February 2022 - The Business of Writing - Digital Narration
Can Google's Auto-Narration turn ePubs into audiobooks?
Hello, and welcome to my February newsletter!
The eagle-eyed amongst you may have spotted that this newsletter is now being delivered by Substack. It’s something I’ve been looking at for sometime, and it’s allowed me to bring together all the mailing lists I had for The Business of Writing newsletter into one platform. So for some of you who used to subscribe to my Wordpress blog version, this might be the first time you’ve seen a newsletter for a while.
(And. of course, if you don’t want to receive these newsletters, then you can unsubscribe at the bottom of the email.)
So, as you my remember from last month’s newsletter, I’ve recently launched a digitally narrated version of The Positively Productive Writer using Google’s new auto-narration beta-service.
(As a special offer to my newsletter subscribers, this link will get you a full copy of the 8-hour audio book for £2.99, instead of the current RRP of £4.99: https://play.google.com/redeem?code=HLQPC67EZGTR4)
But how did I find the process, and might it work for your books, too?
Firstly, if you want to find out more visit https://play.google.com/books/publish/autonarrated/.
Effectively, if you’ve already got books for sale on Google Play (in ePub format) what this service allows you to do is convert the existing ePub file into a digitally narrated audiobook. All at the click of a button.
My advice is, don’t press that button yet! There’s way more to creating an audiobook than simply clicking a button.
Google draws upon its extensive artificial intelligence background to produce a digitally narrated audiobook. It’s good, but it’s not quite perfect yet. However, having gone through the process, I would argue the end result is perfectly acceptable for non-fictionbooks. Where it is still lacking is with fiction. The nuance and cadence of words isn’t there yet, in my opinion, for fiction. But if you’ve got a non-fiction book, then do check it out. . . but be prepared to put in some work to convert it. )It’s a lot more involved than simply pressing a button.)
When I recently updated the Positively Productive Writer last year, I was already pondering about whether it would make a good audiobook. But as I began investigating potential costs, I realised I didn’t have sufficient financial resources for an audiobook.
Or rather, I didn’t think I had the resources. It turns out, with Google’s auto-narration, the only resource I needed was time. (Albeit, quite a bit of time.)
Google’s auto-narration software pulls your book’s text from the ePub file. It then determines which sections of your book to include, such as the main chapters, and ignores some of the book’s usual front matter and back matter (such as the title page, copyright page and contents listing). You can, however, override this decision and select which parts of your book you would like included.
At present, there is a wide selection of voices from which to choose (23 so far) including:
Alistair (British Male, aged 46–60)
Archie (British Male, aged 60+)
Ava (British Female, aged 31–45)
Charlotte (Australian Female, aged 31–45)
Marcus (American Male, aged 46–60)
Padma (Indian Female, aged 31–45)
Praveen (Indian Male, aged 31–45)
It’s worth listening to each of them to choose the voice that you feel best represents you, or your target readership. (As a British male, I decided to opt for a British male voice.)
With a voice selected (don’t panic, you can change it as many times as you like, until you hit Publish), it is then necessary to listen to your text. The software highlights each sentence as it is spoken. There is so much to look, and listen, out for. You cannot skip this step.
When we see the word read within the context of a sentence, we know whether we should pronounce it as reed or as red. But Google’s AI isn’t always sure. Don’t worry, it’s easily sorted. Simply right-click on a word, and Google offers different pronunciations. To hear each pronunciation, all we need to do is click on the speaker icon to hear it. If the correct pronunciation isn’t there, it is possible to record the word, although I didn’t need to try this.
When the appropriate pronunciation has been found, there are two options:
Use this pronunciation on this occasion, or,
Use this pronunciation for all occurrences of this word in the text. (Be careful with this.)
There were a couple of occasions where the pronunciations weren’t quite right, so the easiest option was to spell the word phonetically. I found myself doing this with place names quite a bit. I live in the UK county of Shropshire, and the county town is Shrewsbury. There’s an age-old argument about whether Shrewsbury is pronounced as Shroosbury or as Sh-roe-sbury. But by spelling words phonetically, I was ensuring I got the pronunciation that I wanted.
