Stephen Hawking performs Wil Wheaton


Roy Blount Jr., the President of the Authors Guild, has written an article* in the NY Times about the Amazon Kindle, and its built-in text-to-speech feature. He says that this feature essentially takes money out of the hands of authors and publishers because it’s essentially turning any book you buy for your Kindle into an audio book, without paying audio book royalties. This is ridiculous beyond belief.

* I originally read the article without logging into NYTimes (since I don’t have an account there), but now when I visit that link, it says I have to log in. Don’t know why. If you don’t have a login, you can use “bugmenot555” as the user and “bugmenot” as the password. Thanks bugmenot.com.

Wil Wheaton, an author and audio book performer himself, wrote a blog post about it today, in which he attached a ten-minute audio snippet. The file contained a short portion of his latest book which he read himself, and then the same portion read by some software on his computer. Not surprisingly, there’s just no comparison. The text-to-speech software was actually more impressive than I expected. It wasn’t just words said in a monotone computer voice, it did almost sound like someone reading it aloud, complete with pauses where a comma would be found. The intonation (not sure if that’s the right word) was mostly correct, meaning that the person’s voice went down at the end of a sentence, and things like that. There was even the sound of someone taking a breath at the beginning of sentences. But it was still obviously a computer voice.

Wheaton’s reading was just so much more expressive. In some cases, there were pauses missing in the computer version, and even though there was no way for the computer to know that there was supposed to be a pause there because there’s no punctuation, the way the sentence or paragraph is written makes it obvious to a human reader. The one part where Wil talks semi-sarcastically about a Walkman being something like a iPod “that used these things called “cassette tapes”” — to a human reader, it’s obvious that that sentence should be read in a slightly different tone than the surrounding sentences, but there’s no way to encode that in the text passed to the software. You just gotta know.

While reading the Times article, my first thought was “I guess I shouldn’t be reading to my kids at night”, and Blount indeed addresses this at the end of his piece:

For the record: no, the Authors Guild does not expect royalties from anybody doing non-commercial performances of “Goodnight Moon.” If parents want to send their children off to bed with the voice of Kindle 2, however, it’s another matter.

Why is it another matter? If I’m reading to my kids, I’m being as expressive as possible. If someone in the book is happy, I try to sound happy. If someone is unhappy, I try to sound unhappy. I even sometimes try accents (though that got old really quick during the first Harry Potter book, when we realized that almost every character would have an English accent. I always did it for Hagrid though). So my “performance” would be a lot closer to the one you might get if you bought an audio book than the one the Kindle would give you. Wouldn’t that be more “threatening” to the audio book publishers?

The other obvious point that Mr. Blount missed is that the Kindle can read any text that it has. Once the Authors Guild provides an audio recording of every book available through the Kindle, plus the daily newspapers (New York Times, Wall Street Journal), weekly magazines (Time, Newsweek), and over 1000 blogs, in real time, then maybe Amazon will remove this feature. Until then, I cannot believe that authors really feel threatened by this. People who like audio books are not going to stop buying them because they can get their Kindle to read them. It’s just not the same. The people using this feature are people who might want to listen to the newspaper during their morning commute or while riding the stationary bike at the gym. I imagine this would be a great feature for the blind (though as Blount points out, using the on-screen controls would be impossible for the blind anyway).

I’ve bought a couple of audio books, and they’re OK. (I joined audible.com for a while (got a free book because I listen to TWiT, and then bought another), but I quit it because the way their accounts work, you have to buy a book every month. If I could be a member and then just buy books whenever I wanted to, I might do that.) Either way, the computer voice is just not real enough for me to listen to a computer read me stuff for any length of time. I think the technology still has a long way to go before it’s even going to be remotely comparable.

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