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The Changing Audiobook Market: Advanced Self-Publishing Podcast With Orna Ross And Joanna Penn

The Changing Audiobook Market: Advanced Self-Publishing Podcast With Orna Ross and Joanna Penn

In today's Advanced Self-Publishing podcast, Orna Ross and Joanna Penn discuss the changing audiobook market.

Audiobooks once again performed well in 2021 in the United States, UK, and Europe, with double-digit growth for the seventh year running. The opportunities of audio continue to expand with more distributors and improved discoverability so more listeners can find our work.

But the rise of subscription models is impacting the profitability of audio, so how do indie authors use the services in the most effective way? Can AI narration expand the audiobook market even more—and will authors, narrators, and listeners embrace it?

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Show Notes

About the Hosts

Joanna Penn writes nonfiction for authors and is an award-nominated, New York Times and USA Today bestselling thriller author as J.F.Penn. She’s also an award-winning podcaster, creative entrepreneur, and international professional speaker.

Orna Ross launched the Alliance of Independent Authors at the London Book Fair in 2012. Her work for ALLi has seen her named as one of The Bookseller’s “100 top people in publishing”. She also publishes poetry, fiction and nonfiction, and is greatly excited by the democratising, empowering potential of author-publishing. For more information about Orna, visit her website: http://www.ornaross.com

Read the Transcript: Audiobook Market

Joanna Penn: Hello everyone, and welcome to the Alliance of Independent Authors' Advanced Self-Publishing Salon with me, Joanna Penn, and Orna Ross. Hi, Orna.

Orna Ross: Hi Joanna, and hello everyone. Welcome.

Joanna Penn: Yes, hello. Today our topic is, The Changing Market for Audiobooks: Subscription Models and AI Narration. So, that is coming up in our topic section.

ALLi Monthly Update – January 2022

But first of all, we like to tell you what's going on in the world of ALLi and also for us, because we are authors, as we like to remind you, we don't just talk about this stuff, we do this stuff. So, Orna, what's up with ALLi at the moment?

Orna Ross: Yeah, we are in the final stages of bringing out our directory, our services directory, for our partner members.

So, that is essentially, for those who don't know, partner members are vetted and approved services across the seven processes of publishing. So, editors, designers, distributors, marketers, promoters, everything that you need in terms of a team.

We update the directory once a year. Well, we update it quarterly with our new members as they come in, but we do a whole new direction with new articles and things each year, and that's about to come out.

We also had this month, I know people have been kind of asking about this a lot, we had an interesting meeting with Audible about various issues that our members have been bringing up, particularly around support desk issues. We still have the ongoing Audiblegate thing of the returns, and that is still a very live question.

But quite aside from that, we're all getting on with our work and we wouldn't recommend anybody not to use Audible, ACX I should say, as a distributor, unless you choose not to of course, as they are a key part of the market.

So, we're trying all the time to improve things, so we are actually looking for people, if you have any experience with Audible that has been good, bad, or indifferent, we would like to hear about it. And if you could just drop us an email on that at [email protected], and just put ‘Audible Issues' in the subject line, and we will take it to them.

We have quite a portfolio that we're taking now with examples of different issues that are arising, but if you would like to be included, please let us know. So, what about you? What are you up to?

Joanna Penn: Well, I have done a pretty big rewrite of my first novel, Stone of Fire, which is also the first in a currently 12-book series. And many times, people recommend not rewriting the first novel, but we're going to cover this next month on our show. So, I'm not going to go into it too much now, but it has been eye-opening, for sure. I just needed to do it. So, we'll talk about that in more detail next month.

I also just had episode 600 of my Creative Penn podcast.

Orna Ross: Wow. That's an amazing achievement. Congratulations.

Joanna Penn: Yeah, I kind of feel like it's crazy. So, the first episode was March 2009, so almost 13 years since I started it, and I guess I just, obviously people listening, you don't have to start a podcast, but it's evidence of learning on the job, because I literally didn't know what I was doing back then, and we didn't have all the services we have now. It's been the basis of my relationships with people, like with you, we met on Twitter and then I think I invited you on the podcast, way before we met, and then we met in person and them our relationship has developed and we're good friends now.

