Will Books Be Napsterized?

The rise of e-books opens up new horizons for readers, and also the possibility that books will be "Napsterized," as The New York Times explains. The Times article begins:

You can buy “The Lost Symbol,” by Dan Brown, as an e-book for $9.99 at Amazon.com.

Or you can don a pirate’s cap and snatch a free copy from another online user at RapidShare, Megaupload, Hotfile and other file-storage sites.

Until now, few readers have preferred e-books to printed or audible versions, so the public availability of free-for-the-taking copies did not much matter. But e-books won’t stay on the periphery of book publishing much longer. E-book hardware is on the verge of going mainstream...

With the new devices in hand, will book buyers avert their eyes from the free copies only a few clicks away that have been uploaded without the copyright holder’s permission? Mindful of what happened to the music industry at a similar transitional juncture, book publishers are about to discover whether their industry is different enough to be spared a similarly dismal fate. (Get the rest here.)

Needless to say, publishers are getting nervous. But some see the "Napsterization" of books being more hype than real. As author Seth Harwood told me on Twitter (find our Twitter stream here), The "nyt article on ebook piracy is spin. If more people are reading, even stolen books, publishers win. Too much fear of zero sum." In the comments section below, Seth goes beyond 140 characters and spells out why publishers should take a deep breath. They might actually have more to gain than lose, if they play their cards right. Give his thoughts a read, and keep in mind that he landed a Random House contract by giving his books away as free audio podcasts.


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  • Dan,

    Great post. Here’s more of what I think:
    With New York publishers afraid to go the way of big time recording companies, the big fear buzzword is piracy of e-books. Well, this is more gloom than doom, I predict. With the reality of e-books being a tiny share of the book market and real print copies still a premium product for consumers, I hear more fear out of publishers about piracy than I hear logical concern.

    Looking to the music industry as a model, Radiohead sold more copies of the first album they gave away entirely free online than they had of their five previous albums. (Anderson, Free) As a few of us have shown–Scott Sigler, Corey Doctorow, J.C. Hutchins, Neil Gaiman, myself–giving away free products leads to the one thing that really sells books–word of mouth. The big secret in publishing right now is that paid models of advertising are showing fast-declining returns. It’s time for publishers to stop fearing the loss of business and revenue and allow more readers to consume their books.

    Do they worry about loss of sales from library borrowing? No. So it’s time to get over piracy fears and see zero-cost online distribution as the great advertising platform that it is.

    If people want to read a book for free, they can do it now. If people want to get music or TV shows for free, they can find those on the web. Neither of those industries are in peril. Sure, music revenues have changed and come from new sources now (performances), but publishing has much more here to gain than to fear. It’s time for a fresh point of view.

    Seth

  • Tom says:

    In Europe, I found out, free books based on commercials, have already been used in the academic world for some time now. I guess that is one way to go against piracy within books. The biggest in this market seem to be http://www.bookboon.com

  • Mike says:

    Seth,

    The music recording industry IS in peril. Despite the success of some web-savvy artists, net revenues in the industry are way, way down. It’s odd that you would call performance a “new” source of revenue. Musicians have been performing for as long as music has been around. What is changing is that the value of copyrighted material is collapsing, so now artists who previously were able to make a living (at least in part) from recordings must go out on the road much longer (work harder) to survive. Human beings only have so much time and health to travel and perform, and there are practical limits to the size of audiences. Also, what about the musician who is a fantastic recording artist but a mediocre performer?

    As for publishing having “more to gain than fear,” I would first point out that books are only one branch of the publishing industry, and other branches (newspapers, magazines) are already being devastated. ( Along with the lives of many who have made their living there.) You call zero-cost online distribution a “great advertising platform,” but when the day arrives when most readers prefer reading books in digital format, what product will they be advertising then?

    In the music/literature comparison the record companies (which have been devastated) are analogous to book publishers, and the live performing tours are analogous to…nothing. Writers don’t have that option.

  • Seth Harwood says:

    Mike,

    Fair points. Allow me to change tack for a moment. Supposing that the music industry is devastated, I think the book-publishing industry could learn a lesson from what happened to the music industry. And that lesson is you can’t dig in and wait for things to happen TO you, you’ve got to come up with a plan. Music fought against digital downloads and didn’t come up with a decent pricing or distribution model for online music until iTunes did it TO them and decided to charge $.99 for a song. Right now the book publishing industry is digging in their heels and saying that digital books need to stay at the same $15 and $25 (roughly) price points. Many can see this is artificial. It won’t last.

    SO, to stay in business longer/better, books publishers need to come up with their own pricing strategy and online selling model that will work for them. Otherwise, Amazon will eventually rule the roost (unless Apple does) and soon they’ll be dictating price, terms, you name it. Right now is the time that publishers need to wake up and figure out a pricing model and distribution that will work FOR them.

    They have a chance right now to be a part of what’ll develop, but if they sit back like the music folks did, they might see book sales go the way of music sales. You’re right: authors don’t have an equivalent to the concert tour.

    SH

  • Mike says:

    Seth,
    I do see your point. Publishers must try to shape their own destiny. I’m afraid though that in any event it will be a matter of diminishing returns, not just for the big corporations (which I don’t have much feeling for) but for the many people who make their living — directly or indirectly –on copyrighted material. There is a popular slogan, “Information wants to be free,” which I detest not just for the idiocy of its phrasing (information itself “wants” something?) but for the appalling lack of regard for the welfare of human beings who labor to create “information.” From what I hear, Seth, you are quite internet savvy and are doing something analogous to what Lily Allen did in music. So congratulations, and best wishes for your career. But the larger trend in the digital/internet era, across many fields, is a dramatic erosion of the value of copyrighted material — which, overall, is very bad for those of us who create it.

  • Mike says:

    Speaking of trying to shape one’s own destiny in the new digital age…I see there will be an “eBook Summit” event in New York this December. If anyone’s interested:

    http://www.mediabistro.com/ebooksummit/?c=ebenmh

  • Mike says:

    Doubt that anyone is still reading here, but…If you are, here’s a relevant article from the Times of London (Which I accessed free by the way):

    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/libby_purves/article6870224.ece

  • Khephra says:

    I agree – digital saturation is going to steadily increase. However, it’s a bit inaccurate to draw a parallel to Napster. Napster was centralized; ebooks are pretty much ubiquitous. It’d be an act of futility to try to undercut that. The files are too small and too easily exchanged.

    With that said, I expect publishers will eventually fall into a panic of regressive traditionalism. Global copyright laws are absurd and archaic, flawed remnants forced upon digital natives by digital immigrants. The prevalence of these flawed ideologies isn’t going to evaporate overnight or through reasoned discussion.

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