Archive for June, 2011

Barnes and Noble will give you 30 free books to switch

June 30, 2011

Barnes and Noble will give you 30 free books to switch

Starting today (Friday, June 30), Barnes and Noble will give you thirty free books if you bring in your old EBR (E-Book Reader) and switch to a NOOK:

Barnes & Noble offer site

You don’t have to give them the EBR, by the way, just show it to them.

What they’ll do is give you an SD card with thirty books (valued at $315, according to them, so not just public domain freebies) that will only work on a NOOK. That means you are also getting a 2GB SD card.

More information is given in this

B&N press release

Interestingly, one of the free books is Robinson Crusoe…which I happen to be reading right now. :) The Good Housekeeping Cookbook is also included.

I think this is smart on their part. It’s going to draw some people into the store…and people have generally been pleased with the NOOK Simple Touch when handling it.

Not a bad deal for folks with old obsolete LCD EBRs who decide it’s time for an upgrade.

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

Lose/lose/lose: how California’s Amazon law hurts the state, Amazon, and individuals

June 30, 2011

Lose/lose/lose: how California’s Amazon law hurts the state, Amazon,  and individuals

Full disclosure: I am one of 10,000 California Amazon Associates. Perhaps I should say “I was”, since Amazon is ending the program in my state.

What is that program?

We Associates sign up for free with Amazon. We then are able to create special links to Amazon products (and pages). When someone clicks through that link and purchases things at Amazon, we get an advertising fee.

Amazon does not tell us where to put the links, where to report in the morning, pay us workers’ compensation, have to pay us minimum wage, or any of a number of other things that would define us as employees.

We advertise: Amazon compensates us when the advertising results in sales.

That’s how it was until California passed a law that says that because Amazon has these Associates in California, they can be compelled to collect sales tax at the time of sale on all taxable products sold into California by them.

In response, to avoid collecting the sales tax, Amazon is terminating the program in California.

I’m explaining all this up front because it does affect me personally, and you should know that. I get a small amount of money each month from those advertising fees. When I say a small amount, I get more from having subscribers. None of that compares to my regular salary for my regular job. The money helps, no question, but we don’t budget anything based on the advertising fees.

I’ve had months where those advertising fees were under $100…June will have been a good month, in part due to the Sunshine Deals sale.

So, I do have a dog in this…although it’s more like a puppy. :)

Sorry, you can see I can’t help being a bit light-hearted (that’s my nature), although I think this is a very serious issue.

I think it was a mistake on California’s part to pass this…so I want to start out with presenting the argument in favor.

California brick-and-mortar stores have difficulty competing with online retailers where sales tax is not collected at the time of sale. That’s unfair to those stores….and the stores employ people right here right now. When the interstate commerce clause was created, there was no idea that you could buy from another state and have the items in a day. There really is very little difference between what Amazon does when it makes a sale in California and Wal-Mart does.

Amazon has a mechanism to collect sales tax at the time of sale. They already do it in other states. These Associates are a sales force for Amazon. This doesn’t add a burden to California consumers, because they already owe the tax: it just makes sure it is collected.

That is one viewpoint. That would make it seem like California is going to get some much-needed income by passing this.

The reality is different.

Amazon still isn’t going to collect the sales tax…because they will drop the Associates program instead.

This is going to hurt cash-strapped California, not help it.

The situation before the law: California residents were expected to pay that sales tax (it may be called a “use tax” when they pay it) on their annual state taxes. My family does that, and it’s a bear. Many people don’t pay it, and it’s hard to get them to pay it.

If Amazon collected it, it would be easier for the state…but Amazon still isn’t going to collect it. The state didn’t gain anything from that.

Still, if it’s status quo, that doesn’t hurt the state, right?

It does, because the state was getting taxes on the money the thousands of Associates were receiving from Amazon. The Associates won’t get that money, so they won’t pay taxes on money they didn’t get.

California loses a source of income without gaining another one.

