February 12, 2009. On Monday, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos unveiled Amazon’s Kindle 2 e-book reading device at the Morgan Library in New York. Most of the changes from the first version of the Kindle are incremental improvements: the new Kindle is lighter and thinner, for example, and Amazon eliminated the scroll wheel. One update, however, is wholly new: Amazon has added a “Text to Speech” function that reads the e-book aloud through the use of special software.
This presents a significant challenge to the publishing industry. Audiobooks surpassed $1 billion in sales in 2007; e-book sales are just a small fraction of that. While the audio quality of the Kindle 2, judging from Amazon’s promotional materials, is best described as serviceable, it’s far better than the text-to-speech audio of just a few years ago. We expect this software to improve rapidly.
We’re studying this matter closely and will report back to you. In the meantime, we recommend that if you haven’t yet granted your e-book rights to backlist or other titles, this isn’t the time to start. If you have a new book contract and are negotiating your e-book rights, make sure Amazon’s use of those rights is part of the dialog. Publishers certainly could contractually prohibit Amazon from adding audio functionality to its e-books without authorization, and Amazon could comply by adding a software tag that would prohibit its machine from creating an audio version of a book unless Amazon has acquired the appropriate rights. Until this issue is worked out, Amazon may be undermining your audio market as it exploits your e-books.
Bundling e-books and audio books has been discussed for a long time in the industry. It’s a good idea, but it shouldn’t be accomplished by fiat by an e-book distributor.
Reading to your kids note: A Wall Street Journal article quoted a portion of an interview with Authors Guild executive director Paul Aiken regarding the Kindle 2. The remarks have been interpreted by some as suggesting that the Guild believes that private out-loud reading is protected by copyright. It isn’t, unless the reading is being done by a machine. And even out-loud reading by a machine is fine, of course, if it’s from an authorized audio copy. Others suggest that challenging Amazon’s use of this software challenges accessibility to the visually impaired. It doesn’t: Kindle 2 isn’t designed for such use. The Guild continues to support efforts to make works truly accessible to the visually impaired.