Tuesday, 9 November 2010

E-books, piracy and what to do about it


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.

24 comments:

Skip said...

Looking, I see several different versions of Towers of Midnight already available for download - I didn't look at any of them, but I'd suspect most of them are fairly rough, but crowd-sourcing fixes that on a popular book fairly quickly. So I'd be willing to bet that at least a month before the February release there'll be a pirate ebook edition that will have fewer typos and formatting errors than the eventual official one. There are a number of folks, and I'm one of them, who basically buy no dead tree edition books any more. I only make an exception for series that aren't currently finished, that I own the rest of the books in hardback already. So I bought ToM in hardback. But I'm down to probably 4 total series where this is the case - my physical book purchases will probably be less than 20-25 total for the next decade, down from the 150-200 per year that I used to buy. As more people switch this way, not having an ebook release (or pricing it like a hardback) is just pissing money away, never to be reclaimed. And I feel seriously sorry for the authors caught up in the stupidity of their publishers. Now, for ToM, apparently this came at the request of Jordan's widow. But it's not the first time the publisher has done this, on many different books.

Also, all that's needed for a uniform store for all of the ereader devices is for the publishers to give up on the DRM that has no effect other than to raise their costs. Baen already does this with their store - you can buy books for all the ereaders (including some ancient ones), as well as PC. But in any case, if a store just offered DRM-free epub that would cover everything but kindle, and I suspect that kindle would add epub support very quickly if a large store happened that only supported epub.

Adam Whitehead said...

I agree. Whilst piracy is an issue, it's only a critical one if the number of pirates is growing disproportionately to the number of people downloading legally and paying. In some cases the arrival of e-books has seen people who never used to read books much suddenly get into it, thus creating new customers and a new market.

To carry on the Steam comparison, Steam's ease of use has actually helped boost PC game sales, as people started using it, became enthused by the big deals and ended up getting back into PC gaming after being lured away by consoles or whatever for a few years. If the e-book market can do the same thing, this can more than offset the issues caused by pirates.

Anonymous said...

A few things to point out. First, there's already a standard for eBooks -- it's called ePub and Amazon adamantly refuses to support it, in order to protect their monopoly on ebooks. Second, I don't agree that PC game sales are down because of "PCs becoming too complicated and too expensive for the mass-audience to continue bothering with." PCs have become easier, if anything; the people who have left probably did so because they don't have time for what little complexity remains (the hobby is increasingly aging!). What's more, piracy is quite rampant in gaming, as some cursory research of the type Ms. Kiernan conduct would demonstrate. (And not just on the PC -- the DS and PSP are deeply plagued by this as well.) Finally, it's disingenuous in the extreme to say that pirating ebooks takes money out of the pockets of authors. I'll be the first to admit that I've pirated ebooks before. And guess what? These aren't books I would've paid or otherwise -- they're things I would've bought used (which is just as much "theft" as is piracy, it seems to me), checked out at the library, or just passed up entirely. That said, sure, some of the downloads equal lost sales. Some. Only some.

Adam Whitehead said...

But, in a period when the difference between an author being dropped or being kept on by their publisher is only just a couple of thousand books, 'some' multiplied by a few dozen people soon adds up.

To a degree the WoT book is immune from the piracy issue, as hundreds of thousands will buy the hardcover and millions the paperback and the legit e-book regardless. It's the newcomers and the midlisters who make a living off writing but not by much who have more to worry about.

Anonymous said...

Firstly a pirated copy does not equate to a lost sale.

Steam is an awesome example of how to actually get those who would never have paid for a title to buy something. I have lost count of the amount of games I have bought , on impulse , because It's offered at a silly price for maybe 1 day .

Did a steam sale not save Introversion from going bust , as well as provide them with working capital to develop new games ?

As to Ebooks, publishers can go fuck themselves with regards to pricing, I have seen on average £2 added onto the price of most my wish list at Amazon because Publishers are forcing a Agency pricing model upon consumers.

People in the games industry are coming round to the idea that the best way to stop someone downloading your stuff , is to make it worth paying for.

Seriously I would happily pay a little more for a special print edition that say comes with the ebook as part of the purchase. But when I see the latest Banks cost more in Digital form than in Hardback my reaction is always going to be FU. I loaned it from the Library because I wanted to read it now, but I would happily have waited and bought it cheap second hand to make sure his publishers didn't receive a penny.

Anonymous said...

It's the newcomers and the midlisters who make a living off writing but not by much who have more to worry about.