If this was a surprise, unprecedented move on Amazon’s part, it might make more sense that California passed this law. It’s not, though: Amazon has done the same thing in other states.

California loses on this deal.

Does Amazon lose on the deal?

Yes. Those Associates were recommending things to people that they bought. Amazon loses those additional sales. If there were ten thousand Associates in California generating sales of, say, five thousand dollars a year apiece on average, that’s fifty million dollars in sales. Yes, Amazon would be paying advertising fees, but not as much as they would make (the fee is usually under ten percent). There is also a cost in maintaining the program, of course.

Why can’t Amazon make those sales other ways?

The Associates program leverages both the social networking aspect of the internet and expertise. If someone has a blog on beekeeping, a respected blog, people are more likely to buy books that person recommends on beekeeping.

Individuals are rewarded for their expertise, and that expertise results in more sales.

Amazon is hurt by the deal.

What about the Associates?

They are clearly hurt by this deal. They lose that money. I doubt very many people are making their sole income this way, although some might be. What is probably being lost in many cases is discretionary income…which may have been spent in California (another way the state is hurt, by the way). Associates, I would guess, tend to be hobbyists, and I know there are  non-profits that use this as a way to raise some funds so they can carry on their work.

Associates are hurt by this deal.

How about consumers? Are they hurt by this?

It’s not going to directly affect anything for the consumers. They didn’t pay more for products they got from Associates: prices will stay the same (unless they were higher to account for Associates’ advertising fees…they would have been higher for everyone who bought the product, not just for those who bought it from an Associate…I think that was unlikely to have been a big factor).

They may lose some information…and possibly products. Let’s say you were an author, independently published through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing. In addition to your royalty, you may have been selling the book through your website, getting an advertising fee from Amazon for doing so. Now, that piece of it is gone. You might even elect not to publish a book for that reason.

There are probably specialty bloggers who will stop blogging. The income I get from this (the royalties from subscribers primarily, in my case) justifies the time I spend on it. It’s fun, and I feel like I help people…but it would be a time and energy sink away from my family that would be harder to justify without it paying my offspring’s rent at college as well.

I’m not planning to stop blogging, by the way. :) However, let’s say someone writes an expert blog on…power tools. Not a lot of subscribers, probably (it’s not an ongoing every day matter of concern for most people), but people find the blog through internet searches and buy a power tool, because the blogger has explained the advantages and disadvantages of various models. Without the Associates program, those advertising fees disappear…and maybe the blogger stops blogging.

That’s a negative for consumers.

Well, the law passed, so somebody most have wanted it, right?

Who benefits?

Brick-and-mortar stores, like Wal-Mart and Costco.

I would guess  that they lobbied for the bill, but I don’t know that. Since they are compelled to collect the sales tax (they do business in the state, clearly), the bottom line on a consumer’s purchase seems higher. Remember that the consumer owes that tax whether it’s collected at the time of sale or not, but it’s a competitive disadvantage. They also incur the costs of collecting that sales tax and sending it to the state.

They want to make it harder for internet retailers to do business, to hurt their competition.

They are hypothetically helped by this…however, that’s a narrow view of it.

Amazon is not going to collect the sales tax anyway (since they are dropping the Associates), so that bottom line perception isn’t going to change. Amazon will lose the advertising from the Associates, which could affect their sales.

The brick-and-mortars, though, lose the sales that the Associates would have made in their stores.

The Associates were getting money from out-of-state to spend in-state. Yes, they may have made some of their purchases online, but they probably used some of that money at the grocery store…and those big box stores.

What about those “Mom and Pop” stores? Doesn’t internet competition hurt them?

Sure it does…but this doesn’t change that. Amazon is still not going to collect sales tax.

This law hurts everyone.

There are some other interesting factors here.

Will Amazon have to move or change their R&D (Research and Development) facilities in California? That’s not part of the Associates piece, but there are some who suggest the wording in the bill may cause that. That wouldn’t help the state, certainly. Amazon would move those facilities, in my opinion, rather than collect sales tax on all taxable sales into California.

