New York Times columnist fears ‘napsterization’ of e-books

The New York Times has yet another article about the "napsterization" of e-books. Shock, horror. Alarums and excursions. Randall Stross, the piece’s author, is only the latest of many to surmise that, if more people are reading e-books, e-book "piracy" might actually get big enough to damage the industry. The jury is out on that, but it is something worth thinking about. Nonetheless, there are a couple of points in the article that need addressing.

When the music industry was “Napsterized” by free file-sharing, it suffered a blow from which it hasn’t recovered. Since music sales peaked in 1999, the value of the industry’s inflation-adjusted sales in the United States, even including sales from Apple’s highly successful iTunes Music Store, has dropped by more than half, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.
This is the fallacy of "post hoc ergo propter hoc". Or, in English, A happened before B, therefore A caused B. If you listen to the RIAA, they'll tell you anything. But all you really have is correlation, not causation. While peer-to-peer is probably a factor, there have been a whole host of economic and market changes in the intervening years which could also be responsible.

And then there’s this gem:

I will forward the suggestion [that writers learn from the example of bands who give away content for free] along, as soon as authors can pack arenas full and pirated e-books can serve as concert fliers.

Why does nobody ever remember Baen and its Free Library?

Here’s something to refresh Mr. Stross’s memory, from his very own paper:

“Publisher’s Web Books Spur Hardcover Sales”

This strategy has also been used by folks such as Cory Doctorow and another writer by the name of Stross—Charles Stross. It doesn’t exactly seem to have hurt them either.

Now, this strategy wouldn’t necessarily work for all forms of content, and the choice of whether to give work away for free should always reside with the creator of that content—not the pirates. But pooh-poohing the idea that it CAN work in this way is completely asinine.

8 Comments on New York Times columnist fears ‘napsterization’ of e-books

  1. I think there is a far more important point missed by all parties here. This “napsterization” has *ALREADY HAPPENED.*

    It’s done. It’s here, has been for years. I personally know several people who pirate every book they read. It irritates me because I want the electronic market to succeed (though without idiotic wastes of my time like DRM) and it doesn’t help to have people undermining it from the beginning.

    But sorry guys, the sad reality of the situation is that there just aren’t that many readers. If as many people read books as listened to pop music you’d see just as many zero day typed/scanned PDF uploads flying around the sharing circles as you do music. As it is, you mainly only see very popular releases like harry potter and wheel of time.

    In reality the publishers are behind in every single aspect of this emerging market and every move they’re making is only carefully and progressively serving to destroy it before it has a chance to grow into popularity. The magazine and news companies are even worse.

    From where I stand the novel publishing industry has two possible markets to target with ebooks. They have the people who already read, and the people who kinda think they might but don’t for whatever inconveniences are posed (time commitment being a huge one, the archaic format being another given most people read more web sites than anything else these days…)

    So if you take this DRM approach and try desperately to lock everything down far more than you’d ever be restricted with an actual book you’re just going to alienate all but the most dedicated readers interested in ebooks. And you will not get any interest at all from those who are on the fence because they’re looking for less barriers not more.

    Personally I won’t read anything on paper. It doesn’t fit in my lifestyle. I read on my cell phone and occasionally on an e-Ink reader (the very rare occasions I actually feel like dedicating a long time to reading) and so I’m fairly interested in success in this market. However, I won’t be impacted much if it all goes away because I wasn’t reading before I started up with eBooks anyway. So, for my own interests to be served, DRM doesn’t necessarily need to go away but the combination of perceived ownership and DRM together needs to go away. It’s a huge lie. When you click the buy button on amazon.com for a kindle book you’re participating in a lie plain and simple. The terms needs to be changed so people are clear that they never own the books. I think that would make it less irritating personally.

    I would also happily pay for a subscription book “access” service if it wasn’t excessively expensive and allowed me to give access to my wife and myself without stepping on each others’ toes like the kindle’s bookmarks do.

    Oh wow I’ve gone way off topic. Sorry! :)

  2. Well… actually, I’d say that although there is an illegal download culture in e-books, I wouldn’t say that it’s so publicly-accepted, established and widespread that it is equal to music’s “Napsterization.” The effect is, so far, fairly minimalized (despite what Big Pub and the media says), so savvy publishers ought to be more easily able to recover their industry from its effect.

    Whether they are savvy enough to do that, of course, is another matter.

  3. Different people think different things when they see “napster-ization”. A bit of context might be required:
    1- unauthorized distribution of ripped-CD music predated Napster and peer-to-peer adhoc networks by several years, possibly as much as a decade. A lot of it wasn’t in mp3 format but in mp2 and real audio, even wav. Napster arose as a *response* to demand for easier-to-use “piracy” systems. Which is to say, napster did not create digital piracy but was created by the gap between demand for a comprehensive and easy to use digital music distribution channel and the music studios over-reliance on CD-based distribution. Absent a legit way to acquire reasonably priced Top-40 singles (unavailable since the studios killed the 45rpm vynil format) Napster provided a solution.

    2- Similarly, unauthorized ebook creation/distribution networks have been around for *decades*. Judging by the hard-coded 80-column txt format of some of the oldest files, it probably started as early as the VT-100 days in the 60’s. So ebook reading software/hardware is *not* creating ebook “piracy” any more than Napster created digital music “piracy”.

