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.