Another piece: Barnes & Noble already pays sales tax in all fifty states, I believe. They have a similar program…Amazon Associates could hypothetically go with them.

I don’t want to do that: I haven’t had good relationships with Barnes & Noble (except in the brick-and-mortar stores).

One other thing: none of this affects your Kindle store purchases if you are a California resident. California isn’t taxing e-books delivered electronically at this point (although they would if you bought the e-books on a CD). It doesn’t change sales of anything into California by Amazon, but I thought I’d point this out specifically.

I’m sure there are many of you who support California’s decision, and I would love to hear from you. I know the state is in financial trouble…I understand that this may seem like “closing a loophole”. If the US Supreme Court rules that advertisers count as a nexus, so be it. The New York Amazon law is likely to end up there, and they’ll we’ll get a definitive answer.

Please, feel free to comment on this post and let me (and my readers) know what you think. If you support California, I’d especially like to hear from you. If you are an Associate affected by this, feel free to tell your story.

Update: my account was closed when I went to it this morning…it’s there for historical purposes.

Update: not surprisingly, there are a lot of news stories about this…here are a few:

L.A. Times

CNET on Lab126 aspect

Seattle Times

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

Amazon: “Notice of Contract Termination Due to Potential New California Law”

June 29, 2011

Amazon: “Notice of Contract Termination Due to Potential New California Law”

I received an e-mail from Amazon, and they are alerting Amazon Associates in California that they will terminate the Associate program in that state if its “Amazon law” goes into effect.

I’ll write more about this, but I wanted to get this out right away.

I was going to include the body of the e-mail, which would normally be my right with an e-mail sent to me that was not indicated as private, but they included a copyright notice.

Update: my account has now been closed. When I accessed it this morning, I saw this:

Alert Account Closed

This account is closed and will not generate referrals. Access to this site is for historical purposes only.

For more of my thoughts on this, see

Lose/lose/lose: how California’s Amazon law hurts the state, Amazon, and individuals

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

Freebie flash! Wish, Happy, Justice, and more

June 29, 2011

Freebie flash! Wish, Happy, Justice, and more

As usual, I don’t vouch for these books, and none of them block text-to-speech access. As promotional titles, they may not be free for long. Note: these books are free in the USA: prices in other countries may vary.

Inspector Zhang Gets His Wish (a free short story)
by Stephen Leather
published by Three Elephants (independent?)

Spiderwork (Apocalypto 2)
by LK Rigel
independent

Shrinkage
by Luke Young
independent

Being Happy
by David Tuffley
independent

Impeding Justice (Lorne Simpkins the FEMALE Jack Bauer) (DI Lorne Simpkins thrillers)
by Mel Comley
independent

The title of this book includes the Jack Bauer reference. That’s a tricky trademark issue. If Jack Bauer is a trademark for books (and it may be), they may make them drop that piece.

Making Up (Erotic Bites)
by M.G. Morgan
independent

Endurance
by April Thomas
published by Author House (independent?)

A Space Between (A Prayer for Dead Kings and Other Tales)
by Scott Fitzgerald Gray
published by Insane Angel (independent?)

Fold Thunder
by Gregory Ashe
independent

Familiar Faces: A Short Story
by Joshua Scribner
independent

Horror and Cr*p: 11 Short Works
by Joshua Scribner
independent

Psyche Horror: Five Short Works by Joshua Scribner
by Joshua Scribner
independent

An Unlikely Pair (My Once and Future Love)
by Carla Krae
independent

BestsellerBound Short Story Anthology Volume 1
edited by Darcia Helle
independent

Jabberwocky
by Daniel Coleman
independent

Warman’s U.S. Stamps Field Guide (Warman’s Field Guides U.S. Stamps: Values and Identification)
by Maurice Wozniak
published by Krause Publications (independent?)