The Positively Productive Writer contains a few bullet pointed lists. Actually, it contains more than I thought it did, and these don’t always sound right in audio. Bullet point lists are great for breaking up the page, making it easier on the eye, yet still giving the reader a lot of information in a compact way. But it doesn’t always work in audio format.
This meant it became necessary, in a few places, to rewrite the text, often using complete sentences instead of clauses separated by a comma.
Just as I have with this newsletter, The Positively Productive Writer also uses subheadings, again, like bullet points, to help break up the page and to compartmentalise the chapters into specific areas where I discuss certain aspects of the topic.
Just like bullet-pointed lists, subheadings didn’t always sound right, so I found myself turning them into complete sentences. So, instead of:
I altered the text so that it was narrated as:
Another way to give yourself a positivity boost is to look for quick wins.
The lack of emphasis
As a writer, I love the fact that by italicising the right word on the page, we can clarify our meaning or how a sentence is interpreted. (I love reading Phil Rickman’s novels because his skill at italicising the right word has me in awe.)
Anyway, when words are printed on the page, we have a few ways to make them stand out. We can use bold or italics or even CAPITALS. Indeed, in the first version of The Positively Productive Writer I used capitals a lot because there were several key points I wanted to the reader to feel I was SHOUTING AT THEM.
But when it comes to auto-narrated audio, there’s nothing. And this is where a human voice can make a HUGE difference. Knowing how to say a word or phrase, or … simply pausing for longer than usual, can influence how the listener understands the information. Auto-narration can’t do that.
Again, the simplest thing was to rewrite the sentence.
And then there are those times when grammar goes out of the window because you want to make a specific point, and the best way to do that is to break those rules. Like when you get really cross and write each word as a separate sentence. How. Many. More Times?
That doesn’t work with auto-narration, either. The end of sentence pause is simply too long. A human narrator can infer that anger. AI narration can’t.
I’m sure you’ve worked out by now, that this auto-narration project led to quite a bit of rewriting. Some of it was because it is digitally narrated. However, some aspects may be relevant to human-narrated work too. I’ve heard many other self-published authors say they have changed their writing style since they started narrating their own books. Writing text that is easy to say is a whole new skill.
My point is, don’t expect to push that Publish button and expect your text to sound great. It won’t. You need to work at it.
Give yourself time
Finally, accept that this is not a quick process. I mentioned at the start that although I didn’t have to spend any financial resources, I did have to invest some time. A lot of time. The Positively Productive Writer is eight hours of audio. That’s eight hours without stopping. Stopping and starting as I listened to the text took nearly eight times that long. Then I had to listen to the entire thing again (and I still found some errors, which needed correcting).
So don’t expect this to be a quick process.
On my audiobook cover, I’ve made it quite clear that this is a digitally narrated product. It’s important to be upfront about this because some readers have already decided they don’t like digitally narrated audiobooks. I don’t want potential listeners thinking they’ve been duped in some way. (I’ve also priced the audiobook at a low figure to reflect the fact that it is digitally narrated, too.)
So, if you’ve pondered about doing a non-fiction audiobook, but are not sure where to start, do check out the Google Auto-narration service. See if it might work for you. In my opinion, for straightforward non-fiction books, it can produce great results.
I’m delighted with my digitally-narrated audiobook. It’s allowed me to experiment with this format, and dip my toe into a new format market, without breaking the bank. Who knows where it may lead?
Points to remember:
Auto-narration doesn’t work for every book. Don’t even consider it for fiction. Simple non-fiction works best.
Understand it’s a time-consuming process. This will take much longer than you first think. Perhaps treat it as a bonus project, rather than a key part of your writing business strategy.
Consider it a stepping stone. You will learn a lot, simply because it forces you to focus on how to write for audio. If you think you may pay for human narration at some point in the future, this is a great exercise to do, purely to understand the narration process.
Be up front on all of your material that it is an auto-narrated product.
The downside to using Google’s auto-narration service is that many other audiobook platforms (eg Amazon) will not allow digitally-narrated on their platforms. (I think Google will allow you to download the files for distribution elsewhere if you want to do this, but do check with them first.)
At present, Google’s own platform will only distribute digitally narrated audio books to the following markets:
But, I’m sure you’ll agree, that still a large chunk of the English-speaking world. So, why not give it a go?
Until next month, happy writing!