The author Roy Blount, Jr., just took to the pages of the New York Times, arguing that the audio capabilities of the Kindle violates his intellectual property rights. My resonse....
Dear Mr. Blount,
I've been a long-time fan of yours, at least in your persona as a Wait, Wait panelist. To my shame, I have not encountered your written works. That is, at least until I read your recent commentary about the Kindle. It was an unfortunate introduction.
One of the more detestable follies that the recording industry has attempted was to try and convince the public that purchasing a CD or tape, and then transferring it to an MP3 player, was either illegal or immoral. We've seem how successful that tack was for them... In a similar vein, you seem to be arguing that purchasing an electronic copy of a book on a Kindle should allow me only to read the print on the screen, that anything more is a violation of your intellectual property.
This argument fails on several levels. For one, it assumes that people really will use the Kindle as a substitute for audio books. Frankly, as good as text to speech might get, I'll still pay the extra money (as a loyal Audible subscriber of many years) to hear Johanna Parker read Charlaine Harris' Suki Stackhouse novels, because until we have true artificial intelligence, there's no way a computer is going to know what to read in a sassy sarcastic tone, and what to read in a panicked tone. Part of the pleasure of a good audio book is the added flavor that they narrator brings to the product.
You're also falling prey to the "that's how it's always been, so that's the way it should always be" argument. I've never had the pleasure of negotiating audio rights to a book (I shudder to think what a Java Development book would sound like in spoken form...), but I imagine it follows the same formula as print, a percentage of net. Since an audio book is typically twice the cost of a hardcover, the financial benefit to the author is obvious. But that's solely an artifact of the cost of audio books. If tomorrow, audio book prices came down to those of a hardcover or paperback, the financial differential to the author between the two would vanish.
You could as easily argue that paperbacks should be banned, since they represent less money to the author. And really, the real villain here is the publishing system itself. The fact that I get $2 in compensation for a $30 book is what stinks, and what needs to be fixed. Rather than look at the Kindle as the End of the Author, look at it as a chance to exercise disintermediation of the publishing system. With electronic publishing, the entire model of sending dead trees to stores, and having the book covers (or, as I'm told these days, an affidavit of destruction) sent back becomes a dinosaur. If you were getting 50% of net, would you care nearly as much if it ended up being read or listened to?
At the heart of it, your basic fault of logic is in assuming that "audio rights" need to be paid at all if a Kindle "reads" a book. As you point out, if I were to read book to my child, I wouldn't need to pay audio rights. If, today, I were to scan the pages of a book into my computer, and then use the text to speech software in most operating systems to read it to me, I wouldn't need to pay audio rights (or at least I hope you're not arguing such, for that way lies the madness of the RIAA trying to tell me what to do with my own personal copy of a work.) The Kindle makes this process easier, but at the end of the day, it is still a one-time, non-physical spoken private performance of the work, not a physical transcription of the work offered commercially.
Finally, you ignore the fact that should be most important to you. The Kindle doesn't take food out of your mouth, it puts food in. My personal guess is that the effect of the Kindle on audio book sales will be negligible, for just the reasons I listed above, but because the Kindle makes it so much easier to buy a book on impulse, whereever you may be, it will almost certainly help increase overall sales.