Warman’s U.S. Coin Collecting
by Alan Herbert
published by Krause Publications (independent?)

Warman’s Companion U.S. Coins & Currency (Warman’s Companion: Us Coins & Currency)
by Allen G. Berman
published by Krause Publications (independent?)

Warman’s U.S. Coins & Currency Field Guide (Warman’s Field Guides U.S. Coins & Currency: Values & Identification)
by Alyn G. Sieber

Living Rich by Spending Smart: How to Get More of What You Really Want
by Gregory Karp
published by FT Press (a financial publisher)

Trading on Corporate Earnings News: Profiting from Targeted, Short-Term Options Positions
by John Shon
published by FT Press (a financial publisher)

The Message Promise Book
by Eugene H. Peterson
published by NavPress (a faith-based publisher)

The Message: The Book of Proverbs
by Eugene H. Peterson
published by NavPress (a faith-based publisher)

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

28 new Kindle User Guide placeholders: new Kindle?

June 28, 2011

28 new Kindle User Guide placeholders: new Kindle?

I was taking a look at

eReaderIQ.com

to see if we were at a million titles in the Kindle store yet (not yet), and checked their list of free books.

Added today were 28 Kindle User Guide placeholders.

I couldn’t download one, but that’s interesting.

It might suggest that they are about to do a new Kindle User’s Guide. That could be for a new Kindle…which might be what Amazon calls it new tablet. However, I see several possibilities:

  • The new KUG placeholders are for a tablet (or two)
  • The new KUG placeholders are for a new country specific Kindle (say, Japan or Italy)
  • The new KUG placeholders are for a new Kindle (EBR…E-Book Reader)
  • The new KUG placeholders are for a new software update: maybe page numbers for the K2 and/or KDX?
  • The new KUG placeholders are for a new formatting of the User’s Guide that doesn’t really change much
  • The new KUG placeholders are just a test and don’t mean anything :)
Here is one of those placeholders, so you can look if you want:

kindle_user_guide – PLACE HOLDER59 (Update: this link now appears to be dead)

By the way, there are 27 entries in the current Kindle 3 User’s Guide table of contents…

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

Pew: EBR ownership doubles, tablets up about 14%

June 28, 2011

Pew: EBR ownership doubles, tablets up about 14%

This is a fascinating survey from the respected Pew Research Center:

Pew report

It compares ownership of EBRs (E-Book Readers, like the NOOK Simple Touch, the Sony Readers, and the Kindles) and tablet computers (like the iPad and the Xoom) in November 2010 with late April/early May 2011.

What they found was remarkable.

When the iPad was coming out (and since), I’ve seen many people suggest that it would spell the end of EBRs.

I’ve always felt that was a techie’s perspective, rather than a reader’s perspective. Some people are both (like me), but a lot of techies seem to not want to believe that reading is cool enough by itself to attract people. :)

This survey seems to contradict that.

During this period, ownership of tablets by US adults went from 7% to 8%. That’s a lot..about a 14% increase. I think the population in that age group is on the order of 250 million…that would be about twenty million tablets owned.

However, during the same period, EBR ownership in that group doubled…from 6% to 12%…that would be about thirty million tablets owned.

Pew says there could be a plus/minus error of 2%, but that still suggests the growth of EBR ownership is much higher than the growth of tablet ownership.

They have other interesting data, including demographics of ownership and overlap: as usual, I recommend you read the original, and in this case, I strongly recommend it. :)

I think it’s worth talking about this one number, though.

Will EBR growth continue to outstrip tablet growth? Is the relatively slow tablet growth in those six months a bad sign for that market?

I do think EBR growth is going to continue. I think the NOOK Simple Touch is going to do pretty well, and a $99 Kindle price would cause another spike.

However, tablets may also get a big spike when Amazon (as is strongly rumored) introduces one or two, likely in August of this year.

Here’s another interesting factor.

