Who is still blocking text-to-speech access?

Who is still blocking text-to-speech access?

A Kindle with text-to-speech access can use software to read aloud any text downloaded to it…provided that the ability to do that is not blocked by the publisher inserting code into the file which prevents it.

I haven’t written much about this in a while (although it still comes up), but it is an important issue to me. I believe that blocking the access disproportionately disadvantages the disabled. Personally, I don’t get books which have the access blocked, and I don’t intentionally link to books with the access blocked in the blog (I don’t want to give the publisher money on books where that decision has been made, and I don’t want to benefit from it by people clicking on the link in my blog).

However, I do believe this is a personal decision, and there are good arguments for supporting the author by buying the book (the author often has very little influence over whether it is blocked or not).

If you want more information on the issue, see my post from a bit over four years ago

The Disabled Deserve to Read

There was a time when blocking the access seemed much more common: Random House used to flat out state that they blocked it on all titles…but they later reversed that decision.

I thought it was going away. I think it’s generally a bad economic decision on the publisher’s part to block the access…I think it reduces the size of the audience. I use TTS myself quite a bit…I typically listen to it for hours a week in the car (I’d rather listen to a book than talk radio or music). That means I finish a book a lot more quickly, and need another book sooner.

Most people guess that publishers block it because they think it competes with the audiobook market. They are really two very different things. The audiobook is read by a human being (often, the author or an actor). TTS is just software (which incorporates a human’s voice, but that human was not reading this particular book…see my article

An ILMK interview with September Day, the voice of the Kindle Fire HD)

I’m sure I’m unusual in this, but I prefer TTS (unless I’ve read the book before). I don’t like the narrator interpreting the characters for me.

Whether you prefer TTS or an audiobook, though, I’m sure the preference tends to be pretty strong. They aren’t the same: it’s a very different experience. I find it pretty unlikely that people who would have bought the audiobook otherwise decide not to do it because TTS is available. If someone is print disabled and needs an accessible version, they can often get one for free (if they can certify the disability), so that’s not the audience here. From what I’ve seen, audiobooks wouldn’t tend to be their choice, because they are too slow. Many people with print disabilities listen to TTS on very fast speeds: they can interpret it that quickly, where as many people have trouble with it going that fast.

I noticed recently, though, that a number of books from the publisher Simon & Schuster seemed to be blocking access on a lot of books.

I decided to check: I like to see the data.🙂

There are now a Big Five of USA trade (the kind of books you buy in a bookstore, rather than textbooks and such) publishers.

I took the top ten books for each publisher, and looked to see howmany had it blocked.

  • Simon and Schuster (I searched for “Simon”): 100% blocked
  • Hachette (I searched for “Grand Central”): 20% blocked
  • Penguin Random House (I searched for “Penguin”): 0% blocked
  • Macmillan (I searched for “Macmillan”): 0% blocked
  • HarperCollins (I searched for “HarperCollins”): 0% blocked

So, with this limited sample, my observation seems to have been right: Simon & Schuster does seems to be blocking it much more.

For quite a while, I had a personal policy of not buying books from companies which blocked, but eventually became convinced (see? I am flexible)😉 that just not buying the ones which are blocked is a clearer message to the publisher. I have also communicated with them more directly and explicitly about how I feel about the situation.

S&S is the smallest of the Big 5 and, well, I don’t this policy is going to help them change that.

What might change it?

One wild possibility is Amazon buying Simon & Schuster. Amazon does not block TTS in its traditionally published books. It discourages blocking it in books going through its Kindle Direct Publishing. Leaving it unblocked is one of the things you have to do to be eligible for a 70% royalty (versus a 35% royalty).

Earlier this year, Nate Hoffelder in this

The Digital Reader article

suggested it was a possibility that Amazon was in talks to buy S&S.

Being the smallest, and perhaps most vulnerable in terms of parent company relationships, it could be the most likely one.

Would Amazon want a tradpub (traditional publisher)? Maybe…they’ve owned an audiobook publisher (Brilliance). They are doing more and more traditional publishing on their own.

