Kindle 2 Review from Lori Cates
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The Great Text-to-Speech Debate

Dunce cornerRarely do I get so worked up about an issue but few are as strangely controversial as this one.  I'm talking about the text-to-speech feature of Amazon's Kindle 2.  (Again, in the interest of full disclosure, I own a Kindle 1 and I have no plans to buy a Kindle 2. I think Amazon's closed platform is a huge mistake and I hate how they're alienating their Kindle 1 early adopters with no discounted upgrade offer.)

Let me come right out and say it: I strongly believe text-to-speech is a good thing for everyone.

Earlier this week, Roy Blount wrote this misguided article about the feature in The New York Times.  This industry is looking for innovative ways to get people to read more book-length works and this knucklehead takes a swing at one of the few interesting developments that shows promise.  Did Blount just wake up from a 10-year nap at an RIAA meeting?!  Seriously, dude, please don't encourage authors and The Author's Guild to start acting like the music industry!

Let's be clear.  The text-to-speech feature is only going to make Kindle editions more popular and usable.  Will it cause some fence-sitters to make a purchase?  Probably.  Will it really hurt the audio book market?  I seriously doubt it.  And so what if it does?!  How many people really buy both the print/written version of a book and the audio version?  That number has got to be incredibly tiny, a rounding error on a rounding error.  Don't forget though that Amazon owns Audible.com now.  Maybe they want to "eat their young" with this feature, but I'll bet Amazon isn't too concerned about cannibalization of the Audible program.

I tweeted this earlier but if you're not on Twitter you ought to read James Turner's insightful response to Blount's column.  (And if you're not on Twitter, what the heck are you waiting for?!)

Comments

Nathan Bransford

I think this sidesteps the main issue. The issue isn't, I don't think, how much or how little the audio market will be affected, although that's a consideration. The issue is that Amazon took the position (since revised) that they could enable text to speech on an e-reader without the approval and compensation of authors. As you say, the feature is going to sell more Kindles. Why don't authors deserve a share of this revenue when it's on the backs of their content? Why should Amazon profit solely from a further exploitation of rights?

Joe Wikert

Nathan, with all due respect, I think what Amazon is doing is enabling publishers and authors to shoot themselves in the foot and opt out of this feature. My point wasn't that Amazon will sell more Kindles. My reference to "fence-sitters" had to do with whether someone wants to buy a particular book, not the Kindle itself. And if having that functionality available in your book causes that customer to make the purchase, don't the author and publisher win?

Where do you draw the line on this, btw? What if someone were to write an application that could be loaded on your Kindle and this app just happens to convert the written word to the spoken word. Do you cry foul against Amazon for allowing the Kindle, a Linux-based device, to support that app? Do you instead go after the third-party developer? But they might have written it for free and offered it the community. What's their gain in this? And more importantly, where's the harm to the author and publisher for making it easier (and more enjoyable) for customers to use their products?!

Michael Miller

Geez. Calling text-to-speech a kind of copyright infringement is really offbase, IMHO. It's the Author's Guild (and misguided authors and publishers) trying to limit how their content can be used. Didn't work with digital music, won't work with digital books. Are they now going to say we can't read the book out loud to our kids or aged parents? What about readings at book clubs -- isn't that some sort of unauthorized public performance? If these single-minded, paranoid, technophobes would spend as much time trying to exploit the new medium as they do trying to protect themselves from it (and its perceived harms), then they actually might realize a new revenue stream. As it is, it makes all concerned look like a bunch of overprotective Luddite fools.

I don't see any way that the Kindle's text-to-speech feature would convince me not to buy an audiobook, if that's what I wanted. Audiobooks are great little performances, and you pay for the reading as much as you do for the original book. The robotic Norweigian who performs the text-to-speech conversion doesn't offer near the performance. I view text-to-speech as a convenience. Trying to block it is the height of disdain for the reader -- it's all about audiobook rights, primarily for the publisher. How does that affect the reader in the real world.

Stupid, stupid issue.

