Sunday, February 15, 2009

Kindle II offers text-to-speech promise, but Authors' Guild wants TTS turned off

It seems that as technology developers innovate, they also challenge old ways of thinking.

Case in point is the upcoming release of the
Kindle II E-book reader,
A second-generation technology product designed and sold exclusively by the online retail giant Amazon.

One of the innovations that the Kindle II has over its predecessor, and the one creating all the ruckus here, is the reader’s built-in text-to-speech (TTS) ability. While it is originally intended to give sighted readers the option to continue their reading indulgences when involved in activities such as driving, which would otherwise mean they would have to engage their eyes and hands elsewhere and stop their reading, enabling the TTS would allow them to continue reading right where they are. As anybody who uses TTS knows, the ability to take your reading material with you and keep on reading hands-free is a big plus.

So, what’s the problem you ask? It comes from the
Authors' Guild.
The union has thrown up a big protest, challenging that by using TTS on their writers’ printed materials, this effectively makes them audio books. The Guild asserts that Amazon has only paid for the E-book rights, not the audio book rights.

This 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.

We're studying this matter closely and will report back to you. In the meantime, we recommend that if you haven't yet granted your e-book rights to backlist or other titles, this isn't the time to start. If you have a new book contract and are negotiating your e-book rights, make sure Amazon's use of those rights is part of the dialog. Publishers certainly could contractually prohibit Amazon from adding audio functionality to its e-books without authorization, and Amazon could comply by adding a software tag that would prohibit its machine from creating an audio version of a book unless Amazon has acquired the appropriate rights. Until this issue is worked out, Amazon may be undermining your audio market as it exploits your e-books.

I’ve heard about the Kindle II’s TTS option for some time now, but only recently have I begun to look into it. Wouldn’t you know it, just when I begin to get interested, folks want to turn it off and make the device inaccessible.

Just hang up another “Blind folks not allowed” sign here!

And, the blasted thing isn’t even available yet. It won’t be shipped until February 24.

I’m not even certain if the Kindle II’s TTS is a full-functioning screen reader that would read the web pages and menus, which the user would need to access to order and download books onto the unit. However, if the Authors' Guild has anything to say about it, I might never find out.

Do these people really think readers want to listen to a synthetic, mechanical voice reading to them if they don’t have to? In this vein, I agree with
at the
Access Technologists Higher Education Network.

Being a provider of alternate format, I can tell you that no one wants to have to listen to the electronic voice of a text-to-speech conversion unless their disability requires it. Even the best voices still sound monotone, despite some of the recent advances in voice technology that have occurred. If you don't need text-to-speech, you won't be using it, I can pretty much guarantee. Listening to a book via text-to-speech technology is not the same as having an audio book. Audio books are highly produced, using a human reader. Most of us have experienced traditional audio books in one form or another. Text-to-speech, as good as it is, is not ever going to replace traditionally-produced audio books for the majority of listeners.

Amen, Susabelle. I use TTS in various forms, but when I read a book, give me a professional recording over the machine any day. My downloaded, digital books from the

National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped

are, without a doubt, my preferred medium for reading over anything on TTS. My Victor Stream could read any book from,
(if I paid to subscribe to this accessibility solution,) or any book I might scan into a MS-Word document, But those options would require me to listen to the TTS to read to me. If I can get the book from the NLS, though, where a person is actually reading the book on a digital recording, I’m there without a second thought.

The thing is, that not all books are available from either the NLS or Bookshare. Sometimes, especially with new releases, blind people, like anybody else, want to read a book when it is first released. If we can’t get it through our usual channels of accessible materials and want to pay our money, then why couldn’t we get it in an accessible digital format from Amazon? After all, I happily spend my money to get the latest audio book on CD when I just can't wait for an accessible copy. With the Kindle II, there is that potential, but not until the Writer’s Guild stops stifling innovation.

Perhaps it is the cost that the guild is looking at. E-books sell for less than audio books. I can't think of any new release on CD that sells for the price of any E-book. The guild isn't mincing words when it discusses revenue streams, so maybe that is what this is all about. If you want to listen to it, pay for the audio book.

Here’s to hoping that the Writers’ Guild gets their collective noses out of the old technology and understands the off-the-shelf accessibility promise that the Kindle II brings to the millions of Americans with print disabilities. I truly believe Amazon is on the right side of this argument, but that doesn’t mean they won’t cave to the writers’ demands to disable the TTS function on their books. After all, what good is an E-book reader without content? Fight the good fight Amazon and do the right thing here.

For further reading:

The National Federation of the Blind replies to the Authors' Guild.

Betanews: Is text-to-speech a threat to audiobooks ?

Kindle II F.A.Q page
Where they discuss “experimental technologies” such as the TTS, and that they plan to grow, not diminish these.

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