Digital Piracy: Redux

May 12th, 2009 · 15 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

Yay New York Times, you have discovered book piracy! And it is everything your dreamed and more. Oh and look: it’s authors who have never authorized their books for the digital marketplace who are being pirated.

Piracy has been a fact of our lives for as long as we’ve had marketplaces.

The NYT starts with a wide-eyed description of author Ursula Le Guin discovering a digital copy of her 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness on Scribd.com. To date, there is no legal electronic version of this book. I’m surprised by the lack of analytical thought accompanying this revelation. If the posting and accessing of books on pirate sites (Scribd is not a pirate site, though people misuse the service) tells us anything, it’s that there is consumer demand for books that aren’t available digitally.

So do you respond by wringing your hands or by meeting this demand?

That was a rhetorical question.

Research shows that piracy exists but isn’t conclusive on the negative impacts. There is some evidence of increased sales, increased awareness. Just because a consumer accesses an illegal digital copy, it doesn’t mean it’s a lost sale. It could be a supplemental sale (a digital version to complement an already purchased physical book), it could be a new reader sampling an author, or, yes, it could be someone sticking it to the man by going for the pirated version, viruses be damned!

This is something publishers — like the music companies and motion picture studios before them — need to address honestly.

Publishers will need to be vigilant in the pirate world. They will need to develop and utilize tools that protect their copyrights. At the same time, now more than ever, publishers must also engage in practices that reach readers where they live. It’s going to be a delicate balance, one that will never work as long as publishers continue to view digital books as “cannibalizing” print.

There is strong evidence (Exhibit A: iTunes) that consumers are happy to pay for digital product…as long as certain conditions are met: price, selection, and convenience. The book world, in some ways, is managing to fail on these three things. Yesterday, Dan Gillmor talked about Kindle price hikes and how he wasn’t going to play along (aka voting with his dollars). Prices are a huge topic of discussion among consumers and they have done an excellent job of articulating their position.

Publishers? Not so much. Or maybe that’s “not at all”.

If you follow digital topics on Twitter (and you should!), you’ll hear endless complaints about staggered releases — how does it serve the consumer to hold back the digital release of a book? How does it serve the author and publisher to create a vacuum in the marketplace that a pirated book can fill? Guess what? These customers are not going to shrug and say, “Guess I’ll just go ahead and the print version”. No, they’re going to wait for the digital book if it’s a book they must have. Or they’re going to buy something else.

You’ll discover total frustration surrounding purchases. Anger over DRM. You want to hear screams and curses? Listen to the reader who can’t read the book she purchased because the Adobe Digital Editions authentication server is down. Spend some time with a reader who, due to extreme confusion, bought the wrong format of a book and has to deal with the bureaucracy of rectifying an error that shouldn’t have to happen.

Piracy is and has been a fact of our lives for as long as we’ve created marketplaces. Books are as subject to thievery as any other product. Same thing, different realm. How you deal with piracy is changing, even as it stays the same (physical piracy still exists). It’s going to be an ongoing battle for the entertainment industries, but unlike your predecessors, book publishers have the chance to get so much right while the market is young.

Right now, more than ever, it’s time to listen to your customers.

(Didn’t the NYT write this same story years ago?)

File Under: The Future of Publishing

15 responses so far ↓

  • Brian O'Leary // May 12, 2009 at 10:16 am

    Thanks for the citation … all of your points are solid contributions to the ongoing discussion. Maybe the NYT will call you next time.

  • DEborah Talmadge // May 12, 2009 at 10:25 am

    I’m always excited when I can download a book I’ve been wanting to read. I really try not to get the pirated ones though. Someday I’ll be able to get a digital reader so I don’t have the eyestrain I get from reading off my computer.

  • Tim of Angle // May 12, 2009 at 12:57 pm

    You want to see it done right, go to Jim Baen. All their books are available, without DRM, in multiple formats, through their Webscriptions site — and a lot of them are available for free in their Free Library.

  • Tuesday Night Link RoundUp | Dear Author: Romance Novel Reviews, Industry News, and Commentary // May 12, 2009 at 6:33 pm

    [...] if he can whereas Cory Doctorow worries more about obscurity than piracy. Vromans riffs off of Booksquare’s answer to the solution which is to make the entire digital experience better when you buy than when you [...]

