Audiobooks for Fun and Profit – Part 4: Using AI For Narration

Over the past few months, we've explored the potential of audiobooks as a lucrative addition to an author's portfolio, delved into the process of narrating your own audiobook, and discussed the ins and outs of hiring a professional narrator. As we continue our journey, we now turn our attention to a cutting-edge approach that's transforming the audiobook landscape: auto-narrated audiobooks.

Auto-narrated audiobooks, where Artificial Intelligence (AI) is used to read the text instead of a human, are becoming increasingly popular in the publishing world. This innovative technology offers a unique blend of efficiency and affordability, making it an attractive option for authors and publishers alike.

However, as with any technology, it comes with its own set of advantages and challenges. In this article, we'll delve into the world of auto-narrated audiobooks, exploring how they're created, the services available for producing them, and where they can be sold. We'll also weigh the pros and cons of using AI for narration, providing you with a comprehensive understanding of this emerging trend in the audiobook industry.

Understanding Auto-Narrated Audiobooks

Before we delve into the specifics of creating and selling auto-narrated audiobooks, it's crucial to understand what they are and how they're made. Auto-narrated audiobooks, also known as AI-narrated or synthetic voice audiobooks, are created using advanced text-to-speech (TTS) technology. This technology converts written text into spoken words using synthetic voices, which are designed to mimic human speech as closely as possible.

The process begins with an AI system analyzing the text of a book. It identifies the words, sentences, and punctuation, and uses this information to generate a spoken version of the text. The AI system is trained on vast amounts of data, allowing it to understand the nuances of language, including pronunciation, intonation, and rhythm. The result is a synthetic voice that can read out the text in a way that's understandable and, in many cases, quite natural-sounding.

However, it's important to note that while AI voices have come a long way in recent years, they're not perfect. They can sometimes struggle with complex words, unusual names, or intricate sentences. Moreover, while some AI voices can convey basic emotions like happiness or sadness, they generally lack the depth and nuance of a human narrator. That said, the technology is improving rapidly, and the gap between human and AI narration is narrowing.

Let’s look at the advantages and disadvantages of auto-narrated audiobooks:

7 Advantages of Auto-Narrated Audiobooks

  1. Cost-Effective: One of the most significant advantages of AI narration is its cost-effectiveness. Hiring a professional human narrator can be expensive, especially for longer books. In contrast, AI narration services typically charge based on the number of words or the length of the audio, making it a more affordable option for many authors and publishers.
  2. Speed of Production: AI can generate an audiobook in a fraction of the time it would take a human narrator. This speed can be a significant advantage, especially for authors looking to release their audiobook simultaneously with their print or e-book versions, or that were considering narrating their books themselves.
  3. Easy Updates: With AI narration, making updates or corrections to the audiobook is relatively straightforward. If there's a need to change a section of the text or correct an error, you can simply edit the text and regenerate the audio. This is a stark contrast to human-narrated audiobooks, where even minor changes can require a costly and time-consuming re-recording session.
  4. Availability: Unlike human narrators, AI doesn't get tired, take breaks, or go on vacation. It's available 24/7, allowing you to create or update your audiobook whenever you want.
  5. Consistency: AI voices provide consistent performance. They don't have bad days or good days, and their pronunciation, speed, and tone remain the same throughout the book. This consistency can be beneficial for long audiobooks, ensuring a uniform listening experience for the audience.
  6. Variety of Voices: Many AI narration services offer a range of synthetic voices in different genders, ages, and accents. This variety allows authors to choose a voice that best fits their book's character and tone.
  7. Accessibility: AI narration can make audiobook production more accessible to independent authors or small publishers who may not have the budget to hire a professional narrator or the technical skills to narrate their own book.

While these advantages make AI narration an attractive option, it's also important to consider the potential downsides.

7 Disadvantages of Auto-Narrated Audiobooks

  1. Lack of Emotional Nuance: While AI voices have improved significantly, they still struggle to convey the depth of emotion that a skilled human narrator can bring to a story. This lack of emotional nuance can make the audiobook feel flat or monotonous, potentially impacting the listener's engagement with the story.
  2. Pronunciation Issues: AI systems can sometimes struggle with complex words, unusual names, or words that have different pronunciations based on context. While many AI narration services allow you to customize the pronunciation of specific words, this can be a time-consuming process, especially for longer books.
  3. Limited Inflection: AI voices often lack the natural inflection and rhythm of human speech. This can make the narration sound robotic or unnatural, which some listeners may find off-putting.
  4. Lack of Personal Touch: A human narrator is also called a voice actor, and they can bring a unique personal touch to the narration, adding character and personality to the story. This personal touch is something that AI, at least in its current state, cannot replicate.
  5. Listener Preference: Some listeners prefer human-narrated audiobooks and may be less inclined to purchase or listen to an AI-narrated audiobook. This preference can impact the potential market for your audiobook.
  6. Platform Restrictions: Some audiobook platforms have restrictions on AI-narrated content. For example, Audible, one of the largest audiobook platforms, does not accept AI-narrated audiobooks. Authors considering AI narration should check the guidelines of their chosen platforms.
  7. Ethical Considerations: There are ongoing discussions about the ethical implications of using AI voices, particularly when they mimic specific human voices. While this is a complex issue that goes beyond the scope of this article, it's something that authors should be aware of when considering AI narration. People are also concerned about professional narrators being put out of business.

Despite these challenges, the technology behind AI narration is improving rapidly, and many of these issues are likely to be less prominent in the future.

