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.

Romance

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.

Karen has done some amazing work here, and I want to give her a lot of credit – she shared some links

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. 

Brian

29 thoughts on “Audible’s Virtual Voice is Flooding the Market

  1. Thanks for revealing these numbers Brian, how did you find those percentages? I always appreciate your dedication to audiobooks!

    1. It was pretty simple. I went to the page I specifically have for new releases, picked specifically the last week (gives me a running 7 days).
      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.

      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.

      I took each number of VV 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

    1. Sure thing! I was working on an automated way of doing it (that would inherently be prettier) but I wanted to get the data I had out.

  2. I’ve been tweeting about this issue for a long time, knowing that as soon as Audible let AI on its platform the floodgates would open. I’m appalled at how quickly AI narrated books have been rolled out on Audible. I’ve contacted ACX many times to clarify the situation- as they did not notify account holders this beta test was happening. I was told Virtual Voice narration is being offered to authors who have books in Kindle Unlimited and do not have audiobooks yet. And that this Virtual Voice Beta test is NOT by ACX/Audible. It is run by Amazon KDP. This was asserted as if they’re not the SAME company. 😐

    ACX told me they DO NOT accept AI narration via their upload portal. “The requirements regarding all ACX audio submissions needing to be a human voice has not changed, and it remains on on platform requirements as it has always been. AI generated voices or text to speech is not permitted on ACX”
    This means that all Virtual Voice audios come via KDP to be uploaded on Amazon and Audible.

    The last time I looked there were over 4000 AI audiobooks on Audible’s US store…just 2 weeks from the launch of the beta test. I’ve asked Audible if they have a maximum number of AI audiobooks for this test, 10,000, 20,000? But got no response. What baffles me the most is that they’re investing tonnes of time and money in this technology, yet there is no proof that listeners even want synthetic voice. (The reviews and outrage in audio listener groups say they don’t!) This is only the start and I know the voice will be improved upon – so does that mean that authors who put their manuscript through the mincer to get a sub par AI narration will need to do it again when the tech improves? The reviews I’ve seen are as expected – the voice is monotonous, boring, misses character accents and story cues, and mispronounces names/places.

    I know that the tech bros have been pushing AI audio by saying it improves accessibility to blind customers. But the fact is blind customers can have Alexa read any book to them. But now this Virtual voice monetizes disability by making blind customers pay for a product they can already access for free with text-to-speech. Virtual Voice narration isn’t a better product than having Alexa read a book. It’s smoke and mirrors from Amazon once again!

    1. Thank you for your additional details. It knew it was a “beta test” but you’re right, what are the upper limits. Because I believe your number of 4000, but I’m betting it’s even higher – because the “over 4000 results” seems to be the upper default for the browse pages – I just tested another one and it says the same thing. Just in my two categories there were

      2,793 AI Virtual Voice books out of 3,483 books (I know that 1-2 of these should have 500 more, but that’s another subgenre limit. It’ll say “over 600 results” and it will only show 500. A whopping 80% of books in the two places I checked were done by AI that’s just within the past week. 7 days. Insane.

      1. Thanks Brian. Flooding Audible with AI over the busiest retail period of the year amounts to sabotage of authors who use human narrators. What were they thinking?

        One of the upcoming issues that both ACX and Audible will have to contend with now are those Authors/marketers who will try and game the system now that the floodgates are open. Even though ACX stated in emails to me that AI is not accepted, an AI voice company recently sent an email through the ACX messaging system looking for narrators to narrate opening chapters of books that would then be completed with AI. Their business plan is to use human narration for the opener/retail sample so they can circumnavigate the ‘no Ai’ rule. This user was reported and their account was removed. But they’re one of many AI voice start ups who now believe that as the market leader Audible is allowing AI they’ll be able to upload their AI titles. If there is a market for AI audio it needs a separate AudibleAI retail site because if the upload of AI via the Virtual Voice program continues at a 4k every 2 weeks rate then Audible will quickly become unusable.

        1. I would really like to know how long the turnaround for the authors who have done the AI Virtual Voice books is. Like is it same day, even same week? I know that performers can’t compete with that, even if you’re wide open it still takes weeks to pre-read, mark, prepare, record, edit, master/produce, etc.

          I agree – I was thinking this morning that a separate site is probably the best bet for readers. Because I don’t want to look at it, I know others who agree. But there are some who just like it because it’s different or don’t care if their books have emotion.