In 2007, a poll indicated that 27% of Americans adults didn’t read any books in the previous year. They are presumably not a good market for EBRs (although whether they are a good market for tablets or not is a different question…my intuition is that people who don’t read much also tend not to earn as much, and tablets are relatively expensive…but that’s just intuition on my part).

About 20% read more than fifteen books a year, according to this

The Written Nerd blogpost

based on the same poll.

If we arbitrarily say that the 15+ group is the market for EBRs, and the growth rate continues to double in six months, the market for EBRs would be saturated before the end of this year.

EBR sellers can hope for a few things:

  • They can get casual readers to buy EBRs, too
  • The percentage of serious readers is increasing (opening the market)
  • Serious readers want to own more than one EBR
Tablets may not hit the same saturation point as quickly, since they could hypothetically appeal to a broader audience. The Pew report says 56% of these same US adults own a laptop, and some see tablets as taking a chunk of that market.
Of course, some people thought they would kill EBRs, too. ;)
What do you think? If you accept the poll, does this surprise you? Is it heartening? Do you think casual readers will buy EBRs? Feel free to let me know by commenting this post.

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

The philosophy of book buying

June 27, 2011

The philosophy of book buying

Why do you buy a book?

Why don’t you buy a book?

Having just finished Green Lantern and Philosophy: No Evil Shall Escape this Book, I’m feeling a bit philosophical myself.

I don’t think it’s as simple as might at first be supposed.

I would have thought my decision was driven first by whether I thought I would like the book or not, with price perhaps being a factor.

That’s not the case, though.

I always think it’s good to know your own motivations. That doesn’t mean you can change them:

“Another romantic lunacy.  We assume that a personality problem can be liquidated merely through an understanding of it – as though a man could lift a mountain once he admitted it was heavy.  No: recognition is not synonymous with solution.  I fly toward freedom as a moth toward the candle, and nothing so insubstantial as Reason will turn me aside.”
–Dr. Charles “Doc Bedside” Bedecker
Chthon
written by Piers Anthony
To eventually appear in The Mind Boggles, the Bufo Book of Quotations

The first obvious one for me is if text-to-speech access is blocked.

To some degree, that is selfish. It’s a rare book where I don’t listen to part of it, since I drive quite a bit and I like listening to text-to-speech much better than listening to the radio (or audiobooks).

However, that’s not the only reason. Even if the text-to-speech was only available to those who could certify a print disability (in which case it wouldn’t affect me), I still wouldn’t buy a book that blocked the access.

What’s the point for me?

I think it’s primarily because I don’t want to reward that choice by the publisher. I don’t honestly think that my not buying a particular book is going to change the behavior of the publisher. I would feel bad, though, if I bought a book that blocked the access…whether or not it impacted me personally.

Price is another interesting factor.

I don’t have any preset limits, unlike some people. I’ve paid $100 for a paperbook, so that’s not a barrier.

However…

I like to look at a change in circumstance as an opportunity for a change in me. I looked at my Kindle as an opportunity to expand my reading choices…and by so doing, save money for my family.

The mechanism: free public domain classics. There are so many great books I’ve wanted to read, and in the past, might have had trouble finding or at least had to pay something for it.

So, I feel a bit of guilt when I do pay for a book…any book, pretty much.

Don’t worry, publishers, that doesn’t mean I don’t ever buy books. :)

For example, if it’s one of my Significant Other’s favorite authors (and it doesn’t have text-to-speech access blocked), we’re going to buy it…pretty much regardless of cost.

We bought

Smokin’ Seventeen: A Stephanie Plum Novel

for $13.99.

I realize that may offend some of you who think that no one should pay more than $9.99 for a novel, to try to set that as a hard and fast price limit for the publishers.

I do think the prices at which customers buy books do affect the prices…but the population of buyers seems to accept prices higher than $9.99, based on the bestsellers. They also buy a lot of ninety-nine cent books, of course.

In this case, it was near my SO’s birthday, so we didn’t want to wait.