So, I think the podcast has been such a huge thing in my career, but also, it's part of my creative body of work, and I think that's important too; if you're doing non-fiction, I feel like it can be part of it. Like this, you and I create this together, and so I guess I just wanted to emphasize that our creative work in the world doesn't just have to be written, it can be audio, it can be other things. You can change people's lives with a podcast and not just with books. So, yes, and I did a solo show on some key parts of the author life and the author journey. So, that was done. How about you personally as Orna Ross?

Orna Ross: Me as Orna Ross, writer me. Well, we're going to be talking about audiobooks today, and the timing is really great because I have just got my first audiobook, fiction audiobook, that will be delivered to me tomorrow after the whole proofing experience and everything. So, audio has been a brand new, I mean, I've done poetry before, but it's the first time that I've done fiction. So, that's exciting, and I'm excited about it, and obviously we're going to be talking lots about audiobooks today, so I won't go into that.

I started a 12 Poems to Inspire series just at the end of last year, so two more of those are going up this week as well. Bereavement actually, which doesn't seem to be an inspiring topic but actually very much is. And of course, it's Valentine’s Day this month, and that's so key for poets so I had to do 12 love poems as well.

And I'm still exploring the serialization thing the fiction thing. I was looking at Kindle Vella and for various reasons, I don't think it's right for me, and this is very much, you know, all these tools and platforms now, you really have to be so careful to find the one that's right for your genre. There's a lot of different stuff, so I'm currently looking at Radish and I'm actually enjoying the experience of looking at all the different tools and services and how they do things differently, and also having a look at their terms and agreements while I'm there, on ALLi's behalf.

So, yeah, I haven't settled on an outlet yet, but that's fine because when I do go, I want to have a lot of actual episodes lined up to go. So, I'm not in any mad rush to actually choose the tool as long as I'm getting on with the writing. But I will go this route, for sure.

Joanna Penn: Right, but it also brings up another thing, like I mentioned with the podcast, like 13 years, it's the same with your writing, historical fiction I presume is what you're looking at serializing, and you've been writing this for decades.

Orna Ross: I've been writing this for a very long time, and this is a revisit. This is something I will also talk about next week. Sorry, next month. Sorry, I better tell everybody because I'm about to get croaky, that I have a cold and my brain is a little bit on a go slow. So yes, next month. Definitely.

Joanna Penn: For sure, and what I was going to say with that is something we always talk about, that technologies change, and these serialization things, something people wanted years ago, wasn't really there, and again, there are so many options now. And what we've got to remember is what is right for us at this stage, and what might be right for us later.

An introduction to the audiobook market and subscription services

And that's kind of a good segue into our topic for today which is, The Changing Market for Audiobooks: Subscription Models and AI Narration.

So, I've done quite a bit of prep on this, so just as a bit of an introduction. Okay. So, the audio industry has changed a lot in the last few years and it's going to change further.

So, when indie authors first started to get into audiobooks, around 2013 and 2014, I definitely got in then, ACX was really the only player in terms of doing it yourself, and many authors signed exclusive seven-year contracts, including me, many with royalty split deals to keep costs down, and many of those are coming up now. So, some of mine expired in 2021 so I've been taking those back.

But what it meant in those early days was this à la carte model of people buying an audiobook or paying one credit per book, meant that you could make good income from sales, and so the early years of that model worked incredibly well and still do work well for some people.

But in the year sense, we've seen an increasing number of unlimited subscription programs become more common for both audiobooks and eBooks, and Audible itself has moved to a more unlimited model. So, I'm an Audible subscriber in the UK, even though I am officially on a credit model, they have now released so many audiobooks within my model, they don't call it unlimited, but I essentially have access to an unlimited number of audiobooks for my credit. Plus, I can use my credit to buy, and I do occasionally buy à la carte, but I definitely buy fewer than I used to because I have so much in there. So, in terms of a personal listener, it kind of is unlimited. They also have unlimited programs in other countries that they launched in the last few years.

Other audiobook subscription services, like Storytel and Scribd, continue to expand. Library platforms can use paper checkout if you publish your audio through Findaway Voices. And in November 2021, Spotify announced they were buying Findaway, the parent company of Findaway Voices, which brings a lot of audiobooks under their brand.

