Audrey Watters at ReadWriteWeb takes a look at the contentious issue of e-book vs. paper pricing and whether it is likely to promote piracy. Mentioning Random House’s decision to join the agency pricing crowd, and the ongoing anti-trust investigation in Europe, she links to a Reddit thread discussing examples of e-books priced higher than their paperback or hardcover versions.

The Reddit thread is kicked off by one person complaining about the prices on these books (“I love the kindle but this pricing stuff right now is making me question all of it. I have a hard time placing these values on the ebooks when they are DRM protected fancy rentals.”) and another wondering if it is morally wrong to purchase a paper copy and then torrent the e-book. As Watters points out, this was covered last year by New York Times ethicist Randy Cohen, whose affirmative answer unleashed a considerable torrent of objection from the publishing industry.

E-Books as Home Taping

As Cohen compared books vs. e-book torrenting to CD vs. mp3 ripping, Watters compares it to the double- and triple-dipping that took place in the music industry as consumers were enticed to change from records to cassettes to CDs.

But as someone who owned certain records on LP, then in some cases paid for these same albums again on cassette so I could play them in my car, I admit, I do remember balking when I was expected to purchase the same music a third time around, just to have it on CD, just so I could easily convert it to MP3 or put it on my iPod. Adding to my displeasure, this new medium – the CD – was almost twice the price as the cassettes and records. That, not my wanton desire to destroy the members of Metallica’s ability to earn a decent living, was what made piracy appealing.

I owned plenty of albums on LP and CD at the same time as I owned a cassette Walkman. But double-dip for cassette tapes? Why? Blank 90 and 110 minute tapes were cheap, and it only cost an hour or so of time to put each of my favorite records and CDs on tape for mobile listening. And it’s not something I came up with on my own—my parents, both librarians (who would be respectful of IP if anyone would) were doing it first, because it was only sensible. (I used to carry around not one but two 30-tape carry cases with me every where I went. The iPod was invented for people like me.)

Home_taping_is_killing_musicAnd we were far from the only ones to do this sort of thing. Of course, the record companies weren’t thrilled by this practice (see image at right), and they really weren’t thrilled once people discovered they could rip the unprotected digital format of CDs into conveniently-small mp3 files.

And that’s why the media and publishing industries subsequently became so attached to DRM. It’s not just to try to prevent piracy, it’s enforcement of double- or triple-dipping. You want to read the same book in print, on your Kindle, and on your obscure Linux-powered PDA that was never worth anyone’s while to write a commercial e-reader for? Payment times three, please. (Or, more likely, times two and the PDA is out of luck.)

What Are We Paying For, Anyway?

And one point not touched upon in either the RWW post or the Reddit thread (that I noticed) is the atrocious quality of many of these so-expensive e-books. I’ve been reading through Diane Duane’s “Young Wizards” series on Nook lately and have been finding errors in every chapter, some of them fairly hilarious ("The reader is invited to examine the next Jew chapters…"). If I’m going to get something riddled with OCR errors anyway, why am I putting up with publisher-mandated pricing and DRM? Maybe I should just buy the print books and download the scans (or cracked commercial e-books).

Or OCR them myself. Once a chore only undertaken by egoboo-seeking peer-to-peer peers, home scanning is gradually moving toward the realm of something akin to taping cassettes off of records: time-consuming, but not out of proportion to what you get. A number of inexpensive do-it-yourself (and even commercial) scanning/photographing frames have come out over the last year or so, and as computers get faster and cameras get better, it’s only going to get easier until, someday, we’ll all be able to riffle the pages of a book while holding a cell phone over it to produce a reasonably high-quality copy.

And isn’t that going to bring about some changes? Instead of downloading a scanned copy of a book, people might just wander into a bookstore or library and quickly and efficiently do it themselves, walking out a few moments later with an OCR’d copy that, while not perfect, is at least as good as what they might download off the ‘net. (Some people are already doing at least the cliff-notes version of this.) People might stop talking so much about the ethics of peer-to-peer and start talking about the ethics of personal scanning. (Though unlike cracking DRM or peer-to-peer downloading, scanning a book you own should theoretically be just as legal as ripping a CD you own to mp3.)

