E-Books round 2: Run For Your Lives!

Yesterday, I talked a bit about some e-book fears that no longer worry me. Today, I’d like to talk about one outstanding issue that does frighten me. A lot. We already discussed a few ways in which publishing shouldn’t be compared to the music industry, but there is one aspect where the comparison does work: piracy.

Book piracy is nothing new. In the 19th century, America had very few rights protecting authors. Charles Dickens famously made a personal crusade out of slapping the wrists of adoring fans who had purchased unlicensed copies of his books. Even back then, American readers were incredulous: We gave you fame! Why are you complaining about money?

I think this attitude is coming back with the younger generation 1.  Screenwriter John August recently posted a link to composer Jason Robert Brown’s website, in which Brown documents a debate he had with a teenager girl who was pirating his music. The conversation is fascinating and infuriating. You should go read it right now. I’ll wait.

Are you back? Are you terrified?

For those writing MG and YA fiction, “Brenna” is our readership; her opinions on the subject are ones that will directly effect our ability to provide for ourselves and our families. After reading that exchange and many others like it, I spent a few days being consumed with fear. So far as I can tell, it is an issue that no one in publishing wants to deal with. At ALA last month, I talked to a number of people in publishing who were all about e-books. Publishers are more than happy to speculate about how these devices will “change” their industry … but no one seemed willing to engage on the subject of piracy. The most I could get was some quiet muttering about DRMs … as though this technology could somehow protect books where it had failed with software, music, and movies.

It is unrealistic for publishers and authors to rely on tech companies to protect their interests.  The fact is: Apple and Amazon will only protect the rights of authors for as long as it is profitable — because making profit is what businesses are designed to do. Similarly I think the ideological battle against a culture of piracy is un-winnable. Too many people in our culture have already bought into the “information wants to be free” philosophy2.

The problem with the “information wants to be free” model is that it’s not capitalist. It’s a great model … in a world where artists and thinkers are not expected to live off profits from their ideas. But that would require substantial support from the government or private benefactors3. Until that happens, though, the government has a responsibility to enforce the rights of content creators. Which they don’t do.

So where does that leave content creators?

No  clue.

  1. 1. said the cranky old man in his late-20’s
  2. 2. Malcom Gladwell has a very engaging book review on this subject here
  3. 3. Let it be known that I am open to patronage; all interested rich people should contact me through the comments box.

7 Comments Leave a Comment

  • Meredith says:

    In the year and a half since I was given a Kindle, I’ve bought more content from publishers than I had in years. Most of my reading has traditionally been library books, or used books – only very, very rarely would I have gone to a bookstore and bought a new one (so, only very, very rarely would my purchase actually have supported an author.) But lately I’m buying a couple books a month electronically, and even at Amazon’s low e-prices, that’s at least a little going to feed the authors’ families.

    This is also, I think, one of the strengths of the closed, device-specific model of e-books; if Amazon starts messing around with pirates, publishers can refuse to sell through Amazon, and then my Kindle is pretty worthless. That seems like decent motivation for AMZ to stick to the straight path. Same for Apple; if they start selling pirated works through iBooks, publishers don’t have to keep working with them, and they lose their cut.

    A small glimmer of hope?

  • […] UPDATE: you can read my followup post here. […]

  • Lisa says:

    I’d like to hear a weigh-in about Google Books, then.

  • john edwards says:

    To be sure, digital publishing is going to force a change in the business model. And there will be trade-offs: e-books are cheaper, but the greater accessibility and appeal of e-books can offer greater exposure and readership to authors.

    To date, I’ve not seen research on how e-books have actually impacted authors, but as a writer who has a Nook–and loves it, I hope I’m not not acting against my own best interest.

  • […] The Scop Jonathan Auxier starts a conversation that no one’s really covering at the moment: eBook piracy.  I think he may have a good point going on there.  Folks, I suspect that this is a conversation […]

  • Ashley says:

    I read an article a few weeks ago (and I apologize, I don’t remember where, but it was most likely a tech blog) discussing music piracy and that its actually *less* of a problem now than it has been in the past. Music sellers have made buying tracks so easy that people are choosing to purchase. The author used data pulled from torrent sites (sites where you can search for and download free stuff). The hot-market items these days are video games and movies – more expensive items.

    So what does that mean for books? Seems that its going to be about two things: pricing and ease of purchase.

  • Ashley,
    Here’s hoping that article is right. I also think that the iPhone has shown that most consumers don’t mind giving up versatility (incl. the ability to upload illegal content) if it means that they have an easy, bug-free interface. But even if that’s true, it still leaves publishers and authors at the mercy of the device manufacturers … if a company like Apple learns consumers are demanding an e-reader that will let them upload illegal content, I think we can kiss DRMs goodbye.

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