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A Conversation with Roy Blount Jr. (minicast)

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Humorist Roy Blount Jr. sits down with Grant for a conversation about the controversy over writers’ rights, the Amazon Kindle 2, Roy’s recent book, Alphabet Juice, “sonicky” words, and noodling for catfish. He also clears up the mystery of whether the cancan dancers at George Plimpton’s memorial honored the late writer’s request and performed without panties.

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Read the first chapter of Alphabet Juice here or find out more about Blount and his work on his web site.

As president of the Authors Guild, Blount argued in a New York Times op-ed that writers whose work is featured on the Amazon Kindle 2 ebook reader should earn extra royalties because its text-to-speech feature essentially turns written works into audio books.

Here is a partial, rough transcription of the part of Grant’s interview that pertains to the Authors Guild and the Amazon Kindle 2. It has been lightly edited for clarity, mainly to smooth over disfluencies of both speakers, especially when they are speaking at the same time. This comes at about the eight-minute mark.

Grant Barrett: I just want to ask you before we go, while I’ve got you here. You recently wrote an op-ed for the New York Times about Amazon’s new Kindle ebook reader. And, well, it has this function, where the books that are on it can be read aloud by a computerized voice. And you were arguing on behalf of the Author’s Guild, of which you’re the president, that this was an unfair performance. And Amazon, probably much to many people’s pleasure agreed to make it an optional feature. What was your argument there?

Roy Blount Jr.: Well, the argument is we don’t know—there’s so many different ways for authors not to make money on the Internet—

GB: You’re telling me! My book was just remaindered [laughs].

RB: But it could be that audio is going to replace print. We don’t know. I mean, bookstores and book publishers, everything’s up for grabs, up in the air, these days, so anytime there’s something that resembles a rights grab by some big concern like Amazon, it’s incumbent upon the Author’s Guild to say, “Wait a minute. Maybe this is something that authors ought to get a separate royalty [for].” ‘Cause, you know, you get paid a royalty from the ebook aspect of Kindle, but if they start adding. […] In effect, the Kindle 2, you know, you can listen to a whole book on it. So, some people say, “You wouldn’t listen to a whole book! It’s terrible.” On the other hand, people say they want it, so it’s an issue that needs to not slip past us because some day these recorded, these computer voices are getting more and more sensitive, and more and more sophisticated, and uh…

GB: They sound pretty good don’t they?

RB: Yeah. People say, “Well, I wouldn’t want to curl up and listen to War and Peace on an electronic voice.” I wouldn’t either! But there are books I can think of that probably sound just about as good on an electronic voice as not. At any rate, it does seem to be infringing on a right of authors. […] The occupation of being an author is a challenged one, anyway, so we felt we ought to make the case that this should […] involve another royalty.

GB: The position of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which responded in a letter to the editor in the Times, was that if the text-to-speech function did constitute a performance, then it’s a private performance and therefore covered under Fair Use.

RB: Why is it private? I mean, people said, “Well, you must be against reading bedtime stories to your children”—I mean people did say that, but, so, that’s a private performance, but a device […] that people sell to you partly because it will read to you seems to me not a private [performance].

GB: But don’t author contracts—and I’m kind of arguing here just to present a position here just to kind of figure it out—don’t author contracts tend to account for electronic rights and performance rights from the start? Isn’t this something between the author and the publisher and not the publisher and Amazon?

RB: Yeah, there are audio rights, and then there are like ebook rights and they’re two different things. If you’re selling both of those things in one device then you could charge an extra dollar for it.

GB: But it’s not currently, this kind of thing isn’t currently accounted for in typical author contracts? I think it is in the ones that I’ve signed and the ones that I have had signed.

RB: As I say—you mean that one device would have both?

GB: Well, no, that I mean, there always seem to be these clauses that account for electronic rights or account for performance rights and it seems to be that this kind of thing would be covered under the rights that are typically outlined in a contract between the author and the publisher.

RB: No, well, yeah, and that’s why publishers are beginning to say that they are not going to go along with this.

GB: Right.

RB: But audio rights are specified separately in contracts from ebook rights. Because people thought of ebooks as things that downloaded texts.

GB: Right. And there there’s new things happening. Yeah, a lot of people said that the Amazon Kindle is in many ways a good Internet browsing tool and maybe even not for ebooks at all. So we’re seeing the merging of devices. And so the suggestion here is that the rights need to be explained more specifically.

RB: Yeah.

GB: And if there’s things happening there where there is money due then the money should be paid.

RB: There you go. That’s our position.

GB: The only thing I have to ask you about that is, your, the first chapter of your book Alphabet Juice was published in the New York Times. I can read that on my computer here, have my computer read it to me. How is that accounted for?

RB: I gave them that permission. So that it would help sell the book.

GB: I bet it did.

RB: Well, probably. I don’t know. Who knows what helps sell books?

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