    3- What Napster *did* do was mainstream the acquisition and re-distribution of unauthorized digital music files. Lost in all the hand-wringing over the massive fines the “evil” RIAA is winning from the idiots stupid enough not to settle out of court is that the court cases are *not* over downloading but for *publishing*, making available to any and all comers content that was not created by or licensed to the people distributing it. The laws being applied were intended for commercial-scale for-profit counterfeiters (aka, bootleggers) so yes, they seem unduly harsh when applied to a scatterbrained housewife or reckless college student but it is the nature of the american legal system that nobody is above or beyond the law; not elected officials, not the mighty, and certainly not the stupid.
    4- ebook “piracy” is *nowhere* near as prevalent as digital music “piracy” in the current post-napster/post-itunes era or even the pre-napster era, to say nothing of those heady days around the turn of the millenium when every high school student had thousands of poorly encoded music files flowing in and out of their PCs. The reasons for this are well known: reading is not as prevalent an activity as listening to crappy pop music; books have deeper value to the consumer than a 3 minute ditty; and the typical consumer is more mature, more affluent, and more aware of the ethical issues.

    There are lessons that publishers need to learn from the music studios about what *not* to do but the two markets are different and the starting conditions are significantly different; legal channels exist for easy to find, cheap to acquire (or even free) ebook content and the industry *is* moving (albeit grudgingly and half-heartedly) towards a handful of broadly supported file formats (no, we are not seeing a universal format any time soon; none of the current candidates is qualified. A whole different issue that.) and the only real issues preventing the mainstreaming of ebook reading are social (people don’t read for entertainment as much as they used to) and pricing.

    It is the latter area where the real danger of “napster-ization” of ebooks lie; publishers need to understand that customers will not stand for arbitrary profit-maximizing take-it-or-leave-it ebook pricing. The ebook market pretty much demands cost-plus pricing benchmarked against paperbacks not hard covers. Greater-than-paperback pricing requires clearly understandable added-value in either content or timeliness beyond the inherent merits of a straight digital edition.
    Not only do too many publishers fail to grasp the need for a new business model, top-to-bottom, at risk of permanent disintermediation, they are actually so arrogant as to publicly state their intent to work against their customers best interests by driving prices upwards, adopting overly-restrictive DRM schemes, and delaying or avoiding digital editions altogether. In other words, they are actively working to make unlicensed editions of their content more desirable than their own product. This, at the same time they cut back in the editorial, promotional, and content-acquisition areas of the business.

    Publishers need to fear “napster-ization” but only to the extent that they themselves are tilling the soil to bring it about. Grifters and con-artists justify their crimes by saying “You can’t cheat an honest person”. Publishers should take note that the least-pirated content is that which is broadly availably at reasonable prices. Treat your customers fairly and there is no need to fear “napster-ization”.

  4. When I was in college (during the late Bronze Age), there was always a kid in the dorm who had a really nice stereo system, including a high-end turntable and cassette tape deck. So if somebody you knew had an album you liked, you bought a cassette tape and borrowed the album and recorded it. Also at college there was this big building on campus called a “library.” If they didn’t have the book you wanted, they would do this cool thing called an “interlibrary loan” and you could read it for FREE.

  5. The article perpetuates the lie that music industry revenue has shrunk significantly since Napster. In truth, live performances, downloads and royalties have been making up for the downturn in recording sales.

  6. Also, if the music industry had set up a legit music storefront right away to sell them legally when they first realized people wanted digital music, they might have made things a lot easier for everybody, and a lot more profitable for themselves. iTunes, eMusic etc, have proven people are perfectly willing to pay for music IF you sell it to them…

    If the ‘every non-purchased copy is theft’ argument were really true, we wouldn’t have public libraries. And perhaps some people in the publishing industry would be all for that. But I have at least three physical print books in my apartment right now which actually belong to my mother, and I loan books to her with the same regularity. Are we going to outlaw mothers now because they might lead to lost sales?

  7. The best DRM for most books, especially the kind you’d find in a normal bookstore (in the industry, we call those “trade books”), is a change in society’s values.

    We need to help our friends and neighbors understand the difference between sharing your paper copy of a book, and sharing an electronic copy. In the first case, you’re handing over the only copy you have. You bought it, you paid for it, and you can keep it, give it away, sell it or burn it, with total impunity.

    In the second, you’re creating more copies, for which the author and publisher haven’t been paid, and for which they’ll never be paid.

    Now, it may be that those free copies will generate more sales of printed books (until printed books are no longer the preferred format). It may be that free copies will generate sales of other works by the same author. Unfortunately, the decision about whether or not to try that belongs to the rightsholder, not to the owner of a single copy.

    As for the Napsterization of books, we need to understand that amount of variability in book publishing. Fiction is less than a quarter of revenue. Huge other sections include scientific, medical and technical books, academic texts, elementary and highschool texts and supporting materials, and so on and so forth. Each and every group of buyers or readers behaves differently in this arena.

    Some of those groups are very averse to the idea that publishers deserve some compensation for the work they do on a book after the author is through with it (or with the author, for those who are lucky enough to get a good developmental edit). Some of those groups are averse to the idea that authors might want something more than recognition. And some are actively out to “stick it to the Man.” We need to make sure that the groups we belong to come to understand the real economics and mechanics of publishing.

  8. Marion Gropen Says:
    We need to help our friends and neighbors understand the difference between sharing your paper copy of a book, and sharing an electronic copy.
    ______
    Yes.
    And it would help if publishers actually came out with a DRM regime that allowed you to transfer your license, either temporarily (lending) or permanently (for gifting).

    In fact, not a single ebookstore this side of Baen.com allows you to buy/send gift ebooks.
    More fundamentally, publishers need to be upfront about what exactly they are “selling” reading rights, a file, or what.

    It would also help if the publishers stopped pretending that the primary form of ebook “piracy” doesn’t come from print editions, not digital editions, and stopped penalizing ebook buyers.

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