Friday, February 13, 2009

Kindling controversy

The Authors Guild is alerting its members about the new version of Amazon's Kindle e-book reader, because "Kindle 2" has - get this - the ability to read a book aloud. Apparently it's not yet as good as a human reader, but (says the AG) it's a great step forward from text-to-speech mechanisms of only a few years ago.

I came to this story all ready to lambast the Authors Guild (shouldn't there be an apostrophe in there somewhere?) for trying to cripple technology in the name of soaking more money for its members. But having read its release, I'm almost sympathetic.


The guild believes, or professes to believe, that reading a book aloud, privately, is not and should not be covered by copyright. At the same time, it doesn't want anything to damage the sale of audio books. Its present - "concern", I guess is the nice neutral word - is that Amazon will undermine the market for audio books by marketing e-books as a form that makes the audio book obsolete.

And much as I'd like to say "Suck it up! Products do become obsolete, live with it!" - I'm disarmed by the fact that the Guild is focusing its fears not on consumers, but on Amazon. If the new-generation e-book is going to double as an audio book, it suggests, perhaps authors should be asking for a better cut.

I think I can follow the logic here. How many people buy both a print and an audio version of the same book? I don't know, but my guess would be that most customers buy one or the other, not both. Now, if a single product can do duty for both sets of customers, then we've substantially lowered the costs of production and distribution, with no more than a slight, if any, decrease in the total market.

Of course that means more profit for publishers, and of course the Authors Guild wants its members to get their fair cut of that action.

I can sympathise with the wish to keep a tight rein on Amazon. I applaud the Authors Guild for keeping sight of the fact that the publisher, not the consumer, is the author's natural enemy. I can see why it'd be loth to pass up any opportunity to try to bump up its members' earnings.

But I think its present stance is more likely to have the opposite effect.

If authors stick up for their rights to a better cut if books are to be released on "Kindle 2", that can only lead to one thing: a proprietary, locked-out format that's carefully engineered to be incompatible with Kindle 2, so that publishers can justify not paying the higher rates to any but the best-selling authors. That restriction will fragment the market and frustrate consumers, even further than we already are. And it'll increase the incentives to pirate the work.

It can't be said too often: "the more sense that copyright makes to the consumers of copyright material - or, to put it in economic terms, the greater its economic value or utility to consumers - the more users value copyright material and respect the rights of copyright owners." Not my words - those of Apple, which knows a thing or two about digital publishing.

Authors have never tried to stop people from reading books aloud to one another. Even publishers have not, yet, tried to describe that as "theft". They would be very unwise to start now, merely because the reader may be a machine rather than a person.


Anne Moore said...

Well said, vets, and I thank you for joining the band of followers. anniex

Ruby Apolline said...

Closely reasoned and probably correct. I wonder, though, if people who like to be read to will continue to buy audio books (even absent your tech prediction) because they hire good readers to do them. I 'spect it will be a while before a computer can emote. Not forever, of course, and copyrights now do endure almost that long.

Makes me think of some lyrics from my fave synthpop band Freezepop:

(from the song "Robotron 2000")

Runs on 6D batteries
reads poems, sings me songs.
Never felt like this before
I fell in love before too long...

...he tells me in his soothing robot voice...I'll hold you in my arms...I'll keep you safe from harm...

vet said...

Well, I'm thinking that a computer might be able to produce a reasonable reading pretty soon. After all, the "emotion" in a human voice is not that hard to fake - that's what actors do.

I imagine, although this is very uninformed speculation on my part, that there will - probably within the next 10 years - be some kind of markup language that can be applied to text that will tell a computer voice when to insert certain effects - hesitations, trembling, cadences and inflections, strong or soft speech etc. (In fact there may well already be an XML schema for this.) That would allow computers to "emote", but a human would still have to put quite a lot of work into telling it how to read each book.

The final step would be a computer that could simulate all this emotion without any kind of markup. That's a lot more difficult to imagine - a computer with real capacity for empathy.

There might be some intermediate step, in which you have to give the computer generalised clues on a much larger level - telling it whether a particualr passage should be "lyrical", "tragic", "comic", "erotic" etc. - and it could parse the finer stuff. I can imagine that appearing well within my working lifetime, though not just yet.