Creating Living Books: A Defense Against 'Piracy'?

from the there's-an-idea dept

Michael Scott points us to an interesting essay on piracy in the ebook space, written by Mike Shatzkin. He talks about setting up the program for the upcoming Digital Book World event, where he didn't even think that "piracy" was a topic worth discussing -- but various publishers told him that it's a big issue to them. Unfortunately, it seems that the reason it's a big issue is not because they're learning to use such things to their advantage, but because they have taken the exact wrong lessons from the music industry and have decided they need technological measures to "fight" piracy. Good luck with that.

Shatzkin, however, lays out a much more reasonable approach, picking up on what O'Reilly does with its books: no DRM, but give people a real reason to buy (there's that concept again). In this case, it's regular updates to any book you buy. So, rather than thinking about it as buying the content of the book, you can think about it as paying for a regular update on a particular topic. It becomes an ongoing service, which provides a scarce good, rather than a single transaction for content. As such, "piracy" becomes less and less of an issue, because the content you get may be quite out of date, and give you reason to pay up for real to make sure you are regularly up-to-date.

But, of course, O'Reilly publishes (wonderful and useful) technology books, where there's an obvious advantage to keeping current and up-to-date for readers of those books. The question is whether or not similar things can be done for other types of books, and Shatzkin has some ideas that are intriguing. First he quotes Tim O'Reilly in suggesting that piracy might really only impact large well-known authors who don't need the "marketing" aspect of free books (as opposed to less well-known authors, for whom "obscurity is a bigger threat than piracy"). But, then he notes that perhaps those big name authors can create a "service" of sorts that competes nicely with unauthorized file sharing as well:
But those authors are also the ones who have the biggest personal followings. They are the most capable of adding material: notes about what they're working on, correspondence with fans or critics, even observations about other people's books, that would add some value for many of the readers of their stories. In fact, a regular "update to my readers" from a top-flight author that is available only in their ebooks, or to purchasers of their ebooks, would be an attraction to many and could serve as a constant reminder that downloading their books from illegitimate sources is cheating them.
It's an interesting idea, and I like the proactive thinking on ways to compete by allowing something that isn't really possible in the paper book format. Though, I'm not sure if this method works precisely. After all, we already have the example of Paulo Coehlo, one of the best-selling authors of all time, who purposely "pirated" his own book and saw his sales increase tremendously. On top of that, he is already doing many of the things that Shatzkin suggests, but for free on his own website -- and it's working wonders. It's building up a much more loyal following for Coelho, and is allowing him to run interesting experiments like having his fans make a movie out of one of his books. All of this has only opened up more opportunities for Coelho to make money by both building his overall audience while also making his fans ever more loyal and ever more interested in supporting him.
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Filed Under: books, living books, piracy


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  1. icon
    Mark Murphy (profile), 19 Dec 2009 @ 8:07am

    On the contrary

    We all know that downloading a movie via a torrent is significantly slower than a direct digital download (say an ituned download).


    And your proof of this is...what, exactly? I don't pirate movies, but I download movie-sized things (e.g., Ubuntu ISOs), and the torrents are scary fast compared to the alternatives.

    So humor me Mike, exactly what type of book would you need to check for an update before using? Computer languages? Most of them move at a glacial speed anyway (in internet terms) that would require maybe 1 update a year. I can't see that as a "reason to buy".


    The updates to an author's work could be at the chapter, book, or collection level. My subscriptions are at the collection level. I have thousands of paying subscribers, who pay an annual fee for access to updates to a growing collection of books plus other RtB (e.g., online support chats). I also have thousands of buyers of my print books, for those who like their prose on thinly-sliced trees, though they don't get nearly as good of a deal.

    I'm a card-carrying member of the CwF/RtB fan club. Well, I would be if they had cards. Does a Techdirt T-shirt count?

    Also, let's add this: the updating service isn't free to maintain or to do.


    No, but the cost of the "updating service" is well under 1% of the cost of sales, at least in my case.

    In simple business terms, you have a closed end sale with an opened ended obligation and expense, which means every book sold would generate no real profit, but in fact would generate a life long liablity.


    I agree that a one-time purchase does not jive well with the continuous update model. That is the reason I use a subscription model and license at the collection level, so updates are fairly frequent.

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