In case you missed it, Amazon announced a new version of their Oprah approved Kindle e-book reader. One of the new features announced was the ability to have the device read aloud using text-to-speech. Pretty neat, huh?
You Don’t Have the Right
The Author’s Guild released a statement claiming that Amazon was not within their rights to do any such thing, and calling for Amazon to add a feature where authors/publishers could disable such a feature. Science Fiction author Robert J. Sawyer posted his feelings on the subject on his blog. One of the follow-up comments prompted a follow-up post about what people can and can’t legally do with things they “own”. For example;
You can buy a car, but there are countless regulations governing what you may do with it even though it’s your property. You can’t, for instance, drive it without a license, drive it recklessly, permanently export it to another country, drive it without insurance, allow children to drive it, park your car in my driveway, and so on.
The list got me thinking. ((Which is the only reason I’m mentioning him specifically. I don’t agree with his take, but I’m not trying to attack Mr. Sawyer in any way. You should buy his audiobooks.))
The majority of items on the list can easily be used to do the illegal things mentioned and there is nothing else in place to prevent it. Those illegal acts have consequences to go along with them, and for the most part it seems this is enough.
The exception is pretty much any new technology. When new technology is involved then all consumers are criminals who can’t be trusted and there needs to be functionality crippling technological restrictions added. From where I sit the text-to-speech feature is merely a tool Amazon provides to the end-user. That end-user has to decide to use the tool, and perhaps they’ll use it to do things they don’t have a license to.
If you exclude DRM based restrictions, there’s nothing the Kindle 2 does that I can’t do with an electronic text and a desktop computer.
Death of the Audiobook Industry?
There is obviously fear that this will harm audiobook sales, and the value of audiobook rights. I just don’t see it. I can’t imagine there’s any real worry this would cannibalize the audiobook market.
I’ve played around with text-to-speech, and some of it is surprisingly good, and sure to keep getting better and better. Still I doubt the majority of folks who would happily sit through a text-to-speech reading of a book, would be likely to shell out the money for a commercially produced audiobook.
It’ll be a very long time before a computer simulation can come close to a Scott Brick or a Jonathan Davies. Not as long as it’s a passive act. Until computers can feel emotions, and be moved by what they are reading it won’t come close. And at that point what makes the act so different from an adult reading aloud to a child?
Unsolicited Advice to Amazon
The Author’s Guild responded to criticisms that they weren’t taking visually impaired users into account:
Others suggest that challenging Amazon’s use of this software challenges accessibility to the visually impaired. It doesn’t: Kindle 2 isn’t designed for such use.
I see that comment, and I see a solution. Perhaps rather than cripple the device, Amazon should work towards making the remaining functionality accessible to the visually impaired. The text-to-speech engine is already there.
And just to be clear, I have no real interest in this feature. In fact, until the Kindle does ePub I’m not interested in it at all. I just get antsy when I see content producers so afraid of content consumers that the innovators in the content delivery space are pressured to stop innovating, and start restricting access. If this “burn the witch” mentality against innovation doesn’t stop then one day the robotic nannies may start the uprising that destroys the human race all because we wouldn’t let them read aloud.
The Amazon rush is dead. I don’t think we’ll see authors getting the same kind of lift from it going forward.
Chris Miller ((Didn’t I just say he was everywhere? And note that his post was spawned by a comment from Kris Johnson. I’ve seen this before. These two may be working together in some capacity…)) shared his thoughts on the Amazon Rush ((“Amazon Rush” refers to a concerted effort by an author with an established fan-base to get into the Amazon charts by mobilizing said fan-base into purchasing their latest book all on the same day.)) , and how they’re getting to be old hat.
I’m glad this discussion is happening, because it’s been on my mind, but I haven’t really taken the time to form any coherent thoughts. Other people have, so be sure to go and read the comments, even if you don’t care to read what I have to say.
I think folks who listen to podiobooks may be approaching a saturation point for this type of thing. Amongst the subset of those folks who are on twitter and follow their favorite podcast authors it’s even more likely. If that’s as far as the message is getting, then I think authors have to beware of fan burnout.
As a consumer who primarily listens to audiobooks, the product that I want has already been delivered to me for free. Now I’m exceptionally appreciative of that fact, which has led me to buy many of these book (which I have no intention of reading in print form) to support the authors. In the perfect world I’d be able to buy the audiobook versions, but so far that’s only been possible for Scott Sigler’s Infected ((which is finally available from audible.com, although I was impatient and bought the CD version and converted it.)) .
But really I bought the books for selfish reasons. I want to see these authors succeed because I want them to keep producing content ((And being brutally honest there’s an even more selfish (and perhaps self-delusional) reason: If they can make it, maybe I can too.)) . I want to know what happens to Perry Dawsey and Keepsie Branson next. So while I can support these authors by spreading the word, writing reviews, or even just giving them money, I want to support their careers as writers, so they’ll keep writing. While I’m sure the love and adoration of their readers keep some of these folks going, I’m not sure it’s sustainable in the long term.
