My response to Neil Gaiman Part 2
(plus Cory Doctorow, John Scalzi and Wil Wheaton)
There are some new posts today on the text-to-speech controversy, most notably by John Scalzi, Wil Wheaton, Cory Doctorow and a second by Gaiman. Doctorow makes some interesting points on copyright law (I concede that all of these people are far more technologically adept than I am. In fact, part of me feels silly for even trying to argue against these guys who are all pretty highly regarded in the tech arena). But for the most part the other arguments can be summed up as, "Text-to-speech doesn't sound as good as a professional audiobook, so there's nothing to worry about."
This is true. However a Big Mac isn't quite as tasty as a filet mignon, yet Big Mac sells a few million more burgers every year not because it tastes better than the filet, but because $2.99 fits into the average person's budget a whole lot better than $40.
And before anyone thinks I'm a Kindle basher, it's quite the opposite. I hope this device revolutionizes the industry. I hope it gets millions more people reading because books can now fit their lifestyle, budget and schedule to a greater degree. I hope it becomes the iPod of reading devices, and I hope that a few million more hours will be spent reading books on a Kindle than wasted catatonically drooling over "The Real Housewives of Orange County." And I hope, more importantly, that it encourages young people to read more. Granted I don't think I'll ever be able to stop reading physical books, because the one thing the Kindle will never be able to replace or replicate is the joy of walking into my favorite bookstore and browsing the shelves.
Right now, the Text-to-Speech option is too primitive to fully challenge the audiobook in terms of quality. But the Kindle has been on the market for less than 18 months. 18 months. What spectacular advances do you think we'll see in the next five years? Ten? Perhaps, as Gaiman suggests, there will never be software that can duplicate every single tone and voice inflection that a human being can inflect. But even if that is true, there will ALWAYS be a market for an inferior product that can be purchased much cheaper or had for free. Just ask the movie industry which has lost hundreds of millions of dollars to pirated downloads. Sure watching a shak-i-cam version of "The Dark Knight" doesn't compare to seeing it in IMAX. But if the choice is between paying $30 for a ticket and snacks versus popping some Orville Redenbachers and watching in your underwear, you just might go Orville's route. If a professional audiobook gets an 'A' grade and TTS is a 'D', yes, people are likely more willing to pony up the extra dough for the audiobook. But in time, if TTS can get to even a 'B-', you're kidding yourselves if you don't think a lot of people won't choose to save $20 bucks by buying the all-in-one E-book and TTS option. But you want to know which audiobooks are least likely to be impacted by TTS? Celebrity memoirs. Sigh.
Not to mention the impact this could have on audiobook producers. Audible.com did a bang up job producing an audio version of THE MARK. And while Amazon does own Audible and, as Doctorow suggests, they likely didn't buy it to let the company suffer, there are many other terrific audiobook producers who don't have that kind of life raft. It would be a shame if companies like HighBridge, Listening Library, Recorded Books and Brilliance had to cut back on their productions because of unfairly lost revenue.
Most New York Times bestsellers are priced at $9.99 on the Kindle. Audiobooks tend to go for anywhere up to $60 depending on the length of the program. So for a book like, say, Ken Follett's WORLD WITHOUT END, which is sold for $59.95 on 36 CDs or $31.95 for a download. Either way, by going the TTS route, you're saving a chunk of change. And consider this: I believe most authors receive a royalty rate 10% of the list price for audiobooks, and up to 15% for print editions. So for every Kindle copy of WWE sold, Ken makes about $1.50. For every audiobook, he makes between $3.19 and $6.00. For every sale the reader saves money, Ken loses a few dollars. Now multiply that by a few thousand, and potentially a few million as E-books gain popularity, and you're talking a potentially seismic shift in potential revenue not just for Ken, but for all authors, publishers and audiobook divisions.
I don't consider myself a stick in the mud and I'm not suggesting millions of dollars be spent on a lawsuit that would, as Gaiman says, be better spent promoting the wonders of books (print, audio, etc...). But there must be a middle ground, a compromise. Perhaps readers can pay a extra, small fee for the TTS option on their Kindle. Perhaps, down the road, readers will be able to pay a flat fee and have access to both the electronic and professional audio versions. But simply saying this issue doesn't matter is lazy. And saying it doesn't matter because the software can't currently compete with audiobooks is, as I said in my previous post, remarkably shortsighted.
In reality, the TTS option will likely not have a large impact on either the print or audio editions of books in the immediate future. But with technology improving on an almost daily basis, and the likelihood of technology changing the industry down the road, for once the industry should step out in front of this issue rather than waiting for it to smack them in the head with a 2x4. Especially if, as rumors suggest, a Kindle 3 could be available by Fall 2009.
So let's come up with a solution that works for both parties, that allows Amazon to grow and develop new technologies while making sure authors and publishers are fairly compensated. And then let's take those few million dollars both sides would have spent on a lawsuit and put it towards literacy campaigns and school outreach programs. That's the only thing 100% guaranteed to increase readership while keeping the industry healthy and vibrant for a long time.