Which is worse: piracy or anonymity?

by Mathew on April 2, 2008 · 12 comments

The book publishing industry seems to be slowly coming to the realization that digital media affects them just as it does the music and movie business: The Times has a story about a bleak forecast from the London-based Society of Authors that “book piracy on the Internet will ultimately drive authors to stop writing unless radical methods are devised to compensate them for lost sales.” Hey, I know — what about a tax on ISP accounts? Some of those in the music industry seem to think that will solve all of their problems.

The story talks about how the Internet is “awash” with copies of entire books by J.K. Rowling and others, as well as chapters or excerpts from popular novels and other books, and throws in some scare-mongering about Google’s book-scanning project. Then the chairman of the Society of Authors, Tracy Chevalier, comes up with her view of the dark future that lies ahead if the Internet isn’t stopped somehow:

“For a while it will be great for readers because they will pay less and less but in the long run it’s going to ruin the information. People will stop writing. There’s a lot of ‘wait and see what the technology brings’ but the trouble is if you wait and see too long then it’s gone. That’s what happened to the music industry.”

Is the music industry gone? Hardly. It may in the midst of a painful transition from one business model to another, but it is hardly gone. Apple has sold billions of songs through iTunes, and both artists and record labels that are open to new ideas are finding ways to use the Web instead of just complaining about it. So are authors: Brazilian novelist Paul Coelho, for example, has been actively pirating his own books, and has found that his sales have increased by leaps and bounds.

He’s not the only one either — other authors are either providing copies of their own books for free or as a “pay what you want” download, or are offering chapters for readers to download. As one author put it on his blog, for a writer obscurity is a much worse fate than piracy (as Tim O’Reilly noted back in 2002). Ms. Chevalier would be better off helping her members experiment with some of these new models, rather than sitting behind the barricades waiting for someone to rescue her.

Update:

On reading Mike Masnick’s take on the Times piece at Techdirt, I think I may have been a bit too harsh with respect to Ms. Chevalier’s comments — although I will note that one of the prospects she raises as an alternative is government intervention, which seems to me to be a slippery slope leading to something like the music industry’s ISP tax. In any case, Mike makes a good point that at least she seems to be open to new models, and to that extent she should be congratulated.

  • http://leighhimel.blogspot.com Leigh

    Yeah, not getting this one. Anyone I know in the publishing industry has said that their sales are not being impacted at all by the Web and that they simply aren't seeing the same issues as the music industry. People (and that includes kids) seem to generally still want artifacts when it comes to reading.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Totally agree, Leigh — seems to me that books are a lot less
    threatened because there's still that desire to hold an object, and
    there's no iPod for books (yet).

  • http://InternetDuctTape.com engtech

    What, she didn't make enough money off of Girl with a Perl Earring?

    What's smarter is when they do something like ebook giveaways to promote the Hugo awards: http://scalzi.com/whatever/?p=576

    I think the fiction book industry is fine with piracy. Tech reference books have been hit by it pretty hard (they only have about 2-4 years of being relevant) but they have also been very good at selling reduced cost pdfs of the books in beta to get feedback and generate buzz. Having an electronic copy of a reference manual is usually easier to search/quote than a paper copy.

    Where piracy is really rampant is comic books. If you look at cost of product vs time to consume product, reading comics on the computer instead of in your hands isn't that bad of an experience. But it's interesting because it's getting a lot of people back into reading/buying comics who haven't done so since they were teenagers.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    That's a good point about reference books, Engtech. They make a lot
    more sense in electronic form in a lot of ways. As do textbooks — and
    I was interested to find in one of the posts I came across that
    there's a “Student Bay” version of The Pirate Bay that is trying to do
    for textbooks what TPB has done for movies, music and software.

    On Wed, Apr 2, 2008 at 11:21 AM, Disqus

  • ryancoleman

    Clearly what is needed is a tax on blank paper…

    Seriously though… (are they?) When you look at how books are shared/sold/consumed I can't see how internet piracy is anything bigger than a tiny, tiny blip on their revenue radar.

    Libraries, Sharing/loaning, Used book stores, Amazon's Used Book service – the written word has long been exchanged in forms that provide no further compensation to the original author.

    I think what any producer needs to acknowledge is they have NEVER, ever, ever received revenue for every single person who has consumed their “product'. The Internet has just made it easier to acknowledge and track.