I don’t know that they would buy it and keep it as Simon and Schuster…I think they might be happy just owning the backlist. However, in several of their acquisitions, they have kept the names and even basic structures (Zappos and IMDb come to mind).

If they did keep it as S&S, that might even make legal challenges more likely. Buying the backlist is one thing. Operating a content producer and content distributor both can be something else. There was a time when movie studios owned movie theatre chains: that got broken up. That parallel would not be left unremarked by other publishers.

Hoffelder has called mergers before…although this is a case of it being called “possible” not “probable”.

Short of Amazon buying it, S&S could change the policy. I can tell you that we bought one of their most popular books when it wasn’t blocked…and then they blocked it subsequently. I even wrote the author on that one, because I really like the book and wanted to be able to recommend it freely.

That suggests to me that it isn’t simply a case of waiting for contracts to run out (perhaps related to audiobooks)…this decision is happening currently.

I sincerely hope they stop blocking it…we’ll keep an eye on the trends here.

What do you think? Should Amazon buy S&S? Should they buy another big publisher? Would the Department of Justice allow it? Does TTS hurt audiobook sales? Feel free to tell me and my readers what you think by commenting on this post.

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This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.

14 Responses to “Who is still blocking text-to-speech access?”

  1. Elizabeth Says:

    Thank you for writing this article. Like you I believe everyone deserves to read and reducing barriers is important. It is easy to overlook those who use and/or depend on TTS. Sadly the new Kindle e-readers lack TTS.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Elizabeth!

      The new Kindles lack all audio capabilities. That’s presumably to lower: cost; battery charge usage; structural vulnerability; depth; and customer service expense.

      That said, I do think Amazon should offer an EBR (not a backlit tablet) with audio, and primarily for the purpose of text-to-speech. I think it could be done without speakers, which would speak to a number of the above concerns…just a headphone jack. Users could then either actually use headphones, or connect it to powered speakers.

      That would enable sight-reading and TTS on the same device…either for the same person, or for different users.

      That said, the new Fire HD 6 tablet is only twenty dollars more than the least expensive Kindle, and has TTS which is much superior to what we had on the older Kindle EBRs. It also has audible menus, explore by touch, and more accessibility features. In many ways, it is better for those with print disabilities and print challenges than the older Kindles (which initially didn’t even have audible menus).

      The one significant disadvantage of the tablet in that situation is battery charge life. TTS tends to take quite a bit of charge, and I would guess that you’d get a few hours unplugged with the Fire HD 6. However, it also takes a lot of battery charge life to do TTS on a non-Fire Kindle EBR. I typically ended up plugging them in if I was on a road trip. My Fire HDX does fine with TTS for an hour on the road.

      The Fire is a reasonable option for those with print challenges and print disabilities, but that’s what it should be…an option. There should be a choice to have an EBR with TTS.

      However, I’m honestly more concerned about the publishers who block the access. They have to take an active step (which costs them money…at least in development costs) to block the TTS. For Amazon, they have to add something for TTS to work: the publishers have to block something for it not to work. That may seem like a subtle difference, but I think it is important.

  2. Tom Semple Says:

    On Fire (2nd gen or later), Android, or iOS, the system-wide Accessibility features offer TTS-like functionality in the Kindle app regardless of whether TTS is blocked for a given book (or at least, that has been my experience). I’ve seen other apps where both TTS and read-out-text accessibility was blocked as a result of publisher restrictions, but Amazon isn’t doing that (unless something has changed recently).

    People with visual impairments will know how to operate these features, and the rest of us can easily learn. Both the Kindle and Audible apps (on iOS, Fire OS, and Android) have exemplary support of accessibility features. The same cannot be said of other reading apps (or other apps in general). It takes significant development effort, and cannot be done well as an afterthought.

    I do miss TTS on Kindle. But with the advent of low cost tablets, with a much richer gamut of accessibility features, I don’t think there are many people with visual challenges who are looking back. And you can still get a used Kindle Touch or Keyboard very readily on Amazon or eBay.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Tom!

      Yes, that’s a great point!

