E-book piracy keeping pace with e-book popularity

The New York Times has noticed that e-book piracy seems to be picking up along with e-book popularity, and has interviewed a number of authors, publishers, and other personalities about it.

Some of the authors and publishers, such as Harlan Ellison, are very energetic in their pursuit of pirates. The irascible Ellison, who famously filed the first major lawsuit against unauthorized Internet posting of his work and has pursued 240 cases of unauthorized posting since then, is quoted as saying, “If you put your hand in my pocket, you’ll drag back six inches of bloody stump.”

John Wiley & Sons, publishers of the “Dummies” books, employs three people full-time to do nothing but search out unauthorized postings. Others, such as Cory Doctorow, are more sanguine, and Stephen King does not regard it as worth his time to pursue:

“The question is, how much time and energy do I want to spend chasing these guys,” Stephen King wrote in an e-mail message. “And to what end? My sense is that most of them live in basements floored with carpeting remnants, living on Funions and discount beer.”

Some suggest that the book industry could afford to learn from the mistakes of the music industry. However, this quote drips with what a friend of mine would term “rich, Corinthian irony.”

“If iTunes started three years earlier, I’m not sure how big Napster and the subsequent piratical environments would have been, because people would have been in the habit of legitimately purchasing at pricing that wasn’t considered pernicious,” said Richard Sarnoff, a chairman of Bertelsmann, which owns Random House, the world’s largest publisher of consumer titles.

A quick check with Fictionwise’s advanced search finds that at least 5,400 of the 9,413 items offered by Random House—well over half the books they sell—have a suggested retail price of $12.95 or higher. 1,100 of these are $19.95 or higher. Given that this pricing is dictated by the publisher, I would hate to know what level of pricing Random House would find “pernicious.”

If publishers really do want to learn from the music industry’s mistakes, they should learn to stop trying to charge the same amount for e-books as for their physical equivalent. iTunes and Amazon started out selling most MP3 albums for $9.99 no matter how many songs they had on them, as opposed to $14.99 physical CD price.

They should also do something about the regional availability policies that have recently begun to be enforced on Fictionwise and eReader. It would be one thing if each region had its own e-book seller able to offer titles restricted from external vendors, but this is sadly not the case for much of the world.

Authors who are holding out against publishing e-books due to piracy concerns, such as J.K. Rowling, need to get over themselves. They are doing far more to promote piracy by not offering legitimate versions of their books than they are to prevent it.

It also does not help that the e-book market is currently a confusing morass of different e-book formats so that a reader can easily buy a book in a format he does not learn he cannot use until he tries to load it onto his reader. (Whatever its other faults, at least Amazon gets this part right.)

When the only seller of an e-book will not sell it to the people who want it, or it is not offered in a format they can use, or not offered at all, then of course those people will feel justified in pirating it. Likewise when the price at which it is offered appears out of all proportion to its value.

Being just text, or text with a few graphics at most, e-book files are absolutely tiny compared to music or movies. Bundles of hundreds of the most popular books can be downloaded within seconds via BitTorrent, Usenet, or foreign websites. It is flatly impossible to stamp out.

“It’s a game of Whac-a-Mole,” said Russell Davis, an author and president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, a trade association that helps authors pursue digital pirates. “You knock one down and five more spring up.”

Publishers need to stop attacking the symptom of piracy, and focus their attention on the disease of the anti-consumer practices that are making legitimate e-books difficult or impossible to obtain. Until they can pay more than lip service to the idea of rational pricing and availability, disgruntled would-be customers will get what they want however they can.

About Chris Meadows (4149 Articles)
TeleRead Editor Chris Meadows has been writing for us---except for a brief interruption---since 2006. Son of two librarians, he has worked on a third-party help line for Best Buy and holds degrees in computer science and communications. He clearly personifies TeleRead's motto: "For geeks who love books---and book-lovers who love gadgets." Chris lives in Indianapolis and is active in the gamer community.

8 Comments on E-book piracy keeping pace with e-book popularity

  1. Excellent. Simply excellent. This article focuses on the heart of the issue.


  2. I have never seen a breakdown of how the cost of a book at a typical bookstore gets spread out. With getting rid of shipping, storage and labor needed to sell a book, I find it hard to justify paying the current cost of an ebook. Even at say $5.00 an ebook, there still may be greater profit involved for all.

    I want writers to get paid. I want them to continue to write. I will not pay those prices especially for copies of paper books I already own.

  3. I really liked how you broke down the issues. The truth is that e-book piracy has been around as long as napster has. There are always going to be two types of consumers, the ones that will pay for whatever is offered, and the ones that will look for low prices or pirated versions of things that are overpriced.

    In addition to this DRM has played a role in diminishing the sales of digital media. If you buy a book, you should be able to read it on multiple devices registered to you, the consumer, not rights registered to the device, or the content. Until companies hammer out how to give the customer rights to their media, people will pirate or just break DRM in order to use the content they paid for.

  4. > A quick check with Fictionwise’s advanced search
    > finds that at least 5,400 of the 9,413 items offered
    > by Random House—well over half the books they
    > sell—have a suggested retail price of
    > $12.95 or higher.

    Using an iPhone….

    If you look up Orwell on Fictionwise (via Stanza), 1984 is $19.00. Seems a little high, doesn’t it? So let’s keep looking.

    Next, look up Orwell on Kindle…1984 is $0.99. Ninety-nine CENTS.

    What is up with this?

    Extremely random/variable pricing like this is one reason customers don’t pay reasonable rates for ebooks.

    They can see there is no one in charge–there’s clearly no rational system overseeing the world of ebooks, and they come to expect that somewhere, someplace, if they keep poking around, they may find the ebook they want for free, or for next to nothing.

    Neither of the two prices this book is selling for make sense. I’d probably have accepted $6 – $8 for 1984 as an ebook, and paid up, easy.

    But now that I know it’s 99 cents….well, I probably won’t be satisfied paying $6 for Animal Farm when I start coveting that in ebook form.

    In fact, since Animal Farm is a shorter book than 1984…maybe it’ll be 75 cents……!

    Please, ebooksellers, set reasonable expectations. Your market is confused.

  5. The first professional article I ever wrote in 1999 was on the greatly feared Napsterization of ebooks. Then, as now, obscurity was a far worse enemy to the average author. But you can’t convince the authors/publishers of that. My bet: nothing to see here, folks, a decade later, STILL nothing to see.

    But also as I’ve been saying for the last several years: the ebook’s killer app was the ipod (iPod video/iPhone). Once the iPhone got reader capabilities, the ebook market took off. The fact that the Kindle sucks less also helped.

  6. I was just looking back over some older articles, and Kate’s comment here caught my eye. It’s just amusing to me in light of the big flap Amazon caused a few months later when they yanked that 99 cent copy of 1984 because it wasn’t legitimate.

  7. Kate (this Kate) // August 24, 2009 at 12:28 am //

    You know, it all seemed kinda weird to me too…possibly the Fictionwise/B&N folks read this blog, and my random rant got them investigating? They discovered the copyright violation, and then their lawyers prompted Amazon’s takedown..?

    That’s just Orwellian paranoia, of course…nobody’s watching me….are they?

    I did feel somewhat guilty, tho, and lay low, reading all the fuss. (And I was really surprised…was Amazon not checking copyright on stuff that came in via DTP? That’s probably a pretty big pile of titles.)

  8. Amazon seems to have been, historically, rather lax about that sort of thing. Note that a bad Star Wars fanfic novel, POD-published by someone who really should have known better, went unnoticed on Amazon for several months.

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