Specter of e-book piracy looms large on horizon

image531[1] Adrian Hon has a post on today’s Telegraph warning of trouble ahead for publishers. The recent wave of e-book readers has made e-book piracy easier and more tempting than ever.

Hon writes about having bought the 627-page hardcover of the latest Iain Banks Culture novel, but not wanting to have to lug the hefty thing back to the office again—so he googled for an EPUB that he could download to his iPad. It only took him 60 seconds to download the file, and another five minutes or so to put it on his iPad and iPhone. While he was doing that, he found an amazing (to him, at least) selection of recent and backlist titles out there for the taking.

I am not a torrent-finding genius – I just know how to add ‘ePub’ to the name of a book or author. I don’t need a fast internet connection, because most books are below 1MB in size, even in a bundle of multiple formats. I don’t need to learn how to use Bittorrent, because I already use that for TV shows. And Apple has made it very easy for me to add ePub files to my iPad and iPhone. So really, there is nothing stopping me from downloading several hundred books other than the fact that I already have too much to read and I think authors should be paid.

He suggests that people will start out downloading convenience copies of books they already own (as a New York Times ethicist suggested was perfectly all right several months ago), then will start downloading dead writers’ still-in-copyright books, and books not available as e-books in their country yet, and entire collections for the convenience. “Then they’ll start wondering why they should buy any ebooks at all, when they cost so much. And then you go bust.”

He admits that he’s exaggerating for dramatic effect, but points out it will still be a serious problem for publishers—a lot more serious than they’re facing now. As a greater proportion of overall book consumption becomes easy-to-download e-books, it means pirate downloaded will have a greater impact on publishers’ bottom lines.

On the Bookseller’s FutureEBook blog, which is where I first found the above article, Nick Harkaway adds his own comments. He notes that, like Hon, his estimates of how long it would take e-book readers to make a splash in the market were too pessimistic by a number of years. And he adds:

[F]rom now on, we in the book trade are as much in the sea of digital as anyone else in the media trades. Our grace period has been long, but those hobbyhorses we’ve been discussing these last couple of years have to get sorted out now. Pricing has to be comprehensible, ebooks and paper need to be bundled. Regioning is fine, but delays between one region and another will cause problems. Publishers have to make the shift from interacting with businesses to interacting with consumers as well, because consumers will demand it of them and if they don’t do it, those customers will find alternative routes to what they want. (By which I mean: massive torrenting.) Publishing is arguably a curation industry, and therefore in some ways a natural for the internet. But to make that work, publishers will have to establish web-presences which are consumer-usable, rather than the somewhat phone-directory style sites most have now.

I, and others I’ve blogged, have been saying similar things for the last couple of years. It’s not effective to “fight piracy” the way the RIAA did with its lawsuits. You just end up spending a lot more money than you take in, and then trying to spin it into some kind of “moral victory”. It’s taking up arms against a sea of troubles. It’s standing on the beach ordering the tide to go back out. You can’t beat them.

So instead, you have to join them. The real thing that killed most music piracy was Apple opening its iTunes store, allowing consumers to buy albums digitally at reasonable prices, or the single songs they wanted for under a buck a pop. It was so effective that a few years later Jobs managed to convince the record labels to let him drop DRM altogether.

But publishers have been trying to push things in the other direction. Jeff Kirvin points out, in reference to Rob Dickens’s call for cheaper albums that I mentioned yesterday, that Joe Konrath has managed to sell a significant number of e-books at $2.99—”con siderably more than three times the books at one third the price” of $9.99 Kindle titles (let alone the agency-priced titles of $12 or more).

Think about that. Whether you’re selling a book, a movie or an album, you have the option to both gain more fans/​repeat customers and make more dollars in total. And all you have to do is give up the outdated economics of scarcity that make you think a novel/​movie/​album is actually worth $10. Quit worrying about whether or not people “value” your “art” and your art can actually reach more people (and make you more money).

Valve’s Steam game distribution system (which just passed 30 million registered users, by the way) has also been shown to make purchasers of pirates with its remarkable markdowns.

As Hon pointed out, it’s never going to get harder to pirate books or other media—and books are easiest of all to pirate because of their relatively tiny size. Publishers need to be thinking about how they’re going to fight back—and they need to look at how well the methods other media conglomerates used have worked.

3 Comments on Specter of e-book piracy looms large on horizon

  1. Good to see it reach the major newspapers. One would hope that someone might start listening soon.

  2. Alas, Googling ‘John Rhode epub’ or ‘John Rhode bittorrent’ still yields nothing. We have a long way to go before more than just the shiniest new books and most popular authors make it into piracy files.

  3. Oh please.

    Used to be copyright was justified as an encouragement to creators to create more. The thing is the terms have become downright silly… extending copyright terms from fifty to seventy years after the death of the author is not going to encourage the author to create more. Once you’re dead that’s it. The current trend in ridiculous copyright laws don’t benefit the creators, but rather the corporations, who have never been particularly beneficial to creators. Corporations do NOT have the same objectives as creators.

    The copyright maximalist contention that shared digital media is equivalent to lost sales is ludicrous.

    I own thousands of books. Books that I read before purchasing. Either other people’s copies or library copies. I’ve read some terrible library books and not bought them because didn’t like them.

    Which is why the combination of digital technology and the Internet is win-win for both creators and audience. The only ones who suffer are the distributors who are trying to pretend that nothing has changed until legislation to turn back the hands of time can be imposed.

    I’ve heard this over and over again, because it’s true:

    Piracy doesn’t harm writers, obscurity does.

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