Why an ebook piracy awareness drive is a waste of time and money

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The UK’s Guardian site is running a story with the title Authors demand drive to raise readers’ awareness of book piracy’s cost“. It’s basically a lot of authors and publishers whining about ebook piracy. They are demanding “someone” do “something” about it and let readers know that it’s bad – maybe via a publicity drive. From the story:

Crime writer David Hewson, author of the Italy-set Nic Costa novels, said a campaign along the lines of “People Who Love Books Don’t Steal Books” was urgently required – because readers who consider themselves his fans are downloading pirated copies of his ebooks and audiobooks.

Novelist Chris Cleave, author of The Other Hand and Little Bee, agreed. “I don’t blame anyone. They don’t do it [download books illegally] because they are evil but because they don’t understand,” he said. “In the music industry, when the price of music went down to zero – as it arguably now is because of filesharing – artists didn’t mind that much.

Whatthefu…? Let’s leave the minor details of the current health of the music industry, who would pay for the ebook campaign, and with what money, not to mention who would pay the slightest heed to it.

Some people clearly are not getting it, so I’m going to spell it out in terms that even those from the “old school” of publishing can understand.

1. Generally speaking, people will do what is easiest.

Sure there are exceptions to this rule, there are people who will pirate no matter what, and people who will go to the ends of the earth to pay – but generally the more roadblocks to legitimate purchase, the more piracy. Ask Apple. People are busy, and lazy, and they want stuff to be easy. We are talking about the vast, “general public” here, not the fringes.

2. Price is the biggest ebook roadblock

Again, with the same caveats as above, the higher the price of ebooks and more DRM, the more piracy. If it’s hard, they’re not interested. If they have to convert a format, they will rarely bother. Many people just aren’t going to bother to pirate a $0.99 ebook. If you want an ebook, a “One-Click” purchase of $0.99 is just less painful than the hassle of going to find a reliable torrent of it and downloading.

3. People buy more ebooks if the price is lower

This has been proved time and again. Yes, yes, there may be exceptions – and you may or may not want to go all the way down to a Konrath-esq $0.99, but there’s a big difference between $1-3 and the good old “agency” $7.99, $9.99 or worse. And that big difference is sales.

4. The “Agency Model” is promoting piracy, hurting sales

See all of the above. Oh settle down, all those who are squealing about how I can’t prove that statement. You’re right, no-one can. But I can use my consumer eyes (“agency” is almost always more expensive), logic, experience in the ebook market and personal observation.

Publishers, you can talk around it, “make your case” for agency, hand-wring about “giving back to authors” (honestly – don’t make me laugh) or just get over yourselves and grow your businesses.

Or, as I’ve said before, you can make it easier for the rest of us.

Via Jason Davis’ Book Bee site

12 Comments on Why an ebook piracy awareness drive is a waste of time and money

  1. There’s a slight distraction in your argument. The problem isn’t really with an agency pricing model in itself, where the publisher sets the sale price and the retailer (the agent) gets a fixed-percentage cut of the sale price. The problem is the prices the publishers are choosing to set. I don’t care what pricing model is used, only that the prices are reasonable.

  2. Orielwen – I disagree fundamentally. It is the use of this “Agency Pricing” that is the cause of the problem. When Price-Fixing Cartels happens, it inevitably results in high prices. The same has been the case in many other industries over the decades such as Oil, Airlines, Food, Electronics.
    The high pricing we see on Amazon and elsewhere by the Agency Pricing Publishers is the direct fall out of this cartel.
    Some people will suggest that individual authors who set their prices are operating Agency Pricing. This is not the case.

  3. I think the problem is that all these dialogues treat ‘pirates’ as this great, amorphous group when in reality, not all ‘pirates’ are the same. Some are digital hoarders who just like downloading torrents and are never going to buy (or even read!) most of this stuff anyway. You may as well write those people off right now as the cost of doing business, the same way retailers budget a margin for losses due to shoplifting, or offices understand that they’ll lose some money to people taking staplers home with them. Fwiw my own boss estimates she loses about $400 a month to stuff like people using the expensive colour printers for things they should be using the copier for, or laminating things that should not be laminated. Every business has this percentage of losses which occurs.

    The issue is that the people obsessed with ‘pirates’ focus on this group of people to no gain and as a result fail to focus on the convertible pirate, i.e. the one who downloads because a specific reason (geo-restrictions, price higher than paper, book unavailable, book locked with DRM etc). If you shift your piracy efforts into focusing on THIS group by resolving whatever issue it was that had them downloading to begin with, you’ll actually see gains in profit and reduction in downloading. But lumping these customers in with the ‘pirates are BAD!’ paranoia is a mistake because unlike the pirate who was never going to buy, these people actually might have. And if you fail to address the reason why they didn’t, you’ll never get them back as your customer.

  4. Joanna, you’ve written what is probably the single best summation of the piracy issue that I’ve seen. Wish all of the Agency 6 publishers would read and heed.

  5. Joanna, I agree that you’ve done a good job eloquently describing the different types of piraters. But that doesn’t mean that you’re right about the mix of piraters and the reality of why and how much they pirate. Brian O’Leary has done a fine job beginning to research this, but the results are hardly conclusive. Lost sales are incredibly hard to measure in reality, but just because you (and many others on this site) think it’s “not a problem worth worrying about” doesn’t make it so. I find it hard to believe that those who think so would be saying the same things if their content was being pirated.