I think it's a false problem, what hurts the newcomers and the midlisters is that their relative anonimity. There are not a lot of people who are inclined to buy books from unknown authors, why do you think the publishers are so supportive of blogs and web reviewers?

I read the post you linked, and quite frankly it's just bullshits. The same old "1 download = 1 lost sale" argument who RIAA/MPAA/BSA have been trotting out for years and who has been multiply disproved.

Anonymous said...

Authors need to come up with other ways to support themselves other than buying their books. Most of the sale of a book doesn't even reach their pockets anyway.

They can't tour like a musician but using books as the sole source of income in this day and age is hurting them when the publishing arm takes most of the profit and refuses to embrace modern technology.

I don't have the answers but I do know if I could send a direct pay pal to my favorite authrors I would.

Niall Alexander said...

There's a lot of anonymousness going on hereabouts. Should I be surprised?

To wit, anonymi: no-one's suggesting a pirated e-book equals a lost sale. There's no reliable ratio to lean upon here. But I think it's fair to suggest for every 100 people who pirate a book, at least a few of them would have bought the thing had not the opportunity to have it for nowt arisen. And when a single torrent is being downloaded a thousand times, and there are perhaps ten or twenty other torrents at other trackers with a similar number of seeds and peers, you're talking about a fair whack.

See: "a fair whack" is the most precise I can be about this. Frustrating. There need to be studies. Get on that, internet!

Weirdmage said...

@Anonymous (20.30 GMT)

"As to Ebooks, publishers can go fuck themselves with regards to pricing, I have seen on average £2 added onto the price of most my wish list at Amazon because Publishers are forcing a Agency pricing model upon consumers."

Amazon undercut the value of e-books, and even sold them with a loss, to promote the Kindle.
That the publishers didn't want their product devalued to promote another business' product is natural.

Your argument is the same as all the other Kindle-owners who have been brainwashed by Amazon to think e-books have no value.

If you hate publishers so much, stop reading their books. I'm sure there's plenty of un-edited manuscripts/Kindle books available for $0.99 at Amazon.

Anonymous said...

I still can't believe a published author wrote "lively hood." I wouldn't read her stuff just for that.

Anonymous said...

New anon here. To me delaying ebook releases for popular titles seems as counterproductive as DRM.

I've paid for Sanderson ebooks--Elantris, Mistborns, Way of Kings.

But I probably won't bother to pay for ToM once it's released. I'll just put this $10 towards compensating myself for the trouble of having to grab the torrent and run the inferior pdf version through Calibre to get it my Kindle, which is the only way I read now.

Due respect Jordan's widow, but all she's accomplished is causing me irritation and losing a bit of money. Nobody wins.

Siderite said...

It would be easy for me to go through the "trying a book before buying it is not stealing" or "DRM sucks" or any of the overcomplex reasons that people use to justify their downloading. But the simple answer is laziness.

I can get any book or movie free of charge by sitting on my computer and using a simple to use application that does everything for me seamlessly. I don't care about the social aspect of it, I don't want to share anything with my friends that is not in my blog and, even more important, I get to see the movie without commercial trailers embedded or warnings from the FBI or any other spam bullshit that one gets on DVDs or even paper books. What would I do with a paper book anyway? make it use the little space I have in my home and gather allergy producing dust?

So the answer is that I am too lazy to suffer all the pain of buying something. It's not even mainly about the money, even if it is important. My contribution to the authors of things I like is to tell everyone I meet how great that book was. Maybe they will buy it. I refuse to pay for useless printing, marketing and distribution, when the net does it all for free.

I wonder, if any of you are authors of published books, what ammount of the cash I give for a book does reach you?

vacuouswastrel said...

In the future, I think there will be more patronage of the art, both by the public and by benefactors. You may well start seeing longer-term contracts with authors, too: a publisher subsidises the career of a number of newcomers in the hope that one of them will turn out to be the Next Big Thing who they can make a deadtree profit from later. What's cheaper, after all, paying half a living wage to ten authors for ten years each (and helping them arrange their publicity and such to get the other half from donations and sales), or paying half a million upfront to get the signature of a proven bestseller?

Bush League Critic said...

"Your argument is the same as all the other Kindle-owners who have been brainwashed by Amazon to think e-books have no value."

While that may represent a large portion of Kindle owners, please don't make the assumption that it represents all Kindle owners.

I have no problem paying the same price for an ebook that I would for its currently published physical counterpart (hard-cover/paperback) I have many friends who feel the same way. The brain-washed masses mistakenly believe that Amazon promised $9.99 ebooks forever... they didn't.

