Thursday, February 26, 2009

The controversial Kindle 2

For those who don’t know, the Kindle 2 offers a text-to-speech component that essentially “reads” text aloud in a robotic voice. Does that infringe upon audio book rights? That, it seems, is quite the divisive issue—including within our office.

It seems that both sides not only think they’re right but think the other folks are totally missing the point. Rather than watch us fight it out between ourselves, here are two takes, one from Neil Gaiman and a response from Jason Pinter.

Neil’s take.

Jason’s response.

What do you think?


  1. First of all, an audiobook, is a professional piece of work. The Kindle text to speech is basically just reading the words for someone who is can't see that well.

    I don't see where the division in. Microsoft Reader has the same program and no one has complained about that one.

    So much goes into recording an audiobook, music, the reader, the production. A text-to-speech program is NOTHING like that and agents and publishers should back off on it. It is not infringing on anything. If someone prefers the the text-to-speech that comes specially with any type of reading program, so be it.

    There really shouldn't be a debate on it at all.

  2. I have to agree that the text-to-speech is so far from having an actual human read the work, it's actually painful to listen to. Maybe, in the future, a computer will be able to recreate all the nuances of human speech, but that's going to be a really, really long time.

    It's an accessibility issue. Same as text-to-speech browsers, etc. Until audiobooks are not only ubiquitous for all books, but comparable in price to a Kindle book, taking away the text-to-speech capability creates additional hardship for blind readers.

    As a writer, I too would like to get paid for my work, but this all seems like an over-reaction.

  3. I don't see a difference between the Kindle 2 "voice" and the free audio readings for the blind that all author contracts allow. The freelancer I know who does those types of readings just reads the unabridged book into a microphone. There are no special effects and very little that can be done to distinguish the voices of different characters. These people volunteer their time and provide a good service.
    Personally, I'd want to listen to a professionally produced "audiobook" of a John Grisham story, or hear Mohama Yumas (?) read his work in his own voice. I don't see the Kindle 2 hurting those sales.
    I think there are two different delivery systems being offered here, and people will continue to pay for the one with the bells and whistles if that's what they want, but won't pay extra for the basic one.

  4. While I can respect the content owner's right to control the distribution of their media ... the argument against it just seems to me like stifling innovation.

    Text-to-speech is not at the point where you could ever mistake it for an actual human performance. Sure, it'll get there someday, but it's not yet.

    But there's the crux: the audiobook industry wants you to think that is the choice consumers will be making. Jason says it explicitly: "If the Kindle cuts into audiobook sales, it means simply less potential revenue for authors." But that's not it.

    No one is going to have the audiobook version and the Kindle in their hands and choose the Kindle over the audiobook as audible media. It's just not going to happen. Even years down the road when the text-to-speech is great, people will still choose the audiobook over the digital voice.

    The real choice that consumers will be making now comes down to a $10 Kindle-spoken book of their choosing or a $40 audiobook chosen from a horrible selection.

    See? Apples and oranges.

    I think the real problem is that the audiobook market is dismal right now. You can't get anything other than mainstream, and the prices are artificially high. The Kindle does offer pressure -- not in competition between formats, but in the perspective on how skewed the industry is.

    Now, if the audiobook publishers ask Amazon to turn off text-to-speech on specific books for which there is an audiobook available, then I could agree that Amazon would be in the wrong. But has anyone even bothered to ask Amazon to do so?

    I think the audiobook industry has an opportunity here. They need to work with Amazon to track the books that people are having the Kindle speak to them, then use that data to better adapt to consumer demand. Everyone wins in that scenario.

    Better yet, work with Amazon to get actual audiobook capability in Kindle v3. When an audiobook version of an eBook is available, then lock out the Kindle-speech version and offer to download the audiobook version for an extra $5-$10. Everyone wins in that scenario!

    I, for one, am happy to see the audiobook industry under a little pressure. I love the format, and have spent countless piles of money on audiobooks, but the industry needs a little pressure to make some choices and better support consumer demand.

    Stamping out text-to-speech is just another format holy war -- it's VHS vs DVD vs digital, cassette vs CD vs MP3. Each time the content owners claim that the new format will destroy their industry ... and yet they make billions of dollars from the new revenue stream. I'm sorry, but I can't feel bad about that.

  5. Re: "Accessibility issue"

    That's a great way of thinking about it. We don't mind when curbs are flattened out to make them wheelchair accessible, or braille numbering used in elevators - text-to-speech is the same.

    Also, as someone who has done (and probably will do again) editing of medical text generated by speech recognition software - trust me, Barbara Webb's observation that text-to-speech is "actually painful to listen to" is right on target.

    It is the little things that matter in life - and in speech. You don't realize it until a computer inserts itself into the process - suddenly, the wonderful subtlety, skill and speed with which the human mind processes language is thrown into stark relief.

    Some of the speech-to-text software is so "clever," it removes the pauses and little noises (throat clearing, ahh, umm, uh, etc) people make when speaking - even "eating" words like "a," "the," "I" - the speech is rendered incomprehensible!

    I imagine a novel full of complicated emotions, layer upon layer of emotional intensity accumulating, when read in an uninflected robovoice would be a hellish experience - unless that was the only way you had to access that book. Then it would be a kind of heaven?

    Like picking up one of your favorite bands on a crummy car radio with poor reception in the middle of nowhere - say Arcade Fire in concert. I'll take it!

  6. It's not like this service in new. You've been able to buy software for your computer for a long time to do this (for blind people) from what I've heard.

    At first I was totally with Neil on this, but after reading Jason's rebuttal, I did give it more thought. I still think it's fine, but he is right in that while the technology is limited now, it probably won't be for long. It's easy to say that a computer cannot compete and won't for a long time, but ummm...1999 was only ten years ago and think about the advances in technology since then!

    I don't really see it as comparable to the WGA's arguments though. Seems like apples and oranges to me. For one thing, no one's broadcasting this audio feature all over the internet. If you have a kindle and I want to hear the audio, I have to either sit there with you or borrow your kindle.

    I listen to a lot of audio books and I won't listen to ones where the narrator annoys me, so I can't really see me putting my headphones on and really getting into a kindle read aloud performance.

    The thing I think writers need to keep in mind though is that their agents are used to fighting for the things that matter and they may have a better perspective on the big picture. If my agent asked me how I wanted him to handle this, I would say, "don't worry about it" but if he said to me, "this is a big deal", then I would ask why, listen, and then probably come around to his way of thinking because if he's willing to take on something like this, then it probably is a big deal. While I do need to be aware of things like this, my job is to write and his job is to know what's worth fighting for.

    Is DGLM taking a unified stance on this or do y'all have different opinions?

  7. I think TTS is a right by itself. Since, TTS and human voice audiobooks would create two types of books, and audiobook companies would probably not create two versions of a book, TTS shouldn't be included with the audio rights.

    Right now, TTS has little value, but it will have value when the TTS software improves and allows for multiple changes of voice in a document so that the reader could tell when speakers change and when narrative is being read. That's not very far into the future.

    As with the case of ROSETTA BOOKS versus RANDOM HOUSE, I can't see how this matter will be settled without a lawsuit.

    Actually, accessibility with TTS is being hurt by not having a legal definition of whether TTS is a right by itself, an audio right, or part of the ebook.

    Right now, most publishers are covering their legal rears by blocking TTS with DRM so that no one gets TTS. A legal definition would be a very good thing for all involved.

    I have heard from one of my publishers that the next Amazon Kindle publisher contract will allow the publisher to cut off the TTS function with their books. You can guess what most publishers will decide to do.

  8. I own a nifty little program called TextAloud. It will read any content on my computer. I ponied up and bought high quality voices for it and use it just about exclusively to read back my MS when I'm getting ready to send in a book. I catch a lot of typos and stuff to be fixed. I could, if I wanted to, use the program to read out ANY file on my computer, including eBooks, email, word documents and on and on.

    Programs like this have been around for years.

    eBooks I purchase do belong to me. Why can't I use a reading program to read it out loud if I want to? I can read it out loud myself, for heaven's sake.

    The performance involved in an audiobook, where the voice is actually a skilled reader/actor, is completely different. The fact that I might own an eBook of To Kill a Mockingbird (for example) does not entitle me to a free copy of Brad Pitt reading TKM.

    The text-to-voice feature of the Kindle2 is hardly new technology and in my opinion it does not create a new version of the ebook. In fact, all it can do is read back EXACTLY what's in the book, typos and all.

    If Amazon were including Brad Pitt reading TKM with the eBook without compensation to Ms. Lee for his performance of her work, that's different. But that's not what text to speech is.