The Authors Guild Protest: Thoughts 24 Hours Later

Note: As I begin writing this post, the Reading Rights Coalition's online petition for allowing everyone access to eBooks has 4,280 signatures.  I'll get to why this is important in a moment.

Twenty four hours after covering the Reading Rights Coalition's protest of the Authors Guild, there are two central take-aways from yesterday's events that paint a picture of where both sides stand in the struggle for eBook accessibility, and in what direction they are moving.
The Authors Guild does not get it. 

In their official statement regarding the protest,  the Guild wrote six words that clearly demonstrate their disconnect from the millions of individuals that would benefit from the text to speech technology that was recently disabled in the Kindle2 by Amazon, largely because of pressure brought to bear by the Guild.  These six poorly chosen words may come to haunt them as they paint the Guild leadership as arrogant, out of touch, and insensitive.  No, it had nothing to do with the Kindle2.  Or copyright.  Or money, markets, and audio.  What did they say?

"This protest is unfortunate and unnecessary."  Really. 

Now, think back in your life when someone told you that something was unfortunate and unnecessary.  Who spoke like that?  Bullies. This smacks of the "I know what's best for you / who are you to question me / you should trust me" school of thought that may have worked before social media became mainstream, but definitely will not work today.  The guild is messaging like its 1975 -- when there were enough media outlets that you could put a story or statement out for newspapers, radio, and TV and it "was the truth".  People believed it.   After all, it was in the local paper.  Or on the radio.  Or, better yet, on the evening news.  If I ran the Reading Rights Coalition, I would pounce on this statement and mention it in every press release, interview, and media opportunity that presented itself.  I would have signs printed with this phrase ready for the next protest.  I would have t-shirts printed with a graphic of the Kindle2 and the text "Today's protest is unfortunate and unnecessary" inside it.  I mean, don't they proof read their statements?

The guild is not arguing a legal position; no authors' rights have been violated.  Their argument is about money, clinging to an old business model that has worked for a very long time, and ultimately control over technology.  That argument may have worked before digital media; it is not, however, grounded in today's reality.  File sharing did not kill the music industry as record executives warned us would happen.  Netflix just recently sent out their 2 billionth movie (a favorite of mine; Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist), and consumers have been able to rent or buy individual TV episodes on iTunes for what seems like forever. There is no arguing that digital media has increased the availability and accessibility of content.  With this came economic growth, not shrinkage.  Technology has always changed markets; that has never been illegal, and arguing that it should be is juvenile.  The Reading Rights Coalition should hope for Roy Blount Jr. and Paul Aiken continue maintaining this position in the classic, old media, "I know I'm right" way that they have handled things so far.  The guild clearly does not "get it" about creating community, engaging with customers, and doing business through the currency of relationships and trust.  

Social Media continues to change the world.

Now, this isn't anything new.  Specific to yesterday's event, no final outcome was decided.  The Authors Guild did not cave to the pressure of the protest and release a heartwarming, apologetic release where they promise to pressure Amazon to re-enable the text to speech feature (after they did the same to get Amazon to disable it).  During the protest, though, the event had:
  • An online petition, recording several signatures a minute.
  • Several bloggers covering the event and taking pictures news style.
  • Twitter being used to provide a real time description of events.
  • A streaming audio feed of the protest.
  • Streaming video coverage of the protest.
  • News coverage from traditional news outlets.
Here is what was interesting about how this event was covered; most of the coverage was executed through non-traditional means.  Collectively this coverage helped create awareness and purpose for the Reading Rights Coalition.
Mining Google today for coverage about the protest,  I was floored to see how many people were touched or influenced by yesterday's events to the point that they felt the need to express it.  Some wrote blog posts, others wrote comments of support, or added links pointing to event coverage.  For every comment I found supporting the Authors Guild's position, I read ten opposing it.  TEN.  Clearly, a community is growing.  With each comment and link, loose connections are forming between people willing to express their opinion on the text to speech issue.  Across these opinions, a fairly consistent view is being shared: people support the Reading Rights Coalition, and equally look unfavorably on the Authors Guild.  It seems that in the battle for the hearts and minds of readers, the Coalition is winning.  