      It’s not that I don’t get the books with TTS blocked because I can’t use them…it’s more because of the difficulty it causes others. Amazon’s Kindle for PC has a plug-in that works with screen readers (whether or not the publisher has blocked the access, but I still don’t get those books.

  3. Lady Galaxy Says:

    I’m curious. I know you tend to keep books in the cloud instead of on your device. Was that book on the device or in the cloud when the text to speech was removed? I’m assuming that if the book remained on the device it would remain in the condition it was in at time of purchase, but if it was in the cloud, did it lose text to speech when the publisher withdrew it? If text to speech is removed after purchase, would that give the option to ask for a refund since the book had been substantially changed after purchase? I would think that having purchased books returned for cause would get more attention from a publisher than a boycott.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Lady!

      My experience (including with this particular book) is that if you bought it without TTS blocked, it remains that way…even if they block it for later purchasers. I just downloaded it again to check…still good.

      The only time we had that issue, I think, was back when an upgrade gave publishers the ability to block it on the Kindle 2. Before that, it worked with all Kindle books: after that, it didn’t work if it was blocked. I don’t recall any compensation, but I don’t think we had been told TTS would work with everything. It’s different now when we are explicitly told whether it will work or not on the product page.

  4. Glinda Harrison Says:

    Reblogged this on The eBook Evangelist and commented:
    This is a timely post by Bufo Calvin. A lot of people, myself included, were disappointed when the list of features on the new Kindle Voyage ereader made it clear that it would NOT include text-to-speech (TTS) access. It is clear from many of the forums I read that the TTS function is a feature that many Kindle owners still want.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Glinda!

      There are reasons some people don’t want to carry tablets, even if they are good alternatives for text-to-speech. I think part of what gets missed here is families that share a device (whether through choice or through economic factors). In many families, you have both someone who sight reads and someone who has print challenges.

      A non-Fire Kindle with TTS serves both people.

      • Tom Semple Says:

        The new 6″ Fire HD could change this. It is the most portable Fire (dimensions are almost identical to the Mindle), and also allows profiles to be set up (for up to 2 ‘adult’ and 4 ‘children’), making it more share-able. And it costs less then 2 of the 3 Kindles. The TTS is excellent (much better than what Kindles used to have, and in around a dozen languages) and it has all Android accessibility features.

      • Bufo Calvin Says:

        Thanks for writing, Tom!

        Certainly, the tablets can be a good way to go for the print challenged and print disabled for text-to-speech. They are superior to the non-Fire Kindles in that in several ways, as you note (Explore by Touch is another one, letting people use the touchscreen and get audio feedback). I’d say battery charge life is one of the disadvantages…

  5. David Goldfield Says:

    I’d like to start out by thanking you for your sensitivity regarding the TTS blocking issue. As a visually impaired reader, I find it infuriating and I agree that Simon and Schuster is the worst offender. I understand that the publishers may feel that blind readers are able to get books at no cost if they can prove that they have a qualifying print disability, such as blindness. Therefore, they feel that blocking TTS doesn’t exclude the print disabled community. Here are my comments about this issue.
    First, simon and Schuster doesn’t seem to understand that not all of their books are accessible for free from other specialized libraries. I happen to be a Star Trek fan and enjoy reading the tie-in novels, of which there are many. If S & S chooses to block their trek novels on the Kindle, this means that I have to find them from these other specialized libraries. I am a patron of the National Library Service, http://www.loc.gov/nls, which does allow people with a qualifying print disability to borrow Braille and recorded books. Here’s the issue: the majority of the books available from NLs are not commercially recorded audio books. Most of the recorded books are read by narrators who are reading the book specifically for NLS patrons. This is not an issue except that NLS hasn’t chosen to record or emboss a Braille Star Trek novel since around 1995, meaning that the more recent titles aren’t available to me. I am able to legally download them from Bookshare, but this service isn’t free unless you’re a student or, I believe, a veteran. I’m not complaining: The $50.00 a year I pay for the service is worth it and I’ve gotten my money’s worth out of it. The point is that if I want to read the latest Star Trek novel I’m essentially forced to pay $50.00 if I wasn’t a Bookshare member, rather than having the option of paying ten bucks for a single book, which would also help to support the author. Therefore, people who believe that blind readers like myself shouldn’t complain because we can get it for free from other legal sources are wrong in the case of many books. Even if they’re right, don’t I have the right to pay for a book to support the author if I want to do that?
    Also, Amazon is a bit inconsistent when it comes to what devices actually block TTS. My older Kindle Keyboard won’t audibly read a book if TTS is blocked. However, the Kindle app for the PC will read all titles, even if TTS is blocked. It’s possible that the iOS app will speak books with TTS blocked but I’m not 100% sure and I’m not interested in experimenting by buying a book that I may not be able to actually read … although I suppose I could just return it in less than a week. I wonder why it’s not OK for me to listen to a book on my KK but it’s perfectly fine to do so on my Windows desktop, which isn’t as convenient. Thanks again for spending time visiting this issue. This TTS blocking really does need to just go away.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, David!