  • Carolyn Jewel // May 13, 2009 at 8:08 am

    Spend some time with a reader who, due to extreme confusion, bought the wrong format of a book…

    Why “extreme confusion”? The whole format thing is confusing, period.

  • Anysia (Booklorn on Twitter) // May 13, 2009 at 10:54 am

    As long as they charge print book prices or higher for an ebook that will be unusable in a year or two because of technological drift, legitimate ebooks will have difficulty gaining traction.

    I bought ebooks 5 years ago which are now unreadable electrons. Now I stick to free (NOT pirated) ebooks. If I can’t read them in a few years then at least I’m not out any money.

  • J L Wilson // May 14, 2009 at 5:20 am

    From an author’s perspective, I was so relieved when one of my publishers went to simultaneous print/digital releases. Staggered releases was a true P.I.T.A. for me since it meant doing promo twice for the same book. This means I could really offend readers by seeming to continually shout out about the same book all the time.

    And don’t get me started on formats, why publishers should offer what kinds of formats, etc. It’s total frustration for authors as well as readers….

  • Peter Jurmu // May 14, 2009 at 11:30 am

    I suppose one-liners from irritated authors in the article do make for better copy than useful information.

    This comes at an interesting time: at some point over the past 36 hours, someone appears to have indexed one of the RIAA’s/MPAA’s copyright bloodhounds’ entire server on Google.

  • Punk Librarian // May 15, 2009 at 9:49 am

    EDIT: “If the posting and accessing of books on pirate sites (Scribd is not a pirate site, though people misuse the service) tells us anything, it’s that there is consumer demand for books that are free.”

  • Frau // May 16, 2009 at 10:23 am

    Amen. The party line with most publishers on the piracy issue is downright shooting-yourself-in-the-foot retarded.

    Being temporarily stranded in a country where English paperbacks are a rare commodity, I figured, Hey! E-books should be a done deal by now. After all, this is the book industry – surely they must be more insightful than the media conglomerates, surely they must have learned something from the mistakes of the music industry?

    Oh, no joy. I didn’t want to wait 3 weeks for a book to ship and me to already have gone home, and so spent $5 extra on a digital copy of one of the few books I wanted that I COULD find to purchase legally.

    Turns out the reader software is downright hostile to your eyesight, amazingly enough being crappier than reading a simple .txt file. Like, jesus, are you INTENTIONALLY screwing this up? The text was riddled with strange mishaps, being illegible in places. It was like zero thought had gone into translating the product into a digital format.

    I gave up. I scouted the Internet for an illegal but readable copy. Sue me. Or, even better since I’m one of those freaks that spend up to $200 a week on buying your books: shape up.

    The technology for allowing more people to purchase even more books is already THERE. The only problem of the publishing industry is, why isn’t it being harnessed by YOU?

    Instead of putting all that money you now spend on suing readers, trawling websites, or tightening your DRM – why not spend a teeeensy tiny part of your budget developing the easiest, fastest, and most high-quality access-point for digital books?

    Do it NOW. Grip and shape the market. Make getting a book about an impulsive thought, a one-click on my computer, and a done deal without me leaving the couch.

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  • Digital Piracy vs the Left Hand of Darkness « Books on the Radio // Jun 19, 2009 at 1:47 pm

    [...] Kroszer lends her sensibility to the argument with this post on the issue at her Booksquare blog.  She notes while Ursula Le Guin and her publisher are dismayed to find digital versions of her [...]

  • Comfort Reads on the 21st Century | Booksquare // Jun 23, 2009 at 11:24 am

    [...] indicator, though it falls into the unscientific category. A few weeks ago, the New York Times did an article on digital piracy, opening with the fact that author Ursula LeGuin had discovered that a book of hers, published in [...]

  • Darren // Jul 20, 2009 at 7:32 am

    Too true: if you can’t make it a better product than what’s available for free, you simply cannot compete. People want to vote with their dollars, but not at the expense of being inconvenienced or – worse – feeling like criminals when they’re the ones buying the media.
    DRM has never stopped pirates, only frustrated consumers.