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What do Listeners think about AI Voices for Audiobooks?

Every now and then, something will shake up the very foundation of the audiobook world. Recently, it has been the news from a publisher that they are developing AI voices for audiobooks. Understandably, audiobook narrators were shocked and appalled because their very livelihood is being threatened by a company many have worked with.

But what do audiobook listeners and fans think?

I asked in my Facebook group and got a lot of very interesting feedback. Below, you will find the arguments for and against AI audiobook voices from the point of view of avid audiobook fans. But first…

What are AI Audiobook Voices?

Well, it is basically a (more or less) advanced form of text-to-speech. Instead of having an app read an ebook to you, you are supposed to buy these audiobooks though. And they might (or might not) be a bit cheaper since the publisher saves the cost on an actual human voice actor. There is still editing and post-production happening though. And the AI voices are based on human voice actors. So, the cost isn’t actually that much lower. But we will get back to this topic later.

AI voices should be able to read the emotions in a scene from the context and adjust their narration accordingly. The goal of AI voice developers is to have them be indistinguishable from human narrators and they claim to already be there.

Poll 'Would you listen to audiobooks with AI voices?' - Results: 327 votes for 'No way!', 45 votes for 'Good for books that don't have an Audio version', 10 votes for 'Would give it a try if cheaper', 3 votes for 'It depends on the book'

Love and War - Audible audiobook by Shirra Lynn

Concerns in regard to AI Voices for Audiobooks

Many common points of criticism we audiobook fans have when it comes to certain human narrators (e.g. because they aren’t experienced yet or don’t have enough training) translate into concerns about AI voices for audiobooks. Is it easy to keep different characters apart during dialogue? Can the listener recognize what a character is thinking versus what they are saying out loud? Are inflection and pronunciation right? Does the narrator transport the emotions in a scene and draw us into the story?

Many people who only consume their books in audio format (be it because of a disability or circumstance) have experience with text-to-speech apps. Sometimes an ebook doesn’t have an audio version and if we really want to know the story, text-to-speech might do in a pinch.

AI voices for audiobooks fall on a scale between experienced voice actors on the one side and text-to-speech on the other. When you think of a Fiction novel with lots of dialogue and many emotions, a narrator brings a range of intonations and different voices to transport what is happening in the story and so listeners can easily follow who is talking or thinking something and how the characters are feeling. Text-to-speech can’t do that at all.

And AI voices are not there yet either (I listened to the DeepZen samples and… yeah… this might “astound” people who never listen to audiobooks, but to audio fans who listen to narrators every day these samples just sound robotic). While the AI can recognize emotions from the context and change pitch, it isn’t remotely comparable to what human voice actors do (just for fun, check out these samples by Joel Leslie). AI falls flat when listeners expect to be pulled into a story.

If you have ever listened to an audiobook read by a narrator who just reads and doesn’t do voices, you might know how difficult it is to follow a Fiction book or a memoir if there isn’t any acting and if the reader doesn’t bring out all the emotions in a story!

However, AI voices might work out decently for Nonfiction and textbooks, which don’t require a lot of emoting. But why would we pay for that instead of just using a text-to-speech app in the first place?

Related article: Audiobooks vs Reading Print/Ebooks

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Anger about AI Audiobook Voices

Many audiobook fans are “narrator-motivated”, meaning, they would happily buy an audiobook from an author they don’t know, or in a genre they don’t usually favor, as long as it is narrated by their favorite. “I would listen to him/her read the phonebook!” is a popular line. New authors trying to get into the audiobook business can get a strong start if they can hire a popular voice actor because the talent will bring their own fanbase and avenues of promotion.

Every audiobook listener I know, even the casual ones, has a favorite narrator. And that name will always be a draw for them even if they never go to Twitter, Facebook, Insta, and just browse Audible a bit every other month. There is a reason why Audible gives you suggestions for other titles read by the narrator you just listened to!