    They also need to check their def'n of “losses” – the reality is, most stuff (music, books, movies) etc. I've consumed for free (via any channel) are usually things I wouldn't have bought/rented. The reality is though, much of the stuff I've “borrowed” has led to follow on purchases.

    i.e. years ago someone loaned me a copy of a Harry Connick album – that “loss” for the recording industry led me to acquiring just about every album he produced. Likewise, the first Stephen King book I ever read was a loaner… etc etc

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Totally right on all counts, Ryan.

    I think by “losses” the music and movie and publishing industries
    often mean something closer to “sales we think we might have had, if
    only” — but they are wrong in most cases. As someone recently
    pointed out (I think it was David Gratton), the biggest problem for
    the music business is people who not only don't download music, but
    never buy it in any form and probably never will.

    On Wed, Apr 2, 2008 at 1:54 PM, Disqus

  • ryancoleman

    I almost agree with that sentiment except for one minor modification:

    “the biggest problem for the music business is THE GROWING NUMBER of people who not only don't download music, but never buy it in any form and probably never will.”

    What they have to recognize is that freeloaders will always exist – there is no solving that particular problem.

    What I would argue is that the tactics they are employing today to try and squash that minority are actually alienating a large portion of the people who sit on the fence and increasingly pushing them into the download/don't buy category. Stop trying to squash the deadbeats and focus on delivering value to the people who actually represent a revenue opportunity.

  • http://InternetDuctTape.com engtech

    What, she didn't make enough money off of Girl with a Perl Earring?

    What's smarter is when they do something like ebook giveaways to promote the Hugo awards: http://scalzi.com/whatever/?p=576

    I think the fiction book industry is fine with piracy. Tech reference books have been hit by it pretty hard (they only have about 2-4 years of being relevant) but they have also been very good at selling reduced cost pdfs of the books in beta to get feedback and generate buzz. Having an electronic copy of a reference manual is usually easier to search/quote than a paper copy.

    Where piracy is really rampant is comic books. If you look at cost of product vs time to consume product, reading comics on the computer instead of in your hands isn't that bad of an experience. But it's interesting because it's getting a lot of people back into reading/buying comics who haven't done so since they were teenagers.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    That's a good point about reference books, Engtech. They make a lot
    more sense in electronic form in a lot of ways. As do textbooks — and
    I was interested to find in one of the posts I came across that
    there's a “Student Bay” version of The Pirate Bay that is trying to do
    for textbooks what TPB has done for movies, music and software.

    On Wed, Apr 2, 2008 at 11:21 AM, Disqus

  • http://ryancoleman.ca ryancoleman

    Clearly what is needed is a tax on blank paper…

    Seriously though… (are they?) When you look at how books are shared/sold/consumed I can't see how internet piracy is anything bigger than a tiny, tiny blip on their revenue radar.

    Libraries, Sharing/loaning, Used book stores, Amazon's Used Book service – the written word has long been exchanged in forms that provide no further compensation to the original author.

    I think what any producer needs to acknowledge is they have NEVER, ever, ever received revenue for every single person who has consumed their “product'. The Internet has just made it easier to acknowledge and track.

    They also need to check their def'n of “losses” – the reality is, most stuff (music, books, movies) etc. I've consumed for free (via any channel) are usually things I wouldn't have bought/rented. The reality is though, much of the stuff I've “borrowed” has led to follow on purchases.

    i.e. years ago someone loaned me a copy of a Harry Connick album – that “loss” for the recording industry led me to acquiring just about every album he produced. Likewise, the first Stephen King book I ever read was a loaner… etc etc

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Totally right on all counts, Ryan.

    I think by “losses” the music and movie and publishing industries
    often mean something closer to “sales we think we might have had, if
    only” — but they are wrong in most cases. As someone recently
    pointed out (I think it was David Gratton), the biggest problem for
    the music business is people who not only don't download music, but
    never buy it in any form and probably never will.

    On Wed, Apr 2, 2008 at 1:54 PM, Disqus

  • http://ryancoleman.ca ryancoleman

    I almost agree with that sentiment except for one minor modification:

    “the biggest problem for the music business is THE GROWING NUMBER of people who not only don't download music, but never buy it in any form and probably never will.”

    What they have to recognize is that freeloaders will always exist – there is no solving that particular problem.

    What I would argue is that the tactics they are employing today to try and squash that minority are actually alienating a large portion of the people who sit on the fence and increasingly pushing them into the download/don't buy category. Stop trying to squash the deadbeats and focus on delivering value to the people who actually represent a revenue opportunity.

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