Book Calendar

There is another issue with the text to speech feature. It makes a lot more books available to the blind to listen to because it automatically reads text into an audio format. This is also a test case for visually impaired listeners.
http://www.nfb.org/nfb/NewsBot.asp?MODE=VIEW&ID=412&SnID=1916786125

kevin parsons

Removing text to speech is only going to hurt the few people who really would use it - the legally blind and disabled.

That the book industry would even suggest that this feature is in the same universe as an audio book is a huge insult to the audio book industry. Please, we won't see color e-ink until 2011, but we are supposed to think that a computer voice is going to read a book like Scott Brick or Frank Muller or one of the other great male and female readers??

The publishing industry just keeps going down the same road as the music industry. I hope that the few publishers who are moving forward with imagination and intelligence get rewarded. O'Reilly happens to be one of them, based on what I am seeing.

Carolyn Jewel

I am an author and a member of the Author's Guild, with books currently offered on the Kindle. (Aside: I wonder how Amazon is going to ask me?) Regardless, I completely disagree with the Author's Guild on this one. I've been using a Text-to-Speech program for years, YEARS! Mostly to read back my MSS to catch typos because the program reads precisely what I wrote, not what I think I wrote.

The thing is, what's derivative about a computerized voice that reads a book exactly as the words appear in the text? There's no interpretation of pacing, tension, inflection, no accommodation for the gender of various speakers etc.

An actual audio book, read by a real live person or persons, is a derivative work and I should be compensated for that. But Text-to-Speech? No.

I suppose that if someone were to take that Text-to-Speech capability and spend the hours and hours it would take to embed all the codes necessary to slow down, speed up and correct pronunciations and inflections, the file produced then would be a derivative work. I have had to do some of this on a limited basis when I'm having my books read back because I want to hear my character's names pronounced correctly.

From what I've heard, the Kindle2 isn't doing either of those two things: adding a human being's reading performance or adding a file that's been customized to my book and tweaked for closer resemblance to actual speech.

Francis Hamit

This is a matter of corporate arrogance. Text-to-speech and a real live voice will soon be the same thing because we have the technology to make it so. Under global copyright law, authors control the use of their creations, including the right to make derivative works. The actual publication and distribution is controlled by written contract, which large corporations don't like to use because it costs a lot of money. The tendency to assume that they can ignore the law has brought more than one lawsuit. In my case it brought two, against former publishers who distributed to electronic databases without asking me or paying me. I won both suits and got paid.

So this is not about the Kindle 2 so much as it is the taking of content without permission and compensation. Audio rights are derivative here of material where the copyright is already registered. That means statutory damages of up to $150,000 per book. That alone was enough to make Amazon.com reconsider their stance and allow authors the right they already have to authorize..or not.. text-to speech. It's not really money that is at issue, but power. Since Amazon.com also has a program that encourages authors to self-publish directly to the format, they have to relinguish control. Coding a file does not meet the standard under law for creative work. No originality.

Peter Jurmu

I've always understood the term "derivative work" to apply only if said work is separately produced and sold with intent to capitalize on the popularity of the original work or body of related works. If Amazon had released separate digital audiobooks, with real or computerized voices, for free or not, for download to the Kindle without author compensation or notification, they would be in the wrong. But I fail to see the difference between this and a native Mac OS X function that allows you to listen to myriad voices read a section of text back to you.

What seems probable is that the Author's Guild cheeses and Mr. Blount don't want to, by inaction, preclude future ventures into digital audiobooks on the Kindle that actually do affect/profit authors. I hardly think, however, that Amazon, who in 2007 bought the largest indie audiobook publisher in the US (Brilliance Audio) and paid $300m for Audible in 2008 to bolster their audiobook division, would take action that would endanger that part of its business. Why would they "offer" something for free and elsewhere charge for it? I suppose anything is possible.

An interesting trend is emerging: Amazon has not recorded a single audiobook in this instance, merely programmed a piece of hardware to convert text into computerized speech. The Pirate Bay owners do not upload pirated works, but do provide a service which is utilized by pirates to distributed pirated works. A change from old copyright laws, it would seem, to something more equipped to handle the fast-approaching progression out of Web 2.0 is in the wind. Or at least it'd better be.

