Authors' Guild Way Off Base on Kindle

Posted by: Stephen Wildstrom on February 25, 2009

For obvious reasons, I am as sympathetic as anyone to authors’ desire to make a living. But that said, the Authors’ Guild [UPDATED original misidentified organization as the Writers’ Guild] is way off the mark in its objections to Amazon.com’s Kindle 2.

In an op-ed piece in today’s New York Times headlined “The Kindle Swindle” [broken link fixed], Guild President Roy Blount Jr. claims the Kindle is the latest in a long line of threats to authors’ livelihoods. The culprit: The text-to-speech feature of the Kindle 2. This, he claims, threatens to destroy the audio book business, a lucrative one for authors and publishers alike.

Stuff and nonsense. Blount claims "Kindle 2 is being sold specifically as a new, improved, multimedia version of books--every title is an e-book and an audio book rolled into one." I have actually heard the Kindle 2 read test. By the standards of text-to-speech engines, it's not bad. That means it's about up to the standards of the robot in "Lost in Space," but nowhere near as good as HAL in "2001: A Space Odyssey." I'd rather sit through a Teletubbies marathon than listen to a whole novel read in that robotic, affectless voice. There's a reason people will pay good money for audio books read by actual voice actors--and the Kindle can play good audio readings sold by Audible.com.

Blount frets that text-to-speech will get a lot better and cites demonstrations of human-like text-to-speech at IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center. I've been hearing those demos myself for years and they are very impressive. But getting a computer to speak like a human turns out to be a lot harder than getting a computer to understand human speech and those natural voice systems require massive computing power. They're not going to turn up on Kindle-class devices any time in the foreseeable future. And even when they do, just sounding human will be enough to make listening to the reading tolerable; it's not going to make it good.

Those of us who write professionally have plenty to worry about in an age of collapsing media business models and declining literacy. The Kindle is likely to be a help, not a detriment, to the struggling book business, and as writers, we ought to rejoice.

Reader Comments

Bakushin

February 26, 2009 10:37 AM

1. I agree with you wholeheartedly, there is no comparison between text to speech and a real audio book and any worry about that is wrong. Even if a computer can make a sentence flow, I don't see how it could add any drama or act voices as so many good readers do.
2. I would think that "Those of [you] who write professionally would at least spellcheck their articles and not begin with "ojections."

Rich

February 26, 2009 10:48 AM

Blount's objection to the Kindle 2 sounds like the RIAA's previous objection to online distribution of music: A seriously misplaced resistance to new technology that will cost the content providers greatly in the end.

Robert Lacombe

February 26, 2009 10:54 AM

As an avid reader I am fully convinced that E-books will never replace print certainly as long as my generation still inhabits the planet. They do not have the look or the feel and never will. It is not the same experience. They will, however, make excellent dictionaries or encyclopedias. If someone can offer an E-book that functions solely as an online dictionary/encyclopedia I would be interested.

Jon

February 26, 2009 10:58 AM

I completely agree with the writer that the Kindle will be a great help to media companies. I see it more clearly for independent writers willing to sell their first book online. The publishing book companies will have to act similar to the music industry backing musicians which translates to sales of records or increase crowds in concerts. The book publishers should act quickly while the ebook industry is young or else they will face the uphill battle that the entertainment industries are facing incapble to quicky monitize and provide service over the Internet. The guild president is so out of touch that I feel sorry for the organization being led by such a man.

Lastly, I wrote all of these out of an iPod Touch which can be an ebook reader too.

