Thursday, January 28, 2010

MacMillan and Whine: The Futility of a Crusade Against Digital Book Piracy

At the Digital Book World publishers conference being held this week in New York City, Macmillan president Brian Napack took the stage as guest speaker to call for his fellow publishers to take up an aggressive fight against digital book piracy, encouraging them to coordinate in a series of lawsuits and anti-piracy legislation. His goal, clearly stated, is to stop the spread of sharing copyrighted intellectual materials over the internet.
Nuevo Kindle de AmazonImage by LA100RRA 3logs via Flickr

Where have we heard this battle cry before?

For those of you who answered the music industry, award yourselves ten points for paying attention over the last decade.

Since you were paying attention, we can assume that you also remember what a complete failure their Commerce Crusade turned out to be. Not only did they come nowhere near ending online file sharing, it is still managing to gain negative press by gleefully slapping million dollar fines on young girls and single mothers. All of their legal posturing and attacks have failed to make anything resembling a dent in online piracy, or file sharing, or watever you want to call it. Oh sure, they took down Napster, but just look at the difference that made.

Now, they have handed the torch over to the publishing industry, and some of the major players within seem
to be more than eager to follow suit and go after what they perceive to be a drain on their profit margins.

But is it really? It is a fact that book sales have been dropping drastically in recent years, and while it hasn't been as crippling as the drop seen in newspaper and magazine sales, it is still a healthy chunk. Considering the predominance of computer use, the growing market for eBooks, and recent studies that (very loosely) estimate losses in the millions from illegally downloaded books, it doesn't seem like a far-fetched premise.

Then again, it does avoid missing the bigger picture. The country is in what can easily be described as economic turmoil, and this is having an effect on commerce across the board. A major key to successfully selling any kind of luxury merchandise is offering an affordable product that people can afford. With unemployment rising and pay-scales dropping, many people can no longer afford to buy books casually. And with the list price of most hardcover books being more expensive (and eBook list prices are inexplicably as expensive) than the latest Blu-Ray release or a dinner for two at Applebees, many people are taking a pass.

There's also the question of how big the problem could actually be. Unlike the music industry, which releases all of its products in easily copyable formats, publishers don't normally count on technology for the bulk of their sales. Nook and Kindle sales might be on the rise (and modestly so) along with other eReading formats, but they still make up a vary small percentage of the commercial reading population. The majority of readers still prefer good old fashioned paper and ink. And even when considering that percentage of electronic reading, there is no iconic Napster to publicly slam for making the last Harry Potter available to the masses. And let's be honest; no matter how many copies of the Twilight series were downloaded illegally, the book still made lots of money for all involved.

Can you get books cheaper through online markets and major bookstore chains? Sure, but you can also get them for much cheaper at flea markets and used book stores. You can even get them free through legal channels, such as book trading sites like PaperBackSwap and BookMooch. And let's not forget public libraries; who knows how many sales publishers have lost from libraries simply giving them away for free. I'm not even counting the thousands of free copies that publishers themselves give out to promote their books.

So considering all of these equally tangible and logical reasons for the recent drop in book sales, why pick the impossible goal of battling digital piracy? Maybe because it is the only symptom that the publishing industry can even pretend to do anything about, and while spending millions on lawyers and court fees just to prove some kind of point might not make any real difference in the scheme of things, it probably feels more productive than just watching with a shrug and a sigh while your company spirals into the red.

Am I defending eBook piracy? Of course not. But it isn't the major cause for the declining sales the industry is facing, and if they make this their own multi-headed Hydra to battle instead of tackling the tougher issues at hand, they aren't going to end up as victorious as Heracles.

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