By Chen Yuanyuan
As audio books, podcasts, apps that provide audio content, as well as other new business models have sprung up in China, readers have embraced more possibilities. Many Chinese people now read books, take classes, enjoy TV series and socialize with the help of audio products.
According to the latest annual report on Chinese people’s reading habits, 32.7 percent of Chinese adults had the habit of listening to audio books in 2021.
Today, many publishers roll out new books in print together with their digital and audio versions.
In April this year, People’s Literature Publishing House in China launched the digital and audio versions of the book “The Queen’s Gambit” in Chinese language right after its printed version was released.
“Now we usually roll out the printed, digital and audio versions of books at the same time, so whether you are a visual or an aural learner, there’s always a choice that suits you the best,” said Zhao Chen, director of the department of digital publishing and technology of the publishing house.
“The development of the digital and audio versions of new books starts at the beginning of copyright-related work on the contents of the books. When we reprint a book without audio version, we often attach to it a bookmark with a QR code offering the access to its audio version. In this way, we can keep updating our products and enable different versions of the book to promote the popularity of each other,” Zhao said.
It’s worth noting that there is also a growing trend toward the publishing of the printed version of books based on audio contents. An audio book created by famous Chinese writer and scholar Yu Qiuyu has been listened to more than 100 million times on Ximalaya FM, an online audio-sharing platform in China. The corresponding printed book series have also been well received.
A series of science books for children based on audio contents created by Zhang Chenliang, a famous popular science blogger in China, has seen its sales volume exceeding 900,000 copies.
As 5G and artificial intelligence (AI) gain momentum, text-to-speech (TTS) technology has penetrated every link of audio reading. Audio content created and performed by AI, such as novels and news information, has gradually emerged and been used by “we media” accounts and reading apps that provide audio content services.
AI has facilitated the conversion of printed books to audio products, thereby meeting the growing demand for book listening.
“TTS technology involves deep learning with the help of AI and big data. It can effectively improve the efficiency of audio content production. So far, our audio content created with the latest technologies can be hardly distinguished from human voice,” said Lu Heng, executive of the AI speech lab of Ximalaya FM.
Although there is a huge stock of paper books, the costs of the development of high-quality audio books can be quite costly, according to Lu, who disclosed that a virtual host can record audio books with five million Chinese characters a day, thus reducing the costs by more than 90 percent.
With the development of audio reading, radio drama and other niche categories of audio products have found a wider audience and met people’s diverse needs.
Radio drama is considered “drama to listen to”. It not only enables the audience to listen to a book, but helps them enjoy the rich aesthetic elements of the book by telling story with the help of human voice, music, and sound effect.
Massive amount of online literary works, intellectual property (IP) with great value for adapting, and gradually improving market mechanism have attracted a large number of professional dubbing studios, clubs, as well as audience to radio drama.
It is not easy to find the most suitable voices for good content, for imitation and melodious voices are not enough for the production of good audio content.
“The production of radio drama is more like an artistic creation. The entire process, which includes script adaptation, selection of voices, recording of content, production of music, and sound mixing, takes half a year to a year,” said Zhang Yiran, a post-80s co-founder of a dubbing studio, who joined the field because of interest.
Radio drama is still a niche category of audio content, though it has attracted many young people.
“We are trying more types of radio drama, such as science fiction, suspense thriller, and criminal investigation. We hope to provide more choices for the audience,” said Zhang, who is confident about the development of radio drama.