A Loss for Words

The bookstore has been locked.

There is a velvet rope, and a bouncer at the door.

You can wait in line, like everybody else.  Your money is good.  You have a lot to contribute.

When you get to the front, the one-headed Cerberus looks you up and down.  You are handed a piece of paper.

You look at it.  It’s in some language you don’t know.  It doesn’t make any sense to you.  You can’t read it. 

The guard’s face is impassive.  You aren’t told to leave.  You aren’t told anything.   Somehow, you know that asking a question is useless.  You search the eyes for some answer.  They aren’t cold, they aren’t hard…it’s as if you aren’t even there. 

The next person in line pushes past you.  It’s nothing personal.  You are just in the way.

You move away slowly and join a crowd of the rejected. 

You search the faces in your group for some clue….what was wrong with you?   It’s not obvious.  Certainly, a number of you are older…past fifty, anyway.   There are a couple of people with guide dogs.  There’s one person in a wheelchair with a mechanism holding a book in a clamp.  With others, you can’t see any common factor at all.

All you want to do is buy some books.  

You ask if anybody knows where else you can go to spend your money.

One person knows about a place you can order some books through the mail.

Another knows a little store that will sell you something…but they only have a few books.

There’s a charity that will give them to you.  You don’t really want charity, though.  You have the money!  You just want to buy a book, like everybody else!  You don’t want to use public resources.  You don’t want to be at the mercy of whatever books they happen to have. 

You look at all the bestsellers in the window.  The latest novel from your favorite author.  An important political book on an issue that was the source of hours of argument in your home last election.  Hey, there’s a stupid self help book you would never read…you can’t even buy that.

You start to walk away.  As you move further down the line, you notice that it’s starting to look more like your group as you get further away from the door.  The people who got there first aren’t like the people who got there later.

You wonder how the bookstore is going to stay in business if they keep turning people away.

Does the E in e-book stand for “Excluded”?

I went to bed sad last night, and woke up with this first on my mind.

Another major publisher has begun blocking text-to-speech in Kindle books.

I don’t know why this one is such a greater weight on my spirits.  I’ve never had such a hard time writing something.  I’m actually having a hard time writing anything this morning.  I’d started a humor piece, and I’ll finish it.  But I’m not feeling in a very joyful way.

It could be because this is number four of the Big Six to follow this business strategy.  Is it just because that makes it the majority?

Is it because I really enjoyed reading a recent novel which I see now that people who need the text-to-speech can’t do?

That might be it.  I listened to parts of that novel…sight-read other parts of it.  I don’t need the text-to-speech, it’s just fun and convenient for me. 

Other people do.  Yes, there are alternatives.  But going into the store, looking at that book, and seeing “Text-to-Speech: Not enabled” barrier…I felt bad for people who just want to buy the book.

I rarely get mad…that’s just not who I am.  I don’t think publishers are doing this because they want to hurt anybody.

I think it does hurt people, though.

Yes, there are alternatives…they are inconvenient and complicated. 

The text-to-speech on the Kindle was a huge breakthrough for those with print disabilities.  They could get books at the same place and at the same time  everybody else did…even share them with the family.    They didn’t need special equipment, or special editions.   They didn’t have to be different.

It’s important to understand that it didn’t cost the publishers anything to let people have it.  Amazon licensed software for the Kindle.  Nuance developed it, Amazon paid for it.   If publishers did nothing, it worked.

Publishers have done something though, in increasing numbers.  They’ve said you can’t have text-to-speech in Kindle books.  It doesn’t matter if you have a print disability…a vision issue, or a debilitating condition that makes it hard for you to hold books and turn the pages.  It doesn’t matter if you just want to keep reading in the car.

I think this restricts the market for e-books.  Look around you at your friends and family…how many of them are going to benefit from text-to-speech?  If not now, as their challenges increase with age?

Why would they refuse those customers?

They’ve said it’s to protect the audiobook market.  I don’t think the evidence is there that text-to-speech hurts the audiobook market.  My guess is that it may actually help audiobooks, by accustoming people to listening to books.  It was recently indicated to me that one publisher wants to keep audiobooks separate from e-books.

Text-to-speech is not an audiobook.   Not legally, not functionally.

You know what I think?

I think they don’t want to give you something for nothing.  I think, more than that, they want to delay the adoption of e-books.

