Hello

Busy day wondering around NYC, talking at the TOC conference, meeting editors and fighting crime. So you’ll not see too much of me today. But before I go:

* I was asked over on Twitter what I thought about the Authors’ Guild contention that the upcoming Kindle 2′s “text to speech” software violates copyright, apparently on the reasoning that it creates a new derivative work. My thought: Meh. Since I’m not committed to busting down doors and shooting people when they read a book to their kids, worrying about a montone computer voice bleating out the words to a text on a kindle is not something I’m going to stay up nights thinking about either.

My major question is, leaving aside people who are blind or have poor eyesight, and therefore for whom such a thing is manifestly useful, why someone would bother. Computerized text reading is really not the way to experience a novel in audio fashion. I pity the person who thinks a bland computer text reading of Zoe’s Tale is an optimal experience, especially when Tavia Gilbert’s spectaular reading of the book exists out there to get. Yes, one is free and the other isn’t, but you do get what you pay for.

* A very silly article in the New York Times about the new-found angst corporate-type people are having these days about who picks up the check at lunch. Are people really this stupid? Corporate lunches = dates, i.e., whoever asks the other person to lunch pays. If rather than doing business you’re just getting together with colleagues, split the check. There, we’re done, go and sin no more.

* For those of you trying to follow the link in the last entry and having trouble, the big news there is my friend and current Campbell Award winner Mary Robinette Kowal just got a two book deal, the first book of which is tentative scheduled to hit bookstores in spring of 2010. Very exciting stuff. I’m hanging out with her here in NYC and having a lovely time; the two of us got to see Paul Cornell (of Dr. Who fame) and his lovely wife last night at the City Winery, where Mary’s husband works as a wine expert. It’s fun knowing people with interesting lives.

And how are you today?

45 thoughts on “Hello

  1. I’m good thanks.

    I don’t get the Kindle arguement. Text to speech is simply a different presentation method, not the creation of a derivative work. By that logic, changing font size or style in the text would creat a derivative work.

    Unless the Kindle 2 is going to include the ability to auto-generate fanfic…

    This sounds more like a manufactured “but what if” to me.

    Also, Mary Robinette Kowal stole my freakin’ birthday.

  2. Heh. I’m still trying to buy food for a certain sf writer who is in NYC today. A Stross/Scalzi two night combo would be awesome.

  3. I think the Author’s Guild is going a bit far afield with this one. As you say, John, the idea that the computer generated monotone of the Kindle2 is going to be any kind of competitor to the Audio book is preposterous. Anyone who would be satisfied with it as a replacement likely wouldn’t have bought the audiobook anyway.

    To further respond to the question of why – I think the idea is continuity of experience. If I’m reading The Ghost Brigades over my breakfast bagel, I can bring my kindle with me into the car and listen to the story while I drive in to work; over lunch, I can pick up exactly where the kindle left off without having to try and page through hoping I remember exactly where the audiobook left off.

  4. What if you’re at lunch with a friend who has just received awesomely great news about their career? Do you buy in the spirit of congratulations, or do they buy ’cause they’re suddenly swimming in it?

    (Also: the image of writers breaking down doors to shoot people reading to their kids is worthy of Python in the day. Good work. “No one expects the Authors’ Guild!”)

  5. “But we don’t have unlimited expense accounts anymore and it’s not as much fun to be the big guy picking up the check when you have to pay out of your own pocket.”

    There, was that cheesey enough for the implied whine in the article.
    A number of times that I was in this particular situation, all in the 90′s, the upwardly mobile, looking for a VP slot by 30, business major would buy lunch for everyone to increase the loyalty base that they could count on as they moved up.

    It didn’t usually work, as the ones that tried this path to glory were usually found out as self serving twits.

    The capable, competent and caring strivers were usually the ones that made the jump.
    Sometimes idiots would pay their way upstairs but then that division always seemed to de-evolve into a “Dilbert” like miasma of discontent and I always found a way to not be in that footprint. It worked right up until the whole site was outsourced to Malaysia in 2005.
    Hmm, maybe I didn’t move fast enough… 8D

  6. Damn you Kindle for trying to increase book sales for authors.

    Unless they see these as serious competition for audio books and they get a smaller cut from Kindle than they would from audio books, I don’t see the issue. I suspect that lost audio book sales will be small compared to the increased sales on books without audio versions to those who prefer/need that format.

