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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