Now, we're recording this on the 1st of February 2022, we don't know what Spotify are going to do, but hopefully, personally, I'm excited and I want to see my audio books on Spotify, either as part of their subscription or some kind of add on at some point. I fully expect that to happen, and we'll talk about why I'm excited about that.

But all of this potentially widens the audience for audiobooks and also drives revenue down. So, there's both pros and cons, and especially for fiction. My husband is a great example, he really only listens to epic fantasy books, which are like 25 hours long or 50 hours long. So, it's very expensive to produce, and listeners much more price sensitive. So, personally I have seen some changes in the revenue and the benefit points.

So, that was a sort of introduction. So, now we're going to get into more of the discussion. So, let's talk about, why do we need to embrace subscription models, and how can we use them to bring more readers and listeners to our books?

Orna Ross: Yeah. So, just before we leave it and before we get into that, and we both believe in using all the various {inaudible} and tools that we have. What happened with Audible and ACX back at the beginning is interesting in the sense that certain terms were provided and the agreements were quite loose, and authors didn't really understand what they were getting into, and I think this is the thing that I would really like to emphasize on this show is that we're going to be talking about lots of different services, and it's really, really important to look closely at the agreements and what you are signing up for. I just wanted to say that from the beginning, because we found as time went on with ACX/Audible, that the original royalty levels that were given were changed, they were reduced, and lots of other things started to happen in the background, which I'm not going to go into now. But authors have been very quick with their audio to kind of sign it away, and as we now transition into a time where audiobooks are becoming more and more popular, and more and more important to listeners, it's really important that we don't see them as an unimportant third thing, but actually a format in and of itself that can really make a difference.

So, subscription specifically, we are again in a slightly dangerous place with subscription because Spotify, for example, the terms and conditions are going to be really important here in terms of, what will you actually get as an author from the subscription payment? How clear and so on, will it be?

But the thing is that listeners love subscription models, you've explained there really well why people love it, and we have to provide what listeners want. There's no point in us saying, you know, we want to charge ABC if people are not prepared to pay it, and that's how people want to do it.

It also makes us far more available far more widely, people will take a chance on the book in a subscription model that they won't take if you've got the price, the friction of actually having to purchase the audiobook.

And then discoverability. Obviously, as these platforms are investing more and more into audiobooks and into the recommendation algorithms, it's getting easier. I mean, it was really quite difficult even to be found, you know, to have your audiobook found, it's still quite difficult. The marketing puzzle is still not solved for audio, so as the services streamline with subscription it simplifies everything. It makes everything easier for them, and it makes lots of things easier for us, I think.

Why is audio subscription something for indie authors to get excited about?

Orna Ross: Why are you so excited about it all?

Joanna Penn: Well, it was Frankfurt Book Fair a couple of years ago, the last time we went, or I went, when I heard Spotify speak at Frankfurt Book Fair at the audio summit. So, clearly, they've been thinking about audiobooks for a while, and I was so impressed with their talk about discoverability and what they were planning to offer, which at the time they were about to roll out drive time, which is a kind of personalized mix, AI driven, based on your preferences of music and podcast snippets and all this, and all AI driven, and after their talk, I became a Spotify user.

I went and was like, right, I've got to do this, and now I listen to far more music than I ever did, I've moved all my podcast listening onto Spotify, and what is so interesting is my behaviour has changed. I now use Spotify as a search engine, which of course is what many people, my husband does, use YouTube as a search engine. I use Spotify as one. So, if I want to learn about a topic, so NFTs and {inaudible} are something I'm looking into, so I'll just type the phrase into the Spotify toolbar, and then instead of necessarily subscribing to a podcast, I'll listen to different episodes on topics from different people, and then I might find a new show that way, or I might just move on to something else.

So, that behaviour is exactly what I want with audiobooks, I want people to search for things and find my audiobooks, which at the moment is not happening on any other platform. I love Audible. I'm an Audible subscriber too, but the Audible discoverability is appalling, it's absolutely appalling, and what I tend to do is go on Amazon, look for a book-book, and then find it and then click through that way because Audible.com is just not good enough and the app itself, it just doesn't have that same engine. So I am, and you know I'm very AI positive, but I'm like, this is what we need, we need discoverability.

