Avast! Thar Be Books Ahead!

Ah, good old Internet piracy. I remember once bragging to a friend — with great pride, mind you — that I didn’t have a single piece of legal software on my computer, up to and including the OS. Those were the days, folks. Sailing the high seas of the Internet, bringing your torrent client of choice along side a likely-looking target, unleashing a healthy barrage of P2P sharing, and plundering the Man for all his over-priced, DRMed booty. Yarrr!

These days, I can have any song I want for a buck from Amazon in a few seconds. Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu provide me all the movies and TV I can stand, for free or a reasonable price, and almost always on-demand. The software moguls are still playing some dirty DRM tricks on their customers, true enough, but there are a lot of free, open-source solutions to most of those problems out there. Getting your content is cheap and easy these days, and if it is DRMed to death, there’s likely a crack available online. Plus, nobody is going to sue me for thousands of dollars and take away my Internet if I’m getting my content legally.

The fact that this stuff is all available cheap and easy has put exactly no stop to people who hoist the colors, shout “Ahoy, matey!” and take to the Internet. Let me explain why: the entertainment and software industries asked for it.

With their DRM making it impossible to use the product you bought legally how you wanted to use it, and their outrageous prices, and their slow adaptation to new technologies, and their suing single moms and twelve-year-olds for thousands, and so on and so forth, these companies gave themselves a terrible reputation. It became a case of the little guy Robin-Hooding it out against the big evil industry. It was us against the Man, man!

That’s the cultural attitude that’s become ingrained in the Internet community’s mind. Even after these industries changed their practices, people still stole music, because that’s the culture these industries allowed to rise. And slowly but surely, the Internet is turning that attitude to a new industry: ebooks. I want you to keep that Robin Hood attitude in mind for a second, while you read these quotes:

PDX-Tech: “The prices of ebooks are outrageous. There is zero production cost, zero transportation, zero inventory and yet they charge the same as a print copy.”

Gadget3000: “I don’t know about you but when I buy my e-reader I won’t want to pay again for books I already own. I’ll pirate them and then pay for new ebooks.”

Anonymous: “In a roundabout way publishers are encouraging pirated ebooks by restricting the distribution of ebooks by: a) restricting the world rights so customers in some countries can’t buy and download ebooks that are available in other countries; b) restricting the ebook format, eg publishing in the UK only via mobi and not epub or even Kindle; c) not making an ebook available immediately upon publication of a new novel; d) high cost – out of principle I resent paying almost the same amount for an ebook as a printed book unless the printed book is out of print.”

When a content provider starts sticking its customers with huge prices, making it inconvenient for their customers to get their hands on the product they want, and then making rules about how, when, and where a legally purchased product can be used, they’re pretty much asking to get their content pirated. That’s what happened to the entertainment and software industries. They screwed their customers, so their customers started screwing them.

It took awhile for publishers to get into the digital game. It’s only recently that ebooks even became a thing. So publishers have been able to watch the entertainment and software industries make their mistakes and pay for it for at least ten years now.

So what do publishers do? Turn around and make the same damn mistakes. They make their content proprietary. They make it hard for their customers to get a hold of it. They over-price it. And then they wail about it when their customers flip them the bird and turn to Bit Torrent.

And who pays for that attitude? Not the publishers. Oh no, they get their pound of flesh one way or another. It’s the authors who pay.

Ask Allison Pang, who just discovered her first book is already available on pirate sites. “I have to say it’s sort of funny to read some of the comments in at least one of the forums, asking if [A Brush of Darkness] is the start of a series and if there will be more. I’d much rather have a reader ask me directly, since the thing is – if I don’t earn out on my first book or so, then no, there won’t be anymore.”

Or how about Jeaniene Frost, who’s books are also available on torrent sites? “My publisher decides to continue my contract based on only one thing – sales. Illegal downloads don’t count toward sales and there is no ‘You were pirated the most out of our authors, so you win another book contract!’ award.”

Karen Dionne says, “Even if only a fraction of the downloads from […] file-sharing websites represent actual lost sales, they still translate into a staggering amount of royalties that have been stolen from authors.”

Ebook piracy is still in its infancy. There’s still time for the publishing industry to get efriendly, and avoid the piracy backlash that staggered the music industry, and that’s still hurting the software industry. Use cross-compatible formats. Make your product easily available everywhere. Keep the prices down to something reasonable.

Internet piracy is not going to stop, and regardless of what the publishers do, there will always be some ebook piracy. But if they get on the ball right now, they can stem the tide, and come out ahead of the game.

What do you think?