Monday, March 02, 2009

Kindle 2 Audiobook Thoughts

I've read several of the commentaries on Amazon's change of plans concerning the ability of the Kindle 2 to read aloud the e-books that it holds. I can see both sides of the issue. As an author and a publisher, I'm well aware that the only way a writer can make a living in today's technological climate is to carefully manage the infinite facets of that legal edifice called copyright. I'd rather not, but I also want a way to keep eating and keep producing the stories I love. The only other course is to find a wealthy patron, but unfortunately, those are in short supply right now.

Many jokes have been made about Authors Guild's comments about the legality of having the Kindle read aloud an e-book, as well as some ridiculous analogies to a parent reading a book to a child. To an outsider, it's easy to ridicule. But most of the articles I've read miss one critical point: The Kindle 2 isn't a general purpose book reader. It's a book store in your hand. Buying an ebook and then playing it aloud is exactly the same as buying an audiobook. Maybe not a good audiobook, but it is one all the same. Amazon was offering to sell two formats for the price of one, with out the copyright holder's permission.

Look at a different version of nearly the same process. I am typing this on my Mac. I could go to one of the many different ebook vendors, buy a story, say a PDF version, and with only the built-in functions of Adobe Acrobat Pro and the operating system, I could play out that story aloud.

As far as I can see, the only difference between the book on the Mac and the Kindle 2 is that the Kindle 2 is marketed as an arm of Amazon and what I can do on my Mac is just plugging general purpose programs together to achieve new functions. I think iTunes Store, should it attempt to sell, say PDF books, might also fall into the same permissions mire.

It's sad, but authors and publishers didn't ask to be put at odds with the very people they want to make happy, the readers. But it will be up to us to find a way to keep the engine of creation running. Readers (in general) don't care where the words come from and the copyright system is just another technology put in place to encourage creation, but it evolves much slower than software. I'm glad the Authors Guild spoke up. They saw a technological/legal conflict and brought it to light. Amazon looked at their contracts again and said "Oops".

But there is no solution, yet. Of course, the Kindle should have a way to speak text aloud. Every computer should. It's obvious. Perhaps now is the time for audiobook creators to step up and do some serious advertising to make it plain as day that text-to-speech is a very poor cousin to their offerings. I'd love to see some of the faces of some of the better voice actors. They should get some of the media glow their work deserves.

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