Kindle This

So it continues. Today in the New York Times we get an op-ed from writer Roy Blount Jr. who sums up the Author’s Guild position like this: Text-to-speech technology is improving by leaps and bounds. Soon it will be just as good as publisher-produced Audio Books, which is why the Kindle’s text-to-speech must be stopped.

What the guild is asserting is that authors have a right to a fair share of the value that audio adds to Kindle 2’s version of books. For this, the guild is being assailed. On the National Federation of the Blind’s Web site, the guild is accused of arguing that it is illegal for blind people to use “readers, either human or machine, to access books that are not available in alternative formats like Braille or audio.”

In fact, publishers, authors and American copyright laws have long provided for free audio availability to the blind and the guild is all for technologies that expand that availability. (The federation, though, points out that blind readers can’t independently use the Kindle 2’s visual, on-screen controls.) But that doesn’t mean Amazon should be able, without copyright-holders’ participation, to pass that service on to everyone.

[Insert Standard Shakespeare Quote About Protesting Too Much.]

If (and this still remains a big IF) the technology improves to the point that it’s good enough to be on par with an Audio version of a book, then so what? If anything, this cuts out a Middle Man. Audio Books are more expensive than printed books. If someone wants to pay the premium of having an actor read a book, then let them pay. But don’t penalize a reader for paying for a book and then allowing a machine to read it to them in a stilted and undramamtic voice.

(Here’s a little secret: People already spend money to download files that are of inferior sound quality to that found on a CD.)

Why do I seem so obsessed with this particular topic? Because it’s deja vu. It’s the same hyperventilating over a new technology’s changing of a traditional media that happened with the music industry. Now we have the same complaining and dubious legal arguments asserted in the softer tones of the publishing industry. Luckily, this time around we’re not being treated to a deranged Lars Ulrich of Metallica accusing people who download MP3s of stealing music. His arguments were so unhinged that he inspired Camp Chaos’ famed “Napster Bad” cartoons.

This is a case where the publishing industry is reacting in fear to a new technology, instead of embracing it, and finding a way to exploit it for their own benefit. E-books are a slowly-evolving change to the publishing landscape. Publishers should be finding ways to incorporate electronic versions of books into their larger scheme for delivering a writer’s product to the market. But then I guess that must be harder than throwing out half-baked Luddite arguments.

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More Dumb Reaction to the Kindle

Not to be outdone by Simon and Shuster’s CEO, the Author’s Guild wants to be declared the Dumbest of Them All,

“They don’t have the right to read a book out loud,” said Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild. “That’s an audio right, which is derivative under copyright law.”

That’s right. The ED of the Author’s Guild thinks that the Kindle 2’s “text to speech” feature is against the law.

[Hat Tip: Slashdot]

Of the Many Things Wrong With the Publishing Business…

This is one of them,

“We do not agree with their pricing strategy,” said Carolyn K. Reidy, chief executive of Simon & Schuster. “I don’t believe that a new book by an author should ipso facto be less expensive electronically than it is in paper format.”

From the New York Times story on Amazon’s launch of the Kindle 2.

That’s one of the dumbest quotes I’ve ever read on the subject.

Of course the digital format should be cheaper. For a digital file, there’s no physical book. So no paper, printing, artwork, storage, or distribution costs. Hello! Discount it. For people that want the pretty physical object, charge them more.

This is partly why digital formats for novels, short story collections, and works of nonfiction haven’t caught on: publishers won’t embrace it. They’re fighting it in a similar way that the music industry has fought digital formats.

There’s a good (but loooong) article in Ars Technica about how digital formats for publishing are inevitable. I think the author overstates the comparison between horses vs. cars and books vs. e-books. The reason people drive cars is that they are much faster, last longer, provide shelter from the elements, and there’s no poop cleanup. A physical book is still very portable, can be lent to someone else, and can also be bought used for much less than the cover price. Physical books won’t go away anytime soon, but things are definitely changing.