Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing advocate and author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. She is a former trade newspaper editor.
The audiobook industry is in somewhat of a practical and existential crisis. Google Play now enables authors and publishers to create audiobooks using text-to-speech (TTS) robot voices.
Let’s talk about how these technological advances are and will impact audiobooks and what that means for authors who are self-publishing audiobooks.
Google Play Introduces Auto-Narration for Audio Books
In 2022, Google Play introduced an AI, artificial intelligence, publishing option for audiobooks. Self-publishers can upload their text-based eBook manuscripts in EPUB format, in English or Spanish, to Google Play, where they can be converted into audiobooks. The books will be narrated by your choice of AI-powered robot voices. This service is currently provided for free, and the website says “for a limited time.” Check the Google Play audiobook publishing website for the latest terms and pricing and to hear samples of the narrating robots. It’s pretty cool.
For self-publishers who are not comfortable narrating their own books, this can provide an economical way to produce an audiobook. It also eliminates the cost and difficulty that hiring narrators can bring, especially for new authors who are not familiar with audiobook publishing or publishing in general. Even if there is a small fee for this service in the future, it can save self-published authors up to thousands of dollars in production costs per book.
Currently, publishers receive a 52 percent share of revenues from sales of these audiobooks on Google Play. Plus, you can sell these on other audiobook platforms that allow them, as long as the book is also available for sale on Google Play.
Unfortunately, you cannot sell these books on Amazon and Audible through ACX because they currently require that a human narrate the book. Will that change in the future? Hard to know, especially since ACX is a platform that connects publishers and human narrators. An AI narration option would compete and conflict with that marketplace.
In terms of content, Google suggests that nonfiction books such as self-help, business, history, biography, health, and religion are prime candidates for these auto-narrated books. Fiction is not recommended because it could require more emotional narration performance than robot narrators cannot offer. As with all audiobooks, and logically, books that are highly visual in nature and have lots of graphics and charts are not suitable for this service.
The LOL Problem With AI Narration
If you spend any time on social media channels such as Instagram and TikTok, which offer text-to-speech capabilities for video narration, you’ll hear some hilarious robot reading of words and slang. I call this the LOL problem.
In text-to-speech, the robots may pronounce the ubiquitous internet slang acronym “LOL” for “laugh out loud” as “lahl,” not “L-O-L.” This error could be corrected by the AI engineers to recognize common acronyms. So it may just be a matter of time for the tech to catch up.
But in the meantime, what if your audiobook robot narrators make errors like this? On the Google Play auto-narration publishing platform, you can edit errors like this and instruct the system how to pronounce it.
What About ISBN Numbers on Google Play Auto-Narration Audiobooks?
On Google Play, you can provide your own ISBN or EAN barcode that you’ve purchased from Bowker, but they will not provide one for you.
If you don’t have an ISBN, Google will generate a Google-generated book identifier or GGKEY. From what I can tell, GGKEYs are not cataloged in the Books in Print database.
Like the free ISBNs that Amazon, KDP, and ACX provide that only are for use on Amazon, the GGKEYs are exclusive to Google and cannot be used for publishing on other self-publishing platforms.
The Exciting and Scary Future of AI Auto-Narration
The ability to easily and inexpensively convert existing text print and eBooks into audiobooks is an exciting opportunity for all publishers. With the continued growth of audiobooks, publishers can leverage existing backlist titles and gain new book sales by now offering them in audio format.
Exciting as all this is, as with all technological and automation developments, this could disrupt the current audiobook ecosystem of narrators and audio production professionals who could lose work to robots. While I think there will always be a place for human performance of audiobooks, whether read by the author or a human narrator, it doesn’t mean that all books need this creative effort and investment.
AI-powered narration could also resurrect dead voices to narrate. A creepy, crazy, cool use of it was used in the movie Top Gun 2. As reported on BGR, actor Val Kilmer, who portrayed “Iceman” in the original Top Gun movie from the 1980s, suffered throat cancer which destroyed his voice.
Sonantic, a group that specializes in AI-generated voice tech, engineered his lines for the 2022 sequel’s audio. If you are familiar with his voice, I encourage you to listen to the sample to see if you can tell the difference. This issue brings up all kinds of questions for this new frontier about deep fakes and royalties for dead performers and their estates and even for piracy of audiobook content.
It will be a while before the robots take over the whole audiobook world. But we need to think about the opportunities and challenges these new technologies will create for us.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2022 Heidi Thorne