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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Comments (8)
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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.


  • 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:


    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:


    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.


  • Mike says:

    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:


  • 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):


  • 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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