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HarperCollins to Use AI Narration in Non-English Audiobooks

By Julia Fitzpatrick

The international publishing house HarperCollins is working in partnership with the AI company ElevenLabs on a new audiobook project, as announced in a statement on 18 April 2024. ElevenLabs, which was founded in 2022 by former Palantir software strategist Mati Staniszewski and former Google machine learning engineer Piotr Dabkowski, uses AI-based text-to-speech technology to make spoken content accessible in different languages.

ElevenLabs’ Projects tool, which will be used to generate some HarperCollins audiobooks, enables the creation of an audiobook in as little as an hour. The company insists that the quality of the spoken content is not diminished by the speed of the process, as creators have control over the voices used and can easily make adjustments “while maintaining contextual cohesion.” According to ElevenLabs, the collaboration will be limited to “the production of audio versions of select deep backlist series books that would not otherwise have been created.” They assured readers that the agreement will be a “complementary tool” rather than a replacement for traditional audiobook production and that HarperCollins will “continue to devote time and resources to voice actor-led productions which are intrinsic to its current audiobook creation strategy.” ElevenLabs’ statement claims that the use of text-to-speech AI “significantly reduces the costs and operational challenges associated with full-scale audiobook production.” 

Amidst widespread fears, in the publishing sector and beyond, about the prospect of a future labour market with jobs lost to generative AI, the collaboration has been met with scepticism. The award-winning science fiction author Indrapramit Das posted on X that “Between this [referencing Netflix using AI-generated promotional images] @HarperCollins announcing AI audiobooks, @A24 starting AI marketing, it's clear the companies holding art hostage are trying to pull a slow lobster boil on us with AI.” Reflecting concern about the implications for voice actors’ jobs, the children’s writer Justin Colón posted on X that “as an author and voice actor … this is pretty disappointing.”

The growth of AI is impacting upon the international publishing industry beyond HarperCollins and will continue to have implications for authors and publishing professionals. Audio recordings of meetings at Meta in 2023, leaked to the New York Times, revealed discussions about buying the publishing house Simon & Schuster to procure new training content to feed its language models. Meanwhile, a new Israeli startup has already raised $6.5 million to create an AI-powered publishing platform which automates book production and distribution.

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