I have more to say about this, but I never intended to go on this long, so I’m going to let my thoughts roll around a bit more.
Authors Philippa Ballantine and Tee Morris are attempting to make a splash on Amazon.com with their new novels, both sequels to award nominated novel. You can help by buying their new books today (08/08/08) at 8am PDT ((I checked with Tee and no matter what’s been said, he meant Pacific Daylight Time)) . An event they are referring to as Double Trouble.
Digital Magic by Phillipa Ballentine
The Fey are gone… and with them, magic. At least, that is how things seem at the conclusion of the award-nominated novel Chasing the Bard. ~ Lord what fools these mortals be. ~ Penherem is a quaint, sleepy English village where people go to escape the 21st Century. Hiding from the world of laptop computers, the Internet, and wireless communication, is Ella. A writer, now barren of ideas and drive, she resigns herself to a quiet life of solitude. Everything changes with the arrival of a shapeshifting thief. Suddenly, everyone begins to change–from the local librarian to the lady of the manor–revealing their true natures and dangerous secrets. Something in this sleepy English village is awakening… something that might be better left alone.
The Case of the Pitcher’s Pendant by Tee Morris
Chicago, 1930, and following the financial calamity of Black Thursday, Billi is doing everything he can to keep his business afloat. The change in seasons, though, brings him a case that appears to be a true blessing from The Fates. Chicago Cubs Manager Joe McCarthy suspects something fishy with the Baltimore Mariners, a new team in the league, and he’s hiring Billi to look into it.
What appears to be the dream job – being paid to research and attend baseball games – turns out to be a nightmare as he discovers one of the Nine Talismans of Acryonis somewhere in play at Wrigley.
And wouldn’t you know it – with two outs and bases loaded, the heavy hitter of the Underworld “Big Al” gets early parole from The Big Dugout and is swinging two in the Batter’s Circle.
NOTE: Before going on I feel I should mention that I am an affiliate for Audible.com as well as a long time customer. That is in no way my motivation for posting this ((In the years I’ve been an affiliate I don’t think I’ve hit three digits yet, total, so honestly the money doesn’t enter into it here)) , but I figured I should mention it. The opinions are mine, as always.
Overdrive and the MP3 Audiobook Bait and Switch
Evo starts off pointing to points to Borders offering downloadable DRM ((What’s DRM? TIME magazine’s The Battle Over Music Piracy may help you understand.)) free MP3 audiobooks. The problem is they aren’t offering downloadable MP3s at all. All Borders is doing is putting yet another new front on Overdrive ((aka SimplyAudiobooks.)) . Overdrive is everywhere ((Like Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts, but without any hot beverages.)) . If your library offers free audiobook downloads, chances are they’re Overdrive.
Overdrive very carefully words things to say their product works with most MP3 players. Until recently they didn’t technically work with any MP3 players. They were all DRM protected WMA, and if your device doesn’t play WMA ((like that iPod thing)) then you are out of luck.
What really left a bad taste in my mouth was the slimy marketing they used to defend this. They used to have literature all over their sites decrying Apple for only supporting DRM on proprietary formats, all the while using Microsoft’s DRM laden proprietary format, which cut non-Windows users out of the loop all together. This lead to my local library posting information that was practically correct, but technically bogus as to why you couldn’t use your iPod to hear the MP3 audiobooks they offered. In reality they didn’t offer MP3s at all.
More recently they’ve started offering files in MP3, or so they claim. They still package the files in some container format, and you need to use their software to get the “DRM free” MP3s out. The software only runs on Windows, so Mac users are out in the cold. I can not comprehend how an action that seems to have been taken primarily to support the Apple iPod doesn’t support users of Apple computers.
Evo’s Four Reasons
Evo offered four reasons for why he thinks the audibook industry is broken, and I’m going to respond point by point.
Publishers aren’t willing to make the additional investment required to turn every book into an audiobook.
This is generally true. Not every book receives an audiobook release. How I wish this weren’t so. Audible.com , at least in the realms of Science Fiction and Fantasy, is doing their best to rectify this ((As are folks like Scott Brick who is independently producing Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant Books)) .
[Podiobooks.com’s] goal is to leverage something the other audio houses haven’t thought of or are only experimenting with — letting the authors do much of the heavy lifting.
Author’s reading their own books was common practice for some time. I have many audiobooks on cassette read by the authors. These are more rare today, because audiobook consumers voted with their wallets and pro-narration won out.
I realize Evo is referring to authors recording and editing their own readings their own works for the publisher if the publisher would just take and release the files, but I’m almost certain it’s not that simple ((Although Scott Sigler’s Infected shows that it is at least allowable.)) . I’m sure many authors would have no problems, but just as many wouldn’t bother because they wouldn’t know where to begin. Also some authors are openly hostile to the idea of audiobooks, and don’t think people who have listened to them have “read” their books ((more on this lunacy here)) .
