E-Publishing May Be Doing Everything Right, But We Can’t Ignore The Spectre Of Piracy

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Mr. Obama, Tear Down This Wall(ed Garden)

I’m a full supporter of e-books, e-book devices, and agree (mostly) with this excellent WSJ assessment by Rob Reid of the the e-book business. In short, Reid points out that 10 years ago this month the music industry began prosecuting its users and implementing draconian DRM to stave off an impending piracy revolution. That was the year Napster closed shop and pirates, however briefly, lived in a hostile environment. Since then, the music industry has lost $7 billion in music sales. Their war is lost and that sum, however paltry it looks, is pretty much the new normal.

The e-book industry, on the other hand, has been quick to embrace all things digital, creating a number of great distribution channels thanks to strong partnerships with major booksellers. As Reid notes, publishers embraced the Kindle while music distributors saw everything as a threat.

But the record labels greeted the first mass-market MP3 player—the Diamond Multimedia Rio—with a lawsuit. An industry news release justified this, saying it was “doubtful that there would be a market for MP3 recording devices but for the thousands and thousands of illicit songs on the Internet.”

Piracy, then is the norm for MP3s. But, as Reid writes, it’s considered a “low-rent and time-consuming experience compared with the sanctioned alternatives” when it comes to books. Or is it?

Arguably, book piracy is a small problem but that could quickly change. Bestsellers are always available on pirate sources but the vast majority of books won’t appear on The Pirate Bay. However, as a poll commissioned a year ago shows, book piracy draws in an a fairly unique demographic – in this case older women. Whereas a publisher was once secure in knowing that romances, thrillers, and other popular fiction could keep folks coming back, title after title, the fact is that many of these best sellers quickly appear on pirate sites.

More important, these books are easy to grab. You can download a dozen books in a few seconds, filling up an e-reader in an hour or so. Although it is amazingly easy to buy books on a Kindle, it’s far cheaper and now far easier to grab a few dozen e-pubs.

Publishers need to make e-books worth the download. They need to explain the value of the book to a plugged-in audience and they need to grab fans’ attention before the pirates do. New services like GoodReads add a bit of social frisson to new books but most efforts are ham-handed at best.

Rather than hiring Kardashians to write cookbooks, publishers need to control their online strategy. Perhaps they’re fine with the current rate of piracy vs. sales and their target audience – older, more educated, and potentially wealthy – may seem less likely to search for Stephen King mobi files. Although they’ve survived the initial flood with aplomb, the second wave of piracy and e-book adoption could swamp the industry as a whole, just as it swamped the music industry.