Archive for March, 2010

How Big A Problem is Piracy?

Friday, March 12th, 2010

Do you sell electronic versions of your book? I do.

Have they been pirated? Mine was, even before I started any sort of marketing push.

From my reading, there appear to be 3 types of pirates:
–Those looking for profit
–The terminally naive or astonishingly ignorant, who don’t realize that they’re doing harm, much less breaking the law
–The misguided idealists who believe that they’re striking a blow for artistic liberty, freedom, against corporate villains, or some similar concept.

The profit motivated ones tend to have many of the same issues that legitimate publishers have — they have to find customers, and bring them to purchase their books. And they have to do so cost-effectively. That’s just one reason that they tend to focus on “big” books. Because they need volume, they’re also not all that hard to find and shut down. This is one place where significant enforcement assets will have an effect.

I believe that the terminally clueless tend to be large in numbers, but to download relatively few books. This is one way in which our industry is different from the music business. There are a lot more people interested in downloading music, and they’re likely to download many more songs. A song can be listened to in a few minutes, where a book, even a short one will absorb hours. And most Americans read no more than one or two books per year.

Those one or two downloads per person might amount to a very large number indeed, but it seems likely that most of those downloads are not cannibalizing sales, whether or e- or print books, that would have occurred without the easy availability of illegal copies.

Even if these people constitute a costly problem, finding and prosecuting them is problematic at best. This group is also likely to be willing to buy if the legitimate ebook is both easy to buy and inexpensive. And as time goes by, it may be that the relentless efforts of IP rights-holders will finally make a dent in the assumption that this is a harmless infraction, and not a real evil at all.

The misguided idealists, though, can provide a problem that is both hard to find and has a significant impact. These are people who may work as hard as any publisher, as a volunteer. (Just about the only way to drop personnel costs below those paid by publishing is to use volunteers, as we all know to our sorrow!) They crack DRM, they scan books, and they generally upload masses of material without thought of compensation. They’re hard to identify, because they’re not looking for compensation, and may well have rafts of pseudonyms. It can be hard to tell that all of these different identities resolve into a single entity worth catching.

These people can be stopped only by persuasion or by denying them access to distribution channels upon which they rely. Many of them reason from a radically different set of assumptions or values than those that motivate the book publisher, or the author. Of course, some people hold their minds open to persuasion even by those with whom they disagree most. But most people simply discount and reject arguments that threaten cherished beliefs. This guarantees that persuasion will be less effective than we would like.

Unfortunately, the impact of the sincere zealot can be significant. Even when the cost of tracking down illicity uploads and issuing takedown notices is non-trivial, we may need to engage in it.

Each of you may want to crunch some numbers and come up with an estimate of the number of uploads/downloads required to make an impact on your bottom line, and the size of the customer base for each pirate haven that makes that number of downloads likely, in order to judge where you should search for these copies, and how much effort you should expend on getting them removed.

Personally, I use something like my marketing campaign-based sales estimation technique to make these decisions.

How do each of you handle this?

Do you see another breed of pirate out there?

How do you assess the severity of the issue?

And do you have any other topics you’d like to see me respond to?