[nfb-talk] The Kindle Swindle

Michael Bullis mabullis at hotmail.com
Wed Feb 25 11:18:03 UTC 2009

This from today's New York Times.
Mike Bullis

OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR. The Kindle Swindle?. 
By ROY BLOUNT Jr.. Roy Blount Jr. is the author, most recently, of 'Alphabet
Juice. BEING president of too many well-meaning organizations put my father
into an early grave. The lesson in this was not lost on me. But now I am
president of the Authors Guild, whose mission is to sustain book-writing as
viable occupation. This borders on quixotic, given all the new ways of not
getting paid that new technology affords authors. A case in point: Amazon's
Kindle 2, which was released yesterday. 
The Kindle 2 is a portable, wireless, paperback-size device onto which
people can download a virtual library of digitalized titles. Amazon sells
these downloads,
and where the books are under copyright, it pays royalties to the authors
and publishers. 
Serves readers, pays writers: so far, so good. But there's another thing
about Kindle 2 -- its heavily marketed text-to-speech function. Kindle 2 can
books aloud. And Kindle 2 is not paying anyone for audio rights. 
True, you can already get software that will read aloud whatever is on your
computer. But Kindle 2 is being sold specifically as a new, improved,
version of books -- every title is an e-book and an audio book rolled into
one. And whereas e-books have yet to win mainstream enthusiasm, audio books
are a billion-dollar market, and growing. Audio rights are not generally
packaged with e-book rights. They are more valuable than e-book rights.
from audio books helps not inconsiderably to keep authors, and publishers,
You may be thinking that no automated read-aloud function can compete with
the dulcet resonance of Jim Dale reading 'Harry Potter' or of authors, ahem,
reading themselves. But the voices of Kindle 2 are quite listenable. There's
even a male version and a female version. (A book by, say, Norman Mailer on
Kindle 2 might do a brisk business among people wondering how his prose
would sound in measured feminine tones.) 
And that sort of technology is improving all the time. I.B.M. has patented a
computerized voice that is said to be almost indistinguishable from human
This voice is programmed to include 'ums,' 'ers' and sighs, to cough for
attention, even to 'shhh' when interrupted. According to Andy Aaron, of
Thomas J. Watson research group speech team: 'These sounds can be incredibly
subtle, even unnoticeable, but have a profound psychological effect. It can
be extremely reassuring to have a more attentive-sounding voice. 
When I read that quotation, it hit me: Hey, I know Andy Aaron. Years ago, he
said he was working on some sort of voice simulation, and asked to work my
Southern accent into the mix. I don't remember whether we got around to that
or not, and this new I.B.M. software is designed, at any rate, not for audio
books but for computer help lines. So no part of my voice is competing with
my own audio books yet. But people who want to keep on doing creative things
for a living must be duly vigilant about any new means of transmitting their
What the guild is asserting is that authors have a right to a fair share of
the value that audio adds to Kindle 2's version of books. For this, the
is being assailed. On the National Federation of the Blind's Web site, the
guild is accused of arguing that it is illegal for blind people to use
either human or machine, to access books that are not available in
alternative formats like Braille or audio. 
In fact, publishers, authors and American copyright laws have long provided
for free audio availability to the blind and the guild is all for
that expand that availability. (The federation, though, points out that
blind readers can't independently use the Kindle 2's visual, on-screen
But that doesn't mean Amazon should be able, without copyright-holders'
participation, to pass that service on to everyone. 
The guild is also accused of wanting to profiteer off family bedtime
rituals. A lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation sarcastically warned
that 'parents
everywhere should be on the lookout for legal papers haling them into court
for reading to their kids. 
For the record: no, the Authors Guild does not expect royalties from anybody
doing non-commercial performances of 'Goodnight Moon. If parents want to
their children off to bed with the voice of Kindle 2, however, it's another

More information about the nFB-Talk mailing list