Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash
December 14, 2023 – Update Summary:
- It appears that KDP is who is responsible for these books, not Audible or ACX specifically.
- (If anyone is willing to share with me what this looks like from the KDP side I would LOVE to feature it. You can remain anonymous if you’d like)
- Audible DOES do a pretty good job of telling the reader multiple times that these are narrated by AI, but a filter does not exist yet.
- Personally, I believe this is a beta test to see how well the books are received. I don’t know how many books will be released during the beta, but it does appear to have slowed down a small amount since I published the other day (could just be a mid-week lull).
- I’m adding how I got these numbers (pulling my comment and just adding it to the article for easier reading)
- I’m also adding a screenshot of what it looks like when you click on a Virtual Voice audiobook.
- Finally, I’ve added my thoughts on why I think this is a bad thing
Original Article – Published December 12th, 2023
This is one of those posts that I sat on for a day because I wanted to figure out how exactly to “cover” this big change I noticed on Audible. Now, I’ve been covering audiobooks for a long time, reviewing and posting multiple times a week, and doing a weekly New and Notable post where I showcase 10+ books that I think look/sound interesting.
This past weekend when trying to prepare that post I noticed it was taking me a really long time to find books. I figured out why right away. It’s not because there weren’t great books. There are always great books. But, I noticed that Audible was being absolutely flooded with books narrated by “Virtual Voice”. I did a quick search and saw a high percentage of books that were narrated by the AI, referred to as Virtual Voice. It went from taking me 20-30 minutes to prepare and post to over 3 hours. I had to sift through thousands upon thousands of AI audiobooks to find the titles that interested me.
Now, I’m not going to go into the full history of what caused this change or how I feel about it. I know of multiple other people and I’ve been very vocal and clear in my support of Real Voices and I will continue to do so. I’m also not specifically trying to throw shade at Audible/ACX or anyone at Amazon for making this decision (Update as of Dec 14th – I don’t believe that this is ACX – I think it’s directly related to KDP publishing). Do I personally think it’s a bad one? Unequivocally, yes. Do I also understand that they are a business and see dollar signs? Yes… of course.
I’m going to go into the data soon, but I wanted to be very clear in what I want as step one to protect readers who prefer audiobooks written by and narrated by humans.
Audible should put a checkbox or an option that allows readers to have a choice in seeing or not seeing these Virtual Voice audiobooks. This could be as simple as a checkbox on the left, or an option in the settings. They’ve done some things right in this process and I will give them some credit. The books are clearly labeled as being narrated by Virtual Voice. And the samples start by warning the listener that they are done by AI as well. Go one step further Audible and allow us to pick if we want to see them or not.
I believe that this was/is a beta program that Audible and/or ACX is testing out and I’m not sure they expected the turnout to be this strong. Without further ado, I give you the numbers.
I checked 2 main areas of Audible – Romance and Thrillers/Suspense. This is where I noticed it and I wanted to know just how many audiobooks within the last week (7 days – Dec 6th through the 12th) were done by Real Voices vs those done by Virtual Voice/AI.
Subgenres with the most AI-voiced audiobooks:
Erotica – 100% AI-voiced. 15 out of 15 books
Christian – 94%. 144 out of 155 books
Historical – 90%. 234 of 261 books
Paranormal – 90%. 450 of 500 books
Western – 90%. 128 out of 142 books
Now, here I need to give credit to to subgenres. One that doesn’t surprise me at all, is LGBTQ+ — there were 0 books in the past week that were done by AI narrators. The other subgenre was Royalty. Sure, it was only one book, but it was done by an actor, not AI.
The average across all Romance subgenres was 84% — 2,253 out of 2,697 were done by AI. Or put in other words only 444 books were voiced by humans (16%)
Thriller & Suspense
Subgenres with the most AI-voiced audiobooks:
Christian – 88% – 21 out of 24 books
Supernatural – 85% – 58 out of 68 books
Romance – 80% – 226 out of 282 books
Legal – 77% – 17 out of 22 books
Suspense – 75% – 101 out of 134 books
Medical – 75%– 6 out of 8 books
The average across all Thriller & Suspense subgenres was 69% — 540 out of 786 were done by AI. Or put in other words only 246 books were voiced by humans (31%)
I don’t have a great conclusion here, I just wanted to get this information out there because it was blowing my mind last night. I even gave the real narrators a shot here because I ended up doing this on a Tuesday when real-voiced audiobooks are normally published. But the numbers are just staggering. Audible needs to do something soon to make it so that the marketplace isn’t this flooded every week.
Some thoughts when I was posting this last night on Twitter/X.
I’d definitely have to say that we likely will see a drop in our income from audiobook sales, as the market gets even more crowded.
— Tao Wong (@tr_wong) December 12, 2023
Prolific reader here, and AI narration is the absolute worst. Bad enough that Audible shoves bestsellers in our faces – you have to really search for indies – but I’d be interested in how many ‘fake’ books are returned moving forward.
Also how do blind readers feel here?
