Thursday, February 26, 2009

In response to Neil Gaiman

Having just read Neil Gaiman's take on the controversy surrounding the Amazon Kindle 2's use of text-to-speech, and whether or not it infringes on audiobook rights, I couldn't help but throw in my two cents. And I have to say, with all due respect (seriously, I think he's a brilliant writer), I thoroughly disagree with Mr. Gaiman.

In my mind, this issue is similar in a lot of ways to the recent writer's strike. A large stumbling block of that work stoppage was the issue of writers demanding to be paid for their work that was broadcast over the Internet. The argument was that the potential for profiting off of digital media would increase dramatically over time, and writers were being cut out of the revenue pie. Now, taking Gaiman's response, that a book is a book is a book, one could argue that when you write a script (tv, film, etc...) you are creating it, in essence, for the whole universe. You are selling the right for it to be broadcast anywhere--television, movie theaters, internet, etc...for essentially a flat fee, or one royalty regardless of rebroadcast potential. But the writers claimed, rightfully so, that many people were, or would be, seeing greater profits off of their work without the writers seeing increased compensation. Studios were taking in revenue off of internet advertising and other streams, and writers claimed those alternate revenue streams would increase as years passed. And if they did not do something about it, they could be paid less and less (as t.v. viewership decreased) while studios made more or at least broke even via other revenue streams (advertising, iTunes, etc...).

What I argue in regard to this issue is that the book market is beginning to segment dramatically. An author's piece of the financial pie is being carved up into many smaller slices, with e-books beginning to take on a larger role and audiobooks still a potentially lucrative market. The Kindle is profiting from this text-to-speech option. That is not debatable. And this being the very first Kindle with the new voice option, there is no doubt the quality of text-to-speect will improve over subsequent generations. The bottom line is that down the road, as voice quality improves (or even if it doesn't), people will buy the Kindle for its ability to essentially double as an audiobook player. And in all likelihood the voice narration will improve. And even if it does not match the total quality of professional audiobooks, there are a whole lot of people who would be happy to save $30 for a slightly inferior version. Don't think that's true? Tell that to the music and movie industries which have had to deal with pirated product. All of this adds up to more revenue streams for the publisher (i.e. Amazon), and less revenue for the author. If the Kindle cuts into audiobook sales, it means simply less potential revenue for authors.

Ten years ago, we would have never imagined the technological breakthroughs that would have had people listening to music digitally (preposterous!), on a business card-sized player that could hold up to 800 albums at once (absurd!) and even doubled as a cell phone and Internet browser (ridiculous!) on which you could also watch entire movies (nobody will ever watch movies on their computer!). Saying "it's not a big deal," in my opinion, is remarkably shortsighted.

Now, again, all respect to Mr. Gaiman, but this kind of market segmentation works in the favor of more successful authors. Due to the current economic climate, bookstores are cutting back on orders and taking fewer chances on unproven commodities or risky commodities. Perhaps rightfully so. Major bestselling authors have less to worry about because the bookstores (and audiobook producers, and all other tributaries) can expect a certain number of sales. As tides rise, people with bigger platforms will be able to keep their heads above water. But the situation is different for authors who must squeeze out every bit of potential book revenue to stay afloat.

Robert B. Parker had this to say in a recent interview in the Wall Street Journal

The changes in publishing are good for the likes of me. It's ever more a business dependent on the chain bookstores and less on the full-service bookstores, and the chains tend to stock the best-selling authors. If I were new, I'd bemoan this. It's probably bad for publishing and for literature, but it doesn't hurt me or the likes of Stephen King or John Grisham.

Exactly right. For these authors, and authors with similar platforms, revenue is not a problem. They don't much worry about their next contract, and whether or not they sell subsidiary rights will not affect their ability to pay rent or put food on the table. But what about an author who makes $60,000 a year, $10,000 of which comes from audio sales? What if, down the road, the Kindle cannibalizes his/her audio sales to the point where another contract is not offered? Audiobooks are more expensive to produce than print books and carry a higher price tag, so the author loses out on a certain dollar amount for every audio sale lost. Saying this issue is no big deal is like a politician claiming we're in a "mental recession" while riding in his private jet, unaware that below him there are people losing their homes. At some point perspective is lost, and while arguing dollars and cents may seem silly to some, to others ceding it completely may at some point alter their career.

Just like the writers strike, what authors fight for now will not have a dramatic, immediate impact on their revenues. But what they fight for now could drastically impact their revenues down the road. It means authors will be able to maximize their revenue streams, and for many this could be the difference between publishing and not publishing, between making a living writing versus looking for work elsewhere.

