Pirating The Long Tail: The Audio Book Dilemma

Longtail See Open Culture’s collection of Audio Book Podcasts.

Let us quickly excerpt from the latest blog entry by Chris Anderson, the author of the best-selling
business book (and now over-used expression), The Long Tail. This is Chris speaking:

“I know I shouldn’t say this, but I’m frankly delighted to see that my book has been pirated and is available on Bittorrent. (Presumably this is the audio book version, even though it claims to be an “ebook”, which I wasn’t aware existed).

My publishers want to make money, and I like them so I usually do what it
takes to keep them happy, but in truth I just want to be read/listened
to by the largest number of people. Leave it to me to figure out how to
convert that reputational currency into cash –just get me in front of the biggest audience and I’ll do the rest…

As Tim O’Reilly puts it, “Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy”.

Of the nearly 200,000 books published last year, only about 2,000 (1%)
made any money for anyone. The rest of them were published for other
reasons, which range from marketing consulting services to simple
expression. Outside of a relative handful of celebrity authors and
self-help peddlers, almost nobody writes books for a living.

As for my own book, I imagine that approximately zero (give or take a few dozen) people who would have otherwise bought the proper audio book version will put up with the incredibly slow download required to pirate it (currently five days, according to my Bittorrent client)…

But all that said, I have mixed feeling about purposely distributing a free
audiobook in its current incarnation (the pirated version on Bittorent
isn’t going to matter one way or another). On one hand, I think that
zero-marginal costs ought to result in zero price. On the other, this
is not an inferior version serving as marketing for a superior
experience–for people who like audiobooks, it is the experience. As such it really does appear to be a replacement for the CD/Audible.com version. Hyperion put a lot of money into producing that audiobook and they deserve a return. I’m confident that a free ebook would sell more of the print versions, but I’m less sure that people would buy a digital audiobook if there was a free version circulating widely online.

Any forward-thinking book industry folks out there who want to explore the economics of this a bit further with me?”

In reading his post, several questions came to mind. Who knew that writing books had become such a depressing proposition, an exercise in creating loss leaders? And how hard did some VP at Hyperion (the publisher of Anderson’s audio book) swallow when seeing Chris publicize, even take some delight in discovering, a pirated version of their audio book product?

Anderson’s commentary underscores an important problem in the audio book market. Whereas Lawrence Lessig and Cory Doctorow have demonstrated that traditional book sales can be stimulated by making available free digital copies of the work (read: e-books), there’s no parallel in the audio book market. Digital copies of audio books, pirated versions or otherwise, pretty much only lead to cannibalization of the original audio books. Piracy presents a problem for the industry. And it’s all exacerbated by the fact that audio book prices are almost illogically high. Consider this: Although the main virtue of the internet is that it lowers the cost of delivering information-based goods, and allows for prices to come down in kind, the audio book version of the Long Tail runs $31.95 on iTunes and $27.99 on Audible, which compares very poorly to the $16.47 that you pay for the paper copy on Amazon. This skewed pricing structure not only stifles demand, but also creates an incentive for knock-offs, leaving the audio book world in a bind. At this point, the audio book industry should have every incentive to do something creative with the digital tools available to it, much as the music industry has done over the past several years. We’ll keep an eye on whether any forward-thinking publishers take up Anderson’s invitation to sort this one out.

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Comments (3)
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  • The Dynamics of Piracy

    Over at the Open Culture Blog they are discussing whether or not the piracy of the audio version of Tim Andersons The Long Tail is good or bad for (audiobook) business. One of the arguments is that low-quality rip-offs wil

  • Robin Henry says:

    It’s unusual to find a physical product cheaper than an audio book, however, purchasing from Amazon would incur a postage/delivery cost and also take a week or more for delivery. Downloading is immediate, although I note there are restrictions on geographic regions in terms of download from my site. I guess it’s horses for courses.

  • I guess it would be hypocritical of Chris Anderson and his publishers to frown upon an activity that is actually promoted in the Long Tail book in that zero cost of production and distribution may eventually lead to zero purchase price.

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