Amazon Lets Publishers Silence Kindle Audio

Posted Wednesday, April 1, 2009 - 00:00

Amazon released version 2 of its Kindle e-book reader February 24 to fanfare over improvements over the previous incarnation and controversy over a feature that converts text to spoken words.

Protest of the text-to-speech feature came from the 9,000-member Authors Guild. "Kindle 2 is being sold specifically as a new, improved, multimedia version of books- every title is an e-book and an audio book rolled into one," wrote Authors Guild President Roy Blount Jr. in a New York Times op-ed February 24. "Whereas ebooks have yet to win mainstream enthusiasm, audio books are a billion-dollar market, and growing…. Income from audio books helps not inconsiderably to keep authors, and publishers, afloat." Amazon reined in the text-tospeech feature February 27, announcing that it would allow publishers to disable the feature on a title-by-title basis. The company's statement asserted that "Kindle 2's experimental text-to-speech feature is legal: no copy is made, no derivative work is created, and no performance is being given . . . . Nevertheless, we strongly believe many rights holders will be more comfortable with the text-to-speech feature if they are in the driver's seat." Amazon's statement also noted that it is in the audio book business through its Audible and Brilliance subsidiaries, and argued that the text-to-speech would serve as a gateway for consumers to seek out professionally narrated audio books and ultimately grow the market.

Not all authors concur with the guild's take. "If there's one thing Amazon has demonstrated, it's that it plans on selling several bazillion metric tons of audiobooks," wrote Cory Doctorow on the Boing Boing blog February 25. "To accuse them of setting out to destroy [the audiobook market] just doesn't pass the giggle test." Barbara Mates, special populations librarian at Cleveland Public Library and past-president of ALA's Association of Specialized and Cooperative Library Agencies, suggested that while the text-tospeech feature may be beneficial for people with reading disabilities such as dyslexia, it wouldn't necessarily be a boon to visual accessibility.

"The mechanics to get to the feature aren't accessible themselves," she told American Libraries. "You'd have to have some vision to make them work." Of more value to people with visual impairments, she added, was the Kindle's adjustable text sizes. "This Kindle gives the ability for any book to go into large print instantly," Mates said, which expands the reading possibilities for people with visual impairments because many print books do not currently otherwise have large-print versions.

The large print feature has not faced the protests generated by the text-to-speech feature.

In circulation

Sparta (N.J.) Public Library bought two Kindles to circulate when they were originally released in 2007 (AL, May 2008, p. 46) and they remain popular. Assistant Director Diane Lapsley told American Libraries that "the units are never in the building unless they are waiting to be picked up." The library has also bought a Kindle 2 for patron use, although it is not yet in circulation.

Lapsley said the library's experience has been "nothing but positive." Users are allowed to download one book per checkout at the library's expense; patrons who purchase more would be responsible for the cost, but none have yet. And, while some have questioned the library's right to circulate Kindles with books already loaded, Lapsley said she made about two dozen calls to Amazon and never received a response from the company.

"It's really a nice tool to use," Lapsley said, noting that several patrons have bought Kindles for their own use after trying them at the library. The Kindle 2's text-to-speech feature was "not a deciding factor" in the library's decision to purchase, but Lapsley observed that "There would have been patrons who would have benefited."