          1. In this Publishers Weekly article it states that:

            “authors can choose one of their eligible e-books already on the KDP platform, then sample voices, preview the work, and customize the audiobook. After publication, audiobooks will be live within 72 hours, and will distributed wherever Audible titles are sold. ”

            https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/audio-books/article/93625-kindle-direct-publishing-will-beta-test-virtual-voice-narrated-audiobooks.html

            72 hours is a fast turnaround. We’re up to over 6k AI audios today (14th Dec) and still rising. (shudder)

            I’ve been heartened to see members of audiobook listener groups on FB getting together to mass email Audible to express their anger at the Virtual Voice roll out. They’re saying that searching for audiobooks is even more frustrating and they’re asking Audible to develop a way to block Virtual Voice from their audiobook searches. The responses they’re getting from Audible so far are cookie cutter/chat GPT type of replies and some are even being given a free credit to buy their silence!

  3. I tried to replicate your research in the Fantasy genera and found fewer “Virtual Voice” options among the new releases although they did dominate the “Christian” sub-genera. I’m not surprised as I know a number of authors in this space have said that more than half their sales are now audio books, and narrators get associated with authors (e.g. Michael Kramer and Kate Reading with Brandon Sanderson). I speculate that at least right now, Virtual Voice is not taking novels from voice actors so much as it is making audio available for books that would otherwise not get an narration for lack of sales.

  4. Thank you for this article and for your personal preference to have humans narrate human stories. I have dedicated my entire life to bring humanity’s stories forward through my very human self. 14 of those have been being an Audiobook Narrator. I am absolutely reeling and my heart is utterly broken if consumers do not push back. Honestly I just don’t know what world I’m living, and if that doesn’t happen. The growth in this industry was already so huge every year. I cannot figure out this greed.

    1. Erin, I totally agree with you. And if it’s any comfort, listeners in audiobook groups on FB are outraged by Audible’s move to sell AI audio – particularly in the Audible Plus program that they use to get listeners to binge audio. From listener responses in audiobook groups and from looking at the reviews of AI audiobooks on Audible my impression is that Audible/KDP has over-extended themselves with this beta test.

      Google’s mission statement for their AI audiobook beta was to ‘make every book in the world into an AI audiobook.’ This is a tech bro push for a product no one wants. It’s nuts. The technology isn’t good enough, yet they’re producing millions of AI audiobooks of poor quality.

      I don’t believe narrators have anything to worry about. Authors who don’t sell well in ebook/paperback but want an audiobook will never pay for a human narrator. Authors who do sell well but choose AI ‘because it’s free’ will learn quickly that they won’t earn from it and may, in fact, trash their brand in the process. It is listeners who will decide whether AI audiobooks are a viable product. If they don’t buy into it the beta test will fail. Fingers crossed!

  5. I just got the biggest runaround trying to contact Audible to ask for a filter to be put into place to weed out the FLOOD of Virtual Voice results. There was no option in chat that fit at all, and I had to call twice (after being disconnected) only to be told “that’s not an option.” When I asked to speak to a supervisor, I was told they weren’t available. So I got their customer support email and sent a very disgruntled email. I own over 2,000 titles, so hopefully they’ll see I’m someone who puts my money where my mouth is, and I will NEVER buy an AI audiobook. I don’t care if it’s my favorite book in the world. Human narrtors ONLY.

    1. I completely understand. I can’t believe they just opened up the flood gates – it’s insane how many titles there are.

      I hope they figure something out soon because it’s just getting worse.

  6. Thank you for this. I have been a narrator since 2001 and have always loved the intimacy of this art form– the connection between us and the listener. When someone is listening to a book I’ve done, I feel like I am reading it just to them, and I know a lot of my fellow narrators feel the same way. Narrators, as a group, are tremendously thoughtful and dedicated to making narrations that support the desires of the author and the “soul” of the book. Tech Bros gonna Tech Bro, and no amount of money is gonna be enough, but this practice is so disrespectful of the authors and the care they put into their work, cynical and disrespectful of the listeners who give their valuable time and attention and who want and deserve the best experience possible, and, as with so many Tech Bro priorities, doesn’t care to consider what art does for the human spirit, or in fact that the Human Spirit is actually a valuable thing.