But then the important thing also is that I don't rely on subscription models for all my income, and this is what I want people to realize, okay, we're fans of multiple streams of income. So, maybe you don't put everything on Spotify and into these unlimited programs, maybe you have premium audio available that you can sell direct for example, or that you keep as a la carte only, and I want people to start thinking of audio, not just as one thing. You can actually, with Findaway, it doesn't have to be related to a book, it can be an entirely new audio product. So, for me, this is an expansion of possibility and discoverability as opposed to, oh no, we're all going to go broke because it's going to zero.

So, in some ways you're going to see a reduced income from just the basic thing, and then you should see growth as more people discover you, and also buy in other formats. I buy a lot of audiobooks. Once I've listened to them, I also buy them in print. So, audiobook sales drive print sales and eBook sales.

So yeah, I think that's how I think about it and why I'm so positive. But what about you, Orna, is that something you're positive about?

Orna Ross: Yeah, well, I think the point you're making about the different ways to do different things is really important. And I think this is becoming more and more evident as necessary for indie authors, because there are so many choices now, so many formats, so many different ways you can put stuff out there.

There was a time where you just got your book together and put it up on Amazon KDP, and that was it, and for some people that's still what self-publishing is, but as we're moving more and more into a really expanding, very quickly, creator economy, which includes the three different formats in digital, print audio and e-books, and then all the different ways in which you can sell your books. And as you produce more books as an indie author, then your choices begin to expand. So, it isn't, for example, all or nothing, and we very much recommend, and I know you do too, very much recommend that- it's like using free isn't it, subscription? Free can work really, really well as a discovery tool, but nobody is suggesting that all of your books should be free, you use it strategically in order to bring people, ideally across to your own website.

What it emphasizes more and more is the absolute importance of a marketing plan. There may have been a time where it was enough to produce the book and put it up on a platform and it would take off, but as everything becomes more complex, that is less and less and less.

So yes, you absolutely need a marketing plan if you're going to try and bring people to your own website, to buy audio direct from your website. But you need a marketing plan no matter what you're doing, wherever you want to bring them. So, you will be the person who's probably going to be bringing them wherever they're going, and so you want to make sure that you have your own website somewhere there in the mix. So, subscription side-by-side with your own website and thinking about the line of direction is from them to you, is the most effective way to use subscription models, I think.

Joanna Penn: Yes, absolutely. Okay. So, this rise in subscription is also what is bringing the topic of AI narration into the foreground, because publishers are like, but the overheads of producing audio are too high for the minimal income from a subscription model, so how does that work? And because costs have to come down to make everything audio. So, I think we're moving to a world where audio is just ubiquitous, in the same way that all books should be in eBook and print, they should also be in audio. And you miss out on a massive market if your book isn't in audio, but we totally acknowledge it's expensive. So, let's talk about this and what that means.

What is AI narration and is it “any good?”

So, first of all, what is AI narration? So, it's essentially audio generated from text using an AI voice. And this can be, if you talk to your phone, or your smart assistant, or your smart speaker, which many of us do now in many ways, you will get an audio response and that audio response, obviously there's no human sitting there saying these things, that is an AI voice.

And what they have found is that a few years ago, there wasn't the emotional intonation, but now we are seeing companies, particularly I've been working with DeepZen, there's SpeechKey, there's Scribe Audio, and there's Google Play auto narration, which is still in beta. But there's lots of companies emerging that are using this technology with emotional intonation. So, it is happening. Also, there's things like Amazon Polly, plus all the tons of voices that are being used for gaming. And so, this is technology that even if you are listening and saying, oh, well, they just sound like robots, that's not actually true anymore. And in fact, some people can sound like robots.

So, what we're saying is that this technology is almost there, it's really almost there. So, Orna, this is the question that people have really, is AI narration any good?

Orna Ross: It depends on what ‘any good' means to you, and it's really about, is it good enough for your listener? That's the question that you need to ask yourself.