E-books level the playing field.  Right now, the twin barriers of production and distribution make it hard for small publishers to get much of the market.  E-books remove those hurdles.

The longer the Big Six can stretch out the dominance of paper, the bigger advantage they’ll have.  That’s a business argument to raise the prices, delay the releases…block text-to-speech.

They’ll probably give you all of that back if they start losing marketshare to the independents.  It’s a free expansion of your market.  You can announce it with great fanfare. 

They can’t wait too long.  Over the next year or two, people’s loyalties will realign.  Market leaders get passed up when they overestimate loyalties. 

Amazon, by the way, is trying to encourage text-to-speech.  To get the new seventy percent royalty option that’s coming, that is one of the conditions.  You have to enable text-to-speech.

That’s something.  You may not be able to read that book that was on TV or on the radio or in a magazine.  You might not be able to read the book that everybody is talking about.  But you will have something to read.

That gives me some hope, and hope is the anti-venom for the poison of disappointment. 

I’ll smile later.  I don’t stay sad for long.   I’m pretty good at compartmentalizing.  It will still bother me, but it won’t stop me.  I think making people happy, increasing the amount of joy in the world is important.  I’ll still try and be funny.  :)

I’m going to miss buying and reading books from those publishers.  I’ll miss telling you about those books.  I’ll feel sad for the people who lose the benefit of text-to-speech.

But I’ll look forward to the future.  Things may get worse, but then they get better.   People shape society, and I believe that people want other people’s lives to improve.  Look at opportunities one hundred years ago, and look at them now.

You can’t stop progress.

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.

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16 Responses to “A Loss for Words”

  1. lp Says:

    I do not understand. It seems to me that both authors and publishers would WANT to sell a TTS-enabled book to Cousin Danny the dyslexic or Great Aunt Annie with arthritis. Why not SELL them a copy now (when they want to read the book), rather than maybe give away a free copy sometime in the future?

    Is there litigation blocking TTS? Am I missing something?

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, lp!

      No litigation…in fact, the Copyright Office has made it clear that you must enable text-to-speech in one version of every e-book you sell. Not in all versions…that’s what makes it legal to block it in Kindle books. If a publisher blocks it in the Kindle edition, it must be available in some other edition. However, that edition can be limited to people who certify a disability.

      You can read more on the legal aspects in my article, The Disabled Deserve to Read: http://ilmk.wordpress.com/2009/10/11/the-disabled-deserve-to-read/

      As I mentioned, I don’t think this makes economic sense. As you suggest, if they don’t sell a book to a customer who is willing to pay, that customer may be able to get it for free (if they can certify). The Chafee Amendment means that the publishers books can be made available in certain circumstances, whether they want them to be or not.

      I think it’s mostly: not wanting to give things away; and wanting to delay the adoption of e-books. There may be some concern about competition with audiobook sales, but I find that an unconvincing argument.

  2. Deb Dyson Says:

    I too am saddened by the blocking of text to speech. I’m an insomniac who has tried everything to create/enhance my sleeping experience. One of the few effective techniques I’ve found is listening to ebooks.

    Now the publishers would say “Great!, just buy an audiobook and you’re good to go”, and sometimes I do just that. I have a CD player by my bed and a pillow speaker that I use regularly.

    So, what’s the problem you ask? The problem is that many nights I cannot fall asleep lying down and I wander from room to room trying the couch, then the recliner and back again. This is one of the many times I’m blessed by having my Kindle. I carry it easily from room to room in my search for sleep, wherever it may be found. So, while I’m not disabled, the text to speech function has been a continual blessing to me and has enhanced my quality of life.

    Now for a question, if I previously purchased an ebook with speech to text enabled, will it still function if it’s subsequently been blocked? If it still works wonderful, I’ll continue to support publishers who offer this feature. If not, they will have one angry and vocal customer on their hands who feels cheated to have purchased an item in good faith only to have my purchase diminished, without my consent.

    Please tell me I don’t have to angry as well as sad!

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Deb!

      Yes, that’s key…it isn’t just people whose issues rise to the legal level of a disability. People with arthritis, weak eyesight, and so on, also benefit from text-to-speech. If they enable autoturn without the need for text-to-speech when they do the accessibility update later this year, that would help some people.

      As to your question: if you buy a book with text-to-speech, that stays available to you even if the publisher blocks it for new purchases of that same title. I just double-checked that to make sure, downloading the book frm my archives that prompted my discovery. I’d had a great time listening and sight-reading that book, and it the text-to-speech does still work.

