Monday, April 13, 2009

Kindle Thoughts: Part 2

A little while ago, Roy Blount Jr., President of the Authors Guild of America, took not a small amount of umbrage regarding the Kindle 2, and let the world know in a New York Times Op-Ed titled The Kindle Swindle. In a nutshell, his position was that the text to voice capability of the Kindle amounted to larceny on a grand scale since the audio reproduction of a work somehow violated copyright (in some alternate universe, perhaps?), and it all boiled down to outrage over dollars being snatch away from starving writers from the sales of audiobooks that would no longer happen now that the Kindle 2 had come to town.

I have touched on this topic before in an earlier post, in regards to how this copyfight will only be a lost cause for the Author Guild due to the interests groups involved, but I wanted to expand a bit on other reasons why I feel the Authors Guild's case lacks credibility. Let's start with that Roy fella.

Go back a hundred years and Roy could have been the president of the saddle maker's guild. For some reason, he seems to think he can kibosh an entire emerging technology because it seems threatening to his way of life. Well that is not going to happen. As has been proven time and again, disruptive, emerging technologies will displace older modes, if not immediately by force, then over the long term as old school die-hards start dying off. For now, however, Roy wants the status quo to remain intact, and fears that that consumers will choose to listen to books on their Kindles rather than plonking down $49 for an audiobook.

If this were the case of a truly superior product being undermined, I might have pity for old Roy. But what Roy doesn't comment on in his Op-Ed is the state of audiobooks right now, and that state is not all that great.

To start off, I want to state that I love audiobooks. Growing up I saw them as somewhat pointless. I mean, you read a book, you don't listen to one. But as I got older, with so much less time for the written word, I started to see their utility, and began to really enjoy them.

Since embracing audiobooks as the equal of regular books, I have listened to a number of excellent productions, but I have also come across a lot of pretty terrible audiobooks as well. And that is the crux of the issue.

Honestly, publishers have been lazy for years. TMore often than not, when I sit down and turn a title on, it feels as if the publisher just sat one person down in front of a microphone, and had them read. Oh sure, they get another person to edit and master the audio, but that is it. It's done, and done very cheaply. Few are the audiobook publishers who approach an audiobook as they would a radio drama, by actually bringing in a cast, using sound effects, and producing something very close to real theater of the mind. It doesn't take much, really, and it's not as if the BBC sound library is that hard to get.

The audiobooks that do go the extra mile in production are worth every penny. I bought the BBC Lord of the Rings, and The Hobbit, and found I enjoyed the story even more than I did when reading or, later, when watching on film. It was an awesome experience. But it was not an experience the Kindle is ever going to replicate with a text-to-speech function added in to assist customers with disabilities. And it is not and experience the Kindle is going to replicate by the simple fact that the Kindle is a clunky little beast of a thing, at least compared to normal audio devices.

You see, I use an iPod shuffle for my audiobook listening. I'd never wear a big old Kindle around me head. Nor would I prop a Kindle up in the passenger seat so I can listen to the book. There may be people who might do this, but not many, and definitely not this one. The physical shape and size of the Kindle make it impractical as an on the go listening device. Sitting down, it's wonderful, but not otherwise.

Still, even if I am wrong, and people start plugging in headphones and listening instead of reading on the subway, it only says one thing...audiobook makers have to up their game. It is the prime rule of the marketplace. And this is what truly scares Old Roy.

So along comes Mr. Kindle, and the publishers and the authors guild are angry that the audiobook business may actually require them to work a bit now. They suddenly have to think about their product, and to think about the audience, especially how to win over that audience. And it makes them angry, because things should be easy. The rest of the publishing business is hard, but this one part was not supposed to be hard. It was supposed to be cream for them. Suddenly it's not.

What's worse, at the same time publishers are trying to cling to the easy pickings, the audiobook market, they seem to be overlooking the fact that publishing itself has just become insanely cost effective, and that what was a low margin, high error business may soon be a high margin, low error business in short order. Luckily for the publishers, retailers like Amazon and Indigo are stepping up to save them from themselves.

A shift to e-books will save the industry. Not today, and not tomorrow, but sooner than you might think. Not just by rationalizing costs and doing away with wasteful production, distribution and returns practices, but by producing content in a format that the current new generation of customers actually uses and is familiar with.

Any one of us old dinosaurs who grew up addicted to the old dead tree media may be cool with chucking ten books in a bag for a trip somewhere, but our days are numbered, because I can guarantee that just about any teen I know (and I am high school teacher, so I know more than a few) vastly prefers media, of any sort, they can put on their phone, or their iPod. They won't buy a Kindle, that's for darn sure, the Kindle is for us dinosaurs, a transition technology to get us into the 21st century, but these youths can and will buy titles for their own devices.

Just yesterday one of my students was showing me The Watchmen on his Nokia. Not the movie, but the comic book. He reads all his comics on his phone and on his computer. He can't buy them that way, yet, so he is obviously turning to the grey market, and getting them as torrents. But he represents a real market that actually exists and could be utilized if only the publishers weren't too busy hiding under their beds spraying Lysol all about in order to hide the tangy scent of urine permeating the air.

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