The Threat of Ebook Piracy

by Patrick on May 12, 2009

The New York Times ran an article today about the rise of ebook piracy:

For a while now, determined readers have been able to sniff out errant digital copies of titles as varied as the “Harry Potter” series and best sellers by Stephen King and John Grisham. But some publishers say the problem has ballooned in recent months as an expanding appetite for e-books has spawned a bumper crop of pirated editions on Web sites like Scribd and Wattpad, and on file-sharing services like RapidShare and MediaFire.

This is common sense:  as ebook demand rises, so does ebook piracy.  Pirates, after all, aren’t interested in products for which there is no demand.  Demand creates value, and once something is valuable, it’s worth stealing.  The reaction on the internet has been interesting to watch.  The ebook evangelists are all saying “so what,” pointing out that piracy is a sign of popularity, a kind of “progressive taxation” on the most successful.  Others are even pointing out that it can lead to increased print book sales.  Indeed, Cory Doctorow, who famously gives away his ebooks to sell more print books (a strategy that anecdotally seems to work at the moment but that will become increasingly less viable as market share of ebooks increases), is quoted in the article:  “‘I really feel like my problem isn’t piracy,” Mr. Doctorow said. “It’s obscurity.””

Others, such as Michelle Lemay, one of the owners of  Inkwell Bookstore in Cape Cod, MA (@michelleinkwell), have noted that despite those trumpeting its welcome side effects, piracy has a very negative effect on sales at small independent stores.  She tweeted: “piracy hurts sales though; 2008 manga sales down 17%” and pointed to this article in Publishers Weekly.  She also noted that the manga fans who normally shopped at her store seemed to see nothing wrong with finding the comics they liked online for free, and suggested that it’s difficult to educate kids about piracy when their parents are downloading music ripped from file-sharing sites like RapidShare.

So what to do about this?  How can we stop people from effectively stealing from writers, publishers and booksellers?  Writing on the Booksquare blog, Kassia Krozser makes the case for publishers to “reach readers where they live.” She goes on to map out a model:  “There is strong evidence (Exhibit A: iTunes) that consumers are happy to pay for digital product…as long as certain conditions are met: price, selection, and convenience.”

I think this is key.  For bookstores and publishers, the answer has to be this:  make it more appealing – in every way – to buy the ebook than to steal it.  Make your ecommerce site simple and direct.  Make your customer service flawless.  Offer the books people want and be as competative on price as you can be (Publishers, we indie bookstores could use a hand from you on this front). Make the experience reader-friendly, in every sense of the word.  And then go a step further.  Make shopping with you more like joining a club.  Make it seem exclusive.  In fact, everything I’ve just written really applies to brick-and-mortar bookstores, in general.

Don’t rely on educating or guilting your customers into shopping with you because:  a) It won’t work, and b) It turns people off.  People simply don’t like to be lectured to or guilted or threatened into doing something.  Harlan Ellison might be a hell of a writer, and he’s more than reasonable to request that people pay him for his work, but when he says “If you put your hand in my pocket, you’ll drag back six inches of bloody stump,” he’s risking turning people off (plus he sounds kind of crazy).

The challenge for bookstores and publishers is pretty simple:  find out what people want to read and how they want to acquire it, and then meet those needs.  If you don’t, you will go out of business, but it won’t be because of piracy.