Why the Authors Guild Is Off-Base About the Kindle 2

As you may know, the Amazon Kindle 2 has the ability to read books out loud. The text is read by the computer, so it doesn’t come close to a true audio book read by the author or an actor. However, I have found it to be surprisingly useful.

Man Holding Kindle 2

For example, last week when I received my new Kindle 2, I wanted to read through the user’s manual. (I know, I am one of those kind of people.) So, early one morning, I started reading in the conventional way—at least conventional for an eBook.

Eventually, it was time to get ready for the day. But rather than closing the book, I turned on the text-to-speech function and listened to the book while I shaved. The Kindle started reading at the top of the current page and continued until I stopped it. When I finished getting ready, I resumed my normal reading, at exactly the point the text-to-speech function had stopped. Amazing.

But surprisingly, Ray Blout, Jr., the president of the Authors Guild, argued last week in the New York Times that Amazon’s text-to-speech function is an infringement of the rights holders’ “audio rights.” Personally, I don’t think this argument is valid, nor is it in the best interests of authors or publishers to maintain this position.

As Amazon itself has argued, no audio is recorded. In principle, it is no different than me handing my book to a friend and asking him to read it aloud to me. Nothing is recorded. Nothing is performed. In fact, reading the book aloud is only made possible because I bought the print (or in this case digital) version of the book.

From my point-of-view, this feature is actually an added value that serves to make reading more accessible by more people in more situations. It also enables me to get through the book more quickly, so I can go buy more books. This, at a time, when, quite frankly, reading needs all the help it can get.

Unfortunately, as Seth Godin, himself a bestselling author, argued yesterday, trade associations like the Authors Guild often hurt their own members by attempting to preserve the status quo. Instead, they should be celebrating this innovation and working to facilitate it. In the end, I personally believe Amazon’s text-to-speech function will only help to drive more book sales for everyone.

Sadly for the industry, Amazon backed off its original position. It will now allow publishers to “turn off” the text-to-speech function on a title-by-title basis. Ultimately, this will only hurt readers and eventually authors and publishers.

In the meantime, we at Thomas Nelson intend to leave the feature on. If other publishers turn it off, great. It will only serve to give us—and our authors—a competitive advantage.

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  • http://intensedebate.com/people/PattiM PattiM

    Agree completely Michael. The text-to-speech feature has the ability to open books up to a whole group of people they would never otherwise reach. The most obvious is the sight impaired, there are those who have lost the ability to physically hold a book in their hands. Then there are those who wouldn't sit still long enough to read a book but would listen. My ADD nephew struggles to read written text, hand him a book on tape (audio etc) he soaks it up like a sponge. The Authors Guild needs to be encouraging access to the written word in whatever form the recipient best receives them.

  • http://www.GirlsWriteOut.blogspot.com Colleen Coble

    Do you think this will affect audio rights, Mike? That's the concern of many authors I've talked to. Right now the text to speech isn't quite as good as an audio book but what about as the technology advances? That's the main concern I hear.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I really don't think so, Colleen. I am not going to pack a Kindle when I run. I think it will be a long time before Artificial intelligence is that good. If it does get that good, then we can decide whether or not to continue to allow it.

      • http://generatornetwork.com Mike Rapp

        I heard a lot of these "stop the presses" arguments back when the mp3 format came about. The issue is not how this technology may impact the rights of the copyright holder (because we now know it will), but rather how the copyright holder can monetize customer preference via different and new distribution options. The record companies now find themselves the sole copyright holder of essentially unmonetizable copyrights because they resisted the opportunity to find a new way. They were only willing to pursue a new way so long as they could continue to hold on to the old one.

        As an aside, Mike, I had breakfast with Sandi Shelton this morning over at Mission City Press. We actually talked at length about the Kindle and the new audio feature. Sandi loves the feature, and we agreed that the real "threat" to the printed book business isn't this new feature, but rather audio books, read by the author. Unlike the Kindle feature, audio books already have an established distribution channel that customers have embraced: the iPod/iPhone.

        And btw, about 18 months ago Amazon quietly purchased audible.com. I think Mr. Bezos had the idea before I did…

        :-)

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/Achernar Ryan Markel

    Good to hear that TN plans to continue to use the feature.

    More than anything else, I think it's unfortunately a future blow to accessibility. Advocacy groups for the visually impaired should be up-in-arms about this, as stating that text-to-speech infringes on audio rights could have costly consequences for those who are unable to read for themselves.

    There are also many, many titles that will never be converted into an "authorized" audiobook and may be hurt by a publisher deciding to leave the text-to-speech flag off across the board.

  • Gordon Renouf

    If I already bought the book why should I have to pay extra to hear someone read it? And if I haven't bought the book then I'll buy the audio. So when you sell the rights why not think of always selling both??? To divide the experience of the words by medium is like dumb.

    • http://www.generatornetwork.com Mike Rapp

      Gordon, your argument assumes that you purchased the rights to the audio version of the book when you bought the print version. You didn't. This is the same thing that the music world screwed up when they tried to argue that DRM protects their rights. In the end, the customer and technology forced them to redefine the copyright to include more than just "one device" playing. Now, you can play a song as a ring tone, on a CD player, etc. all for one price.

      The problem is that the price for non-DRM music is so low that it's essentially free. But that's another topic. The key for Mike and TN is to make sure their industry is charging enough money for the rights to cover the distribution and marketing costs.

  • Walter Willis

    Agree Michael – in fact, Adobe Acrobat has had the ability to read a document for years. So will they go after Adobe next??

