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My Authorly Thoughts on Ebooks and Piracy

Publishing-industry thinker Sean Cranbury linked to this article in the Globe and Mail: The rise of the e-book lending library (and the death of e-book pirating).

The voice of the article, along with some of the people quoted within it, struck me as… naïve. To say the least.

But enough about that. As an author, here’s what I think about digital publishing, ebook lending and piracy. In reverse order.

My books have been pirated. To be clear – my only-released-in-print books have been pirated. I know, right? Makes me feel special that someone, or some people, took the time to scan an entire book of mine and put it on the internet. My reaction when discovering such piracy has not been the same as that of other authors whose outcry you may have encountered. Surprisingly, my response to the piracy of my books is, “Well, I hope the pirates tell their friends how great the book is.” And then I forget about the piracy and go do other things.

Coveted digital files will be pirated. This is not news. Or, perhaps it was news a very long time ago. But right now this is simply the status quo. (Contrary to what the Globe article asserts, there’s rampant ebook piracy. The commenters on the article are correct.)

In my opinion, the best way to avoid allowing piracy to kill a business is to make coveted digital files readily available to absolutely everyone for a competitive price, immediately. Don’t want that shiny new, much anticipated book to be pirated? Release an ebook version the same day print copies hit shelves – not just a Kindle version, but preferably an EPub version without DRM.

Piracy didn’t kill the music business, the music industry simply chose not to make coveted music files readily available for sale to consumers. iTunes did it instead, and iTunes took a lot of money from the music industry. I don’t think we’re seeing a single, dominant iTunes-like entity taking the publishers’ money; at first it seemed like Amazon was The One, but there’s a lot of competition now. Which means the time for business-model innovation hasn’t passed yet for publishing.

Ok, lending. I’m all for it. Before ebooks, libraries lending print books didn’t kill the publishing industry. Libraries are a hallmark of our sophisticated society. Lending digital files is sort of weird, of course, on account of digital files not at all being the same as tangible objects, but whatever. If someone wants to test out one of my books for two or three weeks by borrowing the digital file and pretending there’s only one of it, all the power to them. I might recommend they pirate it instead, since it takes just as little effort, there’s no queue because there actually is an unlimited number of copies of the file, and then at least they can keep it forever. But that’s just me.

Of course, this lending business would be great if my books were actually available legitimately as ebooks so libraries could by digital copies and readers could borrow them. To my knowledge, only my first two books with Wiley are available as ebooks, in Adobe Digital Editions format – the first edition of Teach Yourself Visually Crocheting and Crochet Visual Quick Tips. They are not competitively priced, especially since the sale is final and non-refundable, and to my knowledge only a couple dozen digital copies of either book has sold, ever. (I don’t know if any libraries have digital copies available.)

I did get a letter from Random House a few months ago (via snail mail, of course), asking my permission to publish one of the Get Hooked books – I can’t remember which – digitally. Why only one? I don’t know. I haven’t heard anything about it since.

I have no reason to believe any of my published books will be released as DRM-free EPub ebooks, and that is a disappointment.

Now, crafts books are a special kind of problem when it comes to e-publishing, and that’s because of the heavy use of imagery. EPub is crap at handling images. Which means that most crafts ebooks are PDFs. And with lots of images, PDF files are gigantic. Not ideal. Also, most apps and devices can’t re-flow PDFs (correct me if I’m wrong on this), which limits the reader’s ability to customize the reading experience. Also not ideal.

So.

Digital publishing isn’t the future, it’s the present. I love seeing what my pals in the crafts world are doing independently with digital publishing. Like bundling a digital add-on with the print book for only a couple more bucks. Or simply building an ebook-only imprint.

I’ve been kicking around a book idea for a while. I don’t yet know too much about it, but the idea is persistent and occasionally it grows. Once it’s ready, I may not take it to a traditional publisher, but maybe to an indie. Or maybe I’ll self-publish it (using a professional editor, guaranteed!). I want independence and flexibility and ownership of my ideas, and with that ownership the freedom to spread them around however I want. I’m confident that the books I’ve published over the last few years aren’t able to be spread around in the ways many readers would like them to be – and I do firmly believe that most readers would pay for the privilege.

What do you think? Are you in a spitting rage about piracy? As a reader, what do you want? And as a writer?

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Anonymous

Great post! I purchased a Kindle a few months ago, and since doing so I can honestly say that both the amount of reading I do has gone up (so convenient! so little space!), and that I’ve never spent so much money on books in my life. One click purchase? Dangerously delicious. At the same time, I will also say that I *do* pirate books at times, and the fact that the Globe and Mail article indicates this isn’t happening tells me that they didn’t look very hard – you can find almost anything with about as much effort as it take to go to the Amazon site and buy it. The lending thing is an interesting concept, and I think it works for people who currently use and like libraries. I am not one of those people. If I love something, I have to own it, because I’ll probably want to refer back or read it again or share it myself down the road. I’m also horribly impatient (wait? for a book? no way – pretty sure that’s why I’m on the e-reader train to begin with), and I couldn’t deal with a time limit. I think it’s FANTASTIC that libraries are jumping on board and this is happening, I just know it’s not for me – which is a good thing for publishers, because I’d rather hand over cash. On the flip side, I’ll raise my hand as a pirate as well. Why? Typically, because of lack of access or sometimes because it’s just not a book I’m all that into. The thing I love most about e-reading is that now, every time someone says I must read X or I hear about a book I’d like to get my hands on, I can do it NOW rather… Read more »

Yarn 365

With regards to being able to copy/printing of an ebook: I believe that functionality depends on which ereader/ebook app you use, who the publisher is and what permissions they’ve allowed that eretailer. I think that you might be able to copy/print a certain amount of some books on the Nook, for example. I’m pretty sure you can’t on Kindle.

ncavillones

It may be generational but I’ve fully accepted that the idea that all information and ideas are free. Whether or not they should be is a different story but there’s very little incentive for me to run out and buy anything that I want to read if I know that I can get it for free. I dropped my book hoarding habits years ago and have become a faithful public library patron. I prefer physical books still because I have enough electronic devices and don’t need to another. I tried using Kindle on my iPhone but it was too tiny! This may change if/when I get an iPad. Actually, with an iPad, I’d be more likely to pay for magazine subscriptions as well (I currently don’t have any).

Boros Egyegykettonegy

E-books are now also may be obtained completely legally free. They exist in pdf format. The other day I found a Hungarian site (www.konyv-konyvek.hu), where a lot of books can be downloaded for free. Who knows yet how many of these pages, you just hear a little about them. Who are not familiar with these pages, try to get otherwise, because you do not have any money or I could not be worth it to pay.

Anonymous

I agree completely – digital content will be pirated. Chris Anderson (I think) had an interesting case study somewhere: a small video-game company was experiencing huge amounts of piracy, so the owner bravely asked the user community why. Turned out, the company’s website was hard to navigate, and the piracy controls they were attempting to use on downloadable games only made the user’s experience frustrating. So the community retaliated by bypassing all that complication.

As a very small publisher (many thanks for the link), the way I discourage it is to maintain positive relationships with my buyers, and make it clear that I’m a one-woman operation, run by a real human being. I get that the big houses won’t necessarily have that option.

Even so, I think that in the aggregate, unimpeded Free does eventually lead back to sales. It’s just a longer, slower path than the already-beleagured mainstream publishing industry may be able to tolerate.

Oh – and for the record, I’m so looking forward to the ebook file format that can handle reflowable text while maintaining precise image placement. You’re right – we nonfiction how-to publishers are currently at a bit of a disadvantage.

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