How to Deter Piracy of E-Books

In my last post, I discussed what I’ve observed to be the three biggest reasons people pirate e-books. Now that we understand the reasons, how do we actually deter piracy of e-books? Let me answer that question for each of the three reasons.

Why Do People Pirate E-Books?1. I Like To Collect stuff

Here’s the bad news: There’s not much you can do about this one. Collectors like to collect in quantity. They are unlikely to spend much money, if any, on the books. You can deter piracy by offering free books for download, but that will only solve the problem for people who are willing to download through legal means. The good news is that people who pirate huge numbers of books are not “lost sales.” They weren’t going to buy them anyway, so my suggestion is, don’t get too concerned about all the bits and bytes on their computers. Yes, it’s wrong, but it’s probably not worth worrying about them.

2. I’ll Never Pay for An E-Book

It’s possible to address some of the needs of the people in this group; it’s also possible to discourage piracy among them. Mostly, they refuse to pay for books because they:

• Are opposed to DRM

• Refuse to pay for something they don’t “own”

•Believe that e-books are overpriced

The easiest fix for this category of pirate is to release books DRM-free. This addresses two of the three concerns. DRM is so ridiculously easy to crack that it doesn’t slow down—much less stop—piracy, and it just angers this group of reader. It was interesting to note that on alt.binaries.ebooks, if people asked for Baen books, most of the time they were told to “just go buy them; they’re inexpensive and DRM-free.” I believe that sentiment makes it obvious how to convert this category of pirate into paying readers.

What about the people I mentioned who are too poor to buy books? Sane pricing strategies will address them. I’m not saying every book has to be $0.99, but don’t play pricing games that are obvious ploys to “encourage” us to buy hardcovers. A significant number of e-book readers never go back to paper. Artificially high prices either lead to piracy, or, almost as bad, to a reader not buying the book because by the time the price was lowered, he forgot it even existed. Treat us fairly with decent prices, and when we can afford to buy, we will.

Paul Salvette, author of The eBook Design and Development Guide, posted an excellent suggestion in the comments to the previous article. “The eBook vendors may want to consider selling eBooks based on a sliding scale in countries with lower GDPs,” he wrote. “So in West Africa, an eBook might be $2, whereas in the US, it would be $8, as an example. Piracy is [a] lost opportunity for the both the vendor and author, and $2 is better than zero.”

Libraries are also an answer to this one. If a reader can legally get a book for free from a library, the urge to pirate is much reduced. The big publishers all have ridiculous library polices that have been well covered here and elsewhere. Guys, accept that not everyone is going to pay for your book, but if I read it from a library and talk about it to my friends, it’s likely some of them will buy. Libraries are your friends, not your enemies.

3. The Book I Want Isn’t Available As An E-Book

This one is just blindingly obvious: Make them available! Release backlist books. End territorial restrictions. Bottom line: Release good quality e-books at decent prices, and you’ll attract and keep these readers.

Do these suggestions sound like many you’ve heard before? Sure, because they’re just common sense. What I’ve done is (I hope) showed why they will work to address some of the biggest reasons people pirate. Treating readers like ignorant criminals hasn’t worked so far. Why not try something different? It can hardly make the problem worse.

16 Comments on How to Deter Piracy of E-Books

  1. A couple of tweaks I’d recommend, especially for Reason 2: make PayPal or other micropayment options readily available and convenient for ebooks. One-click payments are not only more painless, they also stop people freaking out about doing credit card transactions online. iTunes, the Kindle Store and Google Play all help a lot with this – I’ll bet the extra sales through these channels are more than worth the cut the publisher pays to the platform. But any other method, including billing the cost to your ISP or mobile operator as happens in China, that avoids actually having to fill in credit card details will boost sales.

    And the corollary to this is, obviously, cut the prices so that a buying decision costs almost nothing. Higher sales will make up the difference.

  2. Something that factors into point 2 is that sometimes, particularly with hardcovers that haven’t yet come out in paperback but have been around long enough for Amazon et al to discount them, is that some absolutely refuse on principle to pay more for an ebook than is being asked for the physical one. There’s no reason for it other than greed and price-fixing on the part of the publishers.

    I don’t pirate ebooks – if they’re priced like this I just skip them and read something else – but this is an argument I can understand. Piracy is illegal, yes, but so is artificial price-fixing.

  3. There is a solution for at least some of the people in #1. One of the reasons to “collect” is the fear of not being able to access the books when needed (somewhat irrational, I know). A subscription-based service with a set library could turn some of these people into paying users. A lot of people used to rip DVDs they got from Netflix, but with so many streaming services (including Netflix’s) the impetus for this is reduced.

    They key, though, is that books need to stay available and be available. I’d pay for the right to read any book in a library, as opposed to sitting on a waitlist for a free version from the local public library. They key is not limiting the number of books I can carry (or having such a large limit that it doesn’t matter). Amazon’s Kindle lending program presumes we only read one book at a time. Researchers are often using 20-30 at the same time.

