Kindle 2 Text-To-Speech

OK, so the Kindle 2 has this feature where a robo-voice will read your book to you.

The Author’s Guild is up in arms because, generally, authors sell the audio-book rights for a fee that goes some way to making up for the pitiful amount most authors are payed in advances and royalties (they are not all JK Rowling). It’s easy to mock the Author’s Guild for this, because the robo voice is, currently, so inadequate especially compared with a talented voice actor.

I feel some sympathy for the Guild, until I remember how stupid they’re being by fighting this.

Jamais Cascio has a really great article on the topic, which sums up the situation in a way that had me nodding vigorously :

The reason that [The Authors’ Guild’s] Blount’s wrong is that he’s just trying to hold back the tide, fighting a battle that was lost long ago. The reason that the 21st century digital writers [who mock the robovoice] are wrong is that they’ve forgotten the Space Invaders rule: Aim at where your target will be, not at where it is.

(thanks to WWDN:In Exile for this link)

He goes on to make some very realistic proposals about where the technology might go that would realise the Authors’ Guild’s fears. And then he points out that it doesn’t matter. You can fight it all you like (the record industry did), it’s going to happen and you should, instead, be expending your energy on figuring out a way to work with the approaching technology.

I think we are a very, very long way from the technology ever truly replacing a great reading. But quite apart from that, the fact remains that most people don’t listen to audio books. And why? Because they are phenomenally expensive.

Let’s look at the New York Times bestsellers list: James Patterson’s latest novel is up there. In hardback its list price is $27.99. The audio book is $39.99! For a novel. For a novel that will, in a few months come out in paperback and be sold at Walmart for under $10.

Add to that, a lot of audio books are read by mediocre readers.

But all is not lost.

The Author’s Guild should consider that as the text-to-speech technology advances, it might just be that it gets people MORE used to listening to their books, and increases demand for high quality audio books. ( I, for one, will never be able to resist hearing my favourite authors read their own works — well, those that are good at it. Neil Gaiman and Douglas Adams spring to mind).

Think of wine-drinkers. How many people would risk a day’s pay on an expensive bottle of wine the first time they drink it? Precious few. But offer them a tasty $6 bottle and you let them edge their way into the market. They’ll keep drinking $6 bottles of wine or they’ll work their way up to Dom Perignon, or stay somewhere in the middle. But they’re drinking wine and taking it to other people’s houses and now they are in your wine-making world where you, as a wine-maker, can reach them.

I love my Kindle, and I understand that it might eventually put some mediocre actors out of business. And it might decrease sales for some audio books (mostly in non-fiction, according to my personal crystal ball). And I love the fact that desktop publishing and digital printing has made it faster, easier and cheaper to publish books, even though I understand that all the make-up men at the publishers have been out of their jobs for 20 years.

But yesterday I spend $18 on a pack of six greetings cards that were hand-fed in to a vintage letterpress machine by a boutique printing firm. And I’m really, really excited about seeing them (and touching them) when they arrive.

There will always be a market for a high quality product, as long as that product is relevant. And when it’s not? Well, telegraph operators are pretty much out of luck these days, and I’m not sure that any amount of lawsuits is going to do them any good.


These are two very good posts from the trenches: Neil Gaiman has a conversation with his agent, and the agent discovers she might have some more thinking to do.)

Wil Wheaton does a side-by-side comparison: reading from his latest book “Sunken Treasure” and allowing the Text-To-Speech technology to do it too. For a true comparnison, here is my Kindle 2 reading the same passage (recorded with a microphone, so you can hear the speaker quality too!)

(On a related note, Wil recently released this book in print and then offered a PDF download on the ‘please don’t be a jerk and forward it to all your friends’ license. Sales skyrocketed, but every time the digital download threatened to outpace the print book, he saw a jump in print sales too. His conclusion was that people were reading the PDF, then deciding they wanted a nice hard copy. This matches Neil Gaiman’s experience giving away ‘American Gods’.)

Update: Neil Gaiman has just posted a reminder about Lenny Henry’s audiobook version of Anansi Boys, which I love. It adds so much that I can’t imagine ever reading the printed book. It adds so much that it should kill this argument stone dead. Seriously. Have a listen…

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