The Authors Guild And Big Publishers Are Working Hard To Reduce Your Readership

This column is sparked by an article on Teleread, in which The Center For Accessible Publishing argues in favor of the Author’s Guild and publishers who are trying to force Amazon to remove the default Text To Speech (TTS) capability on the Kindle 2. TTS is a technology that allows the print-disabled to hear their Kindle books read to them by the device. 

The AG and publishers argue that individual authors and publishers should have the right to decide on a case-by-case basis which books will have TTS enabled.  You might think that since indie authors aren’t beholden to big publishers and aren’t members of the AG this is a non-issue for us, but if the AG and publishers win this battle authors everywhere—indie and mainstream alike—will see their readership reduced. 

As an author with multiple Kindle books ‘in print’, I can tell you that I am not in favor of disabling TTS. As an avid listener of audiobooks, I can also tell you that not every book made available in print is also made available in audiobook form.

If publishers and the AG only wanted to get TTS disabled on books they are already planning to release in audiobook form that would be fine, but whether they realize it or not they’re working toward having TTS disabled on ALL ebook content, on ALL devices.

Which Is More Likely: Controlled TTS, Or No TTS?

Publishers’ and the AG’s claim that all they want is the right to disable TTS on a book-by-book basis is specious, because it’s a lot cheaper and easier for hardware and software developers to disable TTS entirely than it would be to invest the time and money in developing and administering a tracking mechanism to distinguish TTS-disabled books from TTS-enabled books. Simply disabling TTS altogether carries the added benefit of pre-empting any future legal battles over the issue as well. In this economy, I could hardly blame tech companies for taking the less costly route.

Does TTS Cannibalize Audiobook Sales, As They Claim?

The argument that TTS cannibalizes book sales is also specious, for two reasons.

First, who do they think would buy both an ebook edition and an audiobook edition of the same book? If you want to hear it (and it’s available) you buy the audiobook, if you want to read it you buy the print edition. In order to get the "free" TTS reading on a Kindle 2, print-disabled customers have to buy the Kindle book.

Secondly, as anyone who regularly listens to audiobooks knows, flat narration can ruin the listening experience. If you doubt it, check out some of the (many) reviews at Audible in which an audiobook was panned not for the content of the book, but the quality of the narration.

I have little doubt that given the choice, the print-disabled would much prefer to buy the professionally-produced audiobook that’s being performed by a professional actor. But if the book in question isn’t offered in audiobook format, TTS is a better alternative to refusing to sell them a ‘readable’ book at all, isn’t it?

Author and publisher objections based on TTS voice quality are ridiculous as well. If your book is offered in an audiobook edition, the print-impaired who want the book will buy that edition. And if your book isn’t offered in audiobook edition, it’s impossible for TTS to cannibalize your audiobook sales anyway. Nobody who opts to listen to a book via TTS expects a full audiobook experience, they know it’s a stopgap, but it’s better than nothing. None of my books have been released in audiobook format, and I’m glad TTS is there to make my work accessible to the print-impaired.

This Isn’t Really About TTS, It’s About DRM

All this brouhaha over audio rights is really just a curtain being drawn shut in front of what publishers and the AG are really driving at, and that’s Digital Rights Management (DRM). Their TTS demands are conveniently bundled up in a package that also includes DRM demands. As a group, they’re (needlessly) worried about the theft of digital copies, whether in audio or print form. It’s a pity the needs of the print-disabled are being sacrificed on the altar of bulletproof DRM, especially since bulletproof DRM will never exist so long as there’s one guy in the world with a lot of time, sharp hacking skills, and a desire to get free content.

Studies have shown that the illegal peer-to-peer music file sharing that was rampant a few years ago actually drove more sales of the legal files. Consumers are willing to pay for digital content, so long as it’s easy to do so and the digital content doesn’t place excessive demands or restrictions on them.

Authors, Not Publishers Or The AG, Will Be Left Holding The Bag

The AG and publishers don’t seem to realize it but they’re working very hard at cutting off their noses to spite ALL our faces—publishers, authors and readers alike—, the end result of which will surely be reduced sales and reader alienation. And despite the fact that the Guild and big publishers are driving these demands, when their demands are finally met, individual authors—indie and mainstream—will end up paying the price, and not just in terms of lost sales.

When consumers feel their rights to free use of content they’ve legitimately purchased are being denied, or severely limited, their attention naturally turns to the public face of that content: the author. When publishers and the Guild have succeeded in imposing Draconian DRM measures on digital books, they are not the ones who will end up looking greedy and insensitive to readers: authors will take that hit. The Reading Rights coalition addresses its ‘open letter’ of protest to authors, not publishers or the AG.

As an indie author, I strongly object to publishers and the AG taking a position that will almost certainly force developers to abandon TTS, because now they’re infringing on MY right as an free agent to make my work available to whomever I want in whatever form I want.

Part of my motivation for choosing the indie path was freeing myself from outside control over my work, but it seems that the gatekeepers of publishing are bound and determined to drag all authors everywhere down with them. With TTS disabled the potential audience for my books will instantly go down, and while I’d very much like to make audio versions available, I lack the time and skills to produce my own audiobooks or podcasts at present.

Way to go, AG and publishers. With mainstream publishing in crisis, I’d expect you to be focusing your energies on identifying ways to attract readers rather than piss them off. 

Check out the Reading Rights website to learn more about the TTS debate, to find out how you can join in the protest, and to sign a digital petition asking publishers and the AG to drop their fight against TTS. This Tuesday, April 7, Reading Rights will be picketing the Authors Guild office in New York from noon to 2pm. The group is also planning to protest at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at UCLA the weekend of April 25 – 26.

Most authors, indie authors in particular, aren’t well-informed about what the AG and publishers are up to in this battle, and haven’t thought about the negative impact on authors everywhere if publishers and the AG win. Please share this article far and wide, wherever authors are likely to see it: link to it, Digg it, tweet it, fave it, tag it…just get the word out however you can. Don’t let the AG and mainstream publishers—groups with which indies aren’t even affiliated—get away with claiming to speak on behalf of authors everywhere.

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April L. Hamilton is the author of The IndieAuthor Guide and the founder of Publetariat. Her latest book is From Concept to Community.