  4. I’ve long liked the subscription model, but I think it’ll be a cold day in downbelow before the big publishers allow it. They are still too stuck on “pay for it each time you consume it, especially if you want to consume it in a different media.” And yeah, Kindle Lending only being one book a month is a joke. I use it, but that one book takes me (at most) two days to read, leaving me with 28 more days most months to fill with reading material. I was planning to do an article on the Kindle Lending program.

    One click payments is an excellent idea. I wish someone else would come along and recreate the Fictionwise payment system. I liked basically filling my Micropay account and then buying until I depleted it. I do something similar at Amazon using gift cards. Although I have my credit card on file, I only use gift cards for e-books, and Amazon’s gift card system is great. Unlike B&N’s, but don’t get me started on that!

    Does Kobo have a gift card system, or is it just pay as you go on your credit card. I think I’ve only ever bought one book from Kobo.

  5. The only ebook I’ve ever gotten from clandestine sources was one that wasn’t available as an ebook. That makes me a 3).

    If I were a publisher, the statement, “Artificially high prices … lead … to a reader not buying the book because by the time the price was lowered, he forgot it even existed,” would terrify me. You’re losing sales, not because you haven’t bothered to make something to sell (see 3 above), but because you’re artificially pricing yourself out of the market, and when you do price into the market, no one remembers you exist. You could have profitably sold a copy of the book; you just weren’t clever enough to manage it. Publisher, meet Dodo.

    I can’t tell you how many books I haven’t bought because I forgot they looked interesting by the time they were available as ebooks. Literally, because it’s impossible to account for a counterfactual.

    Jack Tingle

  6. Every freaking time that ebooks from one of the major publishers go down in price, people start complaining that they are still too expensive. EVERY FREAKING TIME.

    I’ve seen this over the last dozen years. The complainers then take one example of a book that is more expensive than the hardcover or paperback and use that to pound away at the prices of all ebooks.

    Some will never be satisfied with the prices of ebooks, and the minute all the publishers try to satisfy these people is the day that publishing becomes a dead business.

    We’d do better to remind people what a bargain most ebooks are in comparison to a movie or any other long form of entertainment. I could buy two or three ebooks from major publishers for the cost of what I paid to see THE HOBBIT, and each book would take as long or longer than the movie to keep me entertained.

    If you don’t like the price of an ebook, buy another ebook that’s priced more reasonably and, eventually, market forces will make the books go down in price.

    Publishing isn’t a charity so stop expect it to act as one with minimal profit, and neither is distribution. Amazon is subsidizing some ebooks right now, but you can be dang sure they won’t try to stay in the red forever.

  7. Jack, that statement should scare publishers. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to. By the way, I’m in that category myself. If I remember to add a book that’s overpriced (in my opinion) to my Wish List, there’s a fighting chance I might remember it later when the price comes down. But if I don’t add it, forget it. Lost sale. I’ve moved on to the next book that was more reasonably priced.

    Oh, and just to be clear, I think $7.99 is “reasonably priced,” especially for a backlist book. I’ve willingly paid $14.99 for a book I wanted. I’m not cheap, but I don’t want to be taken advantage of either.

    Marilynn, you’re right. Publishers can’t please everyone, and they shouldn’t try. But I don’t agree with your statement that every time major publishers come down in price that people complain. I’ve seen very little criticism of Baen and their pricing over the years. They treated readers fairly, and readers responded. When the first Kindles came out, readers thought $9.99 was a pretty fair price, and they paid it. I don’t think the real issue is price. It’s the perception of how readers have been treated over the entire e-book thing. Lack of ownership, horrible proofing and formatting, windowing of titles and artificially high prices that appear to be intended to prop up hardback sales. That’s where the hate comes from. Not the prices. I’ve seen these items discussed, in some fashion, for the 15 years I’ve been reading e-books. Readers keep saying the same things. You start to wonder why publishers don’t listen.

  8. As with the first part of this article, the author is dishonest about the reasons for piracy, aka “theft.” A primary and very common reason, is that the thieves are dishonest and prefer to steal rather than pay. Like many shoplifters, especially those who steal non-essentials like cosmetics. The author ignores this “elephant in the room.” The author also ignores the possible deterrent value of lawsuits against thieves; if thieves are seriously concerned they’ll face the expense and humiliation of a lawsuit, they may be deterred.

    Summed up, the author’s viewpoint and “advice” is clueless in some ways, flatly dishonest in others.

  9. Agree with Marilynn that people will complain about high eBook prices no matter how low they get. The notion that price should equal zero is something we just have to confront, not coddle.

    In my opinion, the whole DRM thing is a figleaf, not a real issue. Yes, DRM can be inconvenient for those of us who change devices (as a longtime eBookWise customer, I’m in this category). As a publisher, I’ve migrated away from DRM because I want my customers to have convenient and permanent access to the books they purchase. That said, I don’t think many pirates really pirate because of a religious objection to DRM.