In your case, if you can wait 147 days, the paperback will be released at $7.99, and the Kindle price will likely drop to the same or below that at that time.

I find that interesting: fewer than six months before the mass market? It used to be a year.

Now, fascinatingly, you could buy the trade paper at the same time as the hardback and the e-book.

Let’s take a step aside for a moment to look at the pricing on this book:

June 21, 2011:

  • Hardback list price (set by the publisher): $28.00
  • Trade paper list price (set by the publisher): $19.95
  • Kindle list price (set by the publisher): $13.99
  • Large print paperback list price (set by the publisher): $28.00
  • Unabridged audio CD list price (set by the publisher): $32.00
  • Audible download list price (set by the publisher): $28.00

November 15, 2011

Mass market paperback list price (set by the publisher): $7.99

Of course, Amazon can discount most of these (not the Kindle edition, since it’s published by Random House, which is under the Agency Model).

So, does price not matter to me at all?

It does, but I’m not quite sure why.

Obviously, it’s got to be within reason (I’m not likely to pay $1000 for a novel), but here’s a good example.

We have a tradition in the family. When my SO and I were early in the relationship, money was tight. My SO wanted a “real” piggy bank as a gift, and got one from me.

We would put all our change in it…and every once in a while, we would go out to lunch and a movie matinée with that money. We called it a “Pig Day”.

We still do that. We even manipulate things a bit so we get more change when we buy things. :) The pig money goes for frivolous things.

We just had a Pig Day, and had a lot of left over money…so our tradition is that we would spend it on things we don’t actually need.

One of my favorite authors, Jacques Vallee, published a new book in October of 2010:

Wonders in the Sky: Unexplained Aerial Objects from Antiquity to Modern Times

When it came out, I wasn’t really tempted, because my policy at the time was not to buy anything from publishers that blocked text-to-speech access on any of their books, and this is from Tarcher, which is part of Penguin.

I’m good with hard and fast rules like that. Even though I’ve read and own just about everything by Jacques Vallee (his Passport to Magonia was an important book in my life, and isn’t the only one of his that I really admire), I could drop my interest when I saw it was from Penguin (“These are not the books you’re looking for.”)

Since then, I’ve changed that policy. I now make the decision about text-to-speech on a title by title basis, rather than company by company. I’ve discussed that before.

This title doesn’t have text-to-speech access blocked.

I want to read it.

The price, though, is $16.99.

I wouldn’t have hesitated to pay that in paper…but I have so many lower cost options for things to read.

Is my impatience (and I’m a very patient person) a reason to pay that much for a book? Is that fair to the family?

I have listed it at

eReaderIQ

which is a wonderful resource, and I strongly recommend it.

They have several free services, but this is one where you can list Kindle store books, and they’ll send you a free e-mail when the price drops.

Is the price going to drop?

Interesting question.

This one is out as a Kindle book and a trade paperback…no hardback.

The tradepaper is list-priced at $22.95 (and Amazon has discounted it to $15.61).

I’m hoping they’ll eventually either publish a mass market paperback (which would precipitate a Kindle drop), or lower the price on the Kindle version.

I think there is a chance there won’t be a mass market…I think that will become increasingly common, as e-books take that marketing niche.

I’ve suggested before that we may not get an automatic price drop after six months or a year…that prices may always be based on sales, and fluctuate rapidly.

Since there is a chance this won’t go down in price, and I’d pay this much for it in paper, and I have pig money to spend, why don’t I just buy it?

I’m not entirely sure.

I do think the price is high, even though I know more work will have gone into this than into many novels out there (there will be quite a bit of research).

I think there are three main factors.

One is the family budget thing…but that’s balanced by this being pig money, so that’s just habit.

The second is that I have a lot of other things to read. I can be patient enough to read other things while I wait for the price to drop.