Open Letter to Publishers

Publishers have got things bass-ackward as usual. They’re doing the Wile E. Coyote air-walk, and sooner or later they’re going to have to look down to see the gaping canyon under their feet and let gravity take effect. The more tightly they try to lock stuff down, the worse quality they give us for the higher price, the faster they hasten their own demise.

Listen up, publishers. The more you irritate and aggravate consumers, the less you make them want to buy your products or have any sense of loyalty to you at all, and the more you make some of them want to rip you off out of spite. In a world where the majority of consumers apparently find piracy acceptable to some extent, you really need to be working at giving consumers a reason to buy from you other than “it’s illegal not to.”

I think you’ve only got a few years left. It’ll be a great shame if you crash and burn, and it will probably hurt a large number of authors, but it will also give a large number of authors incentive to find other ways to reach their audiences. Authors won’t stop writing (to feed their creative impulse), and they won’t stop trying to make money off of that writing (to feed the rest of them)—the end of mega-publishers won’t mean the end of people’s appetite for books. The more people are out there trying new business models, the more working models will be found. (And it’s already starting, thanks to trailblazers like J.A. Konrath and Amanda Hocking.)

Since it’s pointless to try to sue every single person who engages in or even who enables piracy, perhaps publishers should start concentrating less on enforcing what consumers are supposed to do and more on taking the best advantage of what they will do anyway.

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  1. Wondering whether any particular act of publishers will promote piracy, is a lot like wondering if any particular act in the Middle East will cause American gas prices to rise.

    News Flash: It’ll happen regardless. Oil prices go up, whether things are good or bad in the Middle East. (In case you hadn’t noticed–the only time gas prices go down is when people cut back on gas buying. Take the hint.)

    Ebook piracy happens, regardless of whether the publishers do good things, do bad things, or do nothing at all. At this point, it should be clear that there’s absolutely no point in trying to figure out what makes people pirate ebooks… as if figuring that out will provide the answer that will stop them pirating ebooks.

    Let’s be clear: If publishers start charging one dollar for ebooks… they’ll still be pirated. If they remove DRM… they’ll still be pirated. If their quality reaches 100% perfection… they’ll still be pirated.

    Time to move on.

  2. Piracy will happen regardless of what they do, that is true. The post is about the degree to which it will impact the industry and how many people will chose that route. That is something in their control and they’re ignoring it.

    I agree with the points made in the article. I believe that the music industry was hit so severely because of their business practices over the years and the pent up disagreement that consumers have to keep buying their music libraries. The book publishing industry is creating a similar environment with their decisions over the last couple of years and I believe they’ll reap what they sow.

  3. That’s a point I don’t see. Consumers never had to “re-buy” their music libraries; they could do as I did, keep a record player around for their old albums, and buy CDs of the new stuff. Anyone who simply ditched their old albums accepted the fact that they would have to replace it with a CD… or do without. The suggestion that they were somehow forced to re-buy their music is inaccurate.

    The same is true with books: No one is breaking into people’s homes and taking the books off their bookshelves. Ebooks can be backed up (with or without DRM), so they will not be lost if something happens to the store, or your device.

    The scan and OCR systems that are developing will assume the position that cassettes had in the days between albums, CDs and MP3s, allowing those who want to format-shift their printed books to digital. The rest can stay printed, and if you decide to buy a digital copy, made for you by someone else, that’s your decision. Or you can keep your printed books. No one is being forced to re-buy content.

    The author’s feeling that they were forced to buy new copies of music to play in her car is akin to laziness: She could’ve recorded them herself, but she didn’t want to. So she paid for new copies of the music… her choice. That’s not something to take the seller to task for, and no reason to criticize the seller’s sales strategy. Anyone who uses this as an excuse for piracy is being blatantly selfish and disingenuous.

    High prices are never popular… and vendors know how to charge more for popular items, like the latest Stephen King book… but consumers always have the choice to not buy. That’s not an excuse to pirate, any more than it’s right for me to steal a Ferrari just because I don’t want to pay for one. And since there’s so much independent content at low prices, and a great deal of free content, there’s plenty of content to be had at great deals.

    And arguments about DRM and format-shifting are straw men, since we all know how easy it is to break DRM and format-shift… seriously, who’s complaining about this anymore?