Joe Desbonnet

February 26, 2009 11:03 AM

Well said. If their complaint is upheld will this mean that the visually impaired cannot use text-to-speech on copyright text? Will I be allowed to read a book aloud to my kids? Can I even listen to my inner voice as I read a book?

steve baker

February 26, 2009 11:19 AM

I agree, Steve. Plus, the machine is not simply competing against human readers. It's competing against professional actors. I was hoping to be able to read the audio version of my book. But the company insisted on hiring a pro, who handled the pauses and inflections much better than a normal human, let alone a machine.

tg

February 26, 2009 11:21 AM

I have a niece that is visually impared and feel the audio capability of this device would significantly benefit her. She would be able to get current information, and literature. Who are the writers guild upset with? The device or the software to convert the text to speach? How short sighted are they in their thinking in this? Don't they understand the significant impact of an electronic textbook for future children. Software will eventually be developed to translate the text to audio in different languages, more realistic speech, and expand the market base of literary works.

STL Reader

February 26, 2009 11:39 AM

I agree, Stephen. If anything, Kindle will increase sales for authors, and not only because the Kindle (which I own) can't possibly provide human inflection to a story. Unless I'm mistaken, book sharing is going to be a thing of the past, which means more sales for e-books than print books.

Steve Wildstrom

February 26, 2009 11:46 AM

@tg and others--There is a specific provision in copyright law for royalty-free audio books for the visually impaired. But the Kindle's text-to-speech feature certainly can be very useful not only for the visually impaired but for anyone who needs hands-free access to text. What I wouldn't want to use it for is listening to an entire book if there were a better alternative available, such as an audio book read by a good voice actor.

Steve Wildstrom

February 26, 2009 11:48 AM

@Bakushin--Thanks for point out the error--it's been fixed. (No excuse, but our blogging software has terrible spellcheck capabilities. I'm a good speller but a terrible typist.)

Matt Wolf

February 26, 2009 11:52 AM

As I see it, writers and publishers are trying to put pressure on Amazon to pay something extra for the audio capabilities. This isn't an all-or-nothing question. Some kind of deal will get made, and if the writer's guild president gets a better deal for writers because of his editorial, I say more power to him.

Errol Lincoln Uys

February 26, 2009 11:54 AM

As an editor and writer who saw his first published story set in hot metal, I marvel at Amazon's Kindle and its role in the future of the "printed" word.

I'm a members of the Author's Guild and have great respect for Mr. Blount. As writers, we have to accept that we're in the the early stages of a transition as fundamental as going from writing on parchment scrolls with reed pens to inking text-blocks. An advance that spanned a century and a half, during which medieval copyists existed alongside printers of "good cheap" books.

It’s this idea of transition – lightning fast by comparison, given the exponential growth of the Web’s reach and application – that underscores my interest in picking up the new writing publishing and reading “tools.

No traditional book can offer the interactive platform I've created for the Kindle edition of my novel “Brazil” or open the door to actively sharing the magic that goes into the making of a monumental novel. There's a preview at my website http://www.erroluys.com

Author of “Brazil, a Novel” and “Riding the Rails: Teenagers on the Move During the Great Depression.”

And, yes, I rejoice that they're on Kindle!

Bob Sarles

February 26, 2009 12:01 PM

I think the point made is that there is a precedent being set.
I agree the technology is not there yet where the robotic voice of a computer can match the inflections of a human. But, it is really only a matter of time before that happens. And the question being raised by this conversation is - once we've accepted this technology, at what point does it cross the line?

Robynn McCarthy

February 26, 2009 12:19 PM

The link to the New York TImes story (which is just another rant by someone hopelessly out of touch with the changing world of media - written and otherwise) doesn't link to anything.

Donald

February 26, 2009 12:19 PM

I have participated in a "reading for the blind" project and have been told repeatedly that the human read works win hands-down over machine read works.

In any case, it isn't like the Kindle is the only ebook platform, or even the only one with available text-to-speech.

Thomas Hager

February 26, 2009 12:20 PM

Get the discussion straight: Blount is not against the Kindle -- he's against ripping off authors by offering a valuable commodity (content) in a new form (audio) without paying the content provider. Seems to me a reasonable position.

