Look Who’s Talking: AI, Voice and Audiobooks

Digital technology has transformed the audio sector of the publishing business, creating new formats for published works, new forms of licensing, and new modes of production and distribution.

Once limited to simple books-on-tape, often in abridged form, and sold through retail outlets, audiobooks are today available in both downloaded and streamable form, as well as retail, and on a variety of platforms, from Amazon-owned Audible to Spotify and Apple Music. From 2015 through 2020, according to the Audio Publishers Association (APA), sales, rentals and streams of audiobooks grew by 157%, and now represent roughly 15% of publishing revenue.

Yet only about 10% of published books, mostly frontlist trade titles, are released on audio, leaving huge libraries of potentially exploitable audio rights lying fallow. According to long-time publishing consultant Bill Wolfsthal, that’s mostly down to economics. It takes anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 to produce a professional sounding audiobook, with most of that going to cover the fixed-cost of a narrator, whether authors themselves or professional voice actors. That limits publishers’ potential profit on all but the bestsellers, depressing availability.

New technology such as synthetic voice narration coud change that, Wolfsthal says, reducing the cost to $500 to $1,000 per title, opening up new opportunities for publishers to exploit their audio rights libraries. But the bloodless, robotic sound of most computer generated voices is off-putting to most listeners, and publishers have mostly avoided using it.

Today, however, companies like Wolfsthal’s client Speechki, are using artificial intelligence to produce more natural sounding synthetic voices, which Wolfsthal claims could unlock the trove of currently dormant audio rights, yielding a windfall for publisher.

At this week’s Let’s DEW Lunch RightsTech Roundtable (Thursday, April 21) I’ll be chatting with Wolfsthal and Michele Cobb, a partner are Forte Consulting and executive director of the Audio Publishers Association, about the growth of the overall audio sector, how it’s evolving, and how new technology can create new opportunities to license and monetizing neglected publishing rights.

Noon Pacific, 3:00pm Eastern. Registration is free and open to all https://digitalmediawire.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_TRUa_L5vQ-CR-v_maBO2Yg.

On a related note, over on the Concurrent Media blog this week, I discussed why the recent rash of state house bills aimed at creating a compulsory public library license for e-books are mistargeted if their goal is to actually benefit public libraries.

How to Support Your Local Library

The Attorney General of Maryland, Brian Frosh, told a federal district court in a filing this week that Maryland will offer no new evidence in a legal challenge brought by the Association of American Publishers (AAP) against the state’s recently enacted library e-book licensing law. The state’s demurral removes any obstacle to the court converting its preliminary injunction against enforcing the provision into a permanent injunction, effectively rendering the law a dead letter…(more)

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