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February 2017
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The Amazon Kindle, eBooks, and Piracy

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.

Kindle Touch’s X-Ray Feature Combats Piracy The Smart Way

While the news of the week is certainly focused on the Kindle Fire media tablet and all of the wider implications for tablet computing that go along with it, this week also brings us the release of the new Amazon Kindle Touch eReader.  It does a few things right that other companies haven’t quite caught on to yet, but overall it’s just another iteration of the line.  Once you reach a certain point, there is a limit to how much excitement can be mustered over fractions of an inch in dimension reduction, fractions of an ounce in weight reduction, or fractions of a second in page refresh rate.  It was all pretty much great in the Kindle 3 (Kindle Keyboard) and the trend continues in the fourth generation here.

What is really important here aside from the touchscreen implementation, which I’ll talk about another time, is the way Amazon has managed to add extra value for users beyond the simple reading experience.  That’s not easy when you’re talking about something as basic as a book, and most attempts to do so up until now (i.e. video embedding, hyperlinks, etc.) have been at least somewhat obtrusive during the act of reading.

The new X-Ray feature is, at first glance, an extension of the search function.  It will find what you need in an intelligent fashion using Amazon’s own predictive algorithms to determine what the most important parts of a book are.  The name is meant to imply that by using the Kindle Touch you can see through to the “bones” of a given book.  This information is stored on your eReader, having been downloaded alongside each eBook you picked up, so it remains accessible even if you keep the WiFi turned off consistently. Accessing X-Ray will get you things like a list of proper names in the book, how often those names appear and where, as well as other extrapolated information about the form of the book’s content.

While this isn’t generally going to be a feature of major importance, it will come in handy to many.  For students and reading groups the applications are obvious.  It serves as a reference point.  Even during a casual reading, however, it will come in handy to be able to pull this up on the fly.  Forgot where you last saw a character earlier in the book?  X-Ray.  Not sure if it’s worth looking up a historical figure to understand a reference?  Check X-Ray to see if they keep coming up during important passages.  That sort of thing might not be a day to day need, but it’s nice to have handy.

In handling things the way they are, Amazon is effectively providing paying customers something that pirates don’t have access to.  Even if people figure out a good way to side-load this content, Amazon is presumably improving how the X-Ray feature determines what is important.  This means that each time you sign online with your Kindle Touch, the information potentially evolves and improves.  It’s a neat system and manages to avoid restrictive content control while giving users an incentive to stay honest.

Kindle Piracy Thoughts

The Kindle platform, along with several other similar pushes into the emerging eBook industry, has improved availability of books significantly.  If nothing else, there’s no longer even the possibility of a book going “out of print” and being unavailable to an interested reader.  Even when publishers attempt to create an artificial scarcity, it’s just not going to happen in the face of a truly interested audience.  Of course, not every effect of going digital will be so positive.

The situation I referenced there is an extreme case where most people would find little fault finding your book through alternate channels.  After all, the publisher has chosen to deny you the opportunity to hand over money for the product.  For the most part, when piracy comes up, this isn’t the case at all.  There are two major camps in the dispute, from what I have experienced.  On the side of the piracy objectors, there tends to be an equating of illegal downloads with lost sales.  On the piracy supporting side, people often speak encouragingly about the free press and word of mouth that open distribution can bring.  Both arguments have merit, as far as they go.

Research into music piracy has often tended to consider each download a lost sale.  I’ve heard of similar arguments in eBooks.  I hope we can all see the flaw in this.  While there will be lost sales, the numbers aren’t precisely directly correlated to the number of illegal downloads.  For many people, the entire motivation for piracy seems to be a limited budget that would have prevented the sale anyway, or a limited amount of initial interest in the title that would have made expenditure less than appealing.

That said, excusing piracy based on “I wasn’t going to buy it anyway, so I’m entitled to it for free” is just ridiculous.  I would like to be generous and say that most people who do grab books without paying for them are probably aware of this. While I don’t, however, believe that the college student who downloaded the equivalent of a small lending library to his Kindle would have paid face value for each of the books he read, no matter how interesting or appreciated they were, it’s fairly safe to say that the two or three top picks of the year at least would have been sales under other circumstances.

The main complication in dealing with this situation involves striking the proper balance.  No matter how much effort you put into protecting the items you sell, the internet is a big place full of very crafty people, many of whom will go out of their way to break protection on things even when they have no need of what is being protected, just on principal. There’s always the Baen solution, which involves releasing all sorts of eBooks for free from time to time for the Kindle and any other device you might have handy and hoping that the sample encourages purchases.  Most publishers might find that a little too much of a gamble though.

As much as I’d like to come down squarely on one side of this debate, I can’t.  Piracy is a problem if it gets too big, there’s no denying that.  It can sharply reduce the incentive to produce quality work.  But at what point do the measures taken to protect something make it more of a pain for the legitimate buyer than the illegal downloader?  Already we have some pretty ridiculously restricted platforms to deal with, especially when you don’t want to be locked to one seller.  All I can really hope for is that this doesn’t end up escalating and causing the sort of drama the music industry has had over MP3s.