When Amazon first created the text-to-speech feature in their Kindle devices to read purchased books out loud, book publishers and the Authors Guild promptly claimed its use was illegal and forced Amazon to make the feature optional for every individual book. Needless to say, many publishers never allow it, even today.
The quote that Paul Aitken, executive director of the Authors Guild, gave to explain the Guild’s decision is as follows:
“They don't have the right to read a book out loud. That's an audio right, which is derivative under copyright law.”
It appears the concern raised is that reading a purchased book out loud would kill sales of audiobooks. This view seems very short sighted and greedy.
If a Kindle owner wants to listen to high quality and professionally recorded audio from a book, there are plenty of options available: the first which springs to mind is Audible, Amazon’s own audiobook service. Unfortunately, the library of audiobooks is much smaller than the library of ebooks. Many more books are available for Kindle than are available through Audible.
If a customer searches Audible for a title they’d like to listen to, then discovers it’s unavailable, it seems reasonable to assume the customer will simply do without. Text-to-speech integration in technology is not mainstream enough for most people to consider as an alternative to audiobooks.
It goes without saying that a computer reading text out loud — à la Siri — won’t sound anywhere near as good as a professionally voiced audiobook.
There is a group of users, however — larger than you may imagine — who will expect text-to-speech integration in a device like a Kindle and don’t mind its relative shortcomings: the visually impaired or disabled. Where the Authors Guild step over the line, in my opinion, is in their refusal to accept text-to-speech even in the capacity of accessibility.
The Disabled World website writes about the Kindles, back in 2009:
Many people with disabilities were happy to learn that the Kindle version 2.0 includes a text-to-speech feature, but their joy has been short-lived because the Authors Guild promptly pressured Amazon to remove the audio feature from Kindle due to concerns that it would interfere with sales of AudioBooks. Amazon’s response was to allow each publisher to decide whether the text-to-speech feature would be available for their titles.
Several publisher [sic], to include Random House, have already told Amazon to turn text-to-speech off, cutting off a resource related to people with disabilities and a channel of mainstream media access. Disability Rights Advocates (DRA) and additional members of the Reading Rights Coalition are working to get Amazon to reverse this policy. It seems that Random House prefers greed over people.
It’s worth noting that blame shouldn’t be placed on Amazon for this. I hope the Authors Guild reconsider their approach to text-to-speech and allow its use for accessibility reasons.
Text-to-speech is a bread and butter accessibility feature. If a customer cannot enjoy a book visually, why penalise the customer further by not allowing them to enjoy it audibly? Audiobooks are clearly the preferred options for both average customers and the visually impaired or disabled, however the library of audiobooks is smaller. The compromise text-to-speech makes in quality is below what average customers want, but it’s a lifeline to the visually impaired, who have few options.
Amazon and the Authors Guild should be striving to improve the experience of every reader, by making more titles available as audiobooks and improving accessibility of Kindle devices.
Note: it’s worth mentioning that when VoiceOver is enabled on iOS, purchased books in iBooks will be read out loud. Books purchased through Amazon, shown in iOS’s Kindle app, will not.