Will e-book piracy ruin publishing?

As we all know, the creative industries have been shaken up by ‘digital piracy’, otherwise known as online file-sharing (depending on whose side you’re on). Until recently, it is the music and video industries who have borne the brunt of the damage. But with the advent of affordable, ubiquitous and pleasant-to-use e-book reading devices, could publishing be next in line?

E-book readers may increase book piracy

According to research by Attributor, a provider of ‘anti-piracy solutions’, demand for pirated e-books increased by 50% last year to around 1.5-3 million searches every day. On the surface, it is surprising that e-book piracy is not more widespread. E-books are much easier to share than other media, especially on slow connections. An average e-book PDF file is a measly 1-2MB, much smaller than an album’s worth of mp3’s, let alone a TV series. But demographic differences between those who are tech-savvy enough to get hold of an e-book (younger, more video-oriented media consumers) and the average book reader (older, more technophobic, cash-rich and time-poor), may account for this disparity. But given that downloading an e-book is as simple as typing ‘Title+Author+ePub’ into a search engine, these differences may soon disappear.

This spike undoubtedly has something to do with the release of decent e-book readers such as Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iPad. Filesharing news site TorrentFreak found that e-book downloads via BitTorrent (a filesharing application) shot up 78% a day after the release of the iPad. Much like the record and film companies before them, publishers have resorted to wrapping their digital content in ‘DRM’ (digital rights management) software, which prevents their customers from making copies of their purchases. This means that, unlike a regular book, owners of DRM-protected e-books cannot lend to friends, or view them on other devices. But just as with mp3 and video files, all it takes is one clever kid in a bedroom to hack through the DRM for the file to become instantly available online.

So are publishers are fighting a losing battle? Perhaps. But rather than panicking and clinging on to an old business model based on scarcity, publishers and authors could embrace the new possibilities of digital abundance. Some authors have already recognised the upsides of piracy. Science fiction author, graphic novelist and poet Neil Gaiman was initially hostile to fans sharing his content online. But when he noticed that sales of physical editions were going up in the places where pirated translations were available online, he changed his mind. In a recent interview, Gaiman said that digital piracy is really just “people lending books. And you can’t look at that as a lost sale. What you’re actually doing is advertising.”

This may be true for established authors such as Gaiman, whose fans are devoted enough to fork out for a physical copy of something they already got for free in digital form. And for the less well known, giving content away free is a great way to gain notoriety. As O’Reilly Media founder Tim O’Reilly put it, “The problem for most artists isn’t piracy. It’s obscurity.” But even if they succeed in getting their work read, how can those less-established authors support themselves under this model? Without more concrete sales potential, publishers may be less willing to risk generous stipends and precious capital on up-and-comers.

Some authors are experimenting with sidestepping the publisher altogether. Sci-fi author Cory Doctorow‘s latest short story collection With a Little Help was produced and distributed entirely off his own back. Electronic versions are available for free under a Creative Commons license (users are free to use and remix for non-commercial purposes). But Doctorow is making a tidy profit from a range of monetised versions. For the ‘super-spendy’ customer, a premium, hand-made, limited edition personalised cover costs $275. The paperback is available at $18. Those who are happy with the free e-book but want to show their appreciation can donate. All of this requires next to no capital; the premium hard covers are made to order in batches of twenty, while the paperbacks are printed-on-demand by Lulu.com. The financial details are transparent, published monthly on the book’s website, allowing customers to see how much the author is getting.

It remains to be seen whether the success of Doctorow’s low-capital ‘freemium’ model demonstrates a viable way forward for other authors. His model is based on the idea that if you make the digital version well known, the physical object will become worth more. But equally crucial is his relationship to his fan base and their belief in the project, without which they may not have been willing to spend money on something they could get for free. If this is the future of publishing, then authors will need to work harder than ever to inspire readers to support them.