Would you rather listen to Matthew McConaughey or a robot? Seems like an easy answer. But is the discussion about artificial intelligence in publishing that clear-cut? Or do authors, publishers, audio engineers, and listeners need to consider a few things first? There is much talk in the publishing industry about A.I. (Artificial Intelligence). A.I. to write books, create art, craft outlines, promotional materials, and even narrate the audiobook. Is A.I. a help or a hindrance, or neither or both? There may be some perceived and practical benefits for utilizing this technology for audiobook narration, like time savings, accuracy, and low costs. But there is more to an audiobook than just the mechanics of production.
What do you enjoy most about listening to an audiobook? Or a podcast? Or even a particular actor, late-night host, or newscaster? Don’t we enjoy the connection we feel with that person?
It’s not that different for a successful, in-demand audiobook. We love
- an author’s passion for the material,
- a compelling voice,
- call to action, and
- a connection with the audience.
Those reasons fuel delight AND audiobook sales!
Readers in growing numbers are driving demand for audiobooks. Audiobooks are the fastest-growing segment in publishing.
Listeners desire a connection with the author. They want to hear their heart for the topic. But does it matter if what the listener hears is a person or an artificially generated sound?
You might be able to guess my answer to that question: an unapologetic, “Yes, it does matter!”
But, I don’t ever shy away from technology, so let’s take some time and explore A.I. and how authors might use it to record an audiobook. Let’s take an objective look.
There seem to be several benefits associated. The main reasons an author might use AI to narrate their audiobook are speed, accuracy, cost, and technical consistency.
A vacuum beats a broom. Similarly, AI is a wonderful time saver when recording an audiobook.
Much like your “hands-free” or “talk-to-text” feature on your smartphone, an AI program could read and record your manuscript with minimal time investment from you.
A 40,000-word manuscript takes a narrator roughly 9 hours to read (accounting for mistakes). This reading produces a 4.5-hour audiobook. An AI-read manuscript would take roughly the same amount of time as the finished length but only a fraction of the time for the author to set up the program and start the process. This would free up a whole workday for other activities.
AI read material will not be prone to misspoken words. There are times when I am reading something only to say the wrong word changing the entire meaning. This would not be the case with an AI-read manuscript. The programs would not accidentally change words as a human will. This accuracy would save post-production time by not removing mistakes.
Vocal pauses would be eliminated, as would breaths. However, specialty words, technical terminology, and obscure cities and names could prove difficult for AI. These might need to be spelled phonetically for the AI voice to pronounce them correctly. Many of the problems associated with traditional recordings (breath pops, inconsistent volume levels, improper microphone usage, poor recording environments, and acoustics) are eliminated as there are no traditional “studios.” The narration is delivered directly to your computer, and since it is produced in a digital form, there is no noise, room reflections, or other recording noise. File clean-up would be almost non-existent.
Accurate, but certainly not inspiring or eliciting emotion.
Cost Of Using Artificial Intelligence
If you have plans to hire a narrator, AI saves that expense. This results in large financial savings. Since you’re not paying royalties or work time to a human narrator, an AI-read manuscript can cost significantly less.
With all these benefits, AI seems like a good option. Why would anyone not want to adopt this technology?
While these benefits seem undeniable, there are other factors to consider.
What’s lost when artificial intelligence is the only voice?
These same arguments were given when digital music production first came on the scene.
Pitch correcting, timing adjustments, and noise-free audio were just a few of the advantages of the digital audio revolution. However, while recordings are noise-free and precise, they are too perfect.
That’s because our ears don’t hear digitally. Our ears receive acoustic impulses, which are then converted into electrical impulses decoded by the brain. It is the minor imperfections that make the music or other production believable.
Piano tuners have known this for years. Many piano tuners use a digital strobe to get the proper pitch for each string. And since many keys on a piano strike multiple strings for each note, they need to be tuned to the same pitch. When this is done, and the piano is played, the instrument doesn’t sound right. It’s too perfect and therefore sounds wrong. Because of this, good piano tuners will slightly detune strings on the same note to create harmonics and overtones that add to the richness of the tone.
It is these imperfections that create beauty and musical complexity.
This is one of the same reasons for the resurgence in the popularity of vinyl recordings. It is the warmth and the “humanness” of the medium that is drawing audiophiles back in droves. A digital recording is wonderful, but it can be too sterile and sound wrong. Imperfections must be added to restore the earthy, authentic, and rich sound.
This lack of “realness” is where AI narration falls short. It lacks the human touch, warmth, and imperfections that make the recording seem real.
Benefits of Human Narration
You, the author, have written the words, and have passion for the subject. No one knows the material as well as you do, and no one can give the message “life” quite like you can. Your passion shines through when you deliver your material.
And only you, sound like you. Think of the countless actors and personalities that we know just by the sound of their voices. Can you name a few right off of the top of your head?
From the very start, we connect with audio. A baby prefers its mother’s voice. For example, in one classic study, newborns listened to voices played over a loudspeaker, and their interest waxed and waned depending on whom they heard. When it was the voice of their own mother, they were more attentive. They spent more time turning their heads in the direction of the loudspeaker (e.g., DeCasper AJ and Fifer 1980).
We respond to what we hear on a deep level. An author’s heart is heard as they read their manuscript. The reader connects and forms a bond impossible through AI or with printed books.
When you connect with your audience, they become loyal fans and will follow you from project to project.
Because of your heart for your book’s topic, and your passion for delivering the material, your connection with the audience may compel them to act. They may seek out more of your work. Or take action compelled by your influence.
Read a newspaper or skim news articles online and gauge how influenced you feel to do something. Now watch those same stories as told by the news desk or someone you trust and feel connected to. Which compels action and asserts more influence over your next steps?
So which will you pursue? AI narration or human recording? Matthew McCaughnauhy or the robot? (P.S. Matt has one of the highest selling audiobooks, #1 New York Times Bestseller Greenlights)
Please understand that of these two choices, AI narration is the easiest.
It takes hard work and determination to record the narration yourself. But, as the old adage reminds us, “If it is worth doing, it is worth doing right!”
And on a personal note, I have lost track of how many authors have thanked me for the opportunity to do something that turned out to be fun, cathartic, and therapeutic for them.
While there is a place for AI narration within the audiobook industry, in my opinion, it is short-sighted to take this route.
While authors may be saving time and money to get their product into the hands of their audience, they miss the opportunity to make a deeper and lasting connection with their fans and readers and end up trading lasting influence for the convenience of a quick turnaround.
Have questions? I’d be happy to answer your questions. No robot here! Let’s talk.