You may hate the sound of your precious words being narrated, but you possibly may feel that about a human narrator also. The most important thing, I mean, we just did an audiobook, an ALLi guidebook, and the author didn't like the AI product, and we're still kind of talking about that and not a hundred percent sure whether we will issue it or not. I'm very keen to, and I think the important thing is that the author loves audio, listens to really well narrated books, and probably had a different sort of expectation. But most people who are listening to an ALLi guidebook just want the information. They just want to know, how do I do A, how do I do B? They're probably listening on double speed, or even faster, and they just want the info. It's not a novel, and so I think, yes, already AI is good enough. I think, yeah, as you listen to it, it isn't exactly like a human voice, the intonation is off in certain places, but you proof it, like you proof any other audio, and by the end of that proofing process, it sounds better.

It's back to this whole question of good enough, isn't it? I mean, our books, we come up with this problem, when is our book finished, when is our book ready to go out into the world? It's the very same thing. Is it good enough?

Obviously, it is good enough for lots of readers, because lots and lots of readers are listening to AI narrated work already. They're going directly to the providers of audiobooks as they're not available as yet, widely, on the platform's boss, and they are giving good reviews and they're clearly happy to have it.

If the choice is no audiobook at all, or an AI narrated book, for the right book. I mean, I don't think AI is there for fiction yet, which is why I got a human narrator to do mine, but I totally believe there will be shortly, because it's already improved so much since we started having these conversations a very short few years ago.

So, I think it's moving faster than we expected and will continue to accelerate.

Joanna Penn: Yes, I totally agree. So, I used a DeepZen, deepzen.io, I think it is, or whatever it is. DeepZen, just put that in. And essentially, I did, just before Christmas, I did a fiction, my three short stories, A Thousand Fiendish Angels, and also a non-fiction, Co-Writing a Book, which is not available in any other audio format. Whereas A Thousand Fiendish Angels, I read myself. So, that book is now available with me, female, British narrator and also a male, I think he might be American even, I can't remember off the top of my head, it's month since I listened to it.

But essentially, it's brilliant. I think it's really good, and what DeepZen have is they have an option for a QA kind of service, and what was interesting is we created that book originally with a different voice, and then I listened to it, and I said, look, this is horror, this dude sounds too excited, have you got a voice that is a bit more serious and with some kind of horror intonation? And so, we changed the voice and I think it's brilliant. Now you can't, we'll come back to the distribution, but it's available on my site, payhip.com/thecreativepenn. There's a little tab that says AI narrated, and you can listen to a sample on there, you don't have to buy it. You can just go listen to a sample and see what you think of those two options, fiction and a non-fiction. So, that's on the quality, I think that the fiction can be there, but you have to do quite a lot of post-processing on the voice. And then you can change the intonation really easily, you just overtype with how you want to say it phonetically, and then it will say it that way. So, I think that works too.

But yes, coming back to what do customers want? One example is a friend of mine, she's a really busy mum she's studying her third degree or something, and she only is able to read in the car, which means she needs it to be audio. And she was like, I don't care, I just need the content, please get me my textbooks in audio. So, there's a use case, for example. And then for me personally, as an audio listener, I definitely do listen to everything at 1.5, at least now, speed. So, I think there's very different audio products, very different audio listeners, and that the quality, as we've discussed, if it's not there right now, it won't be too long. So, any comments on that before we move on?

Orna Ross: No, absolutely, and just to say, you know, it's not about you, it's not about how you feel about how it sounds, I think that's really important, because I hear a lot of authors saying, oh, I just didn't like it, I hated the sound. It's not about you. Think about your listeners.

Joanna Penn: Yeah, and just a comment from someone, yes, this discussion is recorded and will be on the AskALLi podcast feed, and the video will be in the Facebook group and on YouTube, and everywhere. So yes, you can find me and Orna all over the internet.

How will AI narration impact human narrators?

Okay. So, let's get to something which is super important, which is human narrators. Won't this impact them? Aren't we putting them out of a job? Aren't we being really mean and horrible? And I have certainly been accused of this, even though I am an audiobook narrator, I've now narrated eight or nine books. So, technically I am a narrator, and want to protect that stream of income.

So Orna, what do you think, what's the impact on human narrators?

Orna Ross: I mean, obviously it is going to have an impact, and it's not going to impact the celebrity voice, you know, the Stephen Fry's or the famous actors. But again, while these are kind of flagship audio products, they're not the average audiobook. And again, it's not about either/or, you know, everywhere where tools have become available over time there's still the human aspect, and it becomes premium, I guess, in this scenario that's unfolding at the moment.