      I really appreciate your heartfelt and intelligent comment! I think you are right that many people don’t quite understand the situation.

      Just because the Chafee Amendment (which was very important) enabled organizations to create accessible versions of books (within certain limitations) without getting the explicit permission of the rightsholder each time doesn’t mean that those organizations do that with each book. Creating an accessible version is not a simple thing to do, and they have to prioritize. As geeks like me have known for decades, we aren’t always first in line when it comes to non-profit funding.

      I’ve also said before what you said: many print disabled people would happily pay for the books. I don’t begrudge paying for books, because I do want to support the author and think they deserve compensation. I know there are people who subscribe to this blog for the same reason…even if they routinely read it in a way that doesn’t require that subscription.

      I do find it particularly ironic that the Star Trek books are blocked. Star Trek is a universe which has championed diversity, and has had more than one character who would not be able to sight read a book without adaptive technology.

      The issue with the Kindle Keyboard versus Kindle for PC is, I think, one of technology, rather than a philosophical inconsistency. Kindle for PC does it by using a plug-in that works with an external screen reader installed on the device. The Kindle Keyboard doesn’t have the same kind of operating system: it might be possible for Amazon to include a screen reader and software that overrides the block, but it would be more difficult.

      There might also be a legal issue in doing so. The legality of getting around the block is tied into having a print disability, as I understand it. The Chafee Amendment, for example, applies to certain individuals…an organization can’t use it to make an accessible book available to the general population. That’s one reason I don’t like the blocking of text-to-speech: some people have print challenges which do not rise to the legal definition of a print disability, and others might find it logistically complicated to get the necessary certification even if they are print disabled.

      I’ve been pleased to see the response to the post, and it doesn’t hurt for Simon & Schuster to be aware of some people’s concerns (and of their awareness of Simon & Schuster’s policy on the matter). I’ve written about the TTS issue many times, and I know some of my readers felt it was perhaps too much. I will return to it from time to time: in this case, the specific impetus was noticing just how much S&S was blocking access when I was checking books for a post unrelated to the topic.

  6. stefmagura Says:

    These posts of yours on this issue are very timely for me. I am a blind iphone user who recently downloaded the kindle app. Until an hour ago or so, all of the books I saw on the amazon Kindle store, books which I specifically looked for by the way, had text to speech unblocked. Then I saw a book from Simon and Schuster, a book which I also was looking for that didn’t. I had read that the Kindle for PC and IPhone Kindle apps got around this by having a plug in which allowed readers to read using text to speech. Upon finding a book that didn’t have text to speech blocked, I could finally test this. So, I downloaded a sample of this book and after opening it, found that I was able to read it using my iphone like any other book. While this is great, buying an iphone is costly, so I wouldn’t recommend getting an iphone for just this purpose. Now, I’m wondering how many books I bought that technically had text to speech blocked. Maybe this was Amazon’s solution, because they figured that most people would have access to a computer and that computers can be outfitted with special programs for the blind to use them. Maybe Amazon figured this would be the best alternative to still allow those who are blind access and not ruffle publishers’ feathers.

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