Monday, August 16, 2010

Ebook Piracy

So I was watching a long, involved forum thread the other day, and one of the posters admitted to stealing eBooks simply because they couldn't afford to pay for them. The morality of what he does as an aside, and avoiding the pitchfork-and-torches crowd, it got me to thinking of the times in college when I'd grab a game from the still-swaddled Intertron or crack a friend's copy.

Yes, that's right, I've done this. I'll be down to face the guillotine shortly. Just let me finish my post.

I remembered not having money, but I also remembered that somehow I managed to purchase the good games that came out of the list of pirated games. Thief, Unreal, Duke Nukem, and System Shock, to name a few. Now, this was before having a demo was accepted wisdom. Publishers argued that users would simply play the demo over and over and never buy the game. Sure, that was possible, but the demo is hardly the full game. If I enjoyed that game, I wanted more. These are the ones I bought.

The good games.

Now we move forward to a time when most games have a demo and I have (or rather had) the cash to buy just about anything I wanted. I no longer pirate games. I can try before I buy. For the few games that have no demos, I either know that it's one I want, or I just don't play it, or I wait for it to hit the $5 price on STEAM.

And now I consider that behavior as it applies to eBooks. How does one decide to press the Purchase button?

Is the description concise? Do I know what I'm getting? If I'm in the mood for action-adventure set in a fictional tenth-century Europe and the book turns out to be the author's Dark Age version of Pride and Prejudice, I'm going to be annoyed.

Are there free samples? Is there a demo, as it were? If I can read the first chapter, I'll know if I'm interested enough to continue. Description aside, nothing says more about the book than the actual prose. And, again, it's another way of letting me try before I buy. I know what I'm getting.

Is it expensive? If I'm still waffling on any of the above points, the price can tip me one way or another. $2.99? Impulse buy. Sure. I can get a couple of two-liters of coke, or I can buy a book. Probably going with the book. $14.99? Okay, just what kind of scam is this? I really don't care how much the publishers shelled out for the cover, editing, and (most annoyingly) the marketing and shelf space for the physical copies. Not my concern. I do know that I can enjoy a good lunch at a decent restaurant and a couple of beers for that and read my $2.99 book. Think I'll go with that second option.

Yet, all of this can be trumped by truly amazing work. If that chapter is really intriguing, I'm much more inclined to put down the $15. (Though I doubt there's a description good enough to pry that cash from my fingers without a sample chapter). If it's part of a series that I've loved (note, not enjoyed: LOVED!) then I'm inclined to pay more. I'll curse their greed, but I'll still put down the green. Again, that's the key.

The good books get bought.

Now, how does it all relate to the piracy problem? Well, let's look back at why I used to copy out games. I wanted quality games. I wanted to know what I was buying. I wanted a fair price. The first two points are on the same coin. The price is negotiable based on my wants and desires.

Good work will get purchased. How does one know it's good? A sample chapter and positive reviews.

Marginal work will also get purchased, but only if the price is right.

Now, one man's good work is another man's garbage. Give your readers the tools to decide where yours falls in that spectrum, but price the work towards the lower end. Just in case.


  1. I will go out on a limb and say that as a writer, piracy doesn't concern me very much ... at least not yet. For that matter, as a singer/songwriter I didn't worry about it too much either.

    I guess I figure I can't generally do much to stop someone pirating my book. Also, they could get my book at the library or a used bookstore, which doesn't pay me either. And if they read it and like it, maybe they'll buy something else of mine later on.

    We'll see what I think when I'm actually published, however. ;)

  2. Eric, I think we were living the same life. At the very least, we were playing the same games.

    I'm with Amy on the worries about piracy. I've read surveys that say the number one reason people buy booksis because they read another book by that author. You, yourself said you'd pay more for a book in a series you loved. Which makes obscurity our worst enemy as a new writer. So anything that helps get our books in people's hands isn't all bad.

  3. There's basic idea that it's cool if a bunch of people pirate something as long as a few people pay for it. In principle I can dig it.

    But what if the few people who pay to support the artist are only doing so because of an atavistic memory of retail purchases? What if they aren't a permanent minority, but rather a sort of living fossil whose habits were shaped by buying stuff in stores?

    I think one aspect of self-publication that's going to be a real issue down the line is that of establishing the sense of a personal relationship with the audience -- so that they know if their purchase means the difference between peanut butter and salami for lunch.

    It looks as if we're going back to the tradition of setting a rug down in the marketplace and telling stories. Like it or not, under those circumstances you're gonna have a public face and your profitability -- which can be defined by your relationship to piracy -- will depend on that face to a degree.

  4. Sean, you've got a good point there. I also think about the old notions of patrons of the arts and if that's a system we're moving towards, exemplified by writers and artists who ask for donations on their website as an investment into a project they're working towards.

  5. I find that a fascinating proposition. I have to say, I like that better than a traditional patron in that it keeps you from having an owner, as it were.

    I'm seriously considering trying out a project of that nature in order to fund a decent printer for myself. It wouldn't be donations, but rather small affordable prints made available in the context of funding a better printer. Still in the thinking phase, but we shall see.

  6. You said it all. Perfect. Readers will decide.

    Great blog post.