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Let Them Listen

A Wall Street Journal article from Tuesday, February 10, 2009 (New Kindle Audio Feature Causes a Stir) caught my eye recently. Kindle 1 was Amazon’s first foray into the realm of portable digital books or electronic book readers. The first version of Kindle was a runaway success, and Amazon could not keep up with demand. Now with Kindle 2, Amazon’s e.book readers will be getting a fabulous upgrade for the same price – or will they? Perhaps that upgrade will not be so fabulous after all, if the Authors Guild and some publishing companies have their way.

It seems that among Kindle 2’s new features is an upgrade that has really irked authors and publishers alike. Specifically, Kindle 2 will be able to read books aloud. This may seem the logical next step for an e.book, since technology that turns text to speech has been around for quite some time, but some writers and publishers object. The article quotes the executive director of the Authors Guild Paul Aiken as saying, “They don’t have the right to read a book out loud. That’s an audio right, which is derivative under copyright law.” I can just imagine if Mr. Aiken had been the executive director of the Horse and Carriage Guild 100 years ago saying of Henry T. Ford, “He doesn’t have the right to make a vehicle that runs on internal combustion. Transportation is a horse-drawn buggy right.” Publishers and writers would be wise to tread carefully on this issue for more reasons than one.

You can read the article at the Wall Street Journal website by following this link:


My first question for the writers and publishers has to be, “Who do you think is most likely to take advantage of Kindle’s latest audio feature?” The blind of course! Do you really want stories about how you are keeping audio books out of the hands of the handicapped appearing all over the internet? Sorry guys, but this one is a no-brainer so pay close attention. You will lose this argument because what you are doing is immoral. Are you telling us that a family with a blind child must buy two copies of a book? Pay for the print version and pay again for the audio version – thank you very much! If you continue down this path I suggest that you consider offering your PR departments a pay raise and some more vacation time. They will surely need both.

Now if the public relations headache involved with keeping audio books out of the hands of the blind is not enough to convince you, think of the legal considerations. Kindle is only available in North America, and this policy seems to fly smack in the face of the Americans with Disabilities Act. An audio book for a person who can’t see is effectively the wheelchair ramp at the front of the restaurant for a person who can’t walk. Note to publishing companies and writers – after following my advice about your PR departments, you may want to consider beefing up your legal departments as well.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly for writers and publishers, this decision makes no sense from a business standpoint. Have you seen what has happened to the music industry over the past decade? At what point during that time did its resistance to downloading increase revenues? You will not stop the advance of technologies of this nature, so embrace them early if you want to profit from them. You had better figure out how to let consumers consume the product that they purchase from you in the way they see fit. The alternative is that consumers will figure out how to do it on their own and leave you out of the equation.

Yet, there is hope. Even beginner business school students will hear echoes of their Negotiations 101 class in Mr. Aiken’s comments. Appearing inflexible at first and demanding more than one expects is probably second nature to a person who negotiates for a living. Let us hope that authors, publishers and Amazon can work this out in a way that will give the consumers what they want, and compensate everyone in a fair manner. For now, I’m off to listen to the latest translation of Don Quijote, but I’d like to know….

What do you think?

1. Is the Authors Guild stand on Kindle 2’s text-to-speech feature a valid one from a moral, legal and business perspective?

2. Would you be willing to pay $359 (283€) for the Kindle 2, if it were available in your country?

3. What upgrades would you like to see for Kindle 3?

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