The third is probably silly…it seems like it is for the public good. A lot of people can’t really afford a $16.99 e-book…at least, not easily. It seems like…solidarity with them not to buy the book at that price. I know that’s not really practical…it isn’t to drive down the price, I don’t think this does it. I also don’t think it’s unfair to anybody to pay the price…as I mentioned, I’ve paid $100 for a book. It’s just that…e-books are still new. I know from having taught project management: you have a bigger chance to affect a project in the beginning, and that tends to reduce over time.

However, I still don’t think I’m affecting the price…but I feel like it’s a time to stand with other people. That’s fuzzy, though: I would pay prices that some others would find difficult.

Hmm…this is complicated, and is going to require some more thought.

How about you? What motivates you buying a book or not buying one that you think is illogical? Feel free to let me know.

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

Freebie flash! Second, Cupid, Played, Lost

June 25, 2011

Freebie flash! Second, Cupid, Played, Lost

As usual, I don’t vouch for these books, and none of them block text-to-speech access. As promotional titles, they may not be free for long. Note: these books are free in the USA: prices in other countries may vary.

The Second Ward
by Robert DeCoteau
independent

8810
by Nicholas Taylor
independent

The Right Path (Apocalyptic Novelette) (Dark Future Series)
by Debra L. Martin, David W. Small
independent

Well Played 1.0: Video Games, Value and Meaning
by Drew Davidson
published by ETC Press (independent?)

Orange Car With Stripes (Atheist Comic Sci-Fi Pulp Fiction)
by Tom Lichtenberg
published by Pigeon Weather (independent?)

Lost in Shadows
by Alex O’Connell
independent

The Trinity Saga: The Pocket Watch
by Ronnell D. Porter
independent

Dear Cupid
by Julie Ortolon
independent

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

Text-to-speech and the Uncanny Valley

June 24, 2011

Text-to-speech and the Uncanny Valley

I like text-to-speech. I listen to it for hours a week. I wouldn’t buy an EBR (E-Book Reader) that didn’t have it.

Many people don’t like it.

Many people really don’t like it.

In fact, many people hate it.

Hate it, hate it, hate it.

But why?

I think the reason behind it is fascinating.

First, it’s not simply because it is imperfect. If that was the case, people would hate the 16-grayscale images. Some people certainly find them inadequate, and wish they had color.  They don’t hate them, though…they don’t find them repulsive.

I don’t think I’ve heard “repulsive”, but I have certainly heard “creepy” many times in association with text-to-speech.

You know what the problem is?

The voice is too good…and still not good enough.

It’s a well-known problem in robotics and animation. If a robot looks like something that doesn’t actually exist, like a purple dragon, it doesn’t have to be accurate.

If it looks kinda sorta like a human, but clearly isn’t, that’s okay.

If it looks almost exactly like a human, but has something slightly wrong (eyes that blink too little or too much, legs that bend too far backwards), it actually becomes less attractive…people may say it is “creepy”.

Sound familiar?

Let’s say you start out with a cube. People probably won’t think it is cute. Then you add stuff to it…maybe little arms. It starts to look more human, and people like it better. Then, you start approaching human…at first, the acceptance curve is up. Then, it gets too close…but still has “defects”. Suddenly, the acceptance curve drops off…people don’t like it. You work out those problems, your robot looks fully human…and people like it again.

There is a sudden sharp dip just before it becomes fully human, and then it raises again when it becomes human.

That deep area when it is almost human, but still “wrong”? That’s called the “Uncanny Valley”.

You can see a graph of it here:

Wikipedia article

The term was coined by roboticist Masahiro Mori (in Japanese) in 1970.

There are some things that seem to be pretty universally off-putting…turning the eyes in a photograph upside-down, for example.  You can get some sense of that here:

Exploratorium exhibit

Outside of those broad strokes, though, it’s a bit more personal.

Some people were absolutely creeped out by The Polar Express movie in 2004. It was done with motion capture, which probably made the general body movement more realistic than traditional animation. However, motion capture can’t give you realistic eyes…and people complained about the eyes. Unlike a regular cartoon, the motion capture made people judge it at a human level.