Ron Burley

February 26, 2009 12:25 PM

It's just about the money. Writers are looking for a royalty cut from Amazon. This is just the first volley. After this, they'll try out a court suit and if they get a friendly judge they might be able to leverage a percentage. Can't blame them for trying. Someday there will be a computer generated voice that is pleasant enough to listen to long-term and they want to be prepared for that eventuality. If they don't fight it now, it will be much more difficult to fight it then.

Frank

February 26, 2009 12:28 PM

Technology is a two-edged sword in that it aids us and yet forces us to adapt, which we hate to do. Why don't we just accept the fact that like the genie, technology is out of the bottle and that we have to deal with it and bend it to our will. We need to stop whining and start using the seven pounds of God (creator, evolution)-given brain to come up with ways to use this technology effectively and for the betterment of all. IMHO 200 millenium of development means that the sniveling light is out.

W. Bruce Cameron

February 26, 2009 12:29 PM

Roy Blount Jr. is not the president of the Writer's Guild.

Jodi Kaplan

February 26, 2009 12:38 PM

A professional actor reading a book aloud is a performance, and should be compensated accordingly. A computer producing sounds to make words is not.

Chuck Duncan

February 26, 2009 12:39 PM

Blount's position regarding the Kindle 2 -- a device that is neither designed nor practical for the blind, by the way -- is not that of a Luddite. His argument is that if electronic speech as it is employed in the Kindle 2 is intended to cut into the audio book industry, then the authors affected by this feature should get a slice of the pie. I am not sure if I agree with him, but I understand that he is arguing for reimbursement to authors for sales of eBooks to a device that is intended to compete with the audio book industry, NOT that this feature or the technology related to it should be in any way suppressed. The Writer's Guild already fully supports free text-to-speech provisions for the blind.

Steve, I agree that the threat to the audio book industry is low, but you make an unfair comparison to advanced text-to-speech systems such as is being tested at TJW Research. Yes, this system requires massive power because it needs to understand INCOMING human speech, but a text-to-speech device has no need for this technology, and therefore TTS will become better and more compact until it DOES pose a danger to the audio book industry, probably in a relatively short amount of time.

This is nothing like the RIAA's perennial attempts to suppress technology (a true Luddite war that extends back to the invention of the cassette audiotape, and who's main intent has always been to benefit powerful music labels). Blount is simply trying to write some financial compensation to authors into an industry that is in its infancy, an industry that someday will cut into authors' already shrinking compensation. THAT is the argument with which you need agree or disagree.

Josh

February 26, 2009 12:41 PM

It's only a matter of time before 'text-to-speech' technology adds personality and flavor to the presentation...smart computers will be able to realize from the content 'how' to read them aloud properly and effectively.

Scott Marlowe

February 26, 2009 12:45 PM

I've no doubt the text-to-speech feature will improve in leaps and bounds over time, especially as the technology is more widely adopted (more Kindles are sold, for ex.). I also foresee being able to choose from a wide variety of voices--similar to being able to select a ring tone for your cell phone. This is only the beginning of this technology.

cjacks

February 26, 2009 12:50 PM

Seems to me that text-to-speech would be a boom to the book sellers. It not only increases the audience to include those with low sight capability, and getting old tends to do that. But would help in teaching the next generation to read.

What I don’t understand is why the schools haven’t JUMPED on these things. I ride a train with students carrying books that weigh almost as much as they do. A good book reader would remove the “wear and tear” on the text books and, with good programming, interactivity. Heck put the homework on them and the dog won’t even be able to eat it.

Dave Freedman

February 26, 2009 12:51 PM

1. It's easy to whine about how technology is changing our business. It's not so easy to adapt and, more importantly, exploit new technology.

2. "But that said" is my pet peeve. Why not simply "But"?

Matt

February 26, 2009 12:52 PM

Mr. Blount is probably correct in the long-term; eventually this technology will be good enough to replace professional readers. One result will be cheaper audio books, and writers and publishers will need to adjust their business models.

