Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Rum

Tomorrow we will resume our continuing series on Indie Publishing for International Writers, but first I want to talk about something we are going to be hearing a lot more about in the next twelve months. Pirates!

One of the reasons the publishing industry has been slow to embrace e-books is their fear of piracy.  They see what happened to the music industry, and they are scared.  And they know that e-books can be disseminated a lot easier too.  A typical MP3 will be around 5MB and with a good connection you can download it in a minute or so.

An e-book can be as small as 200kb, meaning you could download a year’s reading in the same time it takes to download one song.  And it’s happening already, file-sharing sites are full of books, often available prior to their official release date (publishing industry: tend to your own!).

The industry has responded in two ways which are amazingly short-sighted, ineffective, and have only served to alienate the wrong people, you know, the people that actually pay for books.

Digital Rights Management

The first was DRM.  Fans of legal music will turn the air blue on the very mention of these three little letters, and for good reason.  DRM was brought in by the music industry to prevent people ripping tracks from CDs (they had legally purchased) and putting them onto their computers (where they could, in theory, be shared with those that hadn’t legally purchased them).

The problem with DRM was that people who had legally purchased the music, had to re-purchase it to listen to it on their computers or iPods. The other problem was that it was so easy to crack, that it didn’t stop the pirates anyway (and there is nothing like announcing a new ‘impregnable’ security measure to attract every hacker from Manila to Moscow).

And some of it was really awful. In 2005, Sony introduced new DRM technology on 52 different titles that installed a rootkit on your computer, causing a serious security breach, that some could only remedy by wiping their systems.  Sony forgot to tell any of their customers, and only came clean when they were rumbled.  Sony tried to fix the problem by releasing a patch, which actually made things worse.  They are now the subject of a class-action suit in the U.S.

Despite this, the publishing industry whole-heartedly embraced DRM, in the face of opposition from the copyright holders, you know, the writers.  The level of DRM is set by the publisher/distributor, but depending on what e-book you purchase (and from whom), you may be prevented from reading it on another device (so you have to re-purchase your entire library if you switch e-readers).

You could also be prevented from cutting and pasting, copying (for personal back-up purposes), or even printing.  Some go as far as to link your credit card information to the e-book file to discourage you from sharing. And, in a highly-publicised incident in 2009, Amazon deleted e-books from customer’s Kindles (without warning), that they had already paid for.  As if to underline the Orwellian ramifications, one of the titles was 1984.

Delayed e-book release.

The other measure that the publishing industry came up with to combat piracy was to hold back the release of the e-book version.  They wanted to protect those juicy hardback sales as much as possible, and saw this as a perfect way to do that, and at least make some sales before their new bestseller hit the files-sharing sites.

There are several problems with this strategy.  First, as mentioned above, some books are being pirated before their release dates anyway (in fact some are being pirated when there isn’t even an e-book version, all you need is a scanner after all).  The file that the publisher sends to the printers is a normal PDF file, nothing fancy. It passes through a lot of hands. It’s easy to see how piracy can happen.

Second, most people who have bought e-readers don’t buy physical books anymore. They feel they are paying the price for the actions of pirates, by being forced to either buy an expensive print version they don’t want, or have to wait for the e-book version.  A quick trip to any Kindle user’s forum will reveal how this can turn a happy, paying customer into angry one who is tempted to download a pirated version.

How to deal with piracy

I’m going to make some suggestions on how the publishing industry can deal with piracy.

  1. Stop antagonising your own paying customers.  This means no DRM.  This means stop delaying the release of e-books.  This means cut your e-book prices to a reasonable level.
  2. Stop taking lessons from the music industry.  I mean, seriously.  One business model which is beginning to look unsustainable seems insistent on making the same mistakes of one that killed itself.  Good call.
  3. Get those backlists online.  I went looking for a Phillip K. Dick story the other day, but it’s not available on Kindle.  I know there is some legal wrangling with authors over who owns the rights and how much the royalties will be, but come on, cut a deal.  One sure way to make piracy attractive is to not have the product on sale at all.
  4. Add some value.  What about some extras like they have on DVDs?  There are a million ways publishers could add value to e-books at a low cost.  What about deleted scenes? Alternative endings? Historical notes? (But don’t forget to pay the author for all this extra work.)

Does piracy matter?

