Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Conundrum of the Kindle 2

Roy Blount Jr, president of the Authors Guild, laments the new "text to speech" functionality of the Kindle 2. From yesterday's Times:
[The] Kindle 2 can read books aloud. And Kindle 2 is not paying anyone for audio rights.

True, you can already get software that will read aloud whatever is on your computer. But 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. And whereas e-books have yet to win mainstream enthusiasm, audio books are a billion-dollar market, and growing. Audio rights are not generally packaged with e-book rights. They are more valuable than e-book rights. Income from audio books helps not inconsiderably to keep authors, and publishers, afloat.

You may be thinking that no automated read-aloud function can compete with the dulcet resonance of Jim Dale reading “Harry Potter” or of authors, ahem, reading themselves. But the voices of Kindle 2 are quite listenable. There’s even a male version and a female version. (A book by, say, Norman Mailer on Kindle 2 might do a brisk business among people wondering how his prose would sound in measured feminine tones.)

And that sort of technology is improving all the time. I.B.M. has patented a computerized voice that is said to be almost indistinguishable from human ones. This voice is programmed to include “ums,” “ers” and sighs, to cough for attention, even to “shhh” when interrupted. According to Andy Aaron, of I.B.M.’s Thomas J. Watson research group speech team: “These sounds can be incredibly subtle, even unnoticeable, but have a profound psychological effect. It can be extremely reassuring to have a more attentive-sounding voice.”
I'm a bit split over this. My first thought is: Blount is the head of an organization that represents a dying medium, and is trying to protect it from creative destruction. Boo hoo, right? On the other hand, if the Kindle 2 does infringe on the copyrights of audiobooks (which is something for the courts to determine), then, for contractual purposes alone, they should be protected.

Even if Blount is successful in upholding audio rights, it will be a Pyrrhic victory. Ultimately, the dam will break and this reading technology, if it indeed is able to mimic the best human readers, could transform the audiobook industry. Just look at what has happened with music and television (from recordable cassettes and VCRs, to iTunes and Hulu).

Creative destruction will always be opposed by those who are destroyed (candlemakers, buggy drivers, Woolworth's), but that is the nature of progress. Ultimately, everyone is made better off because of it.