This post about my novel potentially being pirated made me look into book piracy and freebooks and just how this will affect the future of self-publishing and publishing on the whole. Check out this endlessly fascinating interview with a bittorrent book pirate. He justifies it this way:
1) With digital copies, what is “stolen” is not as clear as with physical copies. With physical copies, you can assign a cost to the physical product, and each unit costs x dollars to create. Therefore, if the product is stolen, it is easy to say that an object was stolen that was worth x dollars. With digital copies, it is more difficult to assign cost. The initial file costs x dollars to create, but you can make a million copies of that file for no cost. Therefore, it is hard to assign a specific value to a digital copy of a work except as it relates to lost sales.
2) Just because someone downloads a file, it does not mean they would have bought the product I think this is the key fact that many people in the music industry ignore – a download does not translate to a lost sale. I own hundreds of paper copies of books I have e-copies of, many of which were bought after downloading the e-copy. In other cases I have downloaded books I would never have purchased, simply because they were recommended or sounded interesting.
3) Just because someone downloads a file, it doesn’t mean they will read it. I realize that buying a book doesn’t mean someone is going to read it either, but clicking a link and paying $10-$30 is very different – many more people will download a book and not read it than buy a book and not read it.
Trouble is, very often a free download does mean a lost sale. This will especially be true once ereaders are a major share of the market. The Cory Doctorow model (free ebook, print for sale) just won’t work. Ereaders will get better and be more “book-like” so there will be no reason to buy an additional print copy. This method will be even less viable for print-on-demand self-publishers whose work is entirely online – both the ebook and access to the print book. Cory Doctorow is published by Tor so you can find his print books at most brick and mortar bookstores.
Zoe Winters makes the point that piracy isn’t that big of a threat because it’s a pain:
As a thought experiment I picked a fairly well known book and went hunting for it. Here is what I came up with: Files that came in file formats I’ve never heard of. Torrents, which are a big ball of obnoxious for anyone who isn’t a complete tech head to figure out and mess with. All direct download options where you just download the PDF required a paid subscription to an ebook download site.
Most people don’t understand bittorrent, or they’re at the very least afraid of the legal ramifications. The interview with the pirate seems to back this up because he seems to be a real tech-head. My argument in the comments was that at some point bittorrent will stop being such a mystery and these pirated books will be more-easily accessible.
But that’s not the only problem.
The publishing industry isn’t just scared of precious print books being pirated, it’s free books in general – including those free books that are 100% legal. As it stands now, there are enough public domain books available for free that you would never need to buy a book again if you read them all. The fear of self-publishing is not that it floods the web with sub-par books – it’s that it’s yet another avenue to take away people’s money from a very slim market. New books create abundance, which devalues books overall. They have a point – especially given that many self-published books are free (including my own).
The fact is that there are more free books available than could ever be read by one person. Once everyone’s got an ereader, this is going to be a crushing problem. Nevermind the piracy. As much as self-publishing is a great device, it’s a devastating blow to the publishing industry’s shaky hold on profits. It’s important for publishers and writers to make money. Don’t really count on that happening in the Brave New World.
Mike Cane makes the same point.
[During E-book Week] I downloaded one hundred and fifteen eBooks that previously had price tags on them, for free.
I didn’t even count the books that were offered for free, period.
How many years of reading would that represent for the average American? Perhaps a lifetime’s worth. All for free.
So you can make the argument that free in general is a bad development for publishing. Personally, I think it’s great for people to have free access to information: just don’t quit your day job. Am I arguing that books shouldn’t be free? Not at all – but I do get the ramifications. You could make the argument that freebooks are far more of a threat to publishing than piracy. Many people will be scared off by the moral and legal questions of downloading a stolen book. Given the number of free books available at other sources, they won’t really have to face this ethical quandary.