Toll-collectors and cashiers are in the process of being automated out of a job right now -- do we want to outlaw the technologies that are making our lives a little easier every day, in order to protect entrenched interests? The real problem is that the gradual increase in general productivity due to automation hasn't gotten passed along in the form of increased prosperity for the majority. If that would happen, maybe writers wouldnt' need to struggle to make a living, and cashiers could afford to retrain themselves.

David

February 26, 2009 12:56 PM

@Robert- I'm not sure what you mean by an e-book reader that functions "solely" as a dictionary/encyclopedia, but both versions of the kindle include dictionary software and and free wireless access to Wikipedia. Its those features as much as as the e-book reading capacity that initially convinced me to buy one.

As to Blount et al., their position and understanding of modern e-book technology seems very reminiscent of other 'old guard' media content producers/providers (e.g. RIAA in the days of Napster, TV networks before Hulu, etc.). The Writers Guild represents only a portion of authors who were able to achieve success in a market dominated by pre-Internet business models.

It would be interesting to hear what newer, more progressive writers think about these issues; perhaps someone like Cory Doctorow, who was able to achieve moderate renown and commercial success by leveraging the internet and new licenses/distribution methods.

hugh

February 26, 2009 12:59 PM

I'm 48 and my biggest fear is becoming a 'blount', fearful of new technology(change). I'm already intolerant of having to read any directions for some new device.

Let's face it when we're dead and gone computers will be able to take the authors' voice print, change the age of the voice and read their book better and with more emotion not even thought of by the authors themselves. And with so few clicks of a mouse it'll make you laugh out loud. I take that back it could happen tomorrow.

evan

February 26, 2009 1:05 PM

writing professionals only look silly when there are spelling errors or typos -- "I have actually heard the Kindle 2 read test."

also, the writers guild is making a stand now so that when text-to-speech really is an acceptable alternative to the audiobook, they won't have to fight as hard.

I am not convinced that text-to-speech is a threat to audiobooks since there is a level of performance in them that text-to-speech doesn't provide. but I do think the guild has a right to defend the billion-dollar audiobook industry.

robert

February 26, 2009 1:05 PM

I am an avid reader. I read books, I read e-books on my Palm Tungsten E, and I listen to books on both tape and CD. I listen to books while I drive, which is what I believe most people do. I want a device (CD or tape) built into my vehicle so I do not have an extra piece of equipment lying on a seat, console, or floor that will get damaged, stolen, or be in the way. The Kindle is not something that I would use to listen to books. I believe its main influence will be with visually impaired.

Steve Wildstrom

February 26, 2009 1:05 PM

I have been following developments in text-to-speech technology for 15 years, and have watched it get better at a painfully slow pace. The systems that sound good generally use sampling rather than synthesis, but sampling only works when you can tightly restrict what needs to be said.

Most turn-by-turn navigation systems, for example, use a mixture. So "Left turn in point-seven miles on" sounds like it is spoken by a real human--because it is--and then you hear the synthesized and often mangled name of the street you are supposed to turn on.

Maybe in five or ten years, synthesized TTS systems in the real world will be able to do a reasonable facsimile of human speech. But even that will leave them a very long ways from the ability to read a book aloud convincingly.

William

February 26, 2009 1:32 PM

FYI, Roy Blount Jr. is the President of the Authors Guild, NOT the Writers Guild of America.

Zuma Jones

February 26, 2009 1:53 PM

I could not agree with you more. I have a first gen Kindle and am anxiously awaiting my Kindle 2. After I received my Kindle, in November, 2008, I have downloaded 10 books from Audible and 7 books from Amazon. My husband and I enjoy listening to books on our drives. We listen to thrillers together. I read a wide variety of books, so my Kindle is perfect for the other books he does not enjoy hearing or I want to read, not hear! I also purchased printed books since my Kindle purchase as there are just some books I need to own. These devices give readers choice.

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