    If an author or publisher were upset about this, I would think they could opt out of being avaiable to Kindle.

  7. There’s a reason that the people who do audiobooks call them “performances”. I tried to listen to a robovoice rendition of a book in the car on a long trip. After 15 minutes, I chucked it.

    Setting aside the different voices or intonations, a performer knows when to linger over a phrase, or when to rush through it to match the emotion of the scene.

    That aside, I really like my Kindle as a reading device.

  8. Amazon must be adding text-to-sspeech for the continuity idea, or maybe for people with slight visual impairment, because my understanding is that the user interface for the Kindle II doesn’t talk, making it useless to blind people. (Having talking books is useless if you can’t load them, or control them yourself.)

  9. I’m a little surprised that a science fiction author wouldn’t take into account the possibility that down the road text-to-speech programs *won’t* suck, that the auto-reading of “Zoe’s Tale” will be done so that the user can choose from among facsimiles of Tavia Gilbert, Stephen Fry, and Marlon Brando, or assign individual actors to individual parts! (Or maybe entirely people it with voices in the public domain, to avoid having to pay estates. Do you think Ann Coulter will be public domain by then? I have a few choice things I’d like to hear her say.)

    Personally, I think that while this might drastically reduce the market for audiobooks, I can’t make myself conclude that this abridges the author’s rights, no more than the ability to highlight a text or read it on the commode or make the pages into a papier mache effigy of the author. It’s just a gut feeling, though.

  10. Hmm, I’ll stay out of the Kindle arguement for the time being…being as I truly prefer one of those old-fashioned things called a book that can be curled up with on a cold afternoon. Nice, solid, comforting.

    Once in a while I might get a audio version, but generally only if I’m traveling or if the author has done the recording and I really want to hear their version. Case in point is Ted Turner’s autobiography (on my to buy list), I want to hear him tell the story of his life.

    As for my today, it’s getting ready to rain here and I’m sitting in an office beating legaleze into submission so the court will make the other side our client.

  11. There’s some pretty decent sounding text-to-speech out there already. They still don’t sound human, but they’re a vast improvement from the robo-speech people automatically think of.

  12. You mean folks don’t automatically assign mental voices of Brando to at least one character per book? I admit it made reading “The Gate to Women’s Country” a bit unsettling to have Stavia channelling The Godfather but it’s freakin’ Brando.

  13. Andy @ 12: You mean folks don’t automatically assign mental voices of Brando to at least one character per book? I admit it made reading “The Gate to Women’s Country” a bit unsettling to have Stavia channelling The Godfather but it’s freakin’ Brando.

    Darn you. I just bought that and now I’m going to have to read it with Brando’s voice in it. :(

    Hehehe.

  14. Is the Author’s Guild also getting their collective panties in a knot over Adobe Acrobat’s “Read Out Loud” feature?

  15. Were I a member of the Author’s Guild, I’d likely fire a nastygram to the leadership demanding they stop wasting my dues.

    On the other hand, as far as silly arguments go, I’d rather have the Author’s Guild raising a legal question that’s going to come up anyway than, say, getting in a brawl over awards or calling authors offering free content scabs or obsessing that romance novels have too much sex in them. (Did I cover the big three genre groups? Good.)

    So while the Author’s Guild’s statement makes me roll my eyes and say, “Oh, pleeeeeeeease!!!”, it nonetheless is doing what its membership pays them to do. That, of course, is looking after authors’ interests, even if the work can occasionally get silly.

    As for those other groups, I now save hundreds in membership fees after the last three years have made me realize I’d wasted my money the entire time.

    (OK, not a fan of the big writer’s groups. On that front, I’ve become another Lynn Viehl.)

  16. The best part is a lot of people are complaining the voice for the text-to-speech sucks. My mom’s a special education teacher, one of many that wanted a text-to-speech option for Kindle but a lot of reviews so far have complained that the voice is more than subpar.