For the record, Amazon as likely changed their stance on the matter out of a disinclination to listen to Mr. Blount say silly things for the next month as actual worry over what would happen in a courtroom.

Francis Hamit

The issue is content. A derivative work is any work which reproduces the same content in a different form; a film based on a novel, for instance. Technology and quality are irrelevant. What is relevant is the Copyright Act, which provides statutory damages of up to $150,000 for copyright infringement. That gets past the barrier of $75,000 for filing a Federal lawsuit. The real damage to the defendant is the cost of such a suit, which can run into the millions since good attorneys expert in this area start at about $600 per hour.

I agree that the Copyright Act badly needs reform, but wishing will not make it so; only an act of Congress. As for Amazon's policies, until you try selling content through them you have no idea how Balkenized and at cross purposes they are -- and no one there talks to anyone else. Logic doesn't enter into it. It's about power.

Francis Hamit

An update on text-to-speech. I looked into the audiobook market for my own book "The Shenandoah Spy". An unabridged audio book has a higher price than the hardbound text version. My book would take up 12 CDs and run about 15 hours to play. MP3 downloads are priced a little cheaper, but still more than the original book. Royalties are comparable to paperbacks in terms of percentage. I live in a rural area where people not only do not read, but are proud of the fact. Nevertheless, they buy lots of audiobooks to listen to on those long commutes. Given all of that, why would I kill my own market by enabling text-to-speech on the Kindle 2? Audiobooks are a billion dollar a year market, which e-books are not. It would be a very poor business decision. The front end costs of producing an audiobook turn out to be about the same as a short offset print run, with about the same sell-through to break-even.

P Watson

To the authors they can say what they want to but it is pure and simple greed all about money to them. To bad you can't have a list of all the authors that have blocked text to speech and then people could quit buying anything related to the author. Also what's the difference in this and being able to go to a library and check out a audio book for nothing????? Get a grip authors you make a killing if you are any good at what you do.....

Reader

To the authors/publishers, here's a real world scenario from a reader. I have 20/20 vision and full control of my extremities, however, I cannot physically hold a book without pain, reading makes me dizzy about 70% of the time. I was a rabid reader from 5 years old on to 41, until I got ill. Then, I couldn't read books at all. I would not qualify for disabled reading programs. I will not/cannot pay the high price of audiobooks, I have purchased only a few hardbacks in my life, mostly by Stephen King, when I was well, and for over 30 years I devoured books. Loved them. Couldn't live without a book to read. I got ill, and couldn't read books for over a year. Enter Kindle 2 and TTS. Now, I am buying almost as many books as before, but I'm not buying TTS disabled books. And I'm still not buying audiobooks, I get them from the library or if -really- cheap, from ebay. I still don't buy hardbacks. It doesn't matter how much I want to read your book. I have 40 books on my Kindle that will let me listen....none that have disabled TTS. No TTS = no sale. Readers either buy hardbacks or not, they buy audiobooks or not. They won't change simply because you want them to. Stephen King and publisher delayed his book Under the Dome. I didn't buy the hardback like they wanted me to. I didn't buy the audiobook either. I got the audiobook from the library and they lost my Kindle book dollars.

I'm waving my money in your face, but you don't want it. Why?

Tony

I have some experiences with text to speech software Panopreter Plus (http://www.panopreter.com) on Windows 7 or Vista , and I am satisfied with it.The software reads txt files, rtf files, word documents, pdf files and web pages, and converts the text to mp3 and wav files.

Ann Smith

Reader pretty much stated my sentiments as someone who has dyslexia.

The bottom line is that since I learn best from listening to and reading an article at the same time, if the text to speech feature is disabled on your Kindle Book, I am not buying it. Furthermore, I am not buying your audiobook because it doesn't meet my needs. As a result, you're not getting any money from me. Therefore the issue of you losing out on earning money from your audiobooks is irrelevant because you have completely lost me as a customer.

Another point I wanted to make was that if you offered your book in the large print version, you wouldn't tell Amazon that offering large font options on the Kindle is preventing you from earning royalties on your book. Offering the text to speech option is no different in my opinion.

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