Since the recent release of Amazon’s Kindle 2, there’s been a bit of a controversy regarding the device’s Text-to-Speech feature. I’ve followed the story on my own, but when it showed up in a friend’s gchat status this morning, and another friend linked it to me not long after, I figured it was time to post.
First, background: the Authors’ Guild has taken issue with the Text-to-Speech feature Amazon built into the Kindle 2, which can take your ebooks and read them aloud in your choice of voices, male or female. It’s been met with cheers and jeers, the jeers especially from people who see it as a greedy ploy on the part of the Authors’ Guild to jack up prices of books for the Kindle.
Things to peek at:
- Cory Doctorow, with whom I usually agree on issues such as DRM and putting content up for free, is very vocally against the Authors’ Guild’s statement. You can see some of his reaction here.
- Authors’ Guild president Roy Blount, Jr.’s rebuttal in the New York Times, “The Kindle Swindle?”
- Cory Doctorow’s rebuttal to the rebuttal, on BoingBoing, “Authors’ Guild vs. reality: Kindles and read-aloud”
They’re quick enough reads, go check them out. I’ll wait.
Okay, good? Good.
Let me talk a bit about how rights work in publishing. (The usual disclaimers apply: I am neither an agent nor an editor, but I’ve gleaned enough from people who DO know these things that I think I can spell it out pretty accurately for those of you who don’t eat, sleep and breathe book contracts.)
When a publisher picks up a book and puts it under contract, they negotiate for certain kinds of rights to publish that book. The obvious ones are print editions, but that is far from the extent of it. There are foreign rights to consider, should publishers in other countries wish to put out editions of the title. There’s “first serial” rights, that get worked out with whichever magazine might wish to print the first few chapters as a preview. There are ebook rights, and, of course, audio rights.
The publisher doesn’t have to pick up the audio rights when they make an offer on the book. Not every single title is right for that format. If the publisher doesn’t think they’ll sell an audio edition, the author’s agent is free to shop those rights around to other publishers. Famous example of this for you: the Harry Potter series is published in printed form by Scholastic. The highly-acclaimed audio versions, read by Jim Dale, are published by Listening Library, which is part of Random House.
As Blount says, audiobooks are a thriving part of the industry. They’re great for listening to during the commute to and from work. They make great companions on long flights. They keep you awake during long road trips.
Anecdote time GO!
A few years ago, three of us drove down to Dragon*Con — about a 20 hour ride from Boston to Atlanta when you factor in traffic and leg-stretching breaks. I’d brought an audiobook with me to listen to when it was my turn to drive on the way home, figuring the guys would spend the time sleeping. I popped the CD in (J.R. Moehringer’s The Tender Bar, for the curious), drove for about an hour, then got my ass kicked by a migraine and had to switch out. While I lay whimpering in the back seat, the guys sat up front and let the book go, engrossed in the story. Next thing I knew, we were on the Mass Pike with the sun coming up. It wasn’t until the last CD ended that the fatigue hit the driver and I took the wheel again.
It was read by the author, and I truly believe that the reader can make or break the audio version. I’ve had some that I’ve had to eject after a chapter because the plodding monotone was putting me to sleep. I’ve had others that have made the miles fly past. Some of the best readers give each character his or her own personality, so you get to know who’s speaking by the narrator’s portrayal without needing to hear “…said Jack/said Sally” at the end of the dialoguey bits. The Kindle 2 can’t put that emotional inflection into the story. It can’t sound winded when a character’s been running from the bad guys or angry when there’s a shouting match going on. It can’t drop down to a hush when the scene calls for a hint of awe. It can’t affect an accent. (I wonder how it handles text wherein the author tries to approximate a spoken accent. How does something like, “Look ‘ere, guv’na!” sound? But I digress.)
But if you listen to the top clip here, you’ll see that it’s also not entirely unlistenable, either:
The way the Read-to-Me feature on the Kindle 2 is being advertised is, at the very least, pointed right at the same people who enjoy audio books while travelling (bolding mine):
Now Kindle can read to you. With the new Text-to-Speech feature, Kindle can read every book, blog, magazine, and newspaper out loud to you. You can switch back and forth between reading and listening, and your spot is automatically saved. Pages automatically turn while the content is being read, so you can listen hands-free. You can choose from both male and female voices which can be sped up or slowed down to suit your preference. Anything you can read on Kindle, Kindle can read to you, including books, newspapers, magazines, blogs and even personal documents. In the middle of a great book or article but have to jump in the car? Simply turn on Text-to-Speech and listen on the go.
