Book Publishers and the Book Pirates


Last week, Publishers Weekly reported on a study conducted by Attributor on book piracy. It concluded that over 9 million books were illegally downloaded last year, resulting in potential losses of up to $3 billion. While the study is admittedly flawed–for starters it works on the assumption that every download is the equivalent of a lost full-price sale–it shows that illegal book downloads are alarmingly common. I would have thought books would not be so ready to succumb. Don’t we still have libraries? For a great discussion of the study itself, check out this post on Jim C. Hines’ blog.

With books following the trends of other digital media, here’s my completely unsolicited–and somewhat foolhardy–tips on how the publishing industry can best navigate the transition to digital:

Understand what you can control. I’ve spent most of my career working in the gap between web companies and old school business. The toughest lesson for traditional businesses to learn is how little control they have in the wilds of the web. I’ve seen Satanic cult discussions break out on Barbie doll pages, and customers pleading for help in comments sections where no one will ever hear them. On the web, customers will act in strange and unpredictable ways. That said, publishers cannot control when their books become available as ebooks. That will happen globally on the day of publication, if not earlier. What they can control is when a legal ebook is available. By delaying their release, publishers only encourage consumers to seek out the pirates. As pointed out on TechFlash, Game Change has been deluged with one star reviews on Amazon. With 120 (and counting) one star reviews because it doesn’t come in ebook form, how much of an impact will delaying the ebook have on overall sales?

Don’t alienate your best customers. Any lengths taken to introduce DRM or other restrictions will only hurt the people who buy the most books. Pirates will sail past them, or worse, take them as a challenge.

Set a fair price. Textbook publishers are going to have a hard time.  Students have long sensed a racket when they’re required to buy specific books, and can only get them at one bookstore in town for hefty price tags. This also underscores the customer sentiment that an ebook, due to savings from not having to print and distribute the book, should not cost the same as a hardback.

Make lengthy samples available of every book for free. A lot of the illegal downloads could be just the desire to sample before buying. It amazes me that some books offer no sample pages at all online, and even more put up just the table of contents or the index. Make the first 50 pages of the book available. If a potential customer reads all the way through page 50, the subsequent sale is a done deal.

Agree on an industry standard ebook format. Setting an industry standard would be a huge step forward in preventing an iTunes-like iron grip on downloadable books. Kindle books currently only work on Kindle. An industry standard would mean that ebooks could work across the myriad of emerging devices. Thus consumers won’t need to seek out a pirated version, following the frustration of downloading a legal copy only to find out it doesn’t work on their specific device.

There’s no reason for book publishers to repeat the lessons foisted on the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). There, we had folks like Russell Frackman, the first lead attorney for the RIAA, who until the Napster case never used either e-mail or a word processor but instead dictated his legal papers to his secretary. The thinking was, once Napster was put out of business the record industry would have nothing to worry about. Ummm, how did that work out? Argh!

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