  17. Just fine, thanks. And yourself?

    Since you mentioned Dr. Who, I’ll just say that I’m getting ready to leave for L.A. to attend Gallifrey One this weekend. I just hope the elevators at the Marriott are in better working order than they were in November at LosCon.

    But, it should be interesting. I’ve never been to a media con before.

  18. @zakur: to the extent that Google is the arbiter of all that is known, a search for “author’s guild” and Acrobat “Read Out Loud” comes up with nothing relevant. … But then, a search of authorsguild.org not only comes up with nothing for that, but also nothing about text to speech on the Kindle. I’m starting to get the feeling that this whole thing is the result of one guy opening his mouth and talking without thinking too hard about what’s coming out.

  19. I expect that the Authoors Guild wouldn’t have a problem with Acrobat Read Out Loud, since I don’t think that technology works with the Secure text PDFs, or image PDFs that some ebooks are published as.

    (I also hadn’t thought about the potential use of tts books for people with learning/reading difficulties. It’s too bad their going with subpar speech.)

  20. I often wonder as I wander… :-p

    There was a piece on public radio’s Marketplace yesterday that explained how Goldman Sachs just moved its annual technology conference from Las Vegas to San Francisco:

    Tim Ghriskey is with Solaris Asset Management.

    Tim Ghriskey: It’s gonna be an extra cost certainly for the company, which is ironic, because companies are making these changes to avoid the perception that they are overspending.

    Worse still, Goldman risks alienating some clients. They’ll have to rebook travel for a conference in two weeks. The bank told them about the change yesterday.

    Idiots…

  21. John H. — see I was just wondering about that myself. I mean, Las Vegas has enormous capacity for conventions — and there are actually discount airlines which fly there. I was surprised to find that here in conservative West Michigan, the number 2 destination out of Grand Rapids was Las Vegas, Orlando being number 1. And it has as much to do with conventions, trade shows and meetings as family vacations and gambling. So having Allegiant coming in and charging $99 each way has to be way better than flying Northwest or American to SF.

    The press and Congress are really going to have to do some soul searching about what they want to bitch about regarding company expenses. Appearances can be deceiving.

    Dr. Phil

  22. @mia: The read out loud feature does work with Adobe DRM protection, it’s just one of the many permissions that you can set (like printing, copying, etc.). I just tested a handful of PDF ebooks available from our public library, and the read out loud feature worked on every single one. Either publishers are not aware of this feature or they don’t care. I suspect the latter because the feature… umm… sucks. Unless, of course, you actually enjoy listening to hours of Stephen-Hawking-like narration complete with odd mispronunciations and horrible cadence.

  23. Re text-to-speech: Ever listen to Michael Chabon’s recording of Summerland? He does different voices for each character. I feel like I am listening in on him telling a story to his kids.

  24. John Murphy:

    “I’m a little surprised that a science fiction author wouldn’t take into account the possibility that down the road text-to-speech programs *won’t* suck, that the auto-reading of ‘Zoe’s Tale’ will be done so that the user can choose from among facsimiles of Tavia Gilbert, Stephen Fry, and Marlon Brando, or assign individual actors to individual parts!”

    The science fiction author doesn’t have any problem supposing such a thing, but the fellow who lives here and now isn’t terribly concerned about it, because for one thing, it’s not just a voice that makes a performance. A computerized Stephen Fry voice that is flat and affectless will not be that much more interesting than the current computer voices. What makes the performance is the brain behind the voice, and at the moment that’s in no real danger of being replicated.

  25. “Busy day wondering around NYC, talking at the TOC conference, meeting editors and fighting crime.”

    You know, you could have tried to work in a shot of yourself in costume after making a comment like that. Spandex is cheap these days.

  26. My computer already has the ability to read text outloud in a monotone voice. I can put an ebook on my computer. How is this any different?

  27. I agree that text-to-speech and audiobooks are two very different experiences: one is a delivery method and the other is, well, a derivative work.

