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.