Review: 4 Unbranded Bean Bags for Writing Use

I find myself always keen to find better ways to write. Whether it’s using different apps or working in a completely different location, chances are I’ve tried it, or thought about trying it.

After recently reading Matt Gemmell’s excellent article about writing tools, I decided I should heed his advice and pick up a bean bag to help me think whilst writing. This is how Matt uses his:

I repeatedly throw it up at the ceiling and catch it, and it’s strangely therapeutic. I can often resolve a narrative, structural or inspiration issue within a few minutes, using this. It’s my first port of call when I freeze up during writing, and I use it to recharge my brain during an editing session.

I don’t write in quite the same way Matt seems to: my approach is much more “spew out as many words as possible for half an hour, then edit and refine until everything makes sense”. The bean bag comes in handy primarily whilst refining.

Unfortunately, I had to buy a set of four bean bags, rather than just one. As I’d predicted before the bags arrived, my go-to writing bean bag is the blue one. My second favourite colour bag is red. I find the green and yellow to look reasonably unpleasant: I don’t really want them sitting on my desk.

Throwing a bean bag up to just below the ceiling is an extremely fun game to play, which takes my mind off what I’m currently writing about. After a minute or so playing like this, I often find myself having “eureka!” moments, whereby I realise exactly which word I was looking for. This is why I bought them; they delivered what I was expecting. Your mileage may vary.

The bean bags fit in my hand well and have surprisingly similar proportions to an iPhone 5: if you want a size guide, the bean bags are approximately 10cm wide by 15.5cm long. The iPhone 5 is about 5.75cm wide and 12.5cm long. The smell of the bean bags wasn’t pleasant initially, but I’ve had my blue bag out in the open for less than a week so far and the smell is starting to fade. I imagine any odd, artificial smells will completely disappear within a month.

The texture of the beans is firmer than I expected. To give a rough impression of what each bean feels like, imagine a dodecahedron made from tough plastic, about a quarter the size of a pea. The beans are not round; when squeezed tightly and played with in my fingers, “clicks” can be heard as the beans pop past each other. When talking about the entire bag though, the individual texture of one bean becomes largely irrelevant. Together the bag feels about half-full of beans, giving it a pleasant weight and texture. Squeezing the bag as tightly as possible doesn’t result in an uncomfortable feeling and I’m not the slightest bit worried about the bag splitting.

My favourite, the blue bean bag.

Overall, even though I’m primarily using just one of the packaged four bean bags, I’m happy having paid £5.83 including delivery. I’m pleased about the purchase and I recommend these specific bean bags if you’re looking for writing help. They’ll also be fine for more traditional bean bag use, I’m sure.

Amazon Forced to Remove Text-to-Speech from Kindles for Fear Audiobook Profits Would Suffer

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.

[Emphasis mine.]

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.