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Ebook piracy is ‘a colossal threat’. I disagree

Woman reading book

Ebook piracy is a ‘colossal threat’ or so screamed the front page of my morning Metro, London’s free newspaper. But not only do I think this blows the problem out of proportion, it could be missing the point entirely.

The rationale behind this claim, as put forward by crime writer David Hewson, is that some authors’ work is being leaked pre-publication.

A website set up by the Publishers Association where authors can report copyright infringement has received 831 notifications of infringement in the past week.

I’m not disputing its numbers, but I disagree that ebook piracy is a colossal threat. On the contrary, it could be a colossal opportunity.

The Association of American Publishers, for example, Publishers.org has announced that ebooks are now outselling their paperback equivalents, while Amazon sold more books for its Kindle ebook reader than it did paperbacks at the end of 2010.

Comparisons with music industry unfounded

David Hewson points to the ‘damage’ electronic publishing did to the music industry, as further evidence of the threat:

‘We all saw the damage this did to the music industry. It isn’t a bunch of Robin Hood geeks – it is very organised. You can call it file sharing or piracy or whatever, but they are thieves,’ Hewson is quoted as saying in the Metro.

But, for me, this is an unfair comparison. It’s easy to ‘rip’ music from a CD into a digital format and share this via illegal Torrent sites, something lots of people have done and something I don’t condone.

But books are different. You can’t simply plug a book into your computer and copy its content. Devices that claim to let you easily transfer books into a digital format do exist, such as Ion’s Book Saver.

But this requires you to scan every page of a book, with a 200-page novel taking 15 minutes to scan according to the company. Personally, I think it’s a faff and I doubt many people could be bothered to put in the time and effort.

Publishers must learn from music industry’s mistakes

Plus, people will download illegal copies if they think they’re getting a raw deal.

Currently, many electronic versions of books cost more than their print counterparts. For example, an Amazon Kindle version of Stephen Fry’s The Fry Chronicles costs £12.99, compared to £10 for a hardback and £6.74 for a paperback.

Amazon puts these prices down to publisher costs, but this issue is to face further from both the European Union and the Office of Fair Trading. They reportedly ‘have reason to believe’ that there’s price fixing going on.

I’d urge the publishing industry to learn from the mistakes the music industry has made before it. Why not offer a paperback book and an ebook at a competitive price – that way we get the best of both worlds.

With electronic publishing it’s also easy to give away a few pages of a book and let people try before they buy, in the same way that you can preview songs before you download from iTunes, for example.

Yes, ebooks can be pirated, but people will only seek illegal routes if they think the legitimate ones aren’t delivering on their promises.

Nigel Whitfield says:
18 April 2011

The problem with suggesting the publishing industry learns from the mistakes of the music industry is that there are some very senior people in publishing who won’t even acknowledge that the music industry made mistakes – I’ve interviewed some of them.

There are many common costs involved in producing eBooks – it’s not as if they go straight from the author’s Word document to ePub – but what’s keeping prices high is that while publishers allow retailers such as Amazon to discount the print editions, they don’t (thanks to Agency Pricing) allow them to do the same with the eBook editions.

Of course, there’s also an extent to which Amazon has exacerbated the problem, pricing some books below cost, and in the case of eBooks they’ve probably done that to help jumpstart the Kindle eco-system, to which they’d obviously like to tie as many people as possible. In doing so, they have created some pretty unrealistic expectations of the cost of books, I think.

I’m not saying prices should be higher – but there are costs like editing and proofing involved in producing a good quality eBook which means that they’re not going to be around the £1.50 mark unless you jettison some of those, and I’d rather pay for a book that has been edited and proofed than one that has errors all over the place.

Agency Pricing is essentially the Net Book Agreement resurrected for the digital world. Unfortunately, we have to be careful what we wish for here; cheaper books are good to have, but remember that the vast majority of authors do not make enough to live on. And remember too the vast number of bookshops that closed, following the ending of the NBA.

We don’t want the cosy cartels of the publishers imposing higher prices on us all, because they haven’t seen how the world is changing, and fixing the prices of eBooks. But equally, I think that most people also do want books that are well written, and properly produced, too; wading through a future eBook store where everything’s 79p and little of it has been edited or proofed isn’t going to be much fun either; will you keep on spending 79p in the hope that you’ll find a well written book where the plot makes sense and it’s not littered with errors?

I suspect that for most people, it’s somewhere between those two points that the sweet spot will be found. But as for how we get there, I really don’t know.

Craig says:
19 April 2011

Great commentary here, agree with most of it.

But, ebooks do not cost the same as print books. Yes, the editing, formatting etc is the same. But, you edit once for all formats and then need less amounts to format. The real cost is the printing, the paper, the transport, the stocking and the returns. An ebook has none of this. Therefore the price must be lower.

£1.50? I agree that would be crazy, no one can survive on that, but Amazon sells most of its ebooks at around the £6 mark.

On Amazon, authors get a massive amount more royalties than on DTB (dead tree books). Amazon gives 70% of the price to the author. The publishers give a max of around 30% for popular authors.

The problem is not Amazon, the problem is publishers that are trying to form a cartel to force customers to pay more than they should and protect a business model that is changing. Perhaps they should all get a Kindle and read Seth Godin’s “Poke the Box”!

Thanks for a great debate


I agree with Sarah’s comments on this clearly sensationalistic headline in this mornings metro.

