Audible ruffles feathers with launch of Captions

Audible Captions aims to aid education by showing text versions of its audiobooks in the app, leading many publishers to cry infringement – Audible, after all, has audio rights, not text rights.

The Bookseller gives more information on the different uses of Captions:

“Captions will show text on screen as the book is narrated and will be available to US customers who pay a $14.95 monthly subscription. It will also have a dictionary function and a feature for accessing Wikipedia. Books being played in one language could also be translated into the text of another.”

According to Audible, the feature is “designed primarily to fill an unmet need in education” by allowing students listening to a book to engage more fully with the work.

Audible told the Verge that these captions are

“small amounts of machine-generated text are displayed progressively a few lines at a time while audio is playing, and listeners cannot read at their own pace or flip through pages as in a print book or eBook.”

but even from the promo video above, it does seem like consumers are getting the whole book rendered as text, so it’s obvious why publishers are upset. The Verge has more quotes from publishers on their response to this latest offering from Audible and Publishers Weekly has more from the Authors Guild, literary agents and a publishing attorney.

Captions seems to be the reverse of Amazon’s existing Whispersync offering for Kindle – buy the Kindle edition and you get the Audible narration at a reduced price and you can swap your reading between the two without losing your place – and bears a striking resemblance to their abandoned text-to-speech offering of 2009 (your Kindle reads your eBook to you using a computer voice).

But let’s assume that Audible win through and this goes ahead. What are the pros and cons here?

The main pro for the average reader is, as Nate Hoffelder over at The Digital Reader points out, that Captions could be incredibly useful for works of science fiction and fantasy, where the proper nouns – not to mention the names of imaginary objects – can be obscure (Hermione – Harry Potter series, J. K. Rowling), archaic (‘Mycroft’ – Too Like the Lightning, Ada Palmer) or just plain made up (‘Seivarden’ – Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie).

We at Siliconchips would like to add to that list something perhaps more mundane but equally important: names from other languages. Anyone who has tried to listen to a book centred on characters with names not from their own native tongue will have met this difficulty. And, just as not being able to pronounce a name you encounter when reading with your eyes can snag you out of the story, not being able to spell the word you are hearing in an audiobook has the same effect, especially when you have several characters with unusual names, making it hard for you to hold the different characters in your head and still follow the story.

Which brings us to the cons of Captions. Chiefly, this is that the text is generated by computer, using the same software developed for Alexa. But as anyone who has used Alexa or Siri or Android’s Assistant can attest, there are often times when what you’ve said is misinterpreted, even when you’re speaking common words. So one wonders how Captions is going to cope with names like T’Challa (Black Panther) which will likely be mis-spelled. Is this, then, actually beneficial in line with Audible’s purported educational aid goals?