Where to Narrate Your Books Using Artificial Intelligence

There are numerous companies that have gotten into auto-narrated audiobooks over the past couple of years. There are a few styles of service that you could look for:

  • Direct Text-to-Speech Voices: These are companies that provide an interface where you can upload your text and get a recording back, usually by using 3rd party software or interfacing directly with their programming interface.
  • eBook Conversion Services: These are companies that will take the content of your entire book as either a word document or epub, and will convert it into individual files for you.
  • Concierge Services: These are people will take care of you from start to finish, and use the tools themselves to create your book as well as proofing them afterwards to make sure that everything is correct. This will be the least work on your part, but will probably cost the most to have done for you.

Pretty much all of the major tech companies have Direct Text-to-Speech Voice interfaces that you can use to generate narration for text of any length. Amazon Polly, Google Speech Synthesis, Microsoft Azure TTS, and even IBM’s Watson TTS all offer convenient pay-as-you-go pricing but a more technical interface for producing your content. This will be amongst the cheapest ways of producing your audiobooks (with the exception of the next two recommendations below) as many 3rd-party services will just be providing a front-end to these services and make their money by charging an up-charge and getting volume rates.

Google Play has an auto-narration option that works very well as an eBook Conversion Service. It will read your entire book for you using a voice, language, and accent of your choice. Since we last talked about them from our 20 Books Vegas Takeaways, they have made it possible to use multiple voices within a single book. They have a really neat feature where you can tell the service how to phonetically pronounce a word, and even speak it into a microphone and have it speak it using your pronunciation in the chosen voice. They are not currently charging to use their service as long as you make your book available for sale through Google Play. You can also sell your book in other marketplaces if you want. 

Apple also offers Digital Narration, though only in limited categories and while it could pass as an eBook Conversion Service it is really a limited Concierge Service. If your book is accepted into their program, you will have minimal input over the production process, and your book will only be available for sale through Apple’s marketplace. The advantage for using them is that you are not charged for the service, and it’s completely hands off and no effort on your part once the book is signed up.

DeepZen is another company that will create your audiobooks that toes the line between eBook Conversion Service and Concierge Service. They are cheaper than hiring a human narrator; depending on the service that they provide for you, it will cost between $69 and $129 per-finished-hour. Their voices are amongst the best available, and if they distribute your audiobooks to retailers, they can actually get them listed in some marketplaces that don’t otherwise accept auto-narrated books.

One final service that’s worth looking at is ElevenLabs, bringing us back to a Direct TTS Voice service. They have a better interface than most of the big tech companies, as they work more directly with end consumers and not just with programmers, and they can provide a clone of your voice if you wanted to auto-narrate books as yourself. They charge a monthly fee rather than pay-as-you-go, with your membership level providing a limit for how many characters you can have spoken per month.

There are literally hundreds of other services out there than are mentioned here, and more are appearing every month, but these are the companies that we’ve experimented with or bought books produced by them before.

The Future of Auto-Narrated Audiobooks

The world of audiobooks is evolving rapidly, and auto-narrated audiobooks are a significant part of that evolution. As AI technology continues to advance, the quality of AI voices is likely to improve, making them even more natural-sounding and capable of conveying a wider range of emotions and nuances.

In the near future, we can expect to see AI voices that can adapt their tone and style based on the context of the text, providing a more dynamic and engaging listening experience. We may also see more customization options, allowing authors to create unique AI voices for their audiobooks. We will also see more marketplaces willing to sell auto-narrated audiobooks.

Moreover, as more people become familiar with AI voices through devices like smart speakers and virtual assistants, the acceptance and demand for AI-narrated audiobooks are likely to increase. This could open up new opportunities for authors and publishers, particularly those working with niche genres or languages that may not have a large pool of human narrators available.

However, it's also important to consider the potential challenges and ethical considerations associated with AI narration. Issues such as the rights to specific voices, the potential for deepfake audio, and the impact on professional narrators are all areas that will need to be addressed as this technology continues to evolve.

Understanding A.I. Audio

The landscape of auto-narrated audiobooks is vast, dynamic, and filled with opportunities for authors and publishers alike. From Direct Text-to-Speech Voices to Concierge Services, the options are diverse, catering to various needs and budgets. With tech giants like Amazon Polly, Google Speech Synthesis, and innovative companies like DeepZen and ElevenLabs, the path to creating an audiobook has never been more accessible.

However, as we've explored, this technology is not without its challenges. The lack of emotional nuance and potential pronunciation issues are hurdles that the industry is actively working to overcome. The ethical considerations of using AI voices and the preferences of listeners for human narration are aspects that warrant careful consideration.

The future of auto-narrated audiobooks is promising, with continuous advancements in AI technology enhancing the quality and customization of narration. The integration of multiple voices, phonetic pronunciation guidance, and the ability to clone one's voice are just the tip of the iceberg in this evolving field.

For authors and publishers venturing into the world of AI narration, the key lies in understanding the available services, weighing the pros and cons, and aligning the choice with the unique needs of the book and the target audience. The revolution of auto-narrated audiobooks is not just a technological marvel; it's a creative endeavor that opens new doors for storytelling, making literature more accessible and diverse.

Whether you choose to embrace AI for narration or opt for traditional human voices, the audiobook industry is a space of endless possibilities and creativity. The choice is yours, and the tools are at your fingertips. 

In part 5, we will round out this series by discussing our options for actually selling our audiobooks and how to get them into the hands of our readers.