Consider that feature in this economy. Books on the Kindle go for about $9.99. Audiobooks from the publisher are creeping into the $30 range for abridged versions and into the $40s or higher for unabridged. Even the versions you’ll find through iTunes or Audible.com (outside of special offers), start around $20.
Are you going to pay $9.99 for the text on the Kindle and then shell out another $20-$50 for an audio version of the book? Or are you going to push the Read-to-Me button and listen to the lower-quality version?
Pushing that button is potentially a lost audio sale for an author. I don’t have numbers on how many people who buy the audio version of a book also buy it in its printed form. My guess is that most people choose one or the other, maybe picking up the printed version if they especially loved the audio. But how many people are going to opt to buy the $9.99 Kindle ebook with the express intention of using to the Read-to-Me feature, thus saving themselves the extra $10-$40 they’d have spent on the publisher’s audiobook?
It’s money that the authors don’t get to see. They get the royalty for the ebook, certainly, but I do think the potential is there for audiobooks to take a serious hit from this, thus affecting the authors’ incomes.
Doctorow’s argument — that if the Authors’ Guild is going after the Kindle 2, they open it up to going after all software that can read things aloud, ever, including software for the blind — feels like a slippery slope to me. I absolutely understand his point — hell, one of the reasons I loved his Little Brother so much was because it shows how far and how badly things can go when it comes to relinquishing personal freedoms in the name of “being safer.” But at the same time, I think he’s reading sinister intent where there isn’t any.
Again, being unpublished, I don’t know all the history behind the Authors’ Guild — they may very well have taken some questionable actions in the past. But my feeling on their actions in this instance is that they’re not going after (as Doctorow puts it) “the World Blind Union, phone makers, free software authors, ebook makers, and a whole host of people engaged in teaching computers to talk.” He asks, “…does [Blount] think that iPhones shouldn’t be able to read your email to you as you jog?” Obviously, I can’t answer for Blount, but my guess would be no, he’s not thinking that way at all. No one loses out on royalties if your iPhone reads your email aloud. That projects a bit too much moustache-twirling onto the guild.
It would definitely be a bad idea for the Authors’ Guild to demand that all text-to-speech software that exists or is in development be halted. Whatever language they do come up with to settle this will have to be very carefully worded, precisely so Doctorow’s worst case scenarios don’t become real. But I just can’t see it as a bad thing that the authors be given a say in whether or not their books are Read-to-Me enabled, if there’s an audio version out there.
No, we can’t stop Text-to-Speech technology. We shouldn’t. But when Amazon is marketing the feature as a built-in audiobook (even though they don’t come right out and call it that), they are dancing very close to the edge of infringing on copyright, if they haven’t waltzed right off the cliff already.
I don’t have a good solution for this, by the by. I wish I did, but I’m nowhere near tech savvy enough to know what would and wouldn’t work. I’d think that, with the Kindle having wireless internet built right in, they’d be able to disable the Read-to-Me feature somehow for certain titles. My proposal would be to leave it on by default, so people can have their newspapers, blogs, etc read aloud to them as they pleased.
Books would be a different matter. Like Thomas said to me this morning, and I agree: it’s not fair to charge customers for a feature they might not even use. But on the flip side of that, leaving it enabled and free-of-charge to all customers invites abuse in the form of buying the ebook for the cheap audio feature. So why not set it up so the customer buys the text-only ebook for the usual $9.99, and if they wish to enable Read-to-Me at any time, add a one-time fee, and ensure that the author gets royalties from that fee?
Taking that a step further, I wonder if Creative Commons licenses could factor into that, somehow. Say, if the author permits it, the one-time Read-to-Me fee would be waived on his/her books, or even automatically enabled upon download?
What do you cats and kittens think about it? What questions did I leave unanswered, or what new ones did I open up that I might be able to address?