So, I think what we're going to see is, in the same way that people thought cinema was the end of TV, it's going to be the opposite, we're actually going to have a whole flowering of audio.

The way things were, with the cost involved and everything else, again, it was a case of human narrators were not being hired anyway, and so saying AI is taking away the work isn't strictly accurate, AI is doing what humans can't do, or what publishers can't afford to pay, and so there is that aspect to it.

Having said that, obviously narrators are creators like us. We care about what is happening to narrators, but in a very similar way to translation and AI translation, it's really important not to do the ostrich and stick our heads in the ground. It's really important for us to think about how we grow the interest in audio, on how we take audio out in all sorts of new and different ways that we wouldn't be able to do. So, I mean, you've listed somethings here, a single voice human narrator is obviously the most obvious thing, and that is the most common kind of audiobook that's out there. We can have multi-cast human narrators, which is very expensive and premium, and then people who want that can pay for that. Multicast AI becomes much easier, the ALLi guidebook that we did with SpeechKey had lots of commentary from ALLi members, and we were able to give a different voice to each comment, which was really exciting. The only one they didn't have was a Scot, but we have Americans, and Canadians, and Australians, and even Irish. So, they're working on their Scottish voice right now. And that was really, really nice, it made it very, very clear where the author stopped speaking and the ALLi member was giving their case history of their particular experience. Would we ever, ever have got all the members to do the audio themselves or something? No, never. So, it just created a very interesting audiobook experience in that way, I think, which is a real advantage.

So, it's like everything, these enough doomsday, all or nothing, X or Y scenarios, we are totally in a world of abundance where things are going off in all sorts of ways, and for us as indie authors and for our indie narrator colleagues, it's about finding your place within this crazy exploding world, the place where you can actually make the connections with people who want your stuff so that we can all flourish a bit more. And I think that's possible as it has never been possible before, and AI is not preventing that, it's actually facilitating that.

Joanna Penn: Yeah, absolutely, and as a narrator and someone who has a voice brand with my podcast, I'm looking at a licensing my voice. So, at the moment you've got Samuel L. Jackson is probably the most famous one who's licensed to Alexa, the Amazon Alexa device, and you can talk to Alexa and get Sam Jackson to reply, which is super cool. DeepZen have licensed voice actors. So, they're actually paying for licensing someone's voice, and that's kind of the way I want to go. I want to have my voice licensed. So, if you, the listener, if you're writing a book where you think my voice is appropriate, then you could use my voice to generate that book. I mean, it would make sense if it resonated with other books in my voice, so, obviously we're talking at the moment like non-fiction or whatever. And in that way, this will actually bring another revenue stream to narrators. One of the reasons I really like DeepZen is they have an ethical policy of making sure they reward the voice licensees, so that they can support that community. So, I would be doing that, and I will be doing that as soon as I can.

Also, what I see as the vision for audio personally, as a listener, I want to be able to change the voice. I don't want to always listen to an American man read another business book, because that's so often what happens. I'd quite like to listen to someone else read it. Also, if people have, you know, maybe they want a Scottish accent or maybe they want a Jamaican/British accent, there's so many different accents that people enjoy listening to that might sound better with your book, or just that the user prefers, and the only way we can do this is with AI because that involves immediately switching the voice. So, what we're talking about is a future, as Orna said, of abundance where there's not just one audiobook now that represents your book, there's the potential for all these kinds of different things. And if you consider audio products with different voices, like you just talked about, suddenly we should get this explosion of other audio products, which I think is very exciting.

The other thing is, at Frankfurt Book Fair, when I was there, there were people trying to start audio book companies in Ghana, in Africa, and people in India who needed to do all the different accents and dialects, the dialects, the actual different languages. All of this is impossible without AI, because most of the mature audiobook production services and narrators are in English speaking countries. So, we're really looking at, how do we bring audio, mass market audio, to the world, and realistically, this is the only way where we're going to do it.

Orna Ross: Yeah, absolutely, it's quite simply not possible.

I mean, right now audiobooks are a very, very small part of publishing, but they're growing exponentially, and AI is actually what's going to take it to scale for small publishers, for sure. It just wouldn't be possible without it.