    It does seem short-sighted (heh) of Amazon not to make the interface a talking one. My partner is blind and is always trying to find new ways to “read” books; I’m sure he’d buy the Kindle in a heartbeat if it were properly accessible. He has text-to-speech software whose voice he’s used to, which doesn’t always work with e-books (the image PDF/protected text issue that Mia mentioned). You’d think that the arriving e-book revolution would open up limitless avenues of reading for those who are visually impaired, but that doesn’t seem to be the case, at least not yet.

    (Further notes on reading for blind people: My partner may not be typical, but he doesn’t like using Braille or listening to actual audiobooks. He likes text-to-speech software because he can speed it up much faster than actual talking speed and thus consume a book at something closer to reading speed.)

  28. @John Scalzi
    “What makes the performance is the brain behind the voice, and at the moment that’s in no real danger of being replicated.”

    Fair enough. And of course you’re right. My favorite audiobooks of all time are those of David Suchet reading Agatha Christie; it would be nearly impossible for any computer (even, perhaps, aided by a musical score-like markup) to put in the kind of intonation that he does, knowing the character so well. Each one really is a jewel.

    And yet, I wonder whether the degree of perfection and artistry ought to enter into it. It seems that everyone is scoffing at this Author’s Guild fellow out of the understanding that automated TTS is terrible and likely to be terrible for a long time (and subpar forever), and they are probably right about that — but does that really undermine his point? I personally think that a low-res reproduction of an artwork, or a scratchy bootleg copy of a song ought not be considered copyright violation, but I could see a lawyer (or very hungry photographers and musicians) disagreeing.

  29. mia@14 – that’s wonderful! I just made dubya sing the theme to Fireball XL5. Heee!

    But it’d be as annoying as all getout to listen to listen to a whole book in that syllabic, staccato delivery, even if it were based on a pleasant voice to begin with. I know we live in an age of wonders, and the tech will only improve, but given a choice it is not a patch on either the audiobook or the paper book. I can see, though, that for someone with a visual impairment, it’d be better than nothing – it’s an improvement on the old Hawking style text-to-voice, at least.

  30. One thing I’d like to point out about the Kindle and the TTS ‘issue’ is that the Kindle is not exclusively an eBook device. Certainly most of the available content is eBooks, but it is advertised to provide access to many other types of content, such as magazines and blogs.

    While TTS is lousy as a means of ‘enjoyment’ for eBooks, it may be much more acceptable for these other content types, and especially such content where human-read audio is not already available, and likely never will be.

  31. @Justin
    It’s odd that you mention that, since pretty much the only way I use my subscription to The Economist these days is through its audio edition: it’s professionally done, not abridged, divided up by section, and generally a joy to “read” in the car. They (that is, Talking Issues, the company that produces the audio edition) also does New Scientist.

    It never occurred to me, though, that the Kindle’s news and magazines would be good for that, but you’re absolutely right. I get Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine that way, and it would be nice to listen to that in the car, since I so rarely find time to read it.

  32. As a special ed teacher, I find the Author’s Guild stance to be appalling. I would love to have more text-to-speech options available for my students, as many of them can understand what they hear better than they can read, and this would be one method for making more palatable content available to people in higher grade levels who are reading at very low levels. Low cognitive ability and low reading levels are not necessarily one and the same thing.

    Text-to-speech options would allow many of these kids to keep up with their classes as far as absorbing content information is concerned.

  33. Speaking as a blind person who reads books in bland computerized voice, and my blind friend right here seconds this…we by far prefer computerized voice to live audio readers.

    Now, granted, some audio readers are vastly better than others, but we’d rather just have the neutral voice so we can interpret ourselves. It can get quite hokey with others reading, and most importantly, it makes it easier to make the computer voice go fast fast fast, which is how we usually read. You can speed up live audio, of course, but everyone ends up sounding like a chipmunk.

    If you can’t read the book with your eyes and thus form your own interpretation of the book, a neutral computerized voice is the next best thing to your own “inside your head” book reading voice.

