midstream thoughts on AI narration

By now, you’ve probably been inundated by stories about recent advances in artificial intelligence—from art generation to text creation—and how it’s either the end of all things or the salvation of humanity. I’ve seen some hopeful promise as well as legitimate causes for concern, and for the latter I recommend the most recent episode of Last Week Tonight by the always excellent John Oliver.

I’m not writing books with AI or having ChatGPT “write” my Sky & Telescope column for me. But I am curious about AI in terms of narration, which is another area of valid controversy. My primary concern is making content accessible, while adhering to ethical and conscientious practices.

I don’t currently have audio versions of any of my books. That’s not out of stubbornness or ignorance. I’ve long wanted to make my books available in audio format, but it’s been a matter of money, effort, and time.

The truth is that many authors—trad-published, indie, and hybrid—simply do not make enough money to live off of from their book royalties, much less do much in the way of producing additional versions of their work. Traditional publishing houses can produce audiobooks, but for many indie authors, the cost of hiring professional voice talent is beyond prohibitive. Some indies produce their own audiobooks, which they narrate and record in home studios—which can be little more than a padded closet—before diving into editing. It’s not an insignificant investment of time and energy.

And a few indie authors are turning to AI narration.

There are many options, with new players appearing on the scene all the time. As with publishing in general, it’s an evolving situation, with terms of service updating frequently and distributors and sales channels trying to keep on top of their own decision making about what kinds of audiobook narration is and isn’t acceptable on their platforms. The technology itself, and its applications and the reactions to it, are changing literally by the day. Even apart from ethical concerns, the situation is dizzying.

I don’t know how (or if) I’ll proceed with my own work, given my lack of budget for professional voice talent. I’m curious about AI narration, though not to the point of using a synthetic voice that sounds nearly identical to an authentic human voice—mostly because voice actors work hard and deserve to be compensated appropriately, rather than being replaced. Or I might take a shot at reading some of my books aloud, and hope I don’t sound too horrible.

My aim is not to try to fool anyone into thinking that an AI-narrated audiobook was read by an actual human being—just as I would hope no one would expect professional, studio-recorded sound from my own home office audio.

My concern is accessibility. Readers of all abilities and backgrounds should be able to access books and enjoy these stories. When I consider that my current series—the Haunted Coast paranormal cozy mystery books—features a main character who is disabled by chronic pain, it doesn’t make sense to restrict the potential audience to only sighted people who aren’t challenged by reading print.

So I’ve got a mic, and I’m experimenting with doing some of my own narration—like providing an audio version of this blog post. I’m not a voice actor, and I’m not trying to give a performance. The result could be an embarrassing mess. If “narrated by the clumsy, clueless author” is a bonus for anyone, this might be the way to go. I’ll also probably try out Google’s AI narration or one of the third-party services that isn’t trying to mimic “natural voice.”

I’m at the very beginning here, only dipping my toes in the water. I am actively learning and am open to ideas and opinions. I don’t know what this tech will look like even next month, much less next year or beyond. I’m trying to keep my focus on the readers, who are the reason I keep showing up and doing this storytelling work. I don’t want anyone to be left out or left behind.

Posted in thoughts from the spiral, writing & publishing.

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