Flash! Random House changes its policy on text-to-speech?

Flash! Random House changes its policy on text-to-speech?

The Kindle 2 was a huge step forward in convenient access for those with print disabilities.

It introduced text-to-speech for the Kindle.  I was really pleased.

Then, publishers objected. 

Amazon changed the software for the “comfort” of the rightsholders, to allow them to block text-to-speech.

I honestly thought the publishers wouldn’t do it.  Why would they?  Text-to-speech greatly broadens the market.  People with print challenges and print disabilities (and their friends and family members) would be buying books…instead of waiting for them to be made available free to them (if ever).  People who had given up or cut back on reading could enjoy it again.

For people for whom that wasn’t an issue, it was still a plus for the publishers.  I listen to text-to-speech in the car…meaning I go through books much more quickly than I would have otherwise.

Ostensibly, they objected because they didn’t want to cut into the audiobook market.

That never made much sense to me, as a business decision.  There was no evidence that text-to-speech would hurt audiobook sales…I also thought it was likely to increase them, by accustoming people to listening to books.  Remember, those with print disabilities weren’t necessarily paying for audiobooks anyway. 

So, I was really disappointed when Random House led the way in blocking access.  They have some of my favorite authors, and some great imprints (Ballantine, Del Rey, Bantam). 

This wasn’t just a case of them maybe blocking it on some titles…they made a policy and stated it in their FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions):

“…all of our eBooks have the text-to-speech feature disabled.”

I made a difficult decision for me.  I wrote to Random House and let them know I would not be buying any more of their products while that policy was in place.

It was hard because, well, I’ve always liked Random House.  Yes, I knew who they were…I’m a former bookstore manager, so I actually knew who the different publishing houses were. 

It was also hard because I didn’t want to hurt the authors.  They couldn’t control this…they could complain, but the right had probably already been signed away.  I mean, who knew this would happen?

After a while, some others of the big publishers followed Random House.  I was particularly disappointed with Penguin.  They had been real innovators, and produced quality editions of classics…something I think is important.

So the situation stood.


I started to notice some Random House books where text-to-speech wasn’t blocked.

In particular, there was

The Grand Design

by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow.

That came out in September of 2010.  It made particular sense to me that Hawking might object to blocking text-to-speech access. 

Print disabilities don’t come just from loss of sight.  People with debilitating conditions (like multiple sclerosis) can find it difficult to hold a paperbook and turn the pages.  Text-to-speech is one answer for that (although there are assistive technologies that can help). 

Hawking has ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis).  Blocking text-to-speech disadvantages that group.

I thought maybe they had made an exception.  Hawking’s books have sold really well.

So, I was checking the Random House FAQs to see if they had changed.

Recently, they did.

When I searched for text-to-speech in the Random House FAQs, I didn’t find anything.  The link I’d saved didn’t find anything.

So, I wrote to them…asking if the policy had changed.

I said, in part:

“I’ve noticed Random House e-books being released with text-to-speech enabled.  The former FAQ answer saying that all titles were not enabled appears to be gone.  Does this signal a change in policy?  If so, what
is the current policy?”

I got a response back, that said in part:

“We appreciate your feedback and interest in the text-to-speech functionality of  our eBooks.  If there are works of a particular author you are interested in
seeing in the text-to-speech production, please write to them personally, in care of their publicity department using this address format:
“Author Name”
Random House, Inc.
c/o “Publisher” (e.g. Broadway, Bantam, etc.) Publicity
1745 Broadway
New York, NY 10019″

I’d heard some authors say before that their publishers had sort of left it up to them.  That didn’t seem to be the case with Random House, since they’d had that blanket policy.

This seems different.

I’ve checked several popular Random House titles and they are blocked.

This makes it sound like I should be writing to these authors care of Random House…and that it would be up to them.

If, and I stress that’s a big if, that is true, I’d go back to buying Random House books if they weren’t blocked.