    I’m amused by Juli’s objections to price discrimination based on time but support for it based on geography. If publishers followed her suggestions, there would be huge lines of people complaining that they were being exploited (because if they went to Africa they could get the book cheaper…). Considering there are current lawsuits over textbooks being re-imported to the US from overseas (where publishers offered discounted prices to students in countries with low incomes), I think this is a non-starter. Similarly, I don’t see the problem with offering books at a premium price when they’re newly released (just as Toyota discounts their cars as a model year comes to an end). A problem is that the major publishers haven’t been very good about actually lowering the prices over time… which is bad business for them.

    I guess, though, my biggest objection is Juli’s taking the pirate excuses as legitimate objections that can be met. In my experience (admittedly limited), no prices are low enough that people won’t object (and remember, I founded my company to deliver affordable electronic fiction… I get the idea that prices should be low). In my experience, complaints about DRM are more an excuse than a reason for pirating. As for availability, I think all publishers agree we’d like to get our backlists published and widely available. For the old publishers, there are rights issues that need to be dealt with and for smaller publishers, there are simple logistical matters (I’ve been migrating my backlist to Smashwords but it takes time).

    Ultimately, doesn’t it come down to whether we, as customers and a society, support the concept of intellectual property? If I create something, do I have a right to limit access to it, or must I give it away for free (or at a price set by others). People who wouldn’t even think about grabbing a pair of jeans off the shelf at Wal-Mart don’t seem to mind grabbing an eBook from a pirate site. Considering that the world is moving toward an environment where essentially the only property that matters is intellectual property, it really is important that we get social agreement on this.

    Anyway, an always-interesting discussion.

    Rob Preece

  10. I’ve got a problem with the whole curmudgeonly – to put it kindly, Hiram – tone of the debate that seems to crop up in ebook piracy discussions. Insulting the author of a post that specifically asks for input and points of view in order to *stop* ebook piracy isn’t exactly going to help crack down on pirates, is it? But I’ve noticed this depressing tone before that seems to circulate around these discussions looking for an opportunity to vent.

  11. Rob, I’m guessing you haven’t hung out with people for whom DRM is almost a religious objection. I’ve seen that opinion on many a message board. I don’t share the depth of reaction I’ve seen from some people, but I understand and sympathize with the emotion. Not saying it justifies piracy, but it is a significant hot button for some readers.

    Why can’t they be legitimate needs to be met? Do they justify piracy? Definitely not. But if my customers consistently ask for something, and I refuse to give it to them, I’m certainly taking the risk that they will take their business elsewhere. As a self-published author, I kind of like that the big publishers are ignoring their customers. More room for me. As a reader, though, they irk me, which is why I wrote the articles.

    As to price by geography? Do I think it’s a perfect solution? Nope. But I couldn’t completely disagree with Paul’s idea for managing piracy in other countries. I thought it was a reasonable suggestion that added to the discussion, so I included it.

  12. Isn’t it a little early to say ebook buyers never go back to paper? We’re maybe three years into wide-scale mass marketing of ebooks and inexpensive readers and tablets. I’ve had readers and emulators for 7 or 8 years and when new and shiny I swore it was the only way to go.

    I still have a shiny new reader, but I still buy paper or listen to the audio books.

    I just don’t get the weird fatalism that surfaces with paper books.

  13. The other elephant in the room is the following: DRM-free eBooks that are reasonably priced and widely available are also regularly pirated. I know that from experience, and it isn’t collectors. People will land on my site’s book pages (that have links to my eBooks on Amazon, Smashwords, etc.) because they’re searching for my name or book titles along with “torrent” or “free download” or similar search terms. They want to read a specific book (mine!), but they don’t want to pay for it.

    It’s naive to believe that catering to the rationalizations listed in the article will reduce piracy. Many of us do, and it doesn’t make a difference.

  14. With all due respect, Sarah, it’s hard to believe that ignoring them is going to help either. Some of them are ‘rationalizations’ as you said, but some of them are legitimate barriers some customers have to acquiring a large percentage of the books they may want to read. The fact that you personally may not be creating those barriers is immaterial if you are the exception and not the rule. You still have to deal with a customer who is used to seeking out other channels because they have become accustomed to the legitimate channels not servicing them. As a community of authors, it’s in your best interests *as a group* to deal with the problems which CAN be solved. Some ‘pirates’ truly cannot be converted. Some can. You have to know why they aren’t buying before you can get them to pay up legitimately.

  15. I didn’t say to ignore them. I obviously haven’t.

  16. Montilee, it isn’t early at all. Watch the e-reader forums. Lots of people (myself included) don’t go back to paper. I’ve been reading e-books for almost 15 years now, and the number of paper books I’ve bought it that time were very few. Generally copies I wanted signed or books for work that weren’t available in e-format.

    Sarah, will making the changes I’ve listed above (and good on you for having done so) eliminate piracy? No. I don’t think that’ll ever happen. But it can reduce it. I personally know readers who stopped pirating when the books they wanted became available in legal e-editions.

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