    Is it possible that the reason most people pirate things is because it’s free and it’s hard to be caught? Or do you really dismiss that possibility and feel that most pirates would pay for it if it was a “reasonable price” (only allowed to be defined by them)? By the way, using iTunes as a positive example of the digital music market “working” is not a good reply as lots and lots and lots of music is still pirated.

    Along those same lines, (in my opinion) the way the music studios “screwed” over their customers (having to buy full albums instead of singles, so about a 10x increase in amount needed to spend to get what they want) is wholly different than the way publishers have “screwed” their customers (“high” prices for the full content ($1-5 dollars more than most seem to be willing to pay) and windowing of content (expensive hardbacks before paperbacks or ebooks).

    And yes, dealing with piracy is a reality that publishers have to face. But it’s funny to read all the people who think they “get it” denying the likelihood that the easy availability of pirated products is a real problem worth talking about. This doesn’t mean publishers should be incorporating strict DRM, but hearing people calling publishers “whiners” when they themselves are complaining about the difference between $9.99 and $12.99, or even $4.99 and $9.99 considering the amount of time spent with a book, is more than ironic.

    Let me ask you this rhetorical question about piracy: if the chance of being caught was 1 in 10 instead of 1 in 1 million+, do you think the levels of piracy would change? Exactly.

  6. There certainly are issues with who would pay for a ‘don’t pirate’ program. There are hundreds of authors, few of them rich. While many would benefit from such a program, they’d benefit even more if someone else would pay for it. Which is one reason we haven’t seen much of a program (although Epic has done some work along these lines) despite what authors would like.

    Yes, people will pirate more when prices are high. What people seem to forget, though, is that the goal is not to eliminate piracy. As many commentors have pointed out, eliminating piracy is impossible. Publishers make pricing decisions based on what they assess as the elasticity of demand, which in turn is impacted by piracy. But informing people that piracy is a bad thing would benefit publishers and authors regardless of the price (persuading those people who were wavering).

    I don’t think we’re going to see any huge anti-piracy movement, but anything we as authors and publishers can do to remind people that taking a book hurts not just huge conglomerates but tiny companies like mine, and authors who aren’t super-rich like J. K. Rowling, but who hope to make a few dollars for the enjoyment they provide readers.

    Rob Preece
    Publisher

  7. Anon, I think it is a question of priorities. Publishers right now are lumping everyone together and so failing to deal with convertible pirates by meeting their needs. Solve THAT aspect of piracy first, because it is easy to do and you can actually achieve gains in your profit and customer base, and THEN I am prepared to look more closely at the rest of it. But as long as they continue to turn away people who do want to pay, I am afraid they have no credibility to cry “piracy!” to me.

    I don’t think the goal of iTunes it to prove that piracy can be eliminated. As I said, I don’t think it can be any more than shoplifting or any other industries loss margin can be. But I think it does prove that people will pay for digital product when you make it easy and affordable to them. I don’t think the “why would people pay when they can get it for free” argument is true. ITunes HAS proven that people will pay even if getting it for free is possible. My experience with tormented books has been that most I have seen were riddled with errors anyway. I’d rather pay for the proper one.

  8. I don’t pirate books – I don’t know how, or how to find the web sites for it, so it’s not all that easy.

    What I do do is not buy books at all if the price is what I consider unreasonable. And unreasonable to me is anything over $5 or $6 for a back list title.

    If, for example, Patricia Veryan’s titles were available, and at a price I could afford, I’d gladly buy one (or two, or three) titles each payday until I had her entire list. There’s several hundred dollars there being lost, because the files aren’t available. Would I pirate them if I could find them? I don’t know.

    If Baen can afford to sell their front list titles at $5 and $6, I don’t understand why the Big Publishers can’t do so.

  9. I think there may be some benefit to educating users, but the arguments have to be more reasonable than “It’s bad, M’kay?”

    For example, for a casual reader, what’s the difference between:

    – going to the library and getting a book, reading it and returning it,
    – borrowing a book from a friend, reading it and returning it (or passing it on),
    – downloading a book, reading it and deleting it?

    I don’t think most people will see a difference. In all the cases, there was no payment to read the content. The author received no additional revenue. The publisher received no additional revenue.

    It’s a difficult and abstract distinction – if a distinction even exists logically, and until that can be clarified to a broad audience the ‘war on pirates’ is just a losing battle.

  10. As long as the publishers insist on trying to implement draconian and exploitative copyright policies that the public can transparently see for what they are, no amount of ‘education’ will make a whit of difference.

    The public are not stupid, despite the apparent belief by some in the publishing industry that they are. The Publishers and some misguided writers think they can hoodwink them with the blanket and indiscriminate use of the language of ‘theft’. It is a silly and insulting waste of the public’s time and of their money, and more over it just enhances a sense of contempt for the industry.

    As long as the industry tries to sell the public a pup, by replacing ‘selling’ with ‘licensing'; by supplying nobbled eBooks files; by preventing cross platform and cross platform reading; by locking legitimately sold files and by preventing fair lending and sales. And as long as they then trying to convince the public that anyone daring to act in defiance of these new restrictions is lumped into the vast ‘Theft, Illegal pirates, ‘we’ll get you through the courts” kind of obnoxious language … the public across all spectrums of society will continue to treat them with disdain and refuse to listen to ANY message they have, legitimate or not.

  11. I must point out that in a number of countries authors do receive payment for books borrowed from libraries, not a great deal but income is income.

  12. Andrew Cordier // May 7, 2011 at 7:28 pm //

    Why does point number 2 have the same title as point number three, but the same content as point number 1? What is the “Agency Model”? Why does a website about reading have such awful writing?

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