After all, I didn’t stop buying books from Amazon when they allowed publishers to block text-to-speech.  I felt like they were pressured into it.  Amazon pays independent publishers who use their Kindle Direct Publishing twice the royalty if they follow certain rules…and one is not blocking text-to-speech.

If it’s up to the authors, I’ll feel okay going on a case-by-case basis with Random House.

I do want some more confirmation, though…Random House didn’t exactly say that.

If you are a Random House author (or an author’s agent), I’d appreciate it if you let me know if Random House has explicitly told you it is up to the author.  If you want your response to be private, let me know that in your comment, and I won’t publish it.

I’m going to try going further up the chain at Random House.  What I’d really like is a statement of policy that Random House will not block text-to-speech access in their e-books if the author chooses not to have it blocked.

My guess is that the default is that it is blocked at RH: that the author needs to ask for it not to be blocked.

If I confirm this is a change in policy, I’ll trumpet it from the rooftops…and I’ve got some books to buy.  🙂

For more information on the text-to-speech issue, see this earlier post

Feel free to let me know what you think…and again, I’d appreciate it if you are with Random House (as an author/agent/executive) and let me know if this is official.

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

5 Responses to “Flash! Random House changes its policy on text-to-speech?”

  1. FSkornia Says:

    Actually it was the Author’s Guild which made the original stink about the TTS feature, since they felt it infringed on the audiobook rights (which earned additional royalties for the authors). The publishers just benefited from the windfall of the AG’s outcry and legal maneuverings. To be honest though, I’ve been expecting this sort of shift since the iPad was released with a much touted TTS feature in the iBookstore. Interestingly enough, there was little outcry from the publishers or Author’s Guild in April, which I’ve noted in a couple of places. Although if Apple required any publisher selling books in the iBookstore to enable TTS, Random House would have been exempt since they’ve never gone along with the Agency Model.

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, FSkornia!

      The Authors Guild (sic) was the lead on it, and a very vocal and public part, as you know. There was the February 12, 2009 “alert”:


      I cite in my The Disabled Deserve to Read article.

      The audiobook argument is not supported by my reading of what the Copyright Office says.

      The Guild also had a striking statement opposing a protest by print disabled people and organizations that support them:


      Legal action (or the threat of legal action) is one of the things the AG does.

      It was author Roy Blount, Jr., as president of the AG, that got a New York Times opinion piece called “The Kindle Swindle?”:


      Your point is reasonably made about the AG being very out front.

      However, I don’t see the publishers as being passive in this. I’ll have to look for references, but I know many articles cited publishers as complaining about it as well. It’s the publishers who make the books unable to work with text-to-speech, and Random House that had said it was “disabled”. What is now Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (formerly the DTP…Digital Text Platform) addresses the issue…and that’s directed at publishers (even though many of the publishers are presumably also individual authors).

      Okay, I’ve looked back over it a bit…I should have made the Authors Guild thing bigger. 🙂

      The problem with the AG complaining about the iPad would have been…it’s the same VoiceOver technology that is in Snow Leopard. If you go after the iPad, it’s hard to do it without going after Macs (which have had a text-to-speech feature since 1984)…and then after PCs as well (which have the Narrator function).

      The authors/publishers won against Amazon…they have in other areas as well. Winning against Apple for having a “read aloud” feature on a computer might have been a different fight.

  2. Daz Says:

    Totally unrelated to this post but thought I’d let you know …

    You know that link that let’s you click to tell the publisher that you want a particular in Kindle format? Well, it works.

    I clicked on the link to say I wanted a book in Kindle format and today I received an email informing me that the book I requested is now available and they were informing me because I had clicked on the link.

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Daz!

      That would be a big (and often stated as desired) change!

      I’ll put that out to my readers and see if other people are getting them…thanks again!

  3. Dave Says:

    I haven’t seen this mentioned before, so I thought I’d pass it on. A recent change at ereaderiq.com – if you go to the Price Drops tab (not the free books tab) they have a “TTS” icon now directly below any book that is text-to-speech enabled. A nice feature for those who like the TTS.

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