I was tempted to add a fifth point there: don’t sweat it. There are is one major thing the publishing industry has done that killed a lot of piracy before it even got started.

Think back again to the music business.  What led to the initial boom in illegally downloaded songs? Napster. Suddenly there was a killer app, a piece of software that made it easy to access digital music.  One of things that made it so successful was that the music industry was slow to react. Simply put, there was no legal way for fans to get access to a lot of this stuff.

That is, until iTunes came along. Where’s the parallel here? Amazon’s Kindle store. The publishing industry has a delivery method in place to reach their customers, so the chances of something like Napster-for-Books coming along are slim.

Joe Konrath has made the point on his blog over and over that the only way to combat piracy is with convenience and price.  The convenience is in place. We now have Amazon, Sony, Kobo, B&N, Apple, and Google all selling e-books, covering every possible e-reader, phone, tablet, and computer.

But trade publishers are still dragging their heels on price.  And they have wiggle room here.  As I showed before, over 50% of the e-book cover price for new releases is going to the publisher.

The future

There was a lot talk about piracy at the London Book Fair this week. It was disappointing to hear one of the Big 6 publishers say that the e-book royalty structure was here to stay. He defended it saying that they couldn’t raise e-book royalty rates (for authors) because of the increasing cost of fighting piracy. He even had the neck to say that “unknown costs” would replace all the savings made on e-books. At least one agent had the sense to push back on this nonsense.

This kind of talk makes me wonder if publishers are really ready to cope with the challenges faced by the digital revolution, or whether they are just sticking their heads in the sand.

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time spent outside. He writes novels under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership with his books, blogs, workshops, and courses, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.

10 Replies to “Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Rum”

  1. This was a really interesting article and brought up some good points! I hadn’t really given piracy much thought to be honest – downloading stuff is so ubiquitous now that you don’t really think about it do you?

    In addition to your points I’d like to add that piracy can be a good way to just get you reading new stuff. Case in point: I recently received a large kindle folder from my friend that had around…oh I don’t know probably 200 or so books in it. Just a few titles from many different authors and I started reading ‘American Gods’ by Neil Gaiman. I’m really enjoying it and can tell you without a doubt that I will be purchasing the rest of his titles because I enjoy his work and therefore I feel I should pay for it. I would also read any columns he wrote and would pay to hear him speak if he ever came “to a town near me” (hehe). I would also pay for collectable hardback editions of his work if they were made available. So overall I’d say that piracy has helped here!

    Of course there will always be those people who don’t think like that and will always take a pirated copy over a purchased one…but I think it’s fair to ask if they would have ever bought the book anyway. Seems more likely that they would have borrowed it from a friend or gone to a library to me.

    Great article!

    1. Hi Kelly,

      You make some very good points. In fact, Neil Gaiman himself has written about this subject. He said that he used to be dead against piracy, but then saw that his sales went up in Russia after his works were pirated there. He know considers piracy as “people lending books” to each other, and believes that piracy can be used as a valid promotional tool. It’s an interesting viewpoint and I will be writing more about that, and an experiment another writer did where he pirated his own work, next week. Glad you enjoyed the piece. Thanks for reading.


    1. That’s a very, very good point. I remember Neil Gaiman putting this point at a book reading. He asked the audience how they had discovered their favourite writer. The vast majority had done so through either a recommendation or being lent a book. That is “piracy” on one sense, and yet it is one of the most effective ways for a writer to build readership. My three favourite writers were discovered by someone lending me a book. I have gone on to buy everything they have written since. So for that one “lost sale”, those writers (and their publishers and agents), have gained many, many more.


  2. Yeah, the “cost of fighting piracy” is an easy one, just like you say: LOWER your retail price, and make it super easy for people to LEGALLY buy the eBooks, and it’ll all work out okay. Yeah, some people will still steal, but enough people will BUY your product to keep you rolling…

  3. Interesting article. I agree with other comments about lending books and (gulp!) CDs too. I love the band Eels, but most of my Eels collection has been ripped from my mate’s CDs. I have bought some, but more importantly I rave about them at any given chance, converted a coupe of friends, and a group of us went to see them play last summer.
    So, how could my mate letting me copy his music collection have done any harm?
    Yes, I would love to be a stinking rich author, but I also want my work to be read. People can borrow it, copy it, whatever, as long as I remain identified as the author of the work.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *