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Open Letter to the Authors' Guild re: Text To Speech on the Kindle 2

I read that, in response to your complaint, Amazon is preparing to give authors and publishers the choice of whether to offer their books with text-to-speech.

Fine.

But I’m writing to ask you to encourage your members to tell their publishers to say ‘yes’.

I understand the contract issues and the rights issues. I understand the ‘slippery slope’ argument.

From my own experience I say: I love to read. I sometimes buy audio books, but I really love to read. In fact I hate to stop reading. With the text-to-speech function, I don’t have to. I’m getting through books faster than ever because I no longer have to put them down when I cook dinner; do dishes; drive to pick up my pre-schooler…etc. etc. I’m already buying more books because of this.

I would not buy the audio book of every printed book I buy. You are losing not sales and it is not decreasing demand for audio books (yet, yes, I know you’re arguing for the future. I’m arguing for people like me who will always want to read the majority of their books).

Please encourage your members to think of this as a ‘value added’ feature for readers, rather than a competitor to their audio book rights. Please encourage them to say ‘yes’. Please encourage them to give this a chance. If it does turn out to be A Bad Thing, then you have your clause from Amazon. But please let your members know this could be an exciting new technology that readers might (or might not) love. Let us find out.

In addition, please consider my friend, a mother of two young boys, who has been losing her sight for years now. I am taking my Kindle over to ‘meet’ her this week. I know she’s going to be excited about the variable text size (Large Print doesn’t have its own license, does it?), and thrilled by the text-to-speech. She might have bought one and become a reader again, but now I’m not so sure, since I can’t guarantee her that all the titles will be available.

Thank you for all the work you do to protect the livelihoods of the authors who add so much to my life. Now, go and assure them there are honest readers out there who just want to squeeze a little more reading time out of each day! (And you could refer them to Neil Gaiman’s experiment where his publisher offered “American Gods” free at their website and saw a resultant jump in sales as people used the freebie as a ‘try before you buy’. Giving readers choices and flexibility and freedom can be a good thing).

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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.

More:

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…