— Cat Treadwell (@druid_cat) December 12, 2023
It’s utterly devastating for those of us like me who have spent their whole lives shaping our instrument and dedicating our lives to learning, growing and improving in a genre we are passionate about to be annihilated by a robot 😞
— Rachael Beresford – Audiobook Narrator (@rachiesvoice) December 12, 2023
Karen has done some amazing work here, and I want to give her a lot of credit – she shared some links
Thanks for taking this stand and increasing consumers’ knowledge about artificial voices. I’ve written a couple of articles that you may find useful. Feel free to quote anything with attribution and a link.https://t.co/CUSLTNawjBhttps://t.co/CNnaeWBf8A
— Karen Commins (@KarenCommins) December 12, 2023
I just looked – I hadn’t realized how many had been published so quickly
— Lisa Flanagan (@LiSur) December 12, 2023
I’m never gonna listen to an audiobook it’s AI voiced. I want to hear a voice actor performance.Period.
— Seth A Quimby (@TeamQuimbyNH) December 10, 2023
How I Got These Numbers:
(Originally posted as a comment)
- I went to the page I specifically have for new releases (you can get to it by going to Browse > New Release), and picked specifically the last week (gives me a running 7 days).
- I changed the number of results from 20 to 50 to make my life easier.
- Then I went into the genres (so Romance) then I clicked on each subgenre (Christian for example).
- Then I searched for “Virtual Voice” using command/control + F – and I would write down the number of times it showed up.
- It shows up twice per book (once for the narrator and one for the sample). So I then took that number and divided it by 2 to get the real number of audiobooks narrated by Virtual Voice.
So on a page with 50 books, if I saw 100 instances of Virtual Voice – I knew that every book on that page was done by AI voices. (This did happen on multiple full pages
I took each number of Virtual Voice and put that into the total number of books in that subgenre.
This is the “raw” data I took
And here’s a slightly better “cleaned up” version with better titles/descriptors so you can follow the math
More Updates – December 14th, 2023
I wanted to share a real-world example of the things Audible IS doing right, and ways that readers can make sure they’re not picking up one of these books.
Here’s a screenshot of a completely random book narrated by Virtual Voice.
What I noticed:
- There’s a tooltip that is auto-showing that mentions that this is using Virtual Voice.
- The sample is different than a normal audiobook button, calling out Virtual Voice again.
- You can see that it is narrated by “Virtual Voice”
- There’s a large banner that mentions that this uses computer-generated narration.
- It’s included in Audible Plus or whatever subscription I have with Audible, which is why it says “Play” for me instead of Buy.
One that’s a little harder to notice, but I caught right away:
- They don’t have “audiobook covers” aka – square covers instead of the book ones. These do NOT have the square covers, and to be was the fastest way I spotted them on the browse pages.
So they get a lot of stuff right. They are calling out a lot of the information and making sure that the consumer knows before purchasing but they still do not have a way to filter them out.
Here’s an example on the browse page:
As I mentioned above, the cover difference is where I spotted it first. But you can also see that the narrator and the sample button are different.
So use this extra info to help you avoid these books until they can get the filtration figured out (or until the beta program dies… hopefully!)
Added Thoughts/Why This is a Problem
I was so flustered when I was originally writing this piece because it was stressing me out that my friends’ art was going to be diluted with this cheap/quick way of making a buck. I have lots of narrator friends and acquaintances that I respect and look up to. Those who have worked years to hone their craft, their instruments, and their emotions to bring these books to life. It’s the reason I fell back in love with audiobooks way back when I picked up a copy of The Martian narrated by the wonderfully talented R.C. Bray. It felt like someone was reading the book to me specifically, not just reading the book and I was there to listen to it.
That’s what AI cannot bring to life — real human emotion. All books have emotions of some kind, some different than others, but all of them have emotions. And there is no way that a computer without feeling can understand and relay that information to a reader. Sure, it can tell me the story, but how is that different than any text-to-speech software that’s out there? I know that some people use and utilize TTS due to some disabilities, but none of them would tell you that any TTS software makes them feel like they’re part of the story or narrative, or that any of them have “life” in their voices.
I know that AI is being pushed hard right now, and I’m not even saying don’t use AI. What I am saying explicitly is DON’T USE AI FOR AUDIOBOOKS.
Here’s the thing that confuses me and that I haven’t seen anyone mention in my comments or on social media when sharing this…
How can an author feel it is right to put their blood, sweat, and tears into a piece of written art and then turn around and pay to have it produced as an audiobook by AI. What they are saying to me is that they are also fine with AI writing the book for them and taking their job as well. Because if you think an AI can do an even passable job of bringing your book to life, then you also have to believe that AI can write a book that feels realistic and authentic. And I’d bet that most of these authors (not all, because some of them are just trying to make a buck) would be or are against AI-written books. But they’re fine with AI-performed books? It feels off to me.
I know I rambled a bit here, but audiobooks are a passion for me. They are brought to life by these insanely talented performers, actors, and genuinely great human beings. They are real people with real lives and livelihoods on the line. Agreeing to listen to an audiobook by an AI narrator is telling Amazon/Audible/KDP that you are okay with this and you want more moving forward. And telling them that says that it’s worth the loss they are likely taking to make it happen.
Show support for the very real people who are behind these great performances by standing with them instead of stepping on their livelihoods.
- New and Notable Audiobook Releases for the Week of February 24th on Brian’s Book Blog - February 24, 2024
- The Wall by Brian Penn (Narrated by Luke Welland) - February 21, 2024
- For the Long Run by Cheyenne Blue (Narrated by Cat Gould) - February 20, 2024