    All of the above amounts to lame excuses, none of them enough to justify pirating content. Fortunately for pirates… they really don’t need reasons.

  4. A couple of other studies showed that most pirates download books in bulk, not one at a time, and probably don’t read them. There is some doubt as to whether authors are really losing sales.

    In reality, people take the path of least resistance. It’s much quicker and easier to OneClick from Amazon and have your book automatically backed up, then to get into the torrent stuff. A great number of the reading demographic are not technical enough to go that route either.

    I do believe some publishing practices are pushing people to pirate, namely regional publishing rights that make a book not legally available for sale. Even if you were willing to pay for it, it’s not available. There are hundreds of complaints from people in the Kindle forums about books not being available in their country.

    There are also the authors that, for whatever reason, don’t want people reading the ebook version of their book. JK Rowling, Harper Lee for example. Those books are easily available to pirate because of their popularity.

    For me personally, I’m no longer bothered by the high prices. Once the agency model went into affect last year, I quit reading the bestseller type of book and easily found indie books in the same genre to replace them. I have far more to read than I ever did before and most of it is as good as what I gave up. That should make those top authors a bit worried, I know I’m not the only one.

    In the meantime, those other books sit on my price drop list at Maybe one day the price will go down and I’ll pick them up, maybe they won’t. It no longer really matters.

  5. “For me personally, I’m no longer bothered by the high prices. Once the agency model went into affect last year, I quit reading the bestseller type of book and easily found indie books in the same genre to replace them. I have far more to read than I ever did before and most of it is as good as what I gave up.”

    I continually see posts similar to this, but seldom any example of standout content. Hopefully we’ll get to the point where it’s easier for folks to find this type of content as right now I find it somewhat difficult. I know I’ve had limited success so far with sorting the good from the bad when it comes to indie stuff and often find the quantity available to be overwhelming.

    Hopefully Steven will be putting out a Verdant Skies sequel as I know that’s one indie book I’ll want (more Kestral would be good too ;-))

  6. Brian, if you check out some of the review blogs springing up, there are people who are trying to filter through the indie slush. I’d like to see more of this sort of thing. I agree that a lot of these “I only read indie now” people never do seem to be able to name particular titles.

    Steve, I know we have had this discussion before. You seem to have trouble seeing the bottom lube on this issue. Namely that it doesn’t actually MATTER whether people have a choice or piracy is wrong or whatever. The issue is not whether it’s right or not. The issue is whether people who might not have done it under other circumstances are doing it now because of a specific reason. If they are, then you can address that reason, right or wrong though it might be, and get that customer back again. If you don’t address it, it’s your own fault for not retaining them.

  7. Here’s my perspective: I will buy content, at an agreed-upon price. Once.

    I am not entering into a complex legal arrangement when I purchase a book or an album or a movie on DVD. As a consumer, I view that I purchased a right to use/enjoy that content until I get rid of it. I’m not asking for free MP3s from my vinyl, or to exchange my 20-year old hardback for an ebook, or an MP4 of the DVD I just bought, so that I can easily put it on my Zune (so I can watch it on a long flight, which is why I bought it in the first place). I can take care of myself. But I bought it. It’s no one’s business how I consume it.

    Pass whatever laws you like. If they establish a level playing field, where producer and consumer are treated with fairness and respect, the law will be accorded respect on that basis, and lawbreakers will face near-universal social censure. Pass some industry-written piece of dross (I especially like the one where the recording industry changed artistry into work-for-hire to systematically shift rights and income from musicians to the conglomerates that make up the RIAA) and see how quickly people start to question (and/or ignore) the law.

    No, I’m not trying to rationalize piracy. I’m trying to figure out what fair looks like, and I’m not willing to take the industry’s word for it.

  8. @Joanna: It seems obvious to me that the reasons being given for being dissatisfied with publishers and ebook content are largely vacuous; that is, they are over-stated, they are no different than other industries, they’re something that can be worked around, or they can be satisfied by shopping elsewhere for indie content, free content, etc.

    That says to me that piracy happens, simply because it’s easy, it’s free, and you won’t get caught. That’s the bottom line, and industries can do very little to beat easy, free and untouchable. Even a perfect product at a dirt-cheap price won’t beat that.