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15 Comments:

Blogger Travis Erwin said...

Well said.

9:45 AM  
Blogger Marilynn Byerly said...

I think text-to-speech is a right by itself. Since, TTS and human voice audiobooks would create two types of books, and audiobook companies would probably not create two versions of a book, TTS shouldn't be included with the audio rights.

Right now, TTS has little value, but it will have value when the TTS software improves and allows for multiple changes of voice in a document so that the reader could tell when speakers change and when narrative is being read.

As with the case of ROSETTA BOOKS versus RANDOM HOUSE, I can't see how this matter will be settled without a lawsuit.

2:10 PM  
Blogger Daniel W. Powell said...

Great post, Jason.

Why is it that the content itself (and the revenue it creates for the person who created it) seemingly becomes further marginalized with every changing technology?

That Parker quote hits it on the head.

5:17 PM  
Blogger Stuart Neville said...

My contract with my UK publisher marks out a distinction between an E-book and and Electronic Version. The publisher has the right to the former, but not the latter (other than the usual first-look clause). I asked my agent's contract manager about this, and she told me that an Electronic Version is any "enhanced" version of the book that contains images, video or audio in addition to the text.

It would seem to me that the Kindle 2 crosses the line into that Electronic Version by enhancing it with audio, and neither they nor my publisher would have secured the rights to do so.

There's a counter argument to this - you could load up any E-book on your computer and have a text-to-voice application do exactly the same thing. That technology has been around for decades. The distinction now is that it's happening in a self-contained device whose purpose is the reading of books.

Yet another example of the publishing business and technology not quite seeing eye to eye.

6:02 PM  
Blogger Darlene said...

Very well said, Jason. While I, too, admire Gaiman's work, I hope he's leaving the business of contracts to his agent.

6:39 PM  
Blogger DebGrabien said...

You know, I adore Neil - he's not only a wonderful writer, he's a wonderful man and a friend. But on this one, I find myself in complete disagreement with him - rather disconcerting, but true.

If my publisher wants to give a Braille version for free to the Foundation for the Blind or any organisation dealing with that, they have my standing thumbs-up to do that. If someone wants to read the book to their kids, rock on. If someone wants to record it to share with a hospitalised or bedridden friend, absolutely: go for it.

None of those people are including an un-agreed-upon translation of my work as an an inducement to people to buy a product of theirs - and refusing to do so much as even offer me their product.

If they offer to send me a free Kindle, I will probably still tell them no, you may not have some twiddlebeepish roboto voice trying to be the voice of JP Kinkaid (an expat Londoner) or Ringan Laine (a Scotsman).

8:12 PM  
Blogger Alderete said...

I'm a little puzzled. Y'all (Jason + commenters) are writing as though someone using the text-to-speech facility of the Kindle has stolen the book, when in fact they have paid for it. They are simply choosing to consume the book via their ears, not their eyes. How is that taking away from you? You're still being paid for a sale.

It's not as good as a real audiobook, and while I'm sure there will be a few people who will choose to trade the loss in dramatic quality for a cheaper price, what's wrong with a customer choosing to pay less for a lower quality version? Pay something, get a crap audiobook. Pay more, get a better version. Isn't that the difference between hard covers, trade paperbacks, and mass market paperbacks?

In the end, don't you make good money from having all of the different versions, to satisfy all the different price points in the market? What would happen to your sales if there was only the hard cover version available? And are you sure your "lost" sales won't be made up for in increased volume, from people who wouldn't buy the expensive version? Or from people who can now buy more (pseudo-audio)books than they would otherwise? What if I read more books because when my eyes get tired, I can switch to the audio version for a little while? Will that help or hurt your sales?

In the end, if you get a fair royalty on a Kindle version of your book, you shouldn't care how the purchaser chooses to consume the product they purchased. In the end, if consumers can use the products they purchase the way they want to, they will purchase more of them.

1:33 AM  
Blogger Becky said...

Speaking of which... I wonder how you feel about audio movies?
I just recently finished listening to one on A.J. Scudiere's website www.ajscudiere.com , for her new book "Resonance". "AJ's Audio Movie - a very well done audio book, simply amazed me!" The Audio Movie brings back the days of the Radio Drama in a fresh way. I love them and hope that more author's continue to put them out there for all to experience.

3:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I disagree, I think this is more like computerized vs. professional translation - there are a lot of immediate, practical uses for plugging a sentence into a computer or a website and having it spit out an approximate translation, but no one is going to confuse that primitive function with the work of a professional human translator. And no one would want to read a whole book translated by the computer, it would seriously degrade your experience of the text. The technology for Kindle's TTS might get better, but there are limits to what computers can do to imitate the nuances of human expression.

11:51 AM  
Anonymous Sarah Graves said...

Thank you.

12:31 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

I don't disagree that TTS doesn't currently and might never achieve the nuances of human speech. But that's not the issue. Saying a product doesn't infringe on a copyright simply because it's an inferior product doesn't hold water. My argument is just that as technology improves, the potential for TTS to bite into audio sales will rise. And it might rise to the point where it does negatively impact authors and audio/print publishers.

12:36 PM  
Blogger winterland said...

Jason:

I'm curious how greatly the royalties will differ on sales of THE MARK in the different formats.
The Kindle edition has a DLP of $7.20
The Audible pricing is $24.95 -- although there's a very good chance that Audible is marking things up a bit, as is often their M.O. (i.e. ITUNES lists the DLP as $14.95)
If your royalty is 5%, then you're making $0.35 from the kindle edition sale; $0.75 on the sale of the audiobook.
The audiobook edition will definitely carry a greater price as the cost of goods is greater. More overhead (i.e. an audio publisher); more steps to get the product to market (producer, narrator, engineer, quality control, and don't forget manufacturing -- those petroleum based CD's aren't cheap and you need quite a few to get your title out the UAB).
For greater cost and expense to the consumer, you get something worth listening to -- the Kindle TTS is not something I could grow accustomed to -- but you and others have it right in that it will only improve over time.
Not sure what the legal argument against Kindle TTS would be -- what Amazon is basically providing is an assist -- the lack of such an assist being the reason that audiobook companies have been able to grow and do well over the last few years. Audio publishers recently "celebrated" the death of the cassette and I believe many have already forecasted the death of the CD as downloadable audio gains steam. What I'm not sure anyone to date has forecasted is the death of audio publishers.
I think that what we'll se in a few short years are more of the major publishers keeping their audio rights "in-house" and producing download-only audio editions at a greatly reduced cost. All you need is a small staff and access to shared services of marketing, publicity, sales, etc and you could be doing just as good a job as the main audio divisions are doing at a bloated cost and negative impact to the overall bottom line.
Once the publishing structure is corrected, then the royalty structure could be repaired to offer the authors an increased royalty on the audio download format.

2:39 PM  
Blogger winterland said...

If Kindle adds back-lighting to the screen, the book light manufacturers would have a fit -- only difference I see between their beef and the audio publishers' beef is that because the authors are receiving royalties on audiobook sales, they are a part of the argument (and can be much more vocal about it).

2:42 PM  
Anonymous Kerry Gans said...

While everyone here is quite persuasive, I believe I must agree with Alderete - the person has paid for the book, and we authors have been paid for the book. We are not talking about Napster-like file-swapping. And, while TTS might make the Kindle version more appealing to some buyers, these buyers are not paying more for the TTS version than they would for a non-TTS version. If they were, then there would be no doubt in my mind that we authors should get compensated more for TTS versions than non-TTS.

I can understand the "thin edge of the wedge" argument. However, we are not (as yet) being deprived of a share of income from our work, as the writers in Hollywood undeniably were.

Stuart Neville's UK agent's distinction between Ebooks and Electronic Versions is wonderful, and presages the kind of nuanced contracts we will need as media technology converges ever further in the future.

4:52 PM  
Blogger David Dittell said...

Jason,

I respectfully disagree, but I can't think of a better argument for your case. It was insightful, informative, and well-formed and really made me think.

But don't you think that if TTS really can cannibalize the audiobook industry, that listeners would be willing to pay more for their books? If buying the original book now has more content to you, isn't it worth more?

This could also put a premium on the quality of true audiobooks. "Celebrity" readers, audio plays, and the voice of the original author become the selling points that make the audiobook a better option than TTS. I strongly feel that most people who don't value these things and would listen to the TTS would never have bought an audiobook in the first place.

Mostly, though, I don't think there are legal grounds for this situation. It is absolutely lamentable when our artists' lives are made worse by the very technology that gets their work into people's hands, but it's so important to adapt. If the legal reasoning is not absolutely clear and the technology as simple as TTS, new models are important, no matter where the true moral good may lie.

Again, I think this post is just what's needed to add some balance to the argument, and if fighting TTS actually does turn out to be what's needed, then I will be very happy to be wrong.

4:55 PM  

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