audio books for the last few months. The thing with Amazon is that you can buy a kindle ebook and for a few dollars more you can get an Audible version. Or you can choose an Audible subscription, although I haven’t as I am sceptical the books I want read to me may not have an audio book available through the subscription anyway, and for those books not available through the subscription, just one a month free. 

    I suspect Apple is trying the AI route as the majority of audio books are linked to Audible.  Looking at any audio book title in Apple Books they are a) extremely expensive (sometimes double) compared with kindle/Audible, and b) a very limited selection.  Many of them have been created by, or owned by Audible.  Going with an AI possibly gets around this constraint and could lower the Books price. Maybe even make them competitive. I would like the AI to do little things like accent or inflection variation to help identify characters, and placing the correct emphasis on works and phrases in conversations. Otherwise it might as well be SIRI speak from text.

    Anyway, after Apple got burnt going up against Amazon back in the early days of Books, the app was neglected for a long time, and the kindle app features were steadily improved and seemed better to use despite having to buy ebooks from the website rather than the app. The IOS16 version of Books seems to have filled in that gap. Now Apple just need to work on pricing, perhaps a subscription service and it seems, the audio book experience. Low hanging fruit with perhaps the opportunity to get one back on Amazon.

  • Reply 8 of 11
    MarvinMarvin Posts: 14,898moderator
    mjpbuy said:
    The bad.  
    The AI narrators sound dull if awful.
    Nothing a great story reader and most audio books the readers are also not so great
    AI/computer voices usually lack emotion and sound quite monotonous. There's an AI voice service here that has some examples about 1/4 down the page:

    Some still sound robotic but a few sound very realistic. What's missing is the ability to change how a phrase is expressed like with anger or sadness because usually that's up to the actor to interpret. If the book says something like "'Oh my, that's wonderful' said Emily with an air of excitement", a person would read it with an emotion but a machine usually reads it like every other part of the text, especially if the text doesn't describe the emotion.

    Hopefully they will be able to add emotional variations to these kind of services.

    In general this is a great addition for books. Not everybody likes to read text and not every reader sounds good. This lets people pick a voice that sounds good to them for every book.
    edited January 5 watto_cobra
  • Reply 9 of 11
    DAalseth said:
    This is different than AI generated art or text. Those are simulating creativity, where this is reading someone else’s work.
    Voice acting = acting = creativity.

    Sorry to be blunt, but I suspect bad audiobooks have led people to draw a false distinction between 'reading someone else's work' and 'acting'. If your audiobook just sounds like someone tediously reading, then it's a bad performance - for the art of voice acting is just as much a creative endeavour as acting on stage or in film.
  • Reply 10 of 11
    Just listened to a couple of previews. It’s quiet impressive. But as suggested, it has basic inflection and misses some obvious emphasis. There’s also occasional machineness on some syllables, but nothing like as bad as Siri speaking. 

    So, when is Siri going to get this tech!?
  • Reply 11 of 11
    I read books the old fashioned way.
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