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Amazon misread book sector on speech feature

Amazon botched the handling of text-to-speech. The retailer should have floated the idea past publishers before launch or at least been prepared to fight for the feature.

Jeff Bezos and staff should have seen the text-to-speech controversy coming. David Carnoy/CBS Interactive

Amazon chose to keep secret from much of the publishing sector the text-to-speech feature built into the Kindle 2.

Instead, Amazon sprung the feature on publishers and the retailer is now taking public-relations hits that it might have avoided if it hadn't been so tight lipped.

Following the debut of the Kindle 2, the 9,000-member Authors Guild claimed text-to-speech created a derivative work and violated copyright. Paul Aiken, the guild's executive director said many publishers were also angered over the speech function, adding that Amazon never consulted beforehand with either of those groups. Amazon responded Friday by handing publishers the ability to disable the text-to-speech feature on any title they choose.

Amazon's response has disappointed some customers, who are left with the impression that the retailer is unwilling to go to bat for them.

This is exactly the kind of public relations blunder that Amazon can ill afford as it attempts to breathe life into the digital-book market. In this endeavor, who can argue that Amazon isn't off to a great start?

The Kindle is a hit. The e-reader has been blessed by the doyenne of publishing herself: Oprah. A Citigroup analyst recently estimated that Amazon sold 500,000 units last year. He also predicted that the Kindle would generate $1.2 billion by 2010. That number didn't include book sales.

Amazon might have avoided the controversy, had the company enlisted the counsel from important constituents in the publishing industry before launch. This way they could have a) learned about the objections quietly; b) done any haggling there and maybe come to a financial arrangement; c) scrapped the whole idea of text-to-speech if there was too much push back.

Hindsight is 20/20, sure. It's easy to tweak Amazon for failing to see the problem coming. But how are execs handling the controversy now?

"Kindle 2's experimental text-to-speech feature is legal," Amazon said in a press release issued on Friday, announcing the company would give publishers the option of disabling text-to-speech on any title. "No copy is made, no derivative work is created, and no performance is being given."

If Amazon believes those things, some will argue (certainly those in the anticopyright crowd) that the company should take a stand--if not for its own sake than on behalf of customers.

Fighting a potentially expensive and prolonged legal battle with suppliers is a lot to ask of Amazon or any other company. Perhaps if text-to-speech were a vital or much-loved feature, then Amazon would be more apt to hold the line. But it's not.

Text-to-speech isn't going to threaten audio books for a long time. That's not my opinion. That's the opinion of Andy Aaron, an IBM expert on text-to-speech and a self described "booster" of the technology.

"I don't think at this point, or for the foreseeable future, (text-to-speech) is going to compete meaningfully with a professional book reader," Aaron said last week. "Am I going to sit down and put my feet up and listen to text-to-speech read 'War And Peace' or 'Harry Potter' for six to eight hours? For someone who has the choice, I think they would rather get an audio book."

For Amazon to be taking heat over this issue is silly. There's not that much in it for the company. Next time, they should take a few more risks with media leaks and get some guidance.