Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Article: Brian Clegg on the Kindle

briancleggTELL ME A STORY

The book world is panicking. (Again.) The latest version of Amazon’s Kindle ebook reader has a text to speech function that enables it to read a book out loud. Admittedly it’s still quite computer-speaky, but the technology is better than it used to be, and is improving all the time. The prospect is getting some people very hot under the collar.

Organizations including the Authors Guild (sorry about the lack of an apostrophe, but they appear to have mislaid it) have said that the Kindle’s ability to read out a book violates an author’s audio rights. I think they’ve got this all wrong.

Ever since books have been in existence they have been read out loud. ecologicbriancleggParents of younger children spend hours in this activity, as do teachers in primary schools. Some enjoy the experience of being read to all the way up to adulthood. All the Kindle is doing is providing that service without the need for a third party. Someone listening to a book on a Kindle has already paid for the book. If they then want to take in the information they have purchased by listening it, or for that matter by printing it off on rice paper and eating it, there should be no problem.

gwskbriancleggIn their moan, the Authors Guild identifies why they are in such a spin. ‘Audiobooks surpassed $1 billion in sales in 2007.’ Surprise, surprise, it’s all about the money.

Now, as an author, I’ve nothing against getting money from books. I depend on it. But I feel that complaining about the Kindle’s capabilities because audiobooks earn so much is a bit like bemoaning how little pre-recorded cassette story tapes earn now compared with ten years ago. Those of us with children of a certain age will have worn out many a spoken word audio tape – but they are going the ways of dinosaurs and eight track stereo players. Story tapes are now a dying technology. As text to speech gets better, CD and MP3 audiobooks will go the same way. It’ll take a while. Some audiobooks are fully dramatized, and the technology has a way to go before it can cope with that. But audiobooks were only ever a transient form. To make a big fuss about them misses the point.

A book is a form of communication between the author and the reader. Although some aspects of the medium totallythegodeffectbrianclegg transform that communication -illustration, for example – it really makes little difference whether a straightforward piece of text is taken in through the eye or the ear. Of course I would say that. There aren’t any audio versions of my books yet, so it makes no difference to me financially. But even if I did have some audio bestsellers, I’m not convinced how many people would buy a Kindle version and audio version as well. It’s a red herring. A waste of time and effort. Let’s concentrate on something more fruitful.

Brian Clegg has had over 30 books published. His latest, Ecologic, was published in January 2009 by Eden Project Books. See http://www.brianclegg.net for more on Brian and his books.

9 comments on “Article: Brian Clegg on the Kindle

  1. Eve
    February 22, 2009

    Hello Brian, so lovely to see you on VL :)

    I get so tired of the ‘this will be the death of that’ and ‘that will be the death of the other’ scenarios. I think, surely there’s room for all.

    I’m a massive fan of audio books, my kids have listened to them since they were tiny. I was always switching off the TV and sticking on a book and they would paint or glue and stick or play with lego while listening to a story. Part of the draw with audio books for me is the voice of the reader – I’m just as attracted by who is narrating as the book itself and I doubt the Kindle could replicate Sir Ian McKellen’s gorgeous voice or Stephen Fry’s (although SF was becoming a tad annoying by the 750th play of Harry Potter!!!)

    But I don’t understand why the new reading Kindle would signify the death of the audio book, we audio book addicts know what we like about this form of communication and a hollow computer type voice (regardless of how much they’ve improved, they’ll never be real) just isn’t it. It may however, interest a whole new group to the pleasures of listening to a book and *more* people rather than less will start buying the real thing.

    Anyway, ’nuff rambling from me… great post!

  2. hilarye
    February 22, 2009

    I really enjoyed this post – thank you. I do so agree with Eve that the death of this or this is usually either exaggerated, or timely.

    The audiobook market I am sure has more life in it, as one of the supplementary pleasures of an audio version can be the performance of the reader. I know that some audiobook voices have a following of their own, irrespective of what they are reading. If the Kindle voice is synthetic, I do not think it will stop this product dead in its tracks.

    What I do know is that people with disabilities are waiting for the Kindle to re-open the world of books to them in various ways – and I am sure that the audio feature will be a very welcome feature to many.

  3. Kari
    February 22, 2009

    Hi, Brian…thanks for a really interesting article. People intrigued by this whole stupid little fight may also like to check out Neil Gaiman’s take on it. He’s got a follow-up post here.

  4. lynnpricewrites
    February 22, 2009

    Brian, the problem I, as a publisher, have with this is that some of our authors retained their audio rights. If I have their books converted to Kindle, I am, technically, in breach of their rights. Since this is new territory, is a judge going to rule against me? As much as I adore my Kindle, this gray area puts me in a hard spot regarding the disposition of my authors.

  5. Jackie
    February 23, 2009

    Great post, I burst out laughing at the rice paper remark. I agree with the others that I doubt this will be the death of the audiobook, it’s just another variation on it, one that publishers will soon adjust to & contracts will reflect.
    Like Hillary mentions, I believe this will be a benefit to vision impaired people & the ability of purchasing them in a simple format will be more convienient to everyone.
    May I say what a beautiful setting for that handsome retriever in the author photo, wow.

  6. Lisa
    February 23, 2009

    Thanks so much for this article, Brian. I hadn’t heard about this dilemma. I can see that there is a grey area as Lynnpricewrites says above. I must admit that the whole concept of the Kindle is lost on me, but each to their own. As Jackie says, I can see how this new function would be a godsend to visually impaired people. Lots to think about, for sure. Oh and yes, great photo :)

  7. Brian Clegg
    February 24, 2009

    Thanks, all.

    I understand Lynn’s point – presumably it could be dealt with by assuming this will be the case from now on and including audio rights in any ebook rights…

  8. Joe
    February 25, 2009

    the Kindle’s main selling point for me is it’s text-to-speech feature

  9. Kari
    February 27, 2009

    Here is Wil Wheaton’s interesting take on the Kindle controversy; also go here for Wheaton’s voice-actor-vs.-computer-voice comparison.

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This entry was posted on February 22, 2009 by in Special Features, Uncategorized.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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