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?