What are the big issues right now with AI narration for indie authors?

Joanna Penn: Yeah. So, what are the issues right now with AI narration and when will they be solved?

So, I guess right now we should say, hold up, you can wait, we're not saying go out right now and get an AI audiobook done, we're not saying that at all. What we're saying is, this is coming, and this is developing, and that Spotify buying Findaway, I think, may be the turning point, because Spotify allows AI created audio on their platform.

But yeah, sorry, I'm getting ahead of myself. Orna, what are the issues right now?

Orna Ross: I think a major issue is that it's not possible to put an AI narrated audiobook, at the moment, on ACX, Audible, Findaway, the major distributors in short, are not accepting them, so they're not widely available.

However, while that is a downside, sorry to be so positive all the time, but that forces us, if we are interested in audio and if we do want to do this, that forces us to think about giving it direct. And that forces us to create that direct relationship, which in the creator economy is actually going to be the fundamental source of those who succeed, I think, in future as self-publishers. So, in a way, the fact that we can't do it puts the challenge back firmly in our own websites, and you're doing that, and you use Payhip and BookFunnel to do your delivery, and you have a tutorial about that, which we'll put into the show notes. But essentially an audiobook is just a digital file.

Joanna Penn: A series of digital files, yeah.

Orna Ross: Yes, but essentially that's what it is. So, it isn't difficult for you to give it to people to download and to your consumer to download. So, why not?

But that is an issue, you can't get that wide distribution. So, all eyes are on Spotify to see what they are going to do, and most of the services are not saying when they will allow AI narrated work, when they will start distributing it, but it will come for sure.

Joanna Penn: Yeah, absolutely, and I should just say, BookFunnel has an audio app, which is kind of exactly the same as the other audio apps, as in there's no issue with the user experience, and it's how I sell a lot of my a la carte audiobooks, and also this AI narrated audiobook too.

But I think right now this is a stumbling block, but that's why I was saying, since Spotify allows AI generated music on that platform, I just can't see where the line is around AI generated audiobooks.

But I think there's a lot of people standing in the way in the English language markets, which is why I actually think that AI audio might take off in other markets first, and then we will see the English-speaking markets saying, we want a piece of that, how do we start using that technology? So, I think that might even happen. It may be that it takes off in other languages and then kind of comes over later. I hope that doesn't happen, but however it happens is all good.

Orna Ross: It's going to happen, and that is the point, I think.

I think it is worth saying that we're not trying to pretend that the AI narrated work is a human narrated audiobook. As Jo was saying earlier, you can have premium audio that is narrated by you, for example, there's all sorts of different ways to do it. But we do have a post on the Self-Publishing Advice website, where we did look closely at some of the ethical issues around AI narration and AI generally, so you might want to take a look at that if the ethical stuff is important to you, and it's important to all of us. So, that's at selfpublishingadvice.org/aiforauthorsguidelines

You do a statement, don't you, sort of in line with what we advised there?

Joanna Penn: Yeah. So, with my audio, I am putting a badge on the cover, and I've seen other authors have also. This is taking off, so we're going to make it a principal, I guess, it's a badge and it says, digitally narrated. And then in the opening credits and the closing credits of the audiobook, if you listen to my AI narrated one, you'll hear it says, this is XX written by JF Penn or Joanna Penn, digitally narrated by the voice of XX name, through DeepZen Ltd, or something like that.

So, the statement in that opening credits makes it clear it's digitally narrated, and the badge makes it clear it's digitally narrated, and so I think right now this is not so common, I think it will become more common, in terms of it may be that people don't care in five years’ time, or they don't know. I feel like the voice licensing side, you might not even know whether it's me or whether it's my licensed voice, but this is where I kind of even question whether we want to get rid of every single artifact that makes it obvious it's not a human. Although again, I don't know if that's possible, because I listen to so many audiobooks and often, I'll hear an American use a pronunciation that I consider incorrect because they're American and I don't pronounce it like that, but that doesn't mean it's incorrect, it's just the American way of talking. So, what I would say is, is it possible that we could actually have the AI voices keep some of those intonation “issues”, because we want to be able to recognize what is an AI voice and what isn't. So, I don't think it's an ethical issue, I think this is a, what do we want in this AI world in the future? Do we want to know when everything is done with AI, or will this just become part of our normal process in that way? So, I don't know, I think these are interesting questions, right?