    That said… the best thing (possibly the only thing) industries can do, even if they can’t produce a perfect, dirt-cheap product, is offer value-added content or services to draw people in. That content has to be compelling enough to make people want to buy from them and not pirate. Amazon’s Kindle store is a good example of value-added services (easy to browse, easy to buy, auto downloads, superior search capabilities in store, etc) connected with the ebooks, and it’s clearly why Kindle sales have been rising faster than any other ebook source. And that’s even with the complaints about high prices.

    They also need to work on their own PR, to sell customers on the idea that their services are worth something, that their authors deserve your patronage and your money. Publishers haven’t taken that tack historically, they always tried to maintain a holier-than-thou air, but they need to change that now.

    And in the meantime, indie publishers and authors are trying to put on a positive front for consumers, provide quality content, and hope to convince consumers that indie works are the way to go. I’d like to think my sales model is a good one… but judging by sales, obviously not that good. But instead of sitting back and shouting, “Buy my books, you ingrates!” I’m constantly working to improve my content and my sales model, trying to be active in the ebook environment in a positive way, and trying to encourage an atmosphere of fairness and profitability on both sides.

    But for my efforts, my work is still pirated, which suggests that even my efforts are not good enough to prevent it. Piracy will happen, even to good, cheap products, because it’s easy, it’s free, and it’s unstoppable.

    Since I can’t be Amazon, and create an uber-market that can find anyone anything, help them make friends, and share broadcast-quality multimedia content, I wish I knew what I could do to make piracy less attractive. But short of just giving it away–and at that point, there’s no good reason for me to bother writing anything–I’m at a loss for what to do about it.

  9. Steve, again, you just don’t seem to get it. It doesn’t matter if they are ‘vacuous’ reasons. It doesn’t matter if they are right or wrong or whether you think the customer should be doing X or Y instead. If the customer states a reason, and the vendor ignores that reason and doesn’t address it, they will lose that customer. Period. And it will be their own fault. Look at it this way: as a teacher, I spend a lot of time mediating playground disputes. And always, both sides in the dispute feel perfectly wronged, perfectly injured, perfectly right in feeling like they are the injured party. And you know what? You can spend hours trying to sort it out with them, but in the end, the best thing to do is to just prevent the dispute in the first place. If you know that Child X and Child Y will behave absurdly if they are in line together, it doesn’t matter which of them is right or wrong or less absurd than the other. Just don’t stand in the line together. Find another place to stand.

    As I have also said more than once, the personal exception that is you does not negate the points people raise in relation to books by best-selling authors who DO have DRM, ARE geo-restricted, ARE priced at hardback levels etc. Telling someone who is geo-locked out of even purchasing a wanted Stephen King novel to purchase your novel instead is not solving the problem. And if you think these are NOT real problems, than I suppose it’s just lucky for you that you are an American and have not had to deal with such things as often as the rest of us.

  10. There will always be pirates – to some people it’s a game. They’re not readers, nor even collectors.. they just like to acquire things for free.

    Then there is another class of pirates – readers who want a specific book, and who would be perfectly willing to pay for it if it was of good quality and reasonably priced. My sense of reasonably priced is that most people feel $2.99 or less is an impulse buy, up to $5 or $6 for the backlist of known authors, and up to $10 or so for new releases of big name authors. (I could point you to the Dear Author thread where I got those numbers, but it’s anecdotal not real research). Some certain number of those people will pirate if they can’t get the book they want at a price they’re willing to pay. I’m not saying good or bad, just that this seems to be the case.

    and some people will pirate a book if that’s the only way they can get a copy at all: either through geographical restrictions, or because there simply is no legal copy of the desired book available.

    and then there are those who break DRM to format-shift, because the book they want isn’t available in the format they need. They do pay for their content, but are considered pirates just the same.

    The trouble is, the big publishers treat all these cases as if they were the first kind of pirate. They’re not addressing the issues that cause people to become pirates in the first place.

    No social ill has ever been solved by over-criminalizing the situation. The only way to stop the casual pirates (I don’t think you’ll stop the first kind of pirate) is to produce quality files of quality content at a reasonable price.

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