The Agent Game

A viewpoint on publishing

Thinking about text-to-speech technology

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Recently there’s been a lot of back and forth about the text-to-speech function of Amazon’s new Kindle 2.

Earlier this week, Roy Blount, Jr., president of the Authors’ Guild, had an op-ed piece in the New York Times in which he outlined some of his problems with the Kindle 2:

The Kindle 2 is a portable, wireless, paperback-size device onto which people can download a virtual library of digitalized titles. Amazon sells these downloads, and where the books are under copyright, it pays royalties to the authors and publishers.

Serves readers, pays writers: so far, so good. But there’s another thing about Kindle 2 — its heavily marketed text-to-speech function. Kindle 2 can read books aloud. And Kindle 2 is not paying anyone for audio rights.

This prompted a rebuttal filled with straw-men (some of which Mr. Blount had already dealt with) from Cory Doctorow, someone with whom I usually tend to agree, in which he seemed to decide that what the Authors’ Guild really wanted to do was somehow restrict or ban the text-to-speech technology involved.

Not long after, there was a post from author Neil Gaiman in which he compared the quality of the Kindle 2’s text-to-speech application with the same passage read aloud by an actual person (with the latter obviously sounding better than the former).

Probably the best comments so far on this whole kerfuffle though came from author (and former editor) Jason Pinter, who hits the nail right on the head when he describes the main issue with the Kindle 2, which is a writer getting paid fairly for their work:

What I argue in regard to this issue is that the book market is beginning to segment dramatically. An author’s piece of the financial pie is being carved up into many smaller slices, with e-books beginning to take on a larger role and audiobooks still a potentially lucrative market. The Kindle is profiting from this text-to-speech option. That is not debatable. And this being the very first Kindle with the new voice option, there is no doubt the quality of text-to-speect will improve over subsequent generations. The bottom line is that down the road, as voice quality improves (or even if it doesn’t), people will buy the Kindle for its ability to essentially double as an audiobook player. And in all likelihood the voice narration will improve. And even if it does not match the total quality of professional audiobooks, there are a whole lot of people who would be happy to save $30 for a slightly inferior version. Don’t think that’s true? Tell that to the music and movie industries which have had to deal with pirated product. All of this adds up to more revenue streams for the publisher (i.e. Amazon), and less revenue for the author. If the Kindle cuts into audiobook sales, it means simply less potential revenue for authors.

It’s simple really. If constantly improving text-to-speech technology is going to begin to eat away at the market for true audio books, isn’t now the time to look for a solution that results in writers being fairly compensated for their work? I’m not talking about DRM or other anti-consumer technological restrictions, but instead about the publisher paying the author an amount for e-book rights that recognizes that those e-books will eventually also be defacto audio books. Dismissing the legitimate concerns of writers (and their representatives) about the Kindle’s new text-to-speech feature as being groundless, or suggesting that since the technology is still in it’s early stages there’s no point in worrying about it, only serves the interests of Amazon, not those of writers.

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Written by incognito

27 February 2009 at 2:20 pm

Posted in Publishing

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