No, Amazon doesn’t owe authors money for audiobook rights

The Kindle 2 got a not-too-well put together thrashing from Roy Blount Jr. in the New York Times on Feb. 24. It’s not that the Kindle 2 steals from publishers. Blount is OK with its business model because the device pays authors for content. What Blount doesn’t like is the fact that the Kindle 2 can read aloud with a robot voice.

He writes, “Whereas e-books have yet to win mainstream enthusiasm, audio books are a billion-dollar market, and growing. Audio rights are not generally packaged with e-book rights. They are more valuable than e-book rights. Income from audio books helps not inconsiderably to keep authors, and publishers, afloat.”

He’s concerned that the Kindle 2’s robot voice will put people off of paying for audio books and points out that computer voice technology developed by IBM, technology that produces a voice of a quality almost equal to a human reader, could seriously hurt the livelihood of authors — authors who are apparently going to be ruined by the loss of audio book revenue.

Let’s also remember that this IBM technology isn’t a part of the Kindle 2, which is what I thought Blount was complaining about.

Blount writes, “What the guild is asserting is that authors have a right to a fair share of the value that audio adds to Kindle 2’s version of books. For this, the guild is being assailed.”

Yes, you’re being assailed and for a simple reason. You’re trying to charge people for the privilege of reading a book aloud. It doesn’t matter whether the owner of a book reads it aloud or whether they have a friend read it to them, or whether that owner lends the book to a friend and that friends reads it aloud. You buy a book and that gives you the right to read it aloud in whatever manner you choose. You can even scream it from the rooftops, (as long as you don’t charge for attendance). I’m not the only person who thinks so.

Blount has based his argument on this “reading aloud” feature of the Kindle 2 as if the read aloud feature was the device’s major selling point. It isn’t. No one is buying a Kindle because it can read their books aloud. Period. They’re buying Kindles because they’re cool and because Amazon and every technologist on the Web told them to.

Hell, the devices aren’t even that great, if you believe some of the reviews out there.

So no. Amazon doesn’t owe the author’s guild any money because it included a read aloud feature on the Kindle. If someone wants to listen to a book aloud, I’m willing to bet most of them will do the same sort of thing I have done for years:

Rent the audiobook and rip it to .mp3. I will be goddamned if I’ll pay 3x the cost of the hardcover just to hear some actor read the book I want to absorb.