As to piracy... it just IS. It was alive and well before Amazon (aka The Great-Satan) tried to corner the ebook market... it will be alive and well long after.

Pirated books will always be just a slit-spine and a scanner away. Ebooks don't change that. Case in point: The Towers of Midnight. No official ebook available, yet DarkNet is innundated with pirated copies.

DRM doesn't work... delayed ebook releases won't work any better (many ebook purchasers just don't buy physical books anymore, and DarkNet will prove too tempting).

So, just publish books and leave piracy for the criminals to worry about. You won't lose any more sales than you do to the public library.

Weirdmage said...

@Bush League Critic

Not saying that all Kindle owners think like that. I know some Kindle owners who are not that way.

Just commenting on what I have seen as a general attitude, and specifically an answer to the anonymous commenter.

Anonymous said...

I tried to post this before but errors prevented me. Perhaps it makes my last post less of a non sequitur...

(I'm vacuouswastrel, but blogger won't let me use my openid it seems...
----

It's good to see people no longer claiming 1 copy = 1 sale. But actually, even 100 copies = 1 sale is misleading: because it assumes things only go one way.

In the case of people like Jordan, this is probably true. But as Adam says, it's the midlisters and the new talents that this is meant to be an issue for, not the megastars.

And for them... well, the number one reason to read a book is that you know you like the author's work. And we don't read books by midlisters or unknown names because we don't know we like their work. The big obstacle is getting people to read the first book by Author X.

So, what's going to make you more likely to read a book by Author X? Your friend saying "hey, Author X is really good, why don't you buy their book, I mean I know that it's six quid and a total gamble since you've never even heard their name before, but I liked it, maybe you will too!"?
Or your friend saying "hey, Author X is really good, I sent you a copy for free to your reader so you can check it out on holiday"?

Copies aren't just lost sales, they're new readership, which can result in far higher sales in the long run.

---

You could say "but why would these new readers pay at all, when they can get stuff for free?" But that's imposing an unrealistically negative view of humankind.

Fact is, if people don't like your books, you're not going to make money off it. And if people DO like your books, you're not going to starve. Whether it's buying the book to support you, or buying the book for a physical collection, or thousands of people sending you donations, or buying merchandise, or some big patron giving you money to keep working, or a grant, the money will get to you.

Witness: webcomics. Dozens of webcomic artists are able to devote themselves to their comics full-time thanks to donations and merchandise, and dozens, probably hundreds, more get enough money to support their day job and make doing the art worthwhile. And many do this on the back of viewing figures way below what a midlist author could manage.

Of course, I'm biased here, as my model for "art" as a child was classical music, when everyone had to have a patron or else they'd be dead in a gutter.

I don't think the spirit of patronage is dead - on the contrary, the internet allows far more people to be patrons than ever before. The chief obstacles to patronage in the case of books are that a) everyone thinks "well they make profit on the sales anyway" and that b) authors are kept alienated from their digital products. By which I mean that if you have to download Kiernan's book from a torrent host, you're less likely to give her money than if you can download it from her website next to the button that says "please support me!". Plus in that case she could put some discrete adverts on her download page to cash on on the hits, or maybe give away a really nice-looking copy that happens to have an advert at the end of each chapter, or in the margins of the page.

And sure, this system would mean that a lot of authors didn't do too well, weren't too far above the breadline. But look around, these authors aren't exactly living in palaces today! The only people who do really well out of the current business model are the publishers, who gain money by trying to impose an artificial scarcity.

Severian said...

As far as games are concerned, DRM isn't the only problem. A (very) big problem is the fact, that most devs just don't seem to care what condition their game is on release day, as long as it's out. Even Stardock, after their "Gamers' bill of rights", released Elemental... and you know how that turned out.

Now, I realize the number of people who take to "pirating" purely because of this, is probably very low, but perhaps publishers should take a look at themselves before criticizing everyone else.

Siderite said...

Now you've done it, Severian! What do you mean devs don't care? They are the only one who do care. If devs would have control over the game industry the games would be a lot cooler, innovative, shocking, bug free, and... it would take 100 years to make one.

In the real world the game MUST be released at a certain date, no matter what the devs do. If the game is not ready, you patch it up in order to work and release it. If the code is not really beautiful and it will be hard to maintain and bug generating, but it seems to be working for now, go for release. If the dev is too expensive, outsource to some country where people know how to type a lot better than how to read. Devs have NOTHING to do with the product release process.

