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Death of the narrator? Apple unveils a suite of AI-voiced audiobooks | Apple

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Apple has quietly launched a catalog of AI-narrated books in a move that could mark the beginning of the end for human storytellers. The strategy marks an attempt to disrupt the lucrative and rapidly growing market for audiobooks, but it also promises to step up scrutiny of allegations of anti-competitive behavior by Apple.

The popularity of the audiobook market has exploded in recent years as tech companies scramble to gain a foothold. Last year, sales jumped 25%, bringing in more than $1.5 billion. Industry insiders believe the global market could be worth more than $35 billion by 2030.

Apple was due to launch the project in mid-November, but delayed it as layoffs at Meta and the chaos surrounding Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter cast a dark cloud over the tech sector.

On the company’s Books app, searching for “AI storytelling” reveals the catalog of works included in the scheme, which are described as being “told by a digital voice based on a human narrator”.

Over the past few months, Apple has approached independent publishers as potential partners, including some in the Canadian market, but not all have agreed to participate.

The writers were told that Apple – which at the time was not named as the company behind the technology – would bear the production costs and the writers would receive royalties from sales.

Publishers involved in the project were required to sign nondisclosure agreements — common in technology — but also reflecting Apple’s notorious pursuit of secrecy.

Apple’s development of AI to narrate books could represent a significant shift in how big tech companies see the future of audiobooks.

Publishers, authors and literary agents who spoke to the Guardian said the strategy, if successful, could have significant implications for the market.

Others, however, were skeptical.

“The narrator brings a whole new range of artistry into audiobook creation, and we think that’s a powerful thing. They’re creating something that’s different from the printed book, but adds value as a form of art,” said David Caron, co-producer at Canada’s largest audiobook publisher.

“When you have really great writing and really talented storytelling, you come up with something special. It’s worth the investment.

Ahead of the launch, a Canadian literary agent told the Guardian she didn’t see the value from both a literary or client perspective.

“Companies see the market for audiobooks and that there is money to be made. They want to create content. But that’s all. That’s not what customers want to listen to. There’s so much value in storytelling and storytelling,” Carly Watters said.

While there is potential for backlash from professional voice actors, authors themselves are increasingly being asked to tell their own books. There is a financial incentive for writers, both in upfront payments and in the increased availability of their work.

But producing an audiobook with a human voice can take weeks and cost publishers thousands of dollars. The lure of AI promises to significantly reduce costs.

Yet computer-generated voices have long struggled to hold listeners’ attention for long periods of time and to overcome the “strange valley” effect of synthetic human speech. Human intonation and inflection are notoriously difficult to predict and replicate.

For years, Apple has sold books and audiobooks through its Books app, and rumor has it that the company would be interested in developing its own audiobook service and transitioning from a retailer to a producer.

But the move represents a direct shot at rival Amazon, with Apple listing what it said were the advantages of its own system over Kindle’s direct publishing.

Apple and Amazon – which owns audiobook market leader Audible – had previously said they were exploring AI storytelling technology, but Google had been the most public about its efforts and breakthroughs.

Even before Apple’s entry, the battle for control of the audiobook market has renewed existing feuds between major players. In recent months, Spotify, which announced plans to offer 300,000 audiobook titles to customers, has fiercely clashed with Apple over App Store policies after its own app was rejected three times.

In a recently launched site, Time to Play Fair, intended to defend its position, Spotify said that Apple’s “cumbersome” process for buying audiobooks “makes it harder for you to find your next favorite author or book. “.

He alleges that Apple’s policies mean that “in addition to hurting consumers, authors and publishers are also punished.”

Apple justified the rejection by arguing that the way Spotify offers audiobooks violates rules surrounding online purchases and how it communicates with customers.

While Apple already sells audiobooks, the latest move is likely to raise more questions about its anti-competitive behavior. Lawmakers in Europe and the United States have put in place increasing scrutiny of the company following allegations that Apple is limiting competition.

Apple collects a 30% fee on all services and product sales through its App Store, and a recent antitrust lawsuit involving Epic Games highlighted the strict regulations surrounding the App Store, as well as its immense profitability.

Apple recently pulled $78.13 billion from its high-margin services business, which includes app sales, as well as its music, gaming and streaming services.

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