Audrey Watters at ReadWriteWeb takes a look at the contentious issue of e-book vs. paper pricing and whether it is likely to promote piracy. Mentioning Random House’s decision to join the agency pricing crowd, and the ongoing anti-trust investigation in Europe, she links to a Reddit thread discussing examples of e-books priced higher than their paperback or hardcover versions.
The Reddit thread is kicked off by one person complaining about the prices on these books (“I love the kindle but this pricing stuff right now is making me question all of it. I have a hard time placing these values on the ebooks when they are DRM protected fancy rentals.”) and another wondering if it is morally wrong to purchase a paper copy and then torrent the e-book. As Watters points out, this was covered last year by New York Times ethicist Randy Cohen, whose affirmative answer unleashed a considerable torrent of objection from the publishing industry.
E-Books as Home Taping
As Cohen compared books vs. e-book torrenting to CD vs. mp3 ripping, Watters compares it to the double- and triple-dipping that took place in the music industry as consumers were enticed to change from records to cassettes to CDs.
But as someone who owned certain records on LP, then in some cases paid for these same albums again on cassette so I could play them in my car, I admit, I do remember balking when I was expected to purchase the same music a third time around, just to have it on CD, just so I could easily convert it to MP3 or put it on my iPod. Adding to my displeasure, this new medium – the CD – was almost twice the price as the cassettes and records. That, not my wanton desire to destroy the members of Metallica’s ability to earn a decent living, was what made piracy appealing.
I owned plenty of albums on LP and CD at the same time as I owned a cassette Walkman. But double-dip for cassette tapes? Why? Blank 90 and 110 minute tapes were cheap, and it only cost an hour or so of time to put each of my favorite records and CDs on tape for mobile listening. And it’s not something I came up with on my own—my parents, both librarians (who would be respectful of IP if anyone would) were doing it first, because it was only sensible. (I used to carry around not one but two 30-tape carry cases with me every where I went. The iPod was invented for people like me.)
And we were far from the only ones to do this sort of thing. Of course, the record companies weren’t thrilled by this practice (see image at right), and they really weren’t thrilled once people discovered they could rip the unprotected digital format of CDs into conveniently-small mp3 files.
And that’s why the media and publishing industries subsequently became so attached to DRM. It’s not just to try to prevent piracy, it’s enforcement of double- or triple-dipping. You want to read the same book in print, on your Kindle, and on your obscure Linux-powered PDA that was never worth anyone’s while to write a commercial e-reader for? Payment times three, please. (Or, more likely, times two and the PDA is out of luck.)
What Are We Paying For, Anyway?
And one point not touched upon in either the RWW post or the Reddit thread (that I noticed) is the atrocious quality of many of these so-expensive e-books. I’ve been reading through Diane Duane’s “Young Wizards” series on Nook lately and have been finding errors in every chapter, some of them fairly hilarious ("The reader is invited to examine the next Jew chapters…"). If I’m going to get something riddled with OCR errors anyway, why am I putting up with publisher-mandated pricing and DRM? Maybe I should just buy the print books and download the scans (or cracked commercial e-books).
Or OCR them myself. Once a chore only undertaken by egoboo-seeking peer-to-peer peers, home scanning is gradually moving toward the realm of something akin to taping cassettes off of records: time-consuming, but not out of proportion to what you get. A number of inexpensive do-it-yourself (and even commercial) scanning/photographing frames have come out over the last year or so, and as computers get faster and cameras get better, it’s only going to get easier until, someday, we’ll all be able to riffle the pages of a book while holding a cell phone over it to produce a reasonably high-quality copy.
And isn’t that going to bring about some changes? Instead of downloading a scanned copy of a book, people might just wander into a bookstore or library and quickly and efficiently do it themselves, walking out a few moments later with an OCR’d copy that, while not perfect, is at least as good as what they might download off the ‘net. (Some people are already doing at least the cliff-notes version of this.) People might stop talking so much about the ethics of peer-to-peer and start talking about the ethics of personal scanning. (Though unlike cracking DRM or peer-to-peer downloading, scanning a book you own should theoretically be just as legal as ripping a CD you own to mp3.)
Open Letter to Publishers
Publishers have got things bass-ackward as usual. They’re doing the Wile E. Coyote air-walk, and sooner or later they’re going to have to look down to see the gaping canyon under their feet and let gravity take effect. The more tightly they try to lock stuff down, the worse quality they give us for the higher price, the faster they hasten their own demise.
Listen up, publishers. The more you irritate and aggravate consumers, the less you make them want to buy your products or have any sense of loyalty to you at all, and the more you make some of them want to rip you off out of spite. In a world where the majority of consumers apparently find piracy acceptable to some extent, you really need to be working at giving consumers a reason to buy from you other than “it’s illegal not to.”
I think you’ve only got a few years left. It’ll be a great shame if you crash and burn, and it will probably hurt a large number of authors, but it will also give a large number of authors incentive to find other ways to reach their audiences. Authors won’t stop writing (to feed their creative impulse), and they won’t stop trying to make money off of that writing (to feed the rest of them)—the end of mega-publishers won’t mean the end of people’s appetite for books. The more people are out there trying new business models, the more working models will be found. (And it’s already starting, thanks to trailblazers like J.A. Konrath and Amanda Hocking.)
Since it’s pointless to try to sue every single person who engages in or even who enables piracy, perhaps publishers should start concentrating less on enforcing what consumers are supposed to do and more on taking the best advantage of what they will do anyway.