The act of listening to an audiobook is, well, difficult.
No huge argument there from me. In fact Random House’s recent split with Audible.com is a great example. To listen to Scott Sigler’s Infected on my iPod I had to rip the CDs and merge them into an audiobook file. It’s not something I’m willing to do again. I don’t really care who is at fault in this one. The fact that the parties involved can’t suck it up and come to some agreement is childish. It’s costing them both money (Audible.com because they can’t sell me the books I want, and Random House because they don’t offer a viable alternative).
DRM is a huge part of the inconvenience, but not all of it. Audible.com uses DRM, and I wish they didn’t, but the way they deliver their books, and how the work on devices is damn close to my idea of audiobook nirvana. I only have one or two files to stick on my device, and it’s broken up into chapters for navigation, has cover art ((although it really needs a resolution face lift)) , bookmarks where I left off ((some devices offer a way to drop in your own bookmarks as well, but the iPod does not)) , and just generally works for me. Basically the other conveniences, for me, outweigh the DRM issue (for now) ((Audible’s management software has CD burning support so if you can get DRM free access to your purchases, it’s just a bit of a pain.)) .
Most of the DRM free options are not so convenient a listening experience. I have to jump through hoops to make the books work for me. It’s a pain.
Low bit rates are the norm in the download space, and it’s really unnecessary in a world where bandwidth and storage space are anything but scarce
I couldn’t more strongly disagree on this one. You can ask anyone who knows me, I’m very picky about audio quality, but I cringe when I see audiobook files at high bitrates. Last time I checked my audible library was about 25GB for just under 11 weeks of audio, all of which sounds better than my cassette based audiobooks ever did ((Audible.com does offer BBC Radio Dramas, which I will not buy because of the bitrate, and lack of stereo support)) .
It’s not uncommon for audiobooks to cost more than twice their hardcover counterparts and be an order of magnitude higher in price than the paperback version. […] Things are different for disc-distribution. It may cost more to stamp out 20 discs than it does to print 400 pages. But when looking at a digital download, the cost to distribute approaches zero.
I was used to audiobooks costing a lot, but you have to look at the length of the content. I have audiobooks that are 24+ hours and cost less than a DVD Season Box Set from HBO. I value books higher than I value TV, so I pay for it ((Truth is I end up paying ~$10 per audiobook currently, but I used to pay the cover price.)) . My understanding is that CDs are cheap as dirt, so if you think you’re paying for the physical medium you’re being ripped off just the same.
Profitability ((Couldn’t find a good pullquote, you should have read Evo’s article anyhow.))
It seems downloadable audiobook companies apparently don’t pay out great royalties. I assume this comes down to the fact that most non-casual purchasers buy books with membership credits, so while the cover price may be $80+, the customer only ended up paying around $10 ((actual transaction)) . I believe it was Orson Scott Card who mentioned that by recording some extra audio content for all his books he gets paid twice (book royalty and performance royalty). I don’t know how solvable this is for traditional publishing.
So Is it Broken?
All the numbers I’ve seen point to the audibook industry booming like it never has before. Sales were estimated at $923 million in 2006. While all the issues mentioned above are real, they don’t seem to be slowing things down enough that I expect any big changes any time soon. Maybe I’m missing something obvious, or I’m living in a bubble.
From where I’m sitting this is the Audiobook Golden Age. Most pro-audiobooks are unabridged, and there are more audibooks available than ever before. There are some really great places like Podiobooks.com and Librivox offering free content.
Do I wish things were different? Sure. I wish Audible would drop DRM, at least at the publisher’s request. I wish Overdrive would go jump in a lake and get out of my library, or change their tactics to be less slimy. I wish Podiobooks.com offered convenient audiobook-listener friendly formatted files ((which I would be happy to pay for)) . So, from where I sit it’s a bit broken, but it’s better than it’s ever been before.
- Crime podcast novel gets HUGE boost in advertising
- Video of a digital billboard advertising for Seth Harwood’s “Jack Wakes Up”
- The parseInt gotcha
- CSS Tools: Reset CSS
- Eric Meyer’s Reset style-sheet (now in its permanent home, with versions numbers). Including this should reduce browser inconsistencies, and help you not to rely on undefined default behaviors.
- CSS Tools: Diagnostic CSS
- Eric Meyer’s diagnostic.css (now in its permanent home). Including this stylesheet will highlight elements that are incomplete and may be degrading the user experience.
- Jason Bateman Confirms “Arrested Development” Movie Talks
- I cannot begin to express how much I hope this comes to pass.
- Amazon acquires Audible for $300 million
- This caught be by surprise. Hopefully it will remain mostly unchanged, although adding stereo support to all the stereo BBC programs they carry would be nice.
This comes up now and again, so I’m just going to take the time to remind everyone that if I’ve listened to an unabridged audiobook of something, I’ve read it. You may wish to exclude me in some way from up upon your high horse, but you can’t take away from me the fact that I have read the book (more here).