Audio books are a popular and convenient way to enjoy literature, but they also require a lot of human talent and skill to produce. However, with the advancement of artificial intelligence (AI), the audio book industry is facing a major disruption that could threaten the livelihood of thousands of professional narrators.
AI has the ability to create human-sounding recordings from voice databases, without the need for human intervention. This means that audio books can be produced faster and cheaper than ever before, but also with less quality and authenticity. Some audio book narrators say their work load has fallen by half due to AI, and they fear for their future.
Tanya Eby, a full-time voice actor and professional narrator for 20 years, said: “It seems to make sense that AI is affecting all of us.” She has seen her bookings drop significantly in the past six months, and she is not alone. Many of her colleagues report similar declines.
Some companies use ethical practices to pay for voice licenses, while others exploit loopholes. DeepZen, a London-based company that offers AI-narrated audio books, said it pays royalties to the actors whose voices it uses. Kamis Taylan, the CEO of DeepZen, said: “Every voice that we are using, we sign a license agreement, and we pay for the recordings.”
However, some platforms use synthetic voices that are created by combining multiple voices from existing databases, without paying for them. Taylan said: “They take your voice, my voice, five other people’s voices combined that just creates a separate voice… They say that it doesn’t belong to anybody.”
The five largest U.S. publishing houses did not respond to requests for comment, but some of them are already using AI for audio books. Earlier this year, Apple announced it was moving into AI-narrated audio books, a move it said would make the “creation of audio books more accessible to all”, notably independent authors and small publishers.
But some experts warn that AI could have a negative impact on the quality and diversity of audio books. David Risher, the co-founder and president of Worldreader, a non-profit organization that promotes digital reading in developing countries, said: “AI is not going to capture the nuance, the emotion, the humor, the irony that a human narrator can bring to a story.”
He added: “There’s also a risk that AI will homogenize the voices that we hear. We want to hear voices from different backgrounds, different cultures, different genders, different perspectives. That’s what makes literature rich and diverse.”
Some audio book narrators are fighting back against AI invasion by forming unions and associations to protect their rights and interests. They also hope to educate consumers about the difference between human and AI narration, and to appeal to their appreciation of art and craft.
Eby said: “We’re not just reading words on a page. We’re creating characters, we’re creating worlds, we’re creating emotions. We’re storytellers.”