I have been enjoying Mark Frauenfelder’s transcription software links at BoingBoing over the past couple of days, and had reason to correspond with Mark about something unrelated this week. In the course of the correspondance, I mentioned to Mark how I was enjoying his stuff, and that he might be interested in my homebrewed transcription solution.
I also mentioned that on my last round of interviews, I had explored online transcription services; given the non-existent budgets I have access to, the lowest rates were the absolute determinant in my search. It was also one-hundred percent necessary that I be able to upload audio files directly to the service; if the account setup process was also fully automated, then I was in heaven.
In the end, I settled on both iDictate.com and escriptionsist.com. iDictate’s primary rate is one cent per word, and they offer same-day regular service turnaround (but don’t get too excited, because there are some caveats). Escriptionist offers a flat rate based on the length of the audio files; that rate is $50 per half hour of audio.
Both offer uploads.
iDictate’s fast turnaround and low rates are apparently enabled by offshoring; the scuttlebutt on the internets is that the service breaks up inbound audio files into shorter pieces and sends them to multiple typists. Whether this is true or not, the fast turnaround is quite factual. I submitted three files to iDictate.
All three files were two-speaker interviews conducted over the phone, and each file was approximately 30 minutes in length, in mp3 format. The first file I submitted was rejected for audio quality reasons; I was billed for the 400 words or so that had been transcribed and that appeared in my returned document. Checking my account, I saw that that failed experiment was going to cost me $4.
“Excellent!” I thought to myself, rubbing my hands together with glee. I decided to submit the rejected file to escriptionist.com, but would hold off until I had a completed file in hand from iDictate.
The next file I submitted was accepted, apparently – at any rate, I did not get a rapid rejection notice, accompanied by an incomplete transcription.
A day later, the file had been transcribed. It wasn’t pretty, and there were many instances of roughness in the file (skipped words denoted by asterisks, both speakers unidentified, etcectera). But it was more than sufficient for my needs. Excitedly, I submitted the next file, the second half of the interview. My eyes bugged out of my head when it returned to me in three hours.
I checked my account balance. It reported a total cost of about $100 for all three files. I fairly danced with glee.
Next, I initiated the submission process with escriptionist.com. The process was slow and unwieldy, requiring a personal phone call and many email messages before I was okayed to upload my 31mb mp3. For reasons unrelated to my current DSL problems, the upload took forever – the ftp server on their end was only accepting material at 6kb/sec. Realistically, this doesn’t matter if you can upload overnight. Psychologically, it was frustrating as all get out.
I settled down to wait. On the third day, I emailed to enquire if my file was done. It was, and was emailed promptly to me, along with a PDF invoice for $54, billed to my credit card.
On opening the file, I was overjoyed. While the iDictate files were quick-and-dirty, costing (I thought) a penny a word, and yielding about 5,000 words per half hour, the escriptionist file was meticulous, beautifully formatted, and scrupulously accurate. It was also 7000 words long, rendering the per word cost considerably less than 1 penny.
I thought I was done, and had happily established relationships with two differing, but comparable in value, services. iDictate’s speed makes it valuable in deadline-sensitive situations; escriptionist’s attention to detail makes it valuable if you have a week to wait.
Then I got my bill from iDictate. It was for over $200. I logged in and checked my account totals, which were slightly over $100. I fired off a note, requesting that the double billing be removed. I received a note in reply asking whether I hadn’t misunderstood the terms – the one-penny rate applies only to single-person, old-school, verbal composition. To dictation, in fact. The terms clearly state that two people having a conversation on the phone qualify for the two-penny rate.
I’d misunderstood the terms of service. I wrote back, accepting my mistake, and requested that my account be cancelled. Two cents can’t be justified under the rates I currently get, and I certainly don’t want the temptation hanging over my head the next time I’m procrastinating a transcription.
To my irritation, the correspondent wrote back with a cheery “That’s fine,” referring to my willingness to pay twice what I had expected to and what the site’s own publicly accessible billing tools reported regarding my balance. “There is no monthly fee,” he cheerily concluded, in what I took to be deliberate disregard of my instructions.
A few days later, another note arrived, telling me how to access my account while the service changes servers. I wrote back politely requesting that my cancellation request be honored.
So, in short, iDictate’s low base rate, fast turnaround and lack of competition mean that, for now, the service offers what I would charitably term sucky customer service. As someone helping to run a tiny business myself, I can’t say I don’t understand the business posture. But as a customer, I’m pretty pissed off, and won’t be using them again.
On the other hand, I was frustrated beyond comprehension during the setup and upload process associated with escriptionist.com; the three day wait was excruciating. But the material, when it arrived, was deeply satisfying, and very clearly a significantly better consumer value.
At any rate, I now no longer have the favorite excuse of the dawdling writer for turning an interview into an article – transcription is no fun at all, and highly time consuming (for me, four hours to get a half-hour interview is about right). Having access to the option of transcription is a giant psychological weight lifted from my shoulders as a writer.
Who knows? Maybe I’ll even try old-school verbal transcription at iDictate one day – on a new account, of course. If the total time to a first draft is cut by half, it’s clearly a possible route to compress composition time.
But on the whole, I’ll be carefully budgeting my time and fees to incorporate escriptionist into my copy development process. They delivered a better product for a better price.