  7. Thank you so much for posting this, and for your reporting which is thorough and informative.

    There are so many things AI can do better than humans (among which I would include running a corporation). Why, though, does anyone think we’d want AI in this space? Telling each other stories is, I believe, the most distinctly human thing we do. It’s how we connect to each other, learn about others’ experiences and outlooks, how we learn about ourselves. In what universe is relegating that profoundly human endeavor to an algorithm, or listening to the disembodied forgery of a human voice it produces, something worth doing?

    I’m encouraged by the blowback we’re seeing from listeners, and have hopes that the experiment will be deemed a failure. Although, Amazon, and others, probably won’t learn the important lesson that audiobooks is the wrong venue for AI, they’ll just go back to the drawing board and try again later with a cleverer strategy.

    ~ sigh ~

  8. This is curious. Who is producing these AI books? The authors/publishers? Or is KDP doing it themselves? Are the authors being paid when these are downloaded?

    Technically, AI can already read aloud any kindle ebook via Alexa. And she doesn’t do a bad job. The only problem with this is that the author doesn’t get any income from that added feature.

    I’m a huge audiobook fan, and I have a very large collection of audiobooks. I only resort to Alexa when I can’t get an audiobook with a real person doing the narrating.

  9. Last week, I was browsing the newest releases on Audible and I saw the narrator as virtual voice. I listened to a sample audio and instantly said “Hell No” I have over 600 titles in my collection and if audible continues down this path, I will be canceling my subscription.

  10. If any audiobook fans want to filter out the Virtual Voice on Audible, simply search for books on Audible UK. There are no Virtual Voices available!

    1. Thank you for stopping my palpitations at the thought of losing the chance to listen to books being performed rather than droned. I’m a UK subscriber & there is no way I would continue paying Audible for AI voice overs.

  11. Brian, great article. My take on this whole AI voice transition is a little different than most. I listen to a lot of audiobooks. I appreciate it when a narrator changes their voice or inflection to represent a specific character. I like it when the narrator brings to life a scene by raising their voice or softening their tone. But I see AI voice as an opportunity for both writers and narrators.

    As a writer, I think it’s cool to convert my years of work into an audio format in a matter of days not weeks. I like having the option of possibly creating audiobooks of my work in different languages. For a good percentage of most books, you cannot tell the difference between an AI voice and a real narrator. I have to admit, however, that I have not yet listened to an entire book done by an AI voice.

    Here is where I see things going. Any narrator can use their own voice in an AI voice production. It won’t be long before a narrator can create additional AI voices for specific characters, either by using their own voice or other AI voices. It won’t be long before you’ll have the ability to adjust tone, inflection, and audio levels. It won’t be long before narrators will have a library of special effects to add to their narration. It’s still their voice. Instead of losing money, this could be an opportunity to create a whole new business model, where you offer an AI voice production that includes multiple voices and special effects to enhance the listening experience. Say there is a scene involving a murder. How hard will it be to add the sound of a gunshot to the scene, or the sound of an ambulance or police siren. Yes, you can do that now. But it may be easier and faster using AI.

    I’ve been using AI almost daily for the past several months. It’s not going away. I say embrace the technology, learn how to use it, and see what opportunities are on the horizon.

  12. I think this article is overly negative. Good quality AI will let indy authors who cannot afford a narrator to produce audio books. Yes AI naration may not be very good at the momement, but it will get better. Popular books are even now produced with different narrators. It is likely that AI will push out mediocre narrators.

    1. It feels that way because friends of mine are narrators and there is no reason to produce a book via AI. It’s not something that anyone asked for. It’s just Amazon looking to make more money.

      Literally a year ago if you tried to publish anything on Audible with AI narration they would instantly block it. Now they welcome it with open arms?

      There are options for indie authors to get audiobooks produced that aren’t AI. I literally just had a conversation with an author about this last week.

  13. I’m not sure “flooding the market” is believable. As someone who has 574 Audible titles in my library and has never seen “Virtual Voice” while browsing I am not currently worried. Perhaps this is not an issue for me because I don’t read romance or erotica. lol

    1. I stopped running the numbers because I found a way to remove them.

      But I look at new releases every single week. Normally there are maybe 3-4k audiobooks released. The week I wrote this there were 15k with 12k of them AI. Each week after it was basically doubling the amount of audiobooks and the Virtual Voice program was (and I think still is in beta – so not even available to all authors).

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