It’s going to depend somewhat on your expectations and mindset, I think.

For many users, the Kindle’s text-to-speech is smack dab in the middle of the Uncanny Valley.

Those people may not be bothered by a less realistic voice in a GPS. They aren’t bothered by audiobooks read by actors.

When the TTS mispronounces something…or simply “inhumanly” or “robotically” doesn’t have enough emotional variation? Valley time.

Why do some people have this reaction?

There are several hypotheses.

They generally have to do with the point at which we start judging the simulacrum by the same standards we judge humans.

An instinctively negative reaction to something that is “not quite right” could have to do with evolutionary drives. We had a dog who got along just fine with our other dogs…until she had one of her seizures. When she did, the other two dogs would actually go for her throat…we’d have to protect her. Presumably, they were driven to eliminate a “weakness from the species”.

Repulsion could also do with mate selection, in a similar manner. Yes, we want to reproduce…but something has to turn us off from wanting to reproduce with everyone. If someone had a negative genetic indicator, many people might be turned off by it.

The text-to-speech voices probably sound good enough (they are actually people…they have spoken the words and phrases, and then software assembles it as well as it can) that we judge them as fellow humans.

However, you might be thinking (and I hope you are), that people can find just about anybody acceptable. People outside the genetic mainstream do have people who find them attractive. Humans are interesting that way…we don’t always follow our instincts (no, this is not the time to bring up Rule 34 of the internet) ;) .

We can even change our feelings about things deliberately…or at least, some of us can. We can train ourselves to accept things.

Some people need to get used to the text-to-speech, then they accept it. They learn to “listen with an accent”. At that point, has it become perfectly human? No…I still don’t think the text-to-speech sounds exactly like a human. It may be that they learn not to expect it to sound like a human…so they no longer judge it by human standards.

What about those of us who accept it right away? Maybe we’ve had more experience with synthesized voices? Maybe we’ve already put them in a non-human category? Maybe we focus on the software…I assume that’s part of it for me. I never thought of it as a person.

Hmm…I wonder if it also helps that I was never an audiobook person? If I was used to my books sounding like an actor, it might be more of an adjustment.

Well, I hope that helps some people enjoy TTS more. I really do get a big benefit out of it, and I wish everybody did.

I’m not going to hold my breath until I turn blue, though…some of you would think that was creepy. ;)

Update: I’ve had some interesting comments on this post, and they’ve led me to add a poll:

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

Freebie flash! Desperate, Risk, Business, and more

June 24, 2011

Freebie flash! Desperate, Risk, Business, and more

As usual, I don’t vouch for these books, and none of them block text-to-speech access. As promotional titles, they may not be free for long. Note: these books are free in the USA: prices in other countries may vary.

If at First . . . (Short Story)
by Peter F. Hamilton
published by Del Rey

Turning Ethics Into Outcomes: Three Steps to Build “Integrity Capital” to Manage Risk and Drive Performance
by the Corporate Executive Board

Red Moon: Damon’s Slice of Life (Moon’s Reflection Series)
by Ela Lond
independent

Putt Up Or Shut Up: A Shanktacular Guide To Golf’s Greatest Excuses
by Kevin Michael, Lacy Maran
independent

A Knight’s Charge
by Gerard A. Whitfield
independent

Desperate Times
by Nicholas Antonizzi, Coleta Wright, Steve Peterson
independent

Li’l Red in the Hood (The Ongoing Adventures of Li’l Red in the Hood)
by Graham Murray
published by Living Books (independent?)

COLOR ME MURDER-Sin City
by Jerry Bruce
independent

Arousing Love, a teen novel
by M.H. Strom
published by Marstro Press (independent?)

Outsmart Your Business Competitors: The How-To Guide
by Charles River Editors
published by Vook

Southern Cooking: The How-To Guide
by Wanda Long
published by Vook

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


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