While it is hardly the only place that media piracy is coming up these days, eBook piracy is very much on the minds of publishers and booksellers. There has been some informed speculation made that possibly as many as 20% of all eBooks currently loaded into devices like the Kindle are pirated rather than purchased. The number is almost shockingly high for some and seems to demand a response. The big question is what action could and should be successful.
Since I’m assuming that this reaches a relatively well informed and reasoning audience, I don’t need to spend much time on the fallacy of assuming that every eBook loaded onto a Kindle thanks to piracy is a lost sale. Naturally this is not the case as studies have shown repeatedly when looking into music, movie, and video game piracy. Most of these same studies have shown that piracy does not have any strong negative effect on sales at all, but let’s assume for the moment that at the very least it allows the market trends to shift based on where customers see the most value to be gained for their money.
This is where the piracy “problem” gets relevant. Publishers wish to control the perceived value of their product. It is problematic for them if customers are able to get the same quality of experience from a $3.99 eBook that they do from a $17.99 hardcover, as this has an adverse effect on a mainstay of traditional publishing. Unfortunately, this sort of control can only be exercised in a situation where the publishers can regulate the flow of new work being made available to customers. eBooks naturally render this impossible, especially given how simple it is to choose self publishing these days thanks to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and others.
Do I agree with the idea that books should lose value in an environment where there are too many of them to possibly read? Not entirely, but that’s just the way things work. If you have two similar titles being offered for wildly different prices then the cheaper one is likely to win out, barring dramatically successful marketing efforts. The only way that piracy really plays into this is in allowing readers to still have access to their favorite authors in situations where they would feel unable to justify paying now-outrageous prices. This is not necessarily a view of the emotional or philosophical “rightness” of the act, just an awareness of the psychology at work.
When it comes right down to it, you can’t stop piracy. No matter how restrictive the DRM, there are always more people interested in breaking it than maintaining it. What you can do is adapt to the market and respect your customers. Publishers who insist that if they can just shut down piracy sites and force Amazon to set high prices for Kindle books then all will be well are deluded. The only way to control piracy is to make legal acquisition affordable enough and simple enough that the alternative is too much of a hassle to be considered. The problem is not that the Kindle allows readers to access files they pick up from anywhere on the net, it’s things like the Big 6/Apple Agency Model implementation that try to freeze an entire form of media into an economic model that no longer functions.