      Anger is always optional. :)

      Well, maybe not, but I loved it when somebody said, “You aren’t responsible for your feelings, just what you do about them.” I’m not sure I buy that…one can change the way one will perceive future interactions with people…but once you are mad, it’s too late (usually) for that some of mental restructuring.

  3. the ArtWench Says:

    I understand your concern. My brother-in-law is profoundly dyslexic and can not read more than a couple of lines before he gets a blinding headache. I had been so excited to show him the Kindle as a possibility for him to access a world which, through no fault of his own, he has been excluded. Unfortunately, that won’t happen. Very sad.

    • bufocalvin Says:

      ArtWench, thanks for writing!

      There are many Kindle books with which text-to-speech still works…just fewer than there were before. If your brother-in-law likes older books, there are lots of those…public domain books generally aren’t blocked. Books which come through Amazon’s Digital Text Platform also aren’t blocked, I believe.

      Will that be enough? Depends on your brother-in-law’s tastes, I guess.

  4. Sally Says:

    Like everyone else, I’m sorry to see this. I think it’s just one more way they are trying to control and minimize the effect of eBooks on the literary landscape. Make them as expensive as paper, no additional benefits, etc. Because they control paper market and don’t want to lose the control. Especially with Amazon’s DTP option for authors.

    But Bufo, what are you going to do? You can’t not read and so many have joined TTS blocking that I worry you will now have a very narrow market to read from and to recommend to your subscribers. I know it’s probably anathema to suggest, but maybe it’s time to realize this battle is lost and go back to reading and recommending those publishers. I hate to say that, but I’m trying to be practical too. You do all of us a great service and I’d hate to see your influence, in essence, marginalized by this. I hope you’re not offended and understand where I’m coming from.

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing Sally!

      I appreciate your concern, really. I’m never offended by honestly offered advice, especially when it comes from what seems to be a heartfelt place.

      In terms of my having material to read, I’m not worried about that. I mostly read public domain, and nothing is likely to stop that. It’s not that it isn’t frustrating sometimes, especially for my Significant Other (SO). We hear about a book we’d really like to read, but don’t buy it. That just happened with a non-fiction book…I heard the author on the radio, my SO read about it.

      However, I can read Tolstoy, Dickens, Burroughs, Bierce… Also, I don’t think that everybody will go this way. I think lots of independents will see this as a competitive advantage they have over the big dogs. Hey, I may find some brand new authors that way! :)

      As to the battle…it isn’t a battle for me, although it is for some people. I don’t see it as I’m fighting them, storming the castle so to speak, trying to force them to change their minds. I just don’t want to give my money to people who take this position, and that’s because I think it’s unfair to a group of people. I don’t want to support that…even with referral fees.

      Could I be marginalized by this? I’m so marginalized now, I’m practially standing on the edge of the page. :) I’ve never felt the need to be mainstream. I do regret (already) that there are books I don’t mention…some books that I read years ago that I think are great. On the other hand, if I’m the only one out there in the hinterlands bringing you news of this cool new species of book I’ve found, that could be useful too, right? ;) I haven’t really made this blog about reviews anyway. If I never mentioned another new release title in it, I think that would be okay with most readers.

      Am I a bit Quixotic? Sure. I’ve always admired Don Quixote for that (although not for everything, of course). It’s not about winning…it’s about believing in what you do.

      I reallly want to thank you for the kind words and the concern this morning. You’ve helped me out of my funk. :) I hope that what I do write will continue to entertain you and others and be valuable for you. There will be a lot of good things to discuss, and once the tide has turned on e-books versus paperbooks, I think we’ll see the return of text-to-speech from everybody, for everybody.

  5. David Derrico Says:

    Thanks for the article. I, too, am saddened to see so many large publishers blocking TTS. And I agree with your conclusion. I’ve stopped asking myself “Why do the publishers raise prices beyond what people will pay?” “Why do they delay e-books?” “Why do they embrace annoying DRM?” “Why do they disable lending and TTS?” You’re right: they are trying to fight the future and hold onto their place at the top of the publishing food chain for as long as possible.

    And, just like the buggy-whip makers, it won’t work.

    Next, they’ll probably make the e-books expire after a certain amount of time and try to disable changing font sizes and dictionary lookups. Anything to remove the benefits of e-books and try to get people back to paper, where they own the market.

