Amazon's secret killer app for books
With linked e-books and audiobooks, there's 'time enough at last' to read. But why is the feature buried on the company's site?
If you want Amazon (AMZN) CEO Jeff Bezos to respond to your emails, take a tip from Rabbi Dan Moskovitz, 43, of Vancouver, British Columbia, and use the subject line: "Thank You! You’re Awesome."
"I just want to compliment you on the most amazing piece of technology I have enjoyed from Amazon," Moskovitz wrote Bezos in December. "Your Whispersync System for Kindle and audiobooks is incredible."
For the uninitiated, Whispersync for Voice is Amazon's clunky name for a feature that devotees like Moskovitz say profoundly changes the very act of reading. The rabbi stumbled onto the option after buying "The Hunger Games" e-book for his Kindle, and Amazon offered (with one additional click) to throw in the audiobook for just $3.95 more.
So instead of enjoying Katniss Everdeen's adventures in dribs and drabs each night before dozing off, Moskovitz shot through the novel like one of Everdeen's arrows, switching back and forth between the audiobook (while driving) and the e-book (at home) without ever losing his place.
As technological breakthroughs go, linking the audiobook and e-book versions of the same text so that a Canadian rabbi can read young-adult novels quicker may not be an innovation on par with creating the next Google (GOOG) or Facebook (FB), but one could argue it’s worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize -- at least in the Twilight Zone.
Let me explain: In the show’s greatest episode, Henry Bemis, a nebbishy bank teller played by Burgess Meredith, only wants one thing: to bury his bespectacled nose in books. But his domineering boss and even more domineering wife thwart his efforts to read Dickens, Browning, and Shaw. It's only when an H-bomb wipes out everyone else on the planet that Bemis has "time enough at last," to read -- that is, until his glasses slide off his face and shatter along with his dreams.
Thanks to Amazon’s Whispersync, that nuclear war is no longer necessary. Despite the five decades' worth of free-time destroying distractions invented since the episode aired in 1959, a modern-day Bemis doesn't need the world to end (and with it Warby Parker) to find time to read.
Like our rabbi, he could shuffle the pages of books into every spare minute of his day: listen for 30 minutes while jogging, thumb through a few pages on his iPhone while waiting at the doctor's office, listen again while doing the dishes or walking the dog, and then switch back to the e-book once more before bed. Amazon's killer app is no longer Prime, it's time.
There is one odd thing about all of this, Rabbi Moskovitz told Bezos in his email: Amazon does almost nothing to publicize it. "When I tell my friends and congregants about it . . they have never heard of it, even though many are Kindle users," he wrote. "Also, it's hard to find the service on the Amazon website -- I have to Google it every time."
Here's how Bezos replied: "I agree it's extraordinary and I will pass on your encouragement to the team. As the team has said to me: 'You can 'read when your eyes are busy!' I will also pass on your suggestion that we make this easier to find. All best, Jeff."
I was told about this correspondence between rabbi and CEO during a recent visit to the Newark, N.J., headquarters of Audible.com, the Amazon subsidiary and audiobook pioneer behind Whispersync for Voice. I, like Rabbi Moskovitz, wanted to know why the feature seemed to be buried on the Amazon site. Apparently it won't be for much longer.
"Look, it's going to have to be much more prominent, much easier to use, with lots more content and the right pricing," Audible CEO Donald Katz told me. "We were trying to keep it quiet while we make it better, which is why the rabbi's email was so amazing."
Katz wouldn’t say just how many e-book/audiobook pairs customers have downloaded since the feature had its soft launch in September 2012, beyond that the number is "in the millions."
But use of Whispersync for Voice increased 256 percent in the year ended Dec. 31, and jumped 42 percent in the final month of the year alone, the company says. Some 42,000 titles are now equipped for the feature, and adding the linked audio narration to an e-book now costs $5 on average, with the price ranging from $0.99 to $12.99 (depending on how supportive a particular publisher is of the idea).
