When Amazon unveiled the new Kindle 2 two weeks ago, one feature caught most people's eye -- or ear. The update device, Amazon proudly proclaimed, can actually read an electronic book out loud.
"With its new text-to-speech feature," Amazon said, "Kindle can read every book, blog, magazine and newspaper out loud to you. You can switch back and forth between reading and listening, and your spot is automatically saved. Anything you can read on Kindle, Kindle can read to you."
Since then, Amazon has said it would alter the text-to-speech feature so individual copyright holders can decide on a title-by-title basis whether they want their works to be read aloud.
Impact on the Audiobook Industry
The Kindle 2's ability to speak quickly raised concerns in the audiobook industry, which had $1 billion in sales in 2007. Although the device's sound quality was described by The Authors Guild as "serviceable," the organization said it expected the quality to improve rapidly in coming years. As a result, the guild said on its Web site, authors should look carefully at the e-book rights in their contracts.
"Until this issue is worked out," the guild said, "Amazon may be undermining your audio market as it exploits your e-books."
When it announced the change to Kindle 2, Amazon strongly defended the legality of its text-to-speech feature. "Kindle 2's experimental text-to-speech feature is legal," Amazon said. "No copy is made, no derivative work is created, and no performance is being given."
The company also pointed out that it's a major participant in the audiobook market, and said the Kindle 2's reading ability would bring new customers to both traditional and audio reading.
Paul Aiken, executive director of The Authors Guild, said he didn't know precisely why Amazon abruptly decided to give copyright holders the ability to opt out of having their books read by the Kindle.
"The most likely reason," Aiken said, "is that Amazon learned that most large trade publishers didn't have the rights in their author-publisher contracts to sell audio-enhanced e-books (e-book clauses tend to talk purely of display rights, and audio enhancement is often expressly carved out). If they hadn't made the change, it seems likely that Amazon would've lost a lot of content for the Kindle while publishers went back to their authors to amend their contracts."
In a competitive retail book market, and with a new and relatively expensive electronic book reader hitting the market, it's unlikely Amazon had any interest in complicating its business model.
Given the interest in audiobooks, however, it seems likely that Amazon, publishers and authors will work quickly to sort out the legal issues.