Roy Blount Junior is president of the US Authors Guild. He’s created quite a stir with a column he wrote last week. Downunder, the debate has been playing out over on Beatties’ Book Blog.
Blount’s New York Times column headed “The Kindle Swindle?” was prompted by the launch earlier this month of the Kindle 2, the updated version of Amazon’s ebook reader. Amazon added a feature which many readers will enjoy – a text-to-speech facility that provides an automated read-aloud function for any Kindle ebook. It seems like a nice feature to have but Blount found a big problem with it.
The problem as he sees it is that Amazon is giving away something that authors (and publishers) have traditionally sold, namely audio rights to their books. By giving audio away, says Blount, Amazon is undermining an important income stream for rights holders and creating an inequitable situation.
“What the guild is asserting,” says Blount, “is that authors have a right to a fair share of the value that audio adds to Kindle 2’s version of books.”
On the surface, it seems like a reasonable position for authors to take – they used to sell audio, now it’s being given away and they’re getting nothing for it. But look more closely and the argument is specious.
Blount’s plea for “a right to a fair share of the value that audio adds” is perfectly reasonable. But I don’t think he has done the arithmetic. What he misses is that authors would already, in fact, stand to receive a fair share of the value created. They would do this by receiving their royalty on a higher average price that readers might pay for a more useful ebook – because royalties ultimately are based on what a book will sell for – and from the extra sales made to readers who want this specific feature. This is no doubt the payback that Amazon is expecting from its investment in developing a superior read-aloud technology. Either way, if more value – ie more sales income – is created by adding audio, the author benefits through a higher royalty. If readers won’t pay more, then no extra value has been created so there’s nothing to share.
But what about the loss of audiobook sales? Simple. It’s offset by an increase in standard ebook sales – the reader buys a standard Kindle ebook instead of an audiobook, pretty much revenue neutral to the author who gets royalties either way. And let’s face it, not every reader will want to trade a professional human reader for the drone of an automated read-aloud feature. It will be quite some time before the machine totally replaces the actor. The only possible loss would be from readers who might have bought both the ebook and the audiobook. But this would be a minute portion of the book-buying public, a trivial loss that doesn’t justify denying every reader access to the automated speech facility their Kindle ebook is capable of, or charging them more by imposing the cost of a double royalty.
Perhaps it’s not a question of whether we lose sales, it’s the principle of not giving the reader “something extra for nothing”. I suspect this might be some of the thinking behind Blount’s argument because the purported impact on sales and royalties doesn’t add up. (And for the vast number of books that never spawn a separate audiobook edition, it’s all gain). This rather mean-spirited attempt to cripple a technology so that consumers don’t get too much value, or have to pay over the odds for what they get, is doomed to fail. It reminds me of the old Locomotive Act in the UK that had red flag bearers walking in front of automobiles to ensure they never exceeded a walking pace. While this law prevailed, the public’s interest was not served, railways held their dominance, and the British motor industry’s development was stifled.
Consumers, quite rightly, will rebel against this, especially when audio capability is built into virtually every device they will use to read ebooks or other material. Amazon is not unique, just clever to sell its text-to-speech capability as something new. It’s already commonplace, a standard feature in any PDF file for instance (still, by the way, the most popular format for ebooks). If some books shun this capability, other purveyors of the written word such as newspapers, magazines, and enlightened book publishers, will offer it. Those drab audio-less books will seem like black and white competing in a world of colour, leading to lost sales – and ironically lost royalties to authors. Such self-destructive thinking has no place in the book industry at this critical junction. In technology-driven markets, less will definitely not be more and the consumer will not accept being short-changed for long.
We must not let the rights maze the book industry has created become a brake on its development. With internet-connected multimedia devices becoming the norm for ebook reading, the way books are picked apart and sold in separate rights bundles has to be open to change and adaptation, putting the reader’s interests first.
Amazon now appears to have caved in to Blount by agreeing to implement a feature that will allow publishers to choose whether to turn off the read-aloud feature. But more likely it’s a clever ploy to rid the marketplace of this new rights demand. My guess is there’ll be no option from Amazon for higher royalty rates which would just push up the price of an ebook to all readers, regardless of whether they value the audio feature. What Amazon has really offered is a poison chalice to those authors or publishers foolish enough to openly short-change their readers by cutting out features that others will offer.
All power to Amazon, then, at least until Blount and his allies put their red flags away and come to their senses. We need more Amazons trying to innovate and deliver more value to readers, and fewer Blounts trying to stifle innovation and give them less. So here’s an idea. Let’s deliver so much extra value to our readers that they reward all of us by increasing the time and money spent enjoying books.
[UPDATE 17 March 2009: I've just searched the internet and found this MobileTechReview video review of the Kindle 2 which also includes the text-to-speech feature, demonstrating it with both the male and female voices.
Martin Taylor (@nztaylor) has been involved in the publishing, technology and internet fields for more than 20 years. He operates a digital publishing consultancy and founded the Digital Publishing Forum, an initiative to accelerate the development of digital publishing in New Zealand. In a former life, he published technology and business magazines.