    Anyway, I’m glad kindle is going audio, it helps us a lot. And then we have more of a choice as to read via a real person or computer. To me, this seems like access, not a copyright violation, as before we did not have access to kindle books at all, and they are quite a bit cheaper than audio books. It is nice to get first run books without having to wait for audio or library for the blind to get around to them.

  34. Reading a novel using text-to-speech does sound like a manifestly bad idea. But having a Kindle read, say, the top stories from the Wall Street Journal as you drive to work? Not so silly.

  35. I am tired and ready to leave NY for a few weeks. I’m also having a hard time keeping up with my theme.

    While you’re in New York, try Molly’s Pub & Shebeen on 21st and Third Ave for the best burger in the city. Seriously. The best.

  36. My word. Do the people in that article not live in the real world? I can’t remember the last time I went to lunch with someone and just expected they would pay. These people need a character rewiring.

  37. Jessica @ 28, Kindle’s different because it’s the first ebook reader that has text-to-speech enabled for in-copyright works. All other ebook readers/stores have always disabled text-to-speech (aka read aloud) features for protected (i.e. DRMed/in-copyright) books.

    Kindle’s not the first ebook reader to have text-to-speech (not by a long shot), but Amazon grabbed the tiger by the tail by enabling it without checking with the copyright owners first. It’ll be interesting to see if they take the Authors Guild on in court or not (Amazon can presumably afford more lawyers than small outfits like Fictionwise, MobiPocket, eBooks.com, etc.).


  38. Reading a novel using text-to-speech does sound like a manifestly bad idea.

    I read ebooks that way frequently. I know, to someone who hasn’t tried it and is probably expecting some atrociously toneless voice, this might seem strange.

    But I’ve found that some text to speech software actually creates a reasonably decent sounding voice that’s a lot better sounding than the often bad readings I’ve encountered in many audiobooks. I recently tryed to listen to an audiobook version of THE HOST by Stephanie Meyers and even if I’d liked the book, which I didn’t, I wouldn’t have been able to sit through the horrible,exaggerated and often totally inappropriate-to-the-character voices the reader did for different characters.

    We forget that when we look at the page and read in our minds that nuances of tone aren’t there on the page—our imaginations add them.

    And with a decent text to speech voice which is not as far from a real voice as you’d probably think I find my imagination has no more trouble adding in the nuances than it does when I look at printed text.

    As to WHY I read them that way, I’m a painter and like to listen to books whiling I’m working—of course I read books the typical way lots too—as my straining book shelves will attest.

  39. My reading of the Blount piece wasn’t that he actually wanted Amazon to stop allowing people to have it read books aloud, it was that he wanted to readdress the licensing fees paid for ebooks to include licensing for audio.

    Honestly, that doesn’t pain me all that much.

    I do think that if his intent was about licensing fees, it was a poor forum to do it in (industry internal issue vs consumer issue)

  40. “the idea that the computer generated monotone of the Kindle2 is going to be any kind of competitor to the Audio book is preposterous.”

    Yes, but what about 10 years from now, will computer generated voices be much better? Perhaps still not as good as a human, but maybe good enough for the average person?
    It’s like the difference between mp3s and lossless compression. I can tell the difference on some types of music, and so can many musicians. But the average person can’t, and mp3 is just fine with them.

    So it’s not so much about the Kindle 2, but really more about setting a precedent that will be enforced as technology matures. Someday, computer generated voices WILL be good enough to make a human reading a book be not worth the expense. That is what the argument is about.

    Now, is that something to be concerned about? Maybe not, maybe it’s just a licensing issue. Or maybe too much licensing would kill off the technology before it starts up.

  41. I wanted to add one more thing, as Lexie points out above about monotone being the best for helping you hear it the way you hear it in your head. When you are helping an actor by reading lines to him so he can practice his own lines, you do the same thing: read it neutrally without inflection or emotion. That is the best way for him to remember his lines and react the way his character would, instead of reacting to your reading, then getting on stage and having the actual actor read it completely differently.

  42. plutosdad:

    “Yes, but what about 10 years from now, will computer generated voices be much better? Perhaps still not as good as a human, but maybe good enough for the average person?”

    No.

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