Orna Ross: They are really interesting questions. I think the crediting thing is very much like the way in which indie authors credit their editors and their designers, in a way that didn't really happen in traditional publishing. It was only when creators got stuck into publishing that they wanted to acknowledge and put up front the editors and designers, and all of the people who had helped them to make the book. And I think it's about being clear and just, and credit where credit is due, that's just an important aspect of it.

So, in terms of me as a listener, do I care whether it's AI or human narrated? I guess some listeners will care and some listeners won't care. It's just a statement of fact though, and certainly now, while we're in this transition period, I think there may well be lots of people who do care, so it's no harm to let everybody know what's going on, and it could be possibly, potentially be seen as not fair to not, so to play it safe, I think, acknowledge, and make it clear.

Joanna Penn: Yeah, exactly, and I feel excited about that. I feel like people are trying to hide it because they're in some way ashamed of using AI tools, and as you and I have talked about, there's nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, you have to embrace AI tools if you're going to survive the next decade in what is increasingly an AI powered world. And in fact, we all use AI already because we publish on Amazon, and we use Facebook ads, and we use Google and all this stuff.

So, authors are AI empowered already, this is just another step in a certain direction that might bring down the cost of audio and bring new revenue streams, and more creativity. More creativity, more money. Brilliant.

Orna Ross: What's not to love?

Joanna Penn: Exactly. So, I just wanted to direct people to the VO Boss podcast. So, Voiceover Boss podcast, at voboss.com, and it has a brilliant series, because I've had quite a lot of personal criticism for discussing this topic, and I was like, well, this needs to be discussed by the voice community. I'm an author first, so the voice community, this podcast has all of the AI providers on doing interviews with all of them, which is brilliant. And they also talk about the ethics. They talk about the business models. They talk about how it's going to impact narrators. It's a really, really good series. So, if you just search VO Boss on your podcast app, check out some of their discussions and interviews. And I was just so happy to see that discussion going on, and I know it's happening in the narrator community, because like you said, you can't avoid this stuff.

It's a bit like eBooks, when people are like, oh, I'll never read an eBook, so I won't do it. This is a bit like that. It's not going away. We're not saying, as you said, it's not going to replace anything, but it's going to be on top of things. So, I think that's very cool. Any final words?

Orna Ross: On this, just if you are interested, it's not a major investment, it's about a grand or so to go in there, that's at the cheapest end. So, if it does interest you, I think it will help you to get ahead on audio, then I think it's well worth diving into.

I was pleasantly surprised at the proofing experience, I was dreading it, and it's not as awful, either for human narration or for AI narration, as I thought it was going to be so, as always, if it's okay for me, it's probably okay for you.

Joanna Penn: And I should say, my projects were a lot cheaper, because I went with short books. So, obviously as ever, these tools are related to length of audio, which is always a thing.

Okay. So, anything for people to watch out for this month?

Orna Ross: Poetry people, there's a sort of a new movement on the ground saying, instead of giving cards, give poetry instead. So, watch out for that hashtag. I think I wrote it down there a second ago, yeah, it's #givepoetryinstead, can you believe it? It will be launched shortly with Valentine’s Day coming up. So, the idea is instead of giving your beloved a card, you give them a little poetry book instead. So yeah, if you are writing poetry and you'd like to get involved in that, then watch out for that hashtag because it'll be going up on all the socials.

What about you, what are you up to?

Joanna Penn: I'm into the next lot of rewrites and a ton of other things.

But yes, next month we will be talking about stages of the writing craft, and when it's worth rewriting older books, like how do you know when you're actually a better writer, and things like this. So, that's going to be a craft focused discussion next month.

And in the meantime, I guess we just say happy writing,

Orna Ross: and happy publishing.

Howard Lovy

Howard Lovy has been a journalist for more than 30 years, and now amplifies the voices of independent author-publishers and works with authors as a developmental editor. Howard is also a freelance writer specializing in Jewish issues whose work appears regularly in Publishers Weekly, the Jewish Daily Forward, and Longreads.

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