Monday, January 25, 2010

Arrrh! The E-Book Piracy Nightmare Scenario

Just yesterday my first Unanswered Question about the future of publishing was, Is pirating of books, which is now so easy to do, going to be an annoyance--i.e. a perpetual problem, but one that is not large enough seriously to affect the industry--or is it going to take a huge, crippling bite out of sales as it seems to have done in the music business? Right on cue, Sathnam Sanghera of the London Times has stepped in with an article that offers his own alarming answer, looking at how digital downloads have affected the music industry. Citing the Digital Music Report 2010, he writes that the industry
has been decimated. Even though legitimate digital sales have grown nearly ten-fold in the past five years, overall the music industry’s global sales have fallen 30 per cent over the same period. Illegal downloads still account for 95 per cent of music downloads worldwide.
I don't happen to believe that the music business is a perfect analogue for book publishing. For one thing, the experience of listening to a song from your iPod is he same as listening to it from a CD, but reading a book on your Kindle is not the same as reading a hardcover.  So I suspect printed books are going to remain a much bigger piece of the market than either CDs or vinyl did.  

I also think Sanghera's article conflates different approaches to "free" book content. He treats publishers deliberately giving away free samples to spur sales as if it were the same as illegal file sharing. Nonetheless, it's salutary to be reminded of just how cavalier consumers can be about paying for the sweat of an author's brow.  To go from the faceless statistics of the Digital Music Report to the anecdotal evidence of one candid ripoff artist, just read this eye-opening interview from The Millions with one file-sharer calling him- (or her) self The Real Caterpillar. 
In the past month, I have uploaded approximately 50 books to the torrent site where you contacted me. I am much less active then I once was. I used to scan many books, but in the past two years I have only done a few.
"Only" 50 books uploaded this month!

Caterpillar has a complicated morally self-justifying calculus by which he/she doesn't pirate new books by some authors, to "avoid causing noticeable financial harm to the author whose work I love enough to spend so much time working on getting a nice e-copy if I were to do so." But Caterpillar cheerfully acknowledges "it is clear that morally, the act of pirating a product is, in fact, the moral equivalent of stealing" while continuing to do so. 

It seems pretty likely most file-sharers don't even bother to think about the moral issues this much while they do their Blackbeard act on authors', and publishers', livelihoods.  Having read these two articles back to back today makes me feel that anyone who doesn't think piracy is going to be a really significant problem in the coming years is being willfully naive. 

(illustration by the great Howard Pyle, from Howard Pyle's Book of Pirates--copyright expired!)


Unknown said...

One tiny flaw in your argument though is that listening on an ipod is the same as CD... it's not :) Especially when you're talking about "old" music-- the kind with actual orchestration and multiple parts being sung at the same time (not electronically dubbed over). The problem with CDs though is that the convenience of a pod outweighed the superior sound of an MP3(4).

BUT I don't think that a digital reader is that convenient :)

D. Antone said...

It may be a while off, but the digital distribution of books as an industry standard is only a matter of time, and so is the pirating of said books. It's going to be tough on publishers and writers alike. It's hard enough to get published today, it's a gamble for all involved. Add piracy into that mix and it's only going to make matters worse.

However, digital distribution isn't inherently a bad thing. The technically savvy artist can use it to get the word out, to generate a fan base before even making a public deal.

Great post.

Peter Ginna said...

Courtney, I'm sure for some listeners there is a distinct difference between music from an iPod and that from a CD. Other listeners swear the sound from a vinyl record is better than either. There is certainly a tradeoff of sound fidelity vs. convenience. But, at least for me, listening to a track from an iPod and hearing one from a CD are a lot closer than reading a well produced hardcover is to reading a Kindle.

D. Antone, glad you liked the post. I'm not arguing against digital distribution by any means, just that publishers need to go into it with eyes wide open about the problems with it, among which piracy looms large.

Anonymous said...

All of this talk reminds me of the music industry a decade ago. That was a big fail. Now, customers just buy the singles that are good, rather than a whole album with only one or two songs they like. No wonder they're making less money.

As for the piracy thing, I think publishers are causing the problem, which starts with how you buy a book.

So let's say I want to buy a steampunk novel to read. I can go turn on my Kindle and find the book. But wait, the publisher has decided to delay putting the book in the Kindle store. So now, I have to make a decision. I can drive to the store and hope they have the book, which is rare, or I can pirate the book. The other decision is to just buy something else. The later decision feels morally correct.

I can see people who want the luxury of having the product now just pirating. It's far easier than driving to the store and hoping the book is available. And if they cannot buy it, then they'll just steal it on some online site.

Oh, but let's throw in another problem. Let's say you buy the book, but it has DRM. Now, how are you supposed to lend it to a friend? You can't. So some people will just go out and download a pirate version to get a copy without DRM.

Is anyone really surprised that piracy is happening? Publishers are practically creating the market.

ellen9 said...

I read The Millions post with great interest.
My fave was probably the comment by August in which he pointed out the need for editors, proofreaders, and the like and concluded:
""Now you may think that authors should cut out the middle men all
together, no editors or proofreaders or marketers and do all that work themselves. And a few can, actually, and bully for them. But the set of skills that ... allow you to sit alone in a room for a year or two with nothing for company but a laptop and imaginary people talking in your head is not always, nor indeed usually, the set of skills that allow you to glad-hand and relentlessly self-promote. This is not going to magically change because a handful of middle class digital trinkets suddenly become popular. And then there’s the editors; if you think most writers are capable editors of their own work, allow me to point you to the train wreck that Anne Rice has become."

Even the rather fascinating specimen who is The Real Caterpillar admits how very much time he takes running his scans of books thru OCR and proofing them -- work for which people are usually paid and deservedly so.

I agree wholeheartedly with your thesis that digital distribution is not the enemy of those who participate in the creation of books, but we do need to go into it with eyes wide open. And, um, maybe feet raised to squash that caterpillar.

ellen9 said...

And massive kudos on the Howard Pyle illo.
Men of Iron! Pyle rocks.

Unknown said...

I also think it was interesting that the speaker at DNW noted that most of pirated content was pre-publication galleys, ARCs, and manuscripts. Whether an inside or hacked job, these pirates are getting fool's gold and giving it out as our product. Often the two are very similar, but sometimes there are vast differences, and I don't want our industry judged by the public (especially when we know how rare and valuable editors, copyeditors, and proofreaders are) on a beta or first-generation version.

Unknown said...