And the die-hard audiobook narrator fans are actively angry about AI voices for audiobooks! They fear that the market will be smaller for their favorite human voices. And they feel it is simply shitty to do this at all because the narrator is so important for our audiobook experience.

For new voice actors or lesser-known ones doing niche titles, this is an even bigger problem. They don’t have much of a fanbase and they still have to be more expensive than AI voices. It will be hard for them to compete and their livelihood is even more threatened by this development.

For those of us listening to audiobooks every day, loving our favorite narrators dearly, and basically living and breathing audiobooks, the whole discussion about AI voices for audiobooks can feel a bit like a slap in the face because an audiobook is a very intimate experience. You have a person in your ear, telling you a story, eliciting emotions in you. The idea that this very human, very personal side of it gets ignored and we would have to listen to a robot voice feels foreign and worrying. It devalues our beloved voice actors as well as our own aural experience.

And that means some audiobook fans refuse to ever pay for an AI-generated audiobook on principle ground, no matter how good the AI voices get.

I can also see a vicious circle in the making here: Indie authors wanting to bring out their first audio, scared of the investment, choosing AI because it is a bit cheaper, then their audiobook won’t sell and they won’t bring out their books in audio format again “because it isn’t worth it”. The audiobook market is very distinct from the ebook market and needs its own marketing. Audiobooks as an afterthought hardly work. And they definitely won’t work if new authors try to save on the voice talent!

Related article: How do Authors get paid for Audiobooks from Libraries and Stores?

Benefits of AI Voices for Audiobooks

Money is important. Not just for authors trying to live off of their work (or at least not losing tons of money on it), but also for listeners – especially those on disability aid, those without library access, and those who can’t fall back on ebooks or second-hand print books. So, if AI-voiced audiobooks were to cut the cost considerably, and this would translate into considerably lower costs for listeners, then that is a good thing.

If AI voices were so cheap, that indie authors who don’t publish in audio format would offer their titles as audiobooks, that would be a great thing as well, especially for readers with disabilities. However, as I said earlier, it is dangerous to assume that an audiobook should sell well just because the format is popular. Most often with indie books, it is the narrator who will first draw listeners to an author who is new to the audiobook market. If an author decides to go with AI, they have to be aware that their target audience will be much smaller than it would be with a popular voice talent. They make their story more accessible though, which is appreciated!

The Human Experience

AI voices for audiobooks are comparable to CGI actors in movies. It kind of works, it sometimes works surprisingly well to patch something up. And yet, overall, you want the human experience in art. AI can’t emulate that.

Personally, I would like to see an improved text-to-speech app come out of these AI voice developments. Instead of trying to make more money with audiobooks by cutting out the people who made audiobooks so popular in the first place, give screenreader users better options! Many books, especially older niche titles, don’t have an audio version. And if we could have that read to us in a reasonably acceptable way, that would be a really cool thing and wouldn’t take anything away from human voice actors either.

By the way, right now, Amazon and Audible don’t allow audiobooks with AI voices. We will see how this develops in the future!

What about you? Would you buy audiobooks with AI voices? Please share your opinion in a comment below!

By the way, if you can’t afford as many audiobooks as you would like, and want to support audiobook narrators and authors, check out these fantastic places to get free audiobook review copies.

All about Audiobooks, Discussion /

2 thoughts on “What do Listeners think about AI Voices for Audiobooks?”

  1. This is a complex one. I think AI voices would be great for accessibility reasons. I think it should be used as an addition and not a replacement. Narrators do more than just read the books they also interpret the words and emotions

    1. Yes, exactly! I can see how the audiobook industry might be getting into a bit of a pickle with consumers expecting stuff to get cheaper and cheaper, or ideally free. While narrators and sound engineers have to be paid on top of the authors. But I feel like this audiobook production company (not entirely sure which one that is) has really missed how important narrators are for our listening experience. Audiobooks would not have become this popular, had they always just been read by AI voices.

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