A recent article in the New York Times highlighted one of the major concerns of the fledging e-book industry – Piracy. The article looked at whether the publishing industry could learn from the music and movie industries ongoing fight against piracy and thereby avoid some of the pitfalls they might face when going digital. While I agree with the general idea put forward in the article, I don’t think that the publishing industry needs to worry about e-books becoming “Napsterized”. Rather, they should be more concerned about how soon can they “iTune-ize” the e-book industry.
By Napsterization, the author of the article implies that the publishing industry needs to be wary of Napster like rampant file sharing that adversely affected the music industry. The author further implies that with the growing popularity of e-book readers, it is only a matter of time before the publishing industry is faced with a similar problem.  Examples of piracy on file sharing sites of recent bestsellers like Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol further illustrate the author’s point.

I think that the most important lesson the publishing industry can learn from the experience of the music industry with piracy is this – the single most important tool to combat piracy is making available a legitimate, fairly priced source of content to the public. Personally, I think piracy exists mainly because the current pricing regime does not address a section of the consumers that would like to buy the product or because there exist no legitimate channels to acquire the product digitally (for eg. Comics, especially back issue archives) or because the existing channels are cumbersome to deal with or lack proper quality (think restrictive, crippling DRM, poorly designed e-retailing etc.).

So rather than worry about piracy, the publishing industry should concentrate on how quickly it can reach “iTune” like ease of use as well as pricing. Amazon has of course, made the entire process of buying and reading books hassle free. With the introduction of new E-book reader models with wireless capabilities by vendors like iRex, I think we can expect this feature to work with stores other than Amazon in the near future. What continues to remain a concern is pricing. While pricing has come down to about $10 for existing titles (driven in a small part by consumer backlash and boycott campaigns), I still don’t think it’s at the level that would cause an “iTune” like growth spurt in online e-book retailing.

The publisher’s argument against having pricing more than a few dollars below the dead tree versions is centered on the idea that publishing costs amount to a small fraction of the total price of the dead tree book. Other costs involved in sourcing manuscripts, assessing their quality, commissioning cover art, layout and design of the book, marketing and promotion account for a larger portion of the price of a book.  While I agree with the idea of cost allocation, I don’t think that this argument holds water in all cases.  I think that while it may be right to allocate costs, as the publishers seem to indicate, for new releases, I see no reason why the same logic should apply for older releases. My reasoning is that a majority of books were published before digitization of books hit mainstream. In their case, their sales to date (in most cases) ought to have recovered the initial costs and turned a profit for the publisher. Now for a digital copy of the same book, only real costs that ought to apply are the author’s royalty, onetime cost of digitization and cost of delivery per copy (and of course a modest profit margin for the seller). These I’m sure would amount to be significantly lower than the cover price of a  new paperback.

Therefore, I think that if the publishers are serious about e-books getting prices down to “iTune” (Pogue’s one dollar pricing that rocks, figuratively speaking) like levels is very much possible. This alone will serve as an effective deterrent against piracy. In the end, publishers need to ask themselves whether it is worth their while, to go after pirates or is their time better spent in drawing back readers to their titles in the digital age. I think Stephen King quite rightly summed this up :

The question is, how much time and energy do I want to spend chasing these guys. And to what end? My sense is that most of them live in basements floored with carpeting remnants, living on Funions and discount beer.

So will books be Napsterized or iTuneized ? I guess time will tell.

Did you like this? Share it: