Scott Marlowe, fantasy author

Scott Marlowe

Author of the Alchemancer and Assassin Without a Name fantasy series

Authors: Kindle 2 text-to-speech undermines audio books

image The Author's Guild has issued an E-Book Rights Alert, informing authors of the possible revenue loss to stem from Amazon's Kindle 2 'text-to-speech' feature because of that technology's potential to undermine the audio book market.

The Guild says this about the Kindle 2's text-to-speech feature:

[Text-to-speech] presents a significant challenge to the publishing industry. Audiobooks surpassed $1 billion in sales in 2007; e-book sales are just a small fraction of that. While the audio quality of the Kindle 2, judging from Amazon's promotional materials, is best described as serviceable, it's far better than the text-to-speech audio of just a few years ago. We expect this software to improve rapidly.

In short, Kindle 2's text-to-speech feature is just that: any text stored on the Kindle 2 can be read back to you. The voice has been described as a "not-quite-natural electronic voice", but as the Author's Guild states, this feature should improve over time. Just the fact that we have such technology is proof enough that it will improve. Text-to-speech years ago was horrible. Yet now you can listen to say, my blog posts, through a service like Odiogo.com in a voice that is fairly pleasant if not a bit inconsistent in its pacing. It's 'serviceable', no doubt.

Personally, I take issue with the Guild's stance on this issue. First of all, audio books are expensive. Amazon has clearly invented a way to bring that cost down effectively to zero. That's good for consumers, right? Second, we live in a free market society where innovation is generally considered a good thing. This particular innovation, again, is a win for consumers because instead of having to buy print and audio versions of a book, you can now buy the Kindle format and that's it. Read or listen (or both), it's up to you. Just think of it: now you can read as usual, but you also have the option of listening for those times when reading is not possible. It's the ultimate in maximizing your time while still partaking in one of civilized society's greatest forms of entertainment.

I understand the other side of the argument. The "lost revenue" side, that is. But much like Paul Bunyan had to bow out to make way for the chainsaw, maybe it's time for the publishing industry to get out of the way and let technology and innovation pave the way to a brighter reading and listening future for all.

I'll leave you with Neil Gaiman's thoughts on the subject:

When you buy a book, you're also buying the right to read it aloud, have it read to you by anyone, read it to your children on long car trips, record yourself reading it and send that to your girlfriend etc. This is the same kind of thing, only without the ability to do the voices properly, and no-one's going to confuse it with an audiobook. And that any authors' societies or publishers who are thinking of spending money on fighting a fundamentally pointless legal case would be much better off taking that money and advertising and promoting what audio books are and what's good about them with it.

 Now, what do you think?

Amazon's Kindle 2 to Launch February 24

image There's plenty of news, buzz, skepticism, excitement, early product reviews, and photos surrounding the imminent launch on February 24 of Amazon's all new version of the popular e-book reader, the Kindle 2.

The feature list for this new Kindle is impressive:

  • Slim: Just over 1/3 of an inch, as thin as most magazines
  • Lightweight: At 10.2 ounces, lighter than a typical paperback
  • Wireless: 3G wireless lets you download books right from your Kindle, anytime, anywhere; no monthly fees, service plans, or hunting for Wi-Fi hotspots
  • Books in Under 60 Seconds: Get books delivered in less than 60 seconds; no PC required
  • Improved Display: Reads like real paper; now boasts 16 shades of gray for clear text and even crisper images
  • Longer Battery Life: 25% longer battery life; read for days without recharging
  • More Storage: Take your library with you; holds over 1,500 books
  • Faster Page Turns: 20% faster page turns
  • Read-to-Me: With the new Text-to-Speech feature, Kindle can read every book, blog, magazine, and newspaper out loud to you
  • Large Selection: Over 230,000 books plus U.S. and international newspapers, magazines, and blogs available
  • Low Book Prices: New York Times Best Sellers and New Releases $9.99, unless marked otherwise

imageFor me, the most attractive items from that list are the size, weight, battery life, and the sheer selection of Kindle-formatted books that Amazon now offers. The wireless feature is kind of cool, but I don't know that I'd use it all that often. In other words, once you've got a book or two downloaded you're pretty much set for days if not weeks, right? I spend enough time in the office and at home that having to hook up to a standard network isn't a big deal, though it's not clear to me at this point if that is even an option. Downloading over 3G might be the only way to bring content down.

As far as size, the image on the right says it all. The Kindle 2 is described as "pencil thin". That it is. That's one slim piece of machinery, though I do wonder about the Kindle 2's durability. I'm anxious to read early adopter reviews to see if this is an issue at all.

Other intriguing features include Whispersync which will allow you to start reading a book on the Kindle 2, then pick it up automatically on your iPhone or Blackberry, then jump back to the Kindle 2, all without losing your place. Read-to-Me is of some interest as well, though I wonder how tinny or jagged the speech will sound as it reads the book to you. If done right, with a smooth, pleasant voice, you may never have to actually read a book again

Update on Read-to-me: Legal action is already being contemplated because of this feature. Publisher's Weekly reports:

Some in the publishing community are raising objections to the new device's deployment of text-to-speech software that lets users have books read aloud by Kindle. Agents are raising questions and Authors Guild executive director Paul Aiken tells the WSJ "they don't have the right to read a book out loud. That's an audio right, which is derivative under copyright law." Amazon spokesman Drew Herdener says "these are not audiobooks. Text to speech is simply software that runs on devices and reads content." To that argument, an agent responds to us: "TTS is a tool. So is a knife. If I use it to cut vegetables, I'm using it for its intended and lawful purpose. If I use it to stab someone, I'm committing a crime. The fact that they are using a technology to create an audiobook rather than recording one has nothing to do with the issue. They are using a tool that has lawful purposes to violate copyright." Asked about next steps, Aiken says "we're studying it right now."

The Kindle was intended as the iPod or iPhone of the book world. Based on the sales figures Amazon has reported it would seem they're succeeding in this regard. According to Jeff Bezos, Amazon had been selling e-books “for years” and “it wasn’t working until 14 months ago” when the Kindle was launched.image

You can see the "Kindle effect" clearly demonstrated by the spike starting in 2007.

So, what to do? Wait-and-see or rush out and pre-order right now? What are other folks' thoughts on the new Kindle 2?

Further Reading