    I actually had a nice reader post on my Facebook fan page the other day and thank me for enabling TTS in my novels. I didn’t even know how to respond — my initial reaction was, “Why in God’s name would I ever DISable it? Just to be pointlessly mean?” But your post shows that — incredibly — leaving the natural advantages of e-books in place and not INTENTIONALLY crippling them has become the exception instead of the norm.

    On the one hand it’s sad; on the other hand, I do believe that readers are fed up with it and will continue to respond by supporting authors and publishers who meet their needs and treat their readers with respect. So, let the big publishers keep spitting on their customers. It only hastens the realignment of the publishing industry and helps independent authors like myself.

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, David!

      I have to say, that’s one of the best written comments I’ve seen. :)

      I understand that feeling. It’s a bit like somebody saying, “Thanks for not slamming the door in my face.” “Um…you’re welcome?” It kind of seems like it should be assumed. ;)

      People assume the publishers (or even the authors) had to program the book to do text-to-speech…as we know, if you don’t do anything, it happens.

      It was nice of your reader to thank you, though. They don’t do that with people they don’t like.

      I’ll take a look at one of your books, at least get a sample. Oh, and in case you’re wondering…

      ;)

  6. Willow Brook Says:

    I’m sorry but not surprised to see more and more books blocking TTS. Publishers once again show they just don’t get it. I use TTS not because of any disability but simply because I like to be able to continue “reading” a book while I’m in the car. I’m not going to buy a audio recording of a book I’m reading. But if I can listen to my ebook in the car, I’ll finish it faster and be ready to buy more books. They can’t figure that out though. What a shame they keep shooting themselves, their authors and readers in the foot.

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Willow, thanks for writing!

      I agree…having text-to-speech definitely ups the number of books I read. That’s not too complicated a calculation. I don’t know if it’s twice as fast, but it’s a lot faster.

      Good observation!

  7. Rick Says:

    Hey, Bufo:

    Buck up. It is certainly disheartening, I agree, but here’s my take on the situation:

    1. You are correct, of course, that the “big six’s” primary reason is to preserve their market share and their quasi-monopoly

    2. They will Lose. The. Battle. Period. The days of paper books are numbered, for good or ill. They have been ever since the advent of the automatic adding machines in the forties and fifties.

    [Sidebar: Ironically, the one who had a very big role in number 2 is one Steve Jobs, who is now colluding with the Big Six to help them shore up their monopoly. Unlike some observers, I know their CEOs are not stupid: they realize Jobs is playing them, but see this as a way to delay the inevitable, until they can float down on their golden parachutes to safety. Because, of course, not being stupid, they know their days are numbered too.]

    3. Amazon will win. The reasons are several, but they are all economic in nature. First, over the past three (?) years of the Kindle’s existence, they have controlled the market. That means they have a tremendous built in loyalty base. Perhaps more importantly, by holding the $9.99 price point so long, that base is conditioned NOT to spend more on books. I’ve only had a Kindle for a month and a half, and already will not spend more.

    4. We all will win. Amazon, by those very same economic factors, will be forced to include an “open” standard like ePub in the Kindle’s repertoire. Probably not for a few years, maybe — faced with the Nook, which will iron out it’s problems — sooner.

    So buck (and buckle) up: it’s going to be a bumpy, but exhilarating, ride.

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Rick!

      I’ve bucked up…with the world being the wonderful place it is, I don’t stay in a funk for long. Believe it or not, that’s not sarcastic. :)

      I agree with a lot what you’ve said. I see the EPUB thing as less significant than a lot of other people, although they may have to do it eventually. What people don’t understand about that it that it isn’t like the “universal donor” MP3. If you get an EPUB book one place, that doesn’t automatically mean you can use it with another reader. EPUB can be made without DRM (Digital Rights Management), in which case Kindles can already use it pretty easily (after simple, free conversion with Calibre). If it’s not, it isn’t any more open than unprotected mobi. I also don’t hear good things about EPUB from users, actually. What I think may happen is that Amazon may enable free conversion of EPUB to AZW…although I don’t know what that would cost them in licensing fees.

      It hasn’t been quite three years on the Kindle (that will come November 19 of this year), but you are right, they certainly grabbed the sleeping e-book market by the ears, gave it a shake, and took it for a ride.

      It’s the twists and turns and ups and downs that make the ride interesting…

      Welcome to the Klub!

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