I know we talk about e-books a lot around here (and around the publishing world in general), but two of the issues we haven’t touched on quite as much as other subjects are free e-books and piracy. Two blog entries this week made me think more carefully about both issues.
First, free e-books. Mike Shatzkin over at the IdeaLogical blog dissected the question of free. As he points out, it’s generally fairly accepted by those on the publishing and agenting sides that free e-books engender more sales than they endanger, at least in the short term. (Anecdotally, back when it was available, I downloaded the free e-book from oprah.com of the absolutely stunning Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, who regular readers will know we’re quite fond of around here. Half way through reading the free e-book, I bought a hard copy, because it’s amazing; he deserves my money and so do his publisher and agent for making it possible for me to experience it. Plus, I need to share it with people who don’t have e-readers and ultimately give it pride of place on my shelf. Noticing the really reasonable price, I also told all my friends to go buy it ASAP. I know at least some of them did.) Do you lose some sales? Absolutely. But popular consensus seems to be that you gain more than you lose, and I fundamentally agree.
Shatzkin also goes into the separate questions of how we count free downloads vis-à-vis sales, and, more important, what impact the free download has on sales and the industry overall. We know it helps that book in the short term and probably in the long run, but does it hurt all books and publishers and retailers, etc., at the same time? It’s an interesting argument—and the sort of question that always makes me worry. How do you put the genie back in the bottle, and how do you know when it’s too late? If you’re not reading Shatzkin’s blog, you should, because even when I disagree with his conclusions, he always seems to take the conversation that extra step further and never fails to look at the big picture.
And second, a different kind of free: piracy. Sure, this piece on hard copy piracy through a nefarious chain of libraries is tongue-in-cheek, but it’s an interesting counterpoint to the people whose fear of piracy prevents them from embracing a technological revolution. I understand the concern of authors who feel that they’re losing money on piracy—in a time when they’re losing money on everything else (advances, royalties, returns, self-promotion), it must be aggravating to add to the list. However, we don’t ban libraries just because someone who took the book out of the library might otherwise have bought it. I don’t know that many avid library fans even though I know a lot of readers, but the people I do know who are addicted to their library cards don’t buy a whole lot of books. If libraries didn’t exist, they probably would buy more books a year because they are big readers, but we don’t use them as a reason to ban libraries. We also don’t count every book we lend to our friends as a loss of sales, and I actually think if my friends lost their library cards, they’d probably just spend more time looking at my bookshelves. If you create something worth experiencing, some people are probably going to experience it for free. If you think you should stop that, you’re sort of missing the point, but if you think you can just by not going digital, you’re really misunderstanding how the digital world works. Piracy still exists when it’s the only option in the digital format. (Plenty of illegal e-books are not generated from hacked e-books, so not creating an e-book does not prevent piracy.) A library reader will probably not go steal the book from their local bookstore if it’s not available at the library, but a digital reader might just download the file elsewhere if it’s not available legally. For people who find that distressing rather than just the way of the world, it might help to know that the lesson of the music industry has been: if you don’t give a potential customer what they want, how they want it, when they want it, they will find a way to get it anyway. If you can figure out how to give them what they want, how they want it, and for a price they’re willing to pay, plenty of people will buy it rather than steal it. Don’t believe me? Ask Apple.