No doubt the person writing this story has links to anti-piracy tech companies and law firms specialising in this area of law. 😉


Some good comments by Nigel above and ones I’d agree with.
There was an article in yesterday’s Sunday Times about this, and I assume the Metro’s is similar – they seem to be saying that pre-publication hardback copies are being leaked and scanned. However I think there is a more pressing issue with how ebooks themselves are protected once they have been published. I have never bought one so don’t know how the system works, but presumably once you have a digital copy of it then it can be distributed though piracy sites the same way as CDs and DVDs?

Could I digress just a little and mention self-publishing or so-called ‘vanity publishing’ – I have a friend who publishes her own books (in paperback form) and the whole self-publishing industry seems to be very flaky to me : up-front costs, books not printed as requested, royalties not paid, etc. (In fact it might be an area for Which to investigate). For such people publishing in ebook form may well prove to be a better option. I read an article recently where an American self-publisher was saying he was making far more money selling digital versions of his book for 99 cents and getting a royalty of 25 cents than selling paper copies for 10 dollars with a 3 or 4 dollar royalty. (Sorry can’t remember the exact figures but it’s about that order). However if ebooks for self-publishers is to take off then the protection of those ebooks will have to be addressed.

Nigel Whitfield says:
18 April 2011

Most eBooks that are available to buy at the moment are protected with Digital Rights Management software, which means that they can’t simply be copied like, say, an mp3 file. That said, no DRM is perfect, and some feel that it gets in the way of people doing what they like with their books.

It can also have interesting side effects; for instance, Harper Collins in the US has decided that they’ll use the DRM to force libraries to buy new copies of eBooks after 26 loans – effectively, the eBook will ‘wear out’ and have to be replaced. Nice for the publisher, less so for the cash-strapped libraries.

Amazon’s DRM, since the Kindle is ‘connected’ enables them to remove books after you’ve bought them, as they famously did with 1984 and another Orwell book, when it turned out the person who’d uploaded them for publishing didn’t have the rights. They say they’ll never do it again, but who knows… the ability’s there. Would an electronic equivalent of the Spycatcher case see some books blocked that way?

Though both Apple and the other readers like Sony, Kobo, Hanvon, iRiver, all use the ePub format, Apple doesn’t use the same DRM as the others (Apple use their own, everyone else uses Adobe DRM). That means that if you bought a book from, say, WH Smiths eBook store to read on your Sony reader, then someone treats you to an iPad, you can’t read the book on the iPad. You’d have to buy it again from Apple’s iBook store.

Similarly, books you’ve bought for Kindle can’t be read on a Sony Reader and vice versa. There are programs that will ‘strip’ the DRM and allow you to format shift, but technically they’re probably not legal to use.

But arguably, while people might accept the restrictions (I think, for instance, that you can have 5 devices on your Adobe DRM account, so you PC, your reader, your partner’s reader…) that stop piracy, by putting obstacles in the way of people who might have more than one type of reader (say, iPad and Sony), the industry is making many people feel they have no alternative, because why the **** should they have to buy the same book twice, just because they have two different brands of device?

I’d suggest that by muddying the waters on standards, more people are being pushed towards grabbing unauthorised copies or stripping DRM than would otherwise be the case.

So yes, DRM can protect the rights of authors, but use it in a heavy handed manner, and you’ll just frustrate users and damage your business even more.

Most people are fundamentally honest; if they like a book, they’ll want the author to produce more, and they’ll pay. But they will start to object when they’re being told to pay more than for the paper edition, or pay twice because they’ve changed a device, or discover that someone’s decreed their book is no longer valid.

The way to deal with piracy by users is not to inconvenience or attack your customers; it’s to treat them fairly and offer them things they think are value for money.

And the way to deal with pre-publication books being leaked onto the internet is certainly not to inconvenience your customers, none of whom have seen the book at that stage. It’s to get your own house in order and find out who on your staff is breaking the law.


Nigel, many thanks for this info, very informative.


Fortunately, not all publishers think that eBooks are a threat. A good counter example is Baen books: I recently purchases a paper copy of Cryoburn (the latest book from Lois McMaster Bujold) and discovered it comes with a CD containing almost all the books in the same series. Not only that but the CD itself is available for free download from their website along with many others ( http://baencd.thefifthimperium.com/24-CryoburnCD/CryoburnCD/ ). They explain why they do this: “Why are we being so generous? Simple: we think the more people who read Ms. Bujold’s works the more people will buy them.”

Andrew Norton says:
18 April 2011

Actually, that’s NOT baen’s website, it’s a ‘fansite’, called Thefifthimperium (named after the political entity in David Weber’s – another Baen author – Dahak series) that also features teaser previews (upto 1/3 of books) for upcoming releases.

The Baen site DOES have free books (the Baen free library was launched in 2000) and features a foreword by author Eric Flint, which addressed all the ‘piracy’ issues, which hasn’t moved on in 11 years. http://www.baen.com/library/

I did get a chance to speak to Mr Flint back in September, after a 80minute presentation by Baen covering all the new books they have coming out (LOTS of books) and he hadn’t changed his position at all.

The eBook market is only slightly more developed now, than back in 2000 (where I had AportisDoc on my Palm Vx, whereas now it’s aldiko on android) But the issue is not a new one. There is no practical difference between ‘eBook piracy’ and ‘Library lending’. It’s just an excuse for poor performance and bad balance sheets, not an actual problem.

Most piracy claims are vastly overblown, with no evidence (or sometimes AGAINST evidence) and