Niall at the Speculative Scotsman has covered an interesting story which broke today. Fantasy author Celine Kiernan was distressed to find many pirate copies of her novels doing the rounds on various torrent sites. Niall investigated further and was rather disturbed to find, based on a sampling from Demonoid (one of the top torrent sites out there), that the number of pirated books by Kiernan alone on offer ranked in the thousands. Given the (relatively) very small numbers needed to get on the bestseller lists in both the UK and USA, if even a tiny fraction of the people illegally downloading the books had bought actual copies, they could have drastically affected their popularity, the money going to the author and so on. Amusingly, Kiernan noted that this arguments have been pretty ineffective in the past, so just resorted to politely asking people not to do it.
"Pirates and pirate-site users, I’m not going to give you the ‘I have a family to support and these books are my lively hood’ speech. I’m not going to give you the ‘musicians, artists and writers are the only folks in the world who have to justify getting paid for their work’ speech, I’m not even going to point out that ‘if my sales are low my publishers will think twice about publishing another of my books.’
To do that would be to assume that you are too stupid to know any of that for yourselves.
I’m just going to ask you to stop. Ok? Stop stealing money from my pocket, sales from my reputation, and business from the legit booksellers and sites who legally support me and others like me. If you can’t afford to buy my work then, please, go to the library - at least they keep track of how many times the books are checked out - and those reports go back to my publishers, and believe it or not, that’s important."
This is interesting timing. There's already been a massive hoo-har over the e-book edition of Towers of Midnight being delayed until February, apparently to minimise the risk of pirating, and this then triggering dozens of people on Amazon voting the book down as 'punishment', some of them hilariously claiming that the lack of an e-book edition makes the book 'incomplete'. At the same time, a disreputable fan has posted a pirate copy of A Game of Thrones to George R.R. Martin's Facebook fan page (which is still there, at least right now, as the mods are away), apparently oblivious that this was illegal (or not caring).
The problems of e-books and piracy have, to some extent, not been discussed as vigorously as perhaps they should have been. Mostly publishers and authors have been clamouring to explore (or exploit) this new format and this new profitable revenue stream, despite the risk of radically increasing the problem of piracy, perhaps relying a little too much on the various DRM protection systems put on e-books to stop it.
Of course, DRM does not and never has worked, not for music, not for computer games and certainly not for books, and in fact has frequently compounded the problem, particularly with games. Publishers, paranoid that piracy was destroying the PC games market (rather than, say, PCs becoming too complicated and too expensive for the mass-audience to continue bothering with) started implementing more and more draconian forms of DRM, forcing legitimate buyers to register and play with an active internet connection, denying them the ability to re-sell copies and so on. The result was that the pirates broke the DRM on these high-profile releases (often before they even hit the shelves, thanks to leaked releases) and played without all the hassles the legitimate buyers had to put up with. This, ironically, made the pirated copies far more appealing to those players who otherwise would have bought legit copies. After a number of controversies, publishers seem to be backing away (albeit too slowly) from draconian DRM on PC games and the possibility of extending it to consoles, which is something of a relief.
In addition, the smug assurances by publishers that big companies will never go bust so remotely-authorised DRM systems could be used forever was shown to be a fallacy when Wal-Mart shut down its digital music store almost overnight. Thousands of users who didn't receive the warning e-mail or were away at the time were left with their entire music collections left totally unusable and large amounts of money wasted.
In the case of games, the industry has hit back by adding value and content to digital sales. In the case of games, the service that has flourished most successfully (despite early criticism) is Steam, run by Valve, the creators of the Half-Life, Team Fortress, Portal and Left 4 Dead franchises. Steam has succeeded partially because it was way ahead of the curve (it was set up in 2004, when most people in the industry weren't even thinking in these terms) but mostly because it has been clever. It has offered mouth-watering discounts on games, even fairly new ones (you could get Grand Theft Auto 4 for about £3 for a while just a few months ago, cheap enough to give the most hardened pirate pause and consider it) and established a social networking-style community where people can show off achievements, play online together and see what people think of games (through a Metacritic-style review ranking system), as well as allowing the free sharing of demos and mods. Steam now has 30 million active users, 6 million daily, unique hits and has had over 3 million games being played simultaneously at its peak.
In short, with Steam they created a place for gamers to go to as naturally as others go to Facebook, except with the ability to buy games cheaply and play them quickly and relate their findings to friends.
The book industry could learn from this, particularly as we already have sites which already do similar things. Goodreads allows you to organise a virtual bookshelf, write reviews, exchange thoughts with other readers and form virtual online book clubs. Facebook's Visual Bookshelf offers a similar (if more limited and buggy) experience. Adding the ability to buy books directly, recommend them to others and so on is a logical further step. Like Steam, this could work in a number of ways, with new, high-profile books retailing for full sale or almost-full sale price whilst older books could retail for a lot less. You could also have time-limited bundle deals, sales and special offers and so on. In other words, create an online space for book-readers that is as attractive as Steam for gamers. Sure, you'd have hardcore pirates and hold-outs who'd continue pirating regardless, but the hardcore pirates are only a small fraction of the people out there doing it. Most would buy books legit if the way of doing so was attractive enough.
There are some unfortunate obstacles though. Each e-reader seems to need its own store at the moment, so a unified store that iPad, Kindle and Sony e-reader users can all use simultaneously is not possible, at least until format-free e-readers appear. But certainly book publishing can learn from the experiences that other mediums have gone through and how they have handled the challenge themselves.