A great book debate always simmers under the surface but recently roared to life. You may not even be aware of it. In fact, you might participate without realizing what is the at the root of your comments. Intrigued?

Let me ask you this: What is a book?

The answer is not as simple as you might think.

When Is a Book a Book?

“There is no friend as loyal as a book.” ~Ernest Hemingway, American novelist

When I hear the word book, what comes to mind is essentially a stack of paper with writing on it, all pages cut to the same size and put in a sensible order, bound together and covered with a hard surface. The publishing industry refers to these as hardbacks or hardcovers.

What do you think of when you hear "book"?The picture on the cover and the presence or lack of a dust jacket (paper cover over the hardcover) makes no difference. It doesn’t even matter if the content within is a fantastical story, a political debate on history, or an epic poem. It’s a book. I suspect all of you agree.

The first softcovers, or paperbacks, appeared in the mid-1800s. While many readers have preferences of hardbacks or softbacks based on durability or cost, we all agree that the thickness of the cover or the method of binding pages together does not affect its status as a book.

Then came audiobooks. And eBooks.

Our definition of a book changed slightly when we no longer held a physical copy of a book in our hands. The first audiobooks were produced for the blind on vinyl records, each side holding fifteen minutes of audio. Recording studios slowly emerged and then technology improved, which encouraged growth throughout the publishing industry and readers.

A teacher in Spain is touted as the first to attempt anything close to the eBook technology. She didn’t like that her students had to carry a pile of books with them, and worked in the late 1940s to print the texts onto spools which were easier to carry. Not electronic, per se, but definitely a move in the same direction.

Although the mediums are different from the original hardcovers, the vast majority understand that these are books where the author controls the copyright.

Technology Changes the Great Book Debate Again

Ahh, technology. Both the blessing and the bane of our existence. We love and hate what it has done to society, don’t we? I love that I can communicate instantaneously with so many friends and loved ones around the world. I hate when a glitch gets in the system that I don’t understand how to fix.

The newest glitch in the great book debate: Speech-to-Text technology. It exploded over the summer, sending ripples of questions throughout the publishing industry.

The newest glitch in the great book debate: Speech-to-Text technology.Audible vs. the Association of American Publishers

On August 23, 2019, seven members of the Association of American Publishers (including the Big 5) filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against Audible (acquired by Amazon in 2008). Let me make this simpler.

  • According to its website, “The Association of American Publishers (AAP) represents the leading book, journal, and education publishers in the United States on matters of law and policy.” If you want more detail, click here.
  • The Big 5 in publishing are the five biggest publishing houses in America: Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster.
  • Audible is the world’s largest digital audiobook distributor.
  • Copyright infringement is basically someone doing something with a protected work that it wasn’t given permission to do.

Which brings us back to the original question. Copyright infringement must first define a protected work. In other words, what is a book?

Audible’s New Tech: Captions

The AAP is not alone in its alarm over Audible’s newly announced feature. The Autor’s Guild, the Independent Book Publishers Association, and literary agents joined voices to demand Audible back off. What got everyone in an uproar?

Captions. According to Audible:

Audible Captions is a soon-to-launch technology that will provide, at user request, machine-generated transcriptions to accompany Audible content s/he already owns. When the feature launches in September [2019] . . . it will allow listeners who choose to enable Captions to see a few lines of machine-generated text at a time as they hear the audiobook performed. We expect the feature to be available for all titles that pass our quality threshold.

Does Captions represent a book?So is it an eBook or Not?

Does Captions represent a book? Audible insists it does not. They write:

It does not replicate or replace the print or eBook reading experience. Text is displayed progressively, and only a few lines at a time, while audio is playing, and listeners cannot read at their own pace or flip through pages as they could with a print book or eBook.

The other side insists the manuscript itself is the foundation for all forms of a book and protected by copyright. Therefore, for Audible to do anything outside of its contract to produce an audiobook is an infringement.

The Wrench in the Argument: Transformative Use

Here’s the big question the Courts will have to answer: Is Captions transformative use? This term sounds complicated, but in reality, it’s a fair use principle that makes it easy for people to use segments of copyrighted work without gaining permission from the author. Fair use includes practices such as quotes, commentary, search engines, and news reports.

Transformative use is when you take a copyrighted work and change it so much that it is no longer recognizable as the original. This gets tricky. In 2005, the Author’s Guild sued when university libraries gave books to Google to scan into digital formats. The ruling came down in 2012 that this was Transformative Use because the libraries used the books to:

  • preserve the manuscripts,
  • provide a full-text search engine, and
  • give patrons who could not see to read the print version access to the books.


The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run. ~Henry David Thoreau, American poet

Everyone sees Audible’s Caption technology potential benefit to some readers.

I remember my Dad’s frustration in his last years as he wanted to read. His eyesight no longer allowed him to see the words in normally printed books, large print books were difficult to find, and he no longer had the mental capacity to learn new technology like eReaders. As a book lover, I want those who want to read to be able to read.

As an author, I want to retain my right to grant permissions to others on how they can use my words. Can you imagine the confusion if the technology gets a word or two wrong that dramatically changes my words? And if that got out to other readers instead of what I actually wrote?

So, what do you think? When is a book a book? Let me know by joining the discussion on Facebook! This post will be pinned to the top of my Author Page until Sunday, November 24th.


Read More

Do you have a book that you want to get published? Are you confused about the different options? I understand! The information available online is overwhelming and conflicting. While I can’t tell you what is best for you, I can share a little about my experiences with different types of publishing. Click here to read more.

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