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Leading publisher turns off e-book reader's text-to-speech feature

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Vaughan | 12:20 UK time, Wednesday, 20 May 2009

E-book readers - those mobile electronic devices that allow you to download books onto them to read immediately - have been causing quite a stir over the past few months, with lots of discussion about whether they signal the beginning of the end for conventional paper-based books.

One of the most popular on the market - at least in the US, since it's not available on this side of the pond yet - is the Amazon Kindle, which we wrote about on the blog back in February. When it launched, it sparked interest amongst visually impaired people because of its text-to-speech feature, which enables any book downloaded onto the system to be read aloud in a synthetic voice. Not as good as a conventional audiobook, maybe - especially if it's being read by Stephen Fry (though I admit that Mr Fry's dulcet tones are a very personal preference) - but certainly a quick way to get access to a title that might not be available in an audio format.

The problem is that the latest version of the Kindle - called the Kindle DX - has made the text-to-speech feature voluntary. Individual book publishers can decide whether a particular title can be read aloud, and if they object to it, it can be disabled (no pun intended). Now, leading publisher Random House has taken up this option and blocked text-to-speech on 40 prominent books, including works by Toni Morrison and scary horror specialist Stephen King.

So why have they done this? Well, it follows concerns from an American organisation called the Authors Guild that text-to-speech violated a writer's rights for audiobook performances. They've argued that the technology is getting increasingly close to the quality of a real human performance - though many visually impaired readers would likely disagree - and that authors are therefore entitled to extra royalty payments, or else should have the right to turn off this feature.

A group calling itself the Reading Rights Coalition has been campaigning against the Authors Guild's move, even going so far as to stage an 'informational protest' outside the Guild's New York offices. This prompted the Guild to retaliate and issue a statement denying that they were discriminating against the 'print disabled', and suggesting other solutions to the problem, such as allowing people for whom text-to-speech is a valuable tool to become 'certified users', meaning that they would be able to activate the feature. It's all turned into quite a battle of press statements and opposing viewpoints.

In the meantime, have you used the text-to-speech option on the Kindle or other similar e-book readers? What did you think of it? Does it offer a good replacement for conventional audiobooks, and has it allowed you to get access to books that you otherwise wouldn't have been able to read? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.


  • Comment number 1.

    The thing that frustrates me most about the Kindle is the discrimination against non-Americans!

    Easier to hold than a book, text-to-speech for some books; brilliant. As long as you live on the other side of the Atlantic.

  • Comment number 2.

    Easy answer, let them sell two different versions, one with just text, the other with just speech, that way the authors get the right cut for the right media.

  • Comment number 3.

    "The thing that frustrates me most about the Kindle is the discrimination against non-Americans!"

    agreed! I wanted kindle 1, now the americans have kindle 2 and still no-one else can use it. I want one! Books are so heavy. The ability to turn on a computerized reader when I am very tired would be a definite plus. Having listened to any audio books, and having my computer read to me. a computer reading at you is not as good as a person, but it's better than nothing.



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