Gert said...

Siderite, I admit I have to agree with both you and Severian. The ultra-low quality some games (*peers at entire MMOG segment*) launch at is a big issue, and is hugely problematic for game sales. It does a studio no good a-tall when their title ends up selling poorly on launch because it's buggy, even if it then picks up a little later on if/when the stuff gets patched.

At the same time, unless you're really big and dear to your publisher's hearts, you get exactly no leeway on deadlines. Which is all kinds of stupid from a development POV, but nonetheless is the way it is for us poor bums on the producing end. An outfit like Media Molecule can push back a title like Little Big Planet 2 with relative impunity - their sales promise to be utterly astronomical anyway - but a small outfit without a big name, maybe on their first title? Not a bleeding chance.

I must say I do like the Steam-alike system outlined above as a distribution system for e-books. If cleverly managed and suited to work with most major readers it could very well be a runaway success. Of course, the trick is to get all the hardware manufacturers to release the death grip they have around the throats of their readers... which, you know, might mean they'd have to perhaps, maybe, a little make a few cents less for a month or two. And we all know how likely -that- is to happen this side of the heat death of the universe...

Anonymous said...

Book author's might need to start doing what people like Trent Reznor are doing in music: sell prestige (signed etc.) copies of their books through their websites for higher prices to dedicated fans, give (some) of their books away for free to generate publicity yada yada other ideas that I'm not smart enough to think of.

Most authors do not make a living from writing (I write myself). They need to become proactive about selling their material.

Trent Reznor is a case in point. He gave his ghosts album away for free, and charged 5 dollars for a prestige copy of the album (36 songs!). He said that he sold less copies of ghosts than he did of albums like the downward spiral, but he made more money; because he was independent he made the money directly himself whereas before he had to give a large percentage of his profits to his record label.

With the pace of technological change etc. I think it's likely that large book companies that pay large advances to artists will eventually become obsolete (likely, given the record companies experience). However this isn't necessarily a bad thing for authors, especially ones lower down the list. There are increasing opportunities for author's to make money and a living by bypassing the big publishing companies.

Look at the RPG book publishing industry; in the past few years the numbers of books sold by the average RPG company has collapsed. However RPG companies are still publishing and making money? How? Because they have an an inbuilt fanbase that they directly sell to through facebook etc. In fact they often raise money from fans before they write their RPG books (the Ransom model).

Piracy isn't going to go away as technologies become more advanced, cryptography techniques become more popular, broadband speeds increase. Authors need to realise the situation they are in now and come up with solutions to adapt to it, or become sidelined.

Alex said...

This is an issue I've blogged about a couple of times myself (http://www.iamcurrentlyreading.co.uk/2010/07/01/ebooks-ereaders-prices-going-forward-and-stuff/). The biggest issue is the pricing. I pick up new releases in hardback by my favourite authors and due to deep discounting on preorders, they can be much much cheaper than the comparative ebook. I spent £9.49 on the new Stephen Donaldson FFS.

I will always pick up a physical copy of a book, even though I have a Sony PRS505 for that very reason.

Anonymous said...

I fail to see how pirating a book for your e-reader is any different than getting it from the library. If I'm on the fence about a book, or if I've never heard of the author, I usually try to get the book from the library. If its not in, I download it.

If the book is good, I'll buy it and the rest of the books out by the author.

Anomander said...

some interesting info about e-books,from the New york Times -

"E-book sales have risen steeply in 2010, spurred by the growing popularity of the Amazon Kindle and by the release of the Apple iPad in April. According to the Association of American Publishers, which receives sales data from publishers, e-book sales in the first nine months of 2010 were $304.6 million, up from $105.6 million from the same period in 2009, a nearly 190 percent increase.

Several major publishers said that e-books had climbed to about 10 percent of their total trade sales. Some publishing experts have predicted that they will rise to 25 percent in the next two to three years."

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/11/books/11list.html

Anonymous said...

There's one backlash to having to BUY ebooks. What if you already have the book in hard copy but want the ebook so you can carry all of your books on one little tablet instead of having to switch out what you carry?! I'm a purse-toting woman and trust me, this is a pain in the but when you have Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in your purse?! So yes, I do torrent ebooks, but only those that I already have (I have an Extensive Hard copy collection). The publishers need to find a way for people WITH the hard copies to prove that they own it and then give them 1 free download of the ebook. How they should do this I don't know, but it may be the only effective way of cutting down on ebook torrenting.