The Captioned Audiobook

Audiobooks have been an incredible addition to the technologies bringing books to people in various ways. They have allowed the blind and sight-impaired reader, the reader-in-bed, and the reader-on-the-go a way to consume books more easily. Coming on that wave of success, one of the biggest audiobook developers and providers, Audible, an Amazon company, developed an additional closed captioning option within their audiobook formatting, hoping to reach an even larger audience. Claiming the primary intended use of the feature to be for students, Audible has said that it “will use machine learning to transcribe an audio recording for listeners, allowing them to read along with the narrator” (Liptak). This has spurred some intense litigation, and brought some interesting interpretations to the forefront of readers, and most importantly, publishers, minds.

Primary concerns such as copyright infringement and the susceptibility of sales decreases lead several of the biggest publishing houses to fiercely deny Audible access to their titles (Liptak). Though the audiobook company has vastly differing views on the argument and has since settled to allow publishers to opt-out of the service, this issue has brought closed captioning into the forefront of more mainstream news (Hoffelder).

Firstly, closed captioning is a disability-friendly way to let all sorts of people enjoy media. Hard-of-hearing and deaf people, people in a crowded room, and people who just generally enjoy being able to see as well as potentially hear what is happening on a screen are all consumers of subtitles. So, why is this something being developed by an audiobook company? The largest reason, stated above, is for students to read along as a voice reads the text. That very easily can be extrapolated to being helpful for people with a learning or reading disability, or perhaps a speaker of a different language, looking to be immersed, but eased into a text of a different language. Maybe there might be children who wish to be “read to” while following along. Largely, closed captioning added to an existing audiobook seems to have some pretty high upsides. Audible’s current rollout of the program lets readers and listeners see just a bit of text, only the passage being narrated at any one time, and such, is quite unique, as the reader does not have access to the whole book all at once. This is the biggest way that Audible defends its program and has the potential to be widely different than an ebook (Hoffelder).

With such a new development in (technically) e-publishing, a big question, brought very specifically, via TikTok, rises: is a close-captioned audiobook a reverse-engineered book (@caitsbooks)? In the fact that the words are narrated, and the words then also appear in a text format, perhaps that’s the best way to describe what’s happening! But, far from a negative thing, this idea is yet another interesting development in the publishing industry, and another that, as previous legal events have shown, requires nuance. Perhaps having a suchly-engineered book could be approached in such a way that does not inhibit author contracts, nor infringe on copyright, and could be something beneficial to both consumer and author in the long run. By making strides in inclusivity, standards of which much media still falls behind in, and by offering frankly just an interesting way to consume a book, publishers and authors may find that this book format could be lucrative, and fill an otherwise fairly unexpected market!

Likely, implementation would take effort, and rely on a good deal of experimentation and error, but, though some of the avenues Audible has used seems to have strained some of its reach and legal capacities in the development, publishers may have something truly special to look into developing.

Works cited:

@caitsbooks, and @babbity.rabbity. TikTok, Accessed 26 April 2021.

Hoffelder, Nate. “Amazon Is Extending the Audible Caption Settlement to All Publishers and Authors - Will You Disable This Feature?” The Digital Reader, The Digital Reader, 9 Feb. 2020, Accessed 30 April 2021

Liptak, Andrew. “Publishers Are Pissed about Amazon's Upcoming Audible Captions Feature.” The Verge, The Verge, 19 July 2019, Accessed 28 April 2021

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