Ebook piracy

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Today’s post was going to be about Richard III, but really, I’m just too tired. And tomorrow I’ve got to get up at dark o’clock, so producing something worthy of being left out on the internet where just anyone might see it is not going to happen.

Ebook piracy is an easier topic, because I can be opinionated without actually having to quote evidence.

So here we go.

I was a pretty early adopter of ebook technology – I first read ebooks on a PDA with a battery life of about an hour and a half, so today’s book readers with their battery lives of days or weeks of heavy reading are simply lovely. I like pressing buttons (the science museum in Budapest is fantastic – I’ll tell you all about it one day) so I love gadgets. But the ebook always seemed to be such a sensible gadget that I could never work out why so many people seemed to think they would just fade out. Or was it that they hoped it would just fade out? Not going to happen, guys. I mean, I was the person whose bag for going on holiday had a few clothes squashed at the bottom under about ten books. The only way to really be sure of picking the book you’re going to feel like reading in a week’s time is to take lots of choices. But with my ereader (a Sony PRS-T1, if you’re interested) I can take a thousand books, and be pretty sure I’ll want to read at least one of them. And without spending half an hour in agonised indecision in front of the shelves.

So, book piracy. It was always going to happen. You can do a search and find little programs that awfully clever people have written so that anyone can remove DRM from books. Nowadays, they even have graphical user interfaces (GUIs) so it’s easy for the computer illiterate (including myself, when it comes to the mysteries of command line prompts and whatnot) to operate them without in the least understanding what’s happening. So, since removing DRM is so easy, why put it on in the first place? It’s not as if it works. It just annoys people. That’s what Baen books think – they don’t DRM any of their books, and they don’t seem to have gone bust yet. (I like Baen. I like the way they think. They often give people a book – particularly the first in a series – for free, just to get them hooked and therefore more likely to buy more of the author’s work. Well, if it works for drug dealers…)

But why do people pirate books? I guess there’s a number of reasons. Thinking of the downloaders, the fact that they’re getting something for nothing is obviously part of it. But that’s not all of it. A major reason, in my opinion, is that the books are often just not available to buy legally. I live in the UK, and it is really, really depressing to see how many books are available electronically for American readers, but UK publishers have not brought out a UK electronic edition. So if I want to read the book, I either have to buy a format I don’t want (paper) or I have to pirate. I don’t have a choice that is both acceptable to me and legal. And why should I buy something I ultimately don’t want? While I would like to live in a house with as much shelf space as the British Library, the fact is that I don’t. I live in a little house with far too many books (paper) already. I don’t have room for more. (That’s the other reason I like ebooks – it’s not all about a love of pressing buttons or having room for enough underwear.)

Then there’s price. One might justifiably feel a little peeved about having to pay the same price for an ebook (which is basically an electronic file) as for a large hardback. I mean, we all know hardbacks are expensive. All that paper, then the transport and storage, etc… But ebooks? Yes, there are hosting costs, and there’s the rakeoff that the retailer (as opposed to the publisher) will take. But you can’t tell me it costs as much to produce a thousand ebooks as a thousand hardbacks. So why should ebook readers pay the same price? That is not fair. That is someone making a nice fat profit out of people who use ereaders. Oh, right… up until the file turns up on a file sharing site, and the annoyed and exploited potential customers download the book for free and the publisher, retailer, and author all get nothing at all. Did nobody ever tell them the story about half a loaf being better than no bread? Lower the prices and you might find that people go back to buying the book. People are fundamentally lazy; if you make it easy for people to do the right thing, then that is what they will do. Mostly. You’re never going to avoid piracy completely, but it’s certainly possible to keep it down to ‘manageable’ levels, I think.

Give people the book they want, in the format they want it, for a price that is fair, and many people won’t go to the trouble of trying to find a pirate copy. It’ll be ultimately easier to pay for the legitimate copy.

Annoy people by not making the book available in the format they want it, or by charging a price that is obviously unfair compared to other formats, and piracy not only becomes the easier (or only) option, but also becomes an act of defiance.

Publishers, remember. I am the consumer. I make the choices, and I ultimately call the shots. If you do not give me what I want, my money and I go elsewhere.

It’s as simple as that.

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