imageEditor’s note: Who’s downloading e-books illegally, and how much are publishers really losing? Is every illegal download in fact a missed sale?

Randall Stoss, author of a “Napsterization” piece in the New York Times, should check out the post below by Felix Torres, a TeleRead community member. It’s a slightly edited version of comments Felix wrote here earlier. Publishers, too, should read him. This tutorial happened accidentally, but that’s what it is, in effect, while the headline is mine.

image I personally am in favor of legal action against major pirates, which Stross presumably would want at the very least. But DRMing of “sold” titles—and other consumer-hostile atrocities, including delayed releases of e-books—will just turn law-abiding readers into piracy fans. Why didn’t Stross mention the heavy damage the publishers are inflicting on themselves? Wouldn’t saner distribution of e-books be more cost-effective than just a flood of lawsuits? And now here’s Felix’s post. Also see Chris Meadows’ analysis of the Stross column. – D.R.

By Felix Torres

imageWhen it comes to book “piracy,” it is pretty clear there are kinds of players.

Category One: Hoarders

Hoarders grab free stuff just because it is free. More often than not, they will never actually consume what they troll for.

Even if they read a fraction of what they “pirate,” they would never actually buy the stuff if it were legally available. Hoarders are a nuisance at most—the online equivalent of shoplifters.

Category Two: Explorers

Explorers frequent the “pirate” sites out of curiosity, to sample content/genres/authors they otherwise wouldn’t. Unlike the music business, there is no radio-equivalent for books and review sites are of limited use. These people would be buying content if they could find it. Blame the publishers who have abdicated their promotional duties to retailers and reviewers and have failed to use modern technology to help customers find their product, as if word-of-mouth and newspaper columns are the only way to promote their products.

If publishers actually delivered properly priced e-books and properly used Web sites and Web ads,, this entire category of “pirates” would vanish overnight. They are under-served customers.

Category Three: True Believers

True Believers are the dangerous ones. They are tech savvy enough and committed enough to actively scan-OCR-proof print books and then offer them up for others to download. Not a trivial undertaking. These are people who passionately believe in e-books as a technology and have a strong idea of what the market should be like and are dedicated to promoting e-books by making content readily available and are not about to let legalities or copyrights get in their way.

They are hydra-like and dangerous to both the print and e-book industries. If their ethics should become mainstreamed, the way the music industry allowed Napster to get mainstreamed around the turn of the millennium, things could get very nasty for everybody. This sub-culture has been around since forever and likely will endure even if all publishers were to miraculously be as “enlightened” as Baen (whose content is not actively “attacked”) or, at least Harlequin.

But as long as it remains a sub-culture, the True Believers’ activities will be of minimal impact.

The thing is, it is fairly easy for anybody to plug in to the e-book distribution channels. The quality of product is spotty but occasionally *better* than the legal ebooks and often there is no legal alternative. (Just as in the early days of digital music-hint!)

Best solution to the “piracy” problem

The best solution to the problem of book “piracy” is to offer a competitive legal product that offers a good balance of price and value, quality, and accessibility, with fully defined terms of purchase. Way too much effort is being expended on secondary issues like file formats and DRM when first-order issues like terms of purchase (what is the customer buying? a file? a creative work? reading rights? resale rights? conversion rights?) and accessibility (where to find ebooks? how to tell what is good and what isn’t?).

Not brain surgery

This isn’t brain surgery; there are at least three ways to go about creating economically viable e-book ecosystems. It is being done by Baen, Amazon, and to a lesser extent, Fictionwise (multi-format sales).

Others probably exist, but instead of facing the music (sic) and realizing their business model is broken, most publishers are petulantly declaring war on their biggest retailer and their customers instead of realizing that it is their retrograde publishing, marketing and pricing policies that make piracy viable at all.

Finally here’s some advice to Macmillan, which says 90 percent of its front list is pirated. Whining about piracy achieves nothing.

Related: New York Times columnist fears ‘napsterization’ of e-books, a post by Chris Meadows. Also see Cost of piracy vs. price of fighting it: The real Pirates of Penzance? and 90 percent of Macmillan front list pirated: So much for the ‘protection’ of DRM. In addition, publishers might catch up with an O’Reilly book, Impact of P2P and Free Distribution on Book Sales, by Brian O’Leary of Magellan Media Partners.

Images: Second is from Wikipedia and third is a Creative Commons-license photo from Gemtech.