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?)