  • http://morenovel.wordpress.com John UpChurch

    My concern is that this will also negatively impact public perception of writers. As a writer, I completely support the text-to-speech feature, and when I can afford a Kindle, I plan to use it extensively. However, I wonder what the public will think of authors because of what the "Authors Guild” is arguing. I would have thought they would have learned a lesson from the music industry with iTunes (and digital downloads) and the hit in public perception that the RIAA took for maintaining the old guard.

  • http://robert.epictales.org Robert Treskillard

    Michael,

    I know right now the text-to-speech engine can't bring emotion to the reading, but I see a day when it can.

    It would not be that hard to program a way for a technician to mark areas of the text to be read with certain emotions . The reading software would then know when to use specific feelings. A technician could also mark dialogue by character, and assign different voices.

    This would still be no replacement for live-actors, but, with work, it might get closer than we think.

    Will there be a point when the computer being able to read reaches a quality level that publishers won't be able to afford to pay for the creation of the audio-books? When it will no longer be cost-effective?

    Just asking. It seems this freight train is moving pretty fast.

    -Robert

  • Todd

    Michael, I agree with this post. Might I suggest you add a few thoughts to it and submit it to Publishers Weekly for the "Soapbox" feature at the end of the magazine? I think it would be perfect there.

  • http://www.flurrycreations.com/theblog @johnflurry

    Mike, My Brother in his late 40's has gone back to school to earn his BA and then he plans to move on to his MBA. He could not do it without the ability to transfer his text books to audio. He is a brilliant guy and has developed a system to do it himself. What Amazon offers though is priceless for his and others success. I totally agree with you and hope the guild, immovable as they might seem, gets with the times.
    John

  • http://www.sharonball.com Sharon Ball

    Here lately I've been thinking very seriously about buying a Kindle. I've always preferred reading books in printed from, but I've been using my iPhone to read blog feeds and I find it so much more easy and convenient. It will be interesting to see how this all shakes out between the Authors Guild and Amazon, but I definitely agree with Seth Godin that the innovation should be celebrated.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/KarlaAkins KarlaAkins

    Exactly! You wrote everything I have argued since I heard about this silly dispute. And what about people with visual disabilities? This is going to be such a blessing for them.

    I don't have a Kindle yet, but I want one so badly I can taste, er, read it!

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Wait until you read my review!

  • James Pepper

    Hello Mike, James Pepper Biblical Scribe here, I agree with you and you need to be able to make the decision on whether to allow this or not in Nelson.. There are 10 million blind people who are of voting age, so they really need to rethink the policy. The blind can get books for free, so actually this format makes it possible for the blind to pay for books.
    Screen readers are very rudimentary, Adobe's Read out loud is the most primative and JAWS the most complex but each of these do not have the inflections that are needed to read a page that a human speaker can give. Listening to a book is like listening to Stephen Hawkin. Most books are not even laid out correctly for screen readers to read them!
    Why would you spend the time coding in the inflections when you can just read it as an audio book. Also people who speak audio books know the rest of the book, they know where to emphasize things that are not obvious to the reader.

  • http://www.thischangesnothing.com Michael Covington

    Shhh, don't tell anyone at the author's guild that Apple has a robust text-to-speech engine built into OS X. It's called VoiceOver and has more than 20 voices (some really kooky ones) and incredible verbosity settings. It can read PDF's and is compatible with all native Mac software (read: Safari). Maybe it hasn't been attacked because it's under Apples "Universal Access" settings, maybe that is how Amazon should have pitched their T2S functionality, how would the author's guild have looked if they were trying to prevent the visually impaired from accessing content?

    You'll recall that my wife is blind and her Mac is her lifeline to the outside world. She also uses a Victor Reader Stream which ingests DAISY files (XML-based text) as well as rich-text and html and using a T2P engine can read all of them in a voice far better than the one on the K2. She still prefers to listen to professionally produced MP3 audio books with real human voices, but if it means she can now listen to any book, she will gladly use a text-to-speech engine. We just cannot justify the $359 price tag for something we already have in her Mac.

  • http://polynate.net/ Nathan

    Michael Covington has already hit my point, but let me make it a bit more explicit:
    Step 1. Hold kindle up to a scanner
    Step 2. Scan and OCR the text
    Step 3. Text to speech the text

    As soon as I can see/touch/interact with the media, I can copy it. And in this case, some degradation is unlikely to impact on my listening experience (eg. getting a word wrong now and then through OCR would still probably be ok). So locking out this capability is just delaying, rather than stopping.

    As others have said, these advances should lead innovators to see opportunity, not block the risk.

  • Pedantic Geek

    "But surprisingly, Ray Blout, Jr., the president of the Authors Guild, argued last week in the New York Times that Amazon's text-to-speech function is an infringement of the rights holders' audio rights.""

    His name is Roy Blount, Jr. It is spelled correctly in the item you linked to.

  • http://bookexplosion.blog.com Amy

    I can't say that I like audio books. I like the feel of a book in my hands too much.

  • http://www.imnervous.com Will

    I don't know how they expect this platform to really take off as they won't even pay their affiliates when they sell a book for the kindle. I sell hundreds of books a year as an affiliate, but I refuse to list any kindle books.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I get paid for Kindle sales. Perhaps you should contact their support people. Something is definitely wrong with that.

  • Dave

    As an educator, I'm looking forward to the day that a device like the Kindle with text-to-speech is convenient to incorporate into the classroom, and, even better, for homework. I can only imagine how much quicker children will learn to read if they can hear the words being read while they follow along, even at those times when an adult is unavailable to read with them on a one-to-one basis.