Is text-to-speech on Kindle 2 a threat to audiobooks?

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Yesterday, the Author's Guild aired complaints about the Kindle 2's new onboard text-to-speech function from predictive text specialists Nuance Communications, warning that the function could eventually cut into the audiobook market.

The group said, "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."

A statement from the group asks authors to be aware of audio functionality clauses in contracts for e-book rights, saying "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."

The Author's Guild, however, does not take into account accessibility issues presented to the vision-impaired. It says in the statement that "even out-loud reading by a machine is fine, of course, if it's from an authorized audio copy." This means the visually handicapped are only allowed to consume literature preordained to be read aloud? That sounds like an issue for human rights advocates.

Furthermore, it is safe to say that no automated voice, no matter how indistinguishable from a human's, will ever replace the famous actors that are often hired to dictate audiobooks. As a ravenous consumer of audiobooks, and easily excited tech geek by trade, I would be the first to abandon the amateur recordings found on librivox.org for a slick automated voice. However, nothing could replace a well-chosen voice actor, like Peter Weller for a reading of Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf, or comedian Steven Fry for the Harry Potter series, or when authors read their own works, adding an additional layer of depth to the text.

Text-to-speech is not a threat, it's an alternate route.

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