As Katz whisked me around Audible's offices, which is dotted with conference rooms and recording studios named for Newark luminaries like Philip Roth, and all the frills and trappings of a major tech company, I was struck by the one thing that was missing: books. Though employees marched to and fro with laptops tucked into the crooks of their arms, I did not see a single hardcover or paperback in the place. Even in the studios where the audiobooks are recorded, the actors read the text off a screen.
To Audible, print books are a "legacy format." Technology is blurring the lines between the written and spoken word -- all that matters is the words, not how they’re packaged. "Text is the basis of theater, it’s the basis of movies and television -- they are all just a performance and an interpretation layered on top of words," Katz, a former journalist and the author of several books of his own, explains.
Audible introduced its first digital player in 1997 -- four years before Steve Jobs unleashed the iPod on the world and more than a decade before Amazon acquired the company. Though Audible grew into an audiobook empire, from the beginning Katz says one of his goals was to make it possible for readers to both see and hear the words.
"My daughter, like a huge percentage of the population, had an early reading disability," Katz says. "But when I played for her a recording of an old Library of Congress tape of the book at the same time she was reading the words on a page, she had a breakthrough, one that helped her eventually become a fluent reader, an 'A' student in college with multiple master's degrees, and now a teacher in New York."
Whispersync for Voice was borne out of the idea that people would benefit from being able to see and hear the text at the same time -- an experience the company calls "immersion reading," which is already being used as an educational tool in some schools. (Being able to ping-pong back and forth between the e-book and the audiobook was a secondary notion.) "All told, the whole thing took us 16 years to bring about," Katz says.
What makes linking e-books and audiobooks complicated is that the text and recordings often come from separate publishers and -- given elements like front matter, tables of contents, indexes and charts -- are not completely identical, says Guy Story, Audible's chief scientist, explaining the software he developed.
"We try to identify each word in the audio, match them up with each corresponding word in the e-book and then generate sync data that sits in the cloud," he says. "This way, a consumer no longer thinks of categories of textual experience, visual experience, and oral experience as being based on these legacy physical formats."
So extending the logic further, could it one day be possible for someone reading Harry Potter to switch from the e-book to the audiobook, and then during an exciting action sequence, to that precise moment in the movie?
"I think that will be what people expect at some point," Katz says. "That everything will be available together in every possible format."
To those ends, Amazon recently introduced a matchmaker feature that searches through one's library of e-books -- to let users know which books have synced audio narration available. "After using matchmaker on his library, one customer bought 40 Audible titles in one shot -- that was a record for us," Katz says.
Some customers, like romance novelist Robin Lee Hatcher, 62, say they are so taken by Whispersync that they seek out only books equipped with the feature. "It allows you to stay in the story at all these odd times during the day -- sometimes I put my earbuds in while doing my makeup," she says. Though she was a fan of audiobooks before Whispersync, now she says she can focus on one book at a time rather than designating some titles for listening and others for e-reading.
The Idaho-based author of 70 books does worry that by filling so much of her downtime with reading she may miss out on the joys and wonders of doing absolutely nothing. "I sometimes think we should turn everything off and just allow ourselves to be," she says. In fact, scientific research suggests there are major benefits to downtime.
But at a time when the median number of books Americans read is just five per year, there's also something to be said for filling our downtime with novels instead of scrolling through Facebook newsfeeds or playing games like "Candy Crush Saga."
Audiobooks mark a return to the oral tradition, but Whispersync for Voice -- the idea of alternating between the written and spoken word -- also has ancient roots. After all, before the 10 commandments were etched into stone tablets by "the finger of God," they were published as an audiobook. God spoke the words, then wrote them in order to get his message across.
"Jews may be the 'people of the book,'" Rabbi Moskovitz explains. "But we have always understood the connection between the written word and the oral one -- the Torah itself is referred to as a song."
Moskovitz reads the five books of Moses with his congregation each year, but thanks to Whispersync for Voice, he far outpaces most Americans by polishing off a novel every two weeks. "I don't listen to my car radio anymore," the rabbi says. "It’s awesome."
One more thing: As a test, I sent Jeff Bezos an email with the subject line "Thank You! You're Awesome," just to see if it only worked for rabbis. He replied.
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