Good. :)

So while the protest did nothing in the short term to change the stance of the Authors Guild, it did create awareness and momentum.  My advice to the Reading Rights Coalition is this:  continue using Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr to share your message and enroll people to participate in your community.  However, be more measured and exact with your efforts.  People will respond to this.
  • Put a Facebook badge on your homepage.  Your Facebook link is buried under your Take Action Now page.    Facebook membership just hit over 200 million users.  Chances if someone comes to your web site and sees a Facebook badge, they will become a fan of your group.  Whenever a new post is published on your website, link back to it on your Facebook page so that all your fans see it.  
  • Tweet your news, and create a conversations on Twitter.  A more formal strategy needs to be established here as compared to Facebook, but leverage Twitter as a tool to connect to people, listen to their views, and share your message with them.   
  • Create media channels to tell your story.  On YouTube and Flickr, create channels that contain video and photographs from your events or that help tell your story.  The NFB does a good job of leveraging YouTube this way.
  • Create engaging calls to action.  The petition was the first step, and demonstrates that people can come together and act for your cause.  Build on this, and come up with campaigns with calls to action that create awareness and spark corporate interest.  It's just an idea, but tweeting something clever and on message like "Can I buy a Kindle-2 with text to speech enabled please?" to's Twitter account would be another viral way to create awareness and have a little fun while you're doing it.  ReTweeting is effortless, and the results of this can be tracked.  
Authors deserve to get paid for their works; I believe that.  But this argument that text to speech is an audio book, the more I hear it, is silly.  Text to speech cannot play or derive music from text, infer gender just by scanning / processing text, and handle character acting and dialog.  It also has no production value.  When I buy an audio book (and I buy them all the time), I always look for the production value.  I like to listen to books read by the author.  If I'm listening to fiction, I want to make sure that the reader is a story teller (ex. Jim Dale).  When a text to speech renderer can sound like Malcolm Gladwell reading Blink, or Jim Dale reading Harry Potter, then the Authors Guild may have a point.  That is not today, though, and just because they are afraid of that day coming does not make their actions and stance acceptable. 

One last thing.  The petition signature count is now 4,319.  So in the two hours it took me to write this post, thirty-nine people took action.  Momentum is building, and that is a great thing to see.

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  1. KJB April 9, 2009 at 2:22 PM

    Abe: Thanks for the newest post! Really on target! The signature count is currently at 4,608! We are gaining ground, not enough however to have the Authors Guild return a phone call or establish a time for discussion. Perhaps they really believe the issue, like the protest, is "unfortunate and unnecessary." Frankly, that is unfortunate! Thousands of people agree that it is unfortunate and presently we are receiving e-mails and posts to the petition site stating authors will begin boycotting even print materials from publishers who conspire with the Authors Guild!

    The petition is going mainstream! For those who want to sign visit and then forward to your networks with your personal request to sign.


  2. Abraham April 20, 2009 at 11:47 AM


    You're very welcome. I was reading recently that Kindle-2 sales are through the roof; they're actually exceeding the device sales pace set by the 1st generation iPhone. Since February, over 300,000 units have been sold. I'm working on a new blog post on this. I'll let you know when it's up. Thank you again for your comments and support.



  3. Jacqueline O. Moleski July 17, 2009 at 3:28 PM

    God, I love Web 2.0. I found out about the Reading Rights Coalition from a friend's Facebook page, and checked into it thinking it would be about library user rights. I wasn't even aware of the Kindle txt-to-speech/Author's Guild issue. One thing I'm wondering is: Isn't this covered by ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act)? Can't that be used to force Amazon to re-enable txt-to-speech? Well, I'm off to join the Reading Rights Group. Great blog post, btw. --JM