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No, David Pogue, Ebook Piracy is Not a Given

In “Can e-Publishing Overcome Copyright Concerns?,” David Pogue of the New York Times talks about why he doesn’t make electronic versions of his books available, supporting his position as ebook naysayer with a blog post by an author whose voluntary payment experiment for the digital release of an outdated book was a dismal failure. Apparently, Pogue has twice sent PDF versions of a book to someone claiming to be blind and each time, he said, the book was all over the “piracy sites” within 48 hours. In a subsequent post, Pogue
relayed and responded to reader comments, which spanned the gamut of opinions.

I normally appreciate what Pogue has to say in his print and email columns due to the way his technology sensibilities have been honed by years of being a Mac user. But in this situation, and I say this with all respect due to a fellow author with whom I’ve written a book, I disagree with him pretty much completely. I’m not just spouting off like some of the people commenting on his blog posts – my point of view comes as the result of selling over 150,000 ebooks with virtually no copies being shared widely.

(Ironically, despite Pogue saying that he doesn’t make electronic versions of his Missing Manuals available, a quick scan of O’Reilly Media’s Web site showed that 5 of his 24 books are in fact for sale in PDF format. When I asked him about this, he admitted that he knew that “iPhone: The Missing Manual” had been released in PDF to get it to market faster last year. Three of the others were older books, and he was surprised to learn that “Windows XP Home Edition: The Missing Manual, Second Edition” was available in PDF. This lack of awareness is understandable: the royalty statements for a print-book author as prolific as Pogue are undoubtedly voluminous and may be nearly

Sourcing Copies — Implicit in Pogue’s claim that his kind-hearted gesture twice resulted in copies of his ebooks being shared widely is the belief that had he not provided those PDFs to the scammers (we’ll assume they were scammers, and not people who legitimately needed an electronic copy for use with screen-reading software), no copies would have been shared, there being no other way to get them. This sounds like the flawed reasoning that the music industry used for so long to block online sales of digital music – they wanted to keep music restricted to the physical medium of the CD, ignoring the fact that there was already a commonly used path for music to move online: by being ripped from CD into MP3.
It’s much harder to scan a physical book into PDF format, but there are other ways for a print book to move into a digital format.

O’Reilly Media, which publishes the Missing Manual series that Pogue started, is a partner in Safari Books Online, a joint venture with Pearson that gives subscribers access to a large selection of books. Books can be read only online, but because most are converted to an XML format for use within Safari Books Online, people have apparently figured out how to extract the content and turn it into other formats, most notably Microsoft Compiled HTML Help (known as CHM format; readers exist for a variety of platforms). Plus, O’Reilly sells PDF versions of some Missing Manuals, including those I mentioned previously that Pogue wrote. (Full disclosure: Both
O’Reilly and Peachpit Press, which is owned by Pearson, are distributors of our Take Control ebooks, and our ebooks are also available in Safari Books Online.)

A search of common BitTorrent sites turned up a large collection of Missing Manuals in CHM format ready for the downloading, and searching the Gnutella network via Acquisition also found “Dreamweaver CS3: The Missing Manual” in PDF format. So clearly, although plenty of Missing Manuals are available illegally, those copies stem from Safari Books Online or from O’Reilly, not from anything Pogue may have done, or from someone buying the print book and scanning it. (That sort of thing happened with the last few Harry Potter books, but we computer authors flatter ourselves that anyone would care enough about our writing to go to the significant effort of scanning our books in order to share them.)

Legal Sales Prevent Illegal Copies — If you did want to prevent illegal sales, what’s the best way to go about it? Far from preventing people from sharing copies on the peer-to-peer networks, Pogue’s decision to restrict electronic distribution may have had the opposite effect.

Supply and demand are inextricably linked, and if there’s no supply for the demand Pogue freely acknowledges, it’s easy to see how someone could feel relatively little guilt in downloading or sharing an illicitly acquired copy. I’m not justifying such behavior, but the harder you make it for someone to buy an easily replicated digital commodity, the more likely they are to share that commodity as a way of making things easier for others. Look at the parallels in the music industry. Apple made legitimate purchases of music both easy and inexpensive via the iTunes Store, and anyone who was on the fence about whether it was acceptable to share music suddenly had a viable alternative. Providing a legitimate purchase path for electronic
versions not only generates revenue, but also reduces illicit copying.

Closer to home, consider our experience with Take Control. We’ve been publishing ebooks for more than four years, and as I said, we’ve sold over 150,000 copies in that time, with virtually no wide scale copying. We try hard to price our ebooks reasonably, and we’ve put a lot of effort into making the purchase process simple. Because it’s easy to buy our ebooks legitimately, there’s not much incentive to share purchased copies or to download copies rather than buy them.

Of course, we do more to discourage copying. I believe that displaying the price prominently on the first page of every one of our ebooks triggers anti-shoplifting experiences for most people. If you see a pile of items without prices in a store (as is true of most digital files, including books in Safari Books Online), you might assume they’re samples or marketing freebies. But if there’s a price sign on the pile, or each item has been clearly marked with a price, there’s no question that you can’t take one and walk out without paying. Also, because we tend to cover timely and perishable topics, we often release updates to our ebooks, thus rendering obsolete previous versions. Those updates are often free, and for more major updates,
we usually offer existing owners a discount. To judge from our reader email, people appreciate these gestures.

Other techniques we employ include free samples of all of our ebooks, a discount offer that readers can share with interested friends or colleagues, a plainly written request that readers treat the ebooks as they would print books (occasional lending of books is a time-honored tradition), and an up-front statement that we don’t use any copy prevention or DRM technologies. We also take small pains to make sure our Check for Updates links work only for purchasers, and utilize basic security measures to prevent copies from being downloaded illegitimately from our Web site.

How do I know we’re not being taken to the electronic cleaners? I have automated Google searches that look for copies of the ebooks that may be available for public download. I have found our ebooks available for download on a handful of occasions; each time it was someone who had put the file on a server without realizing it was open to the public or who was transferring the book from work to home and had forgotten to take it down. I periodically search the file sharing services too, but it’s exceedingly rare to find any of our ebooks there, and those I have seen were wildly out of date.

In short, far from the foregone conclusion that publishing an electronic book will result in rampant copying, our years of experience show just the opposite.

What’s the Difference? When I was corresponding with Pogue about his blog post, he zeroed in on the key question: Why are his books being shared illicitly whereas ours are not? Certainly, some of it has to do with us providing an easy, inexpensive way for interested readers to purchase the electronic versions they want, and all the little things we do to discourage rampant copying undoubtedly help as well. But O’Reilly also sells many of their print books in PDF form, so the difference isn’t just availability. Possibilities that occur to me include:

  • I think having the ebook as our primary format may discourage people from copying, since doing so would clearly impact our core business. People inclined to share digital files may not see their actions as significantly detrimental to traditional publishers like O’Reilly who make the bulk of their revenue from print sales.
  • I suspect we get an advantage because we’re a tiny operation and we try to maintain personal connections with our readers. We read and respond to as much of our email as we can, as do our authors, which I believe reduces the desire of readers to do anything that might conceivably harm us. The fact that we and our authors are known as real people with mortgages and looming college costs may defuse the disdain some people feel toward companies (ignoring the fact that companies are made up of real people too).
  • Our small size and relative obscurity may mean both that we have fewer customers who would be likely to share our ebooks, and fewer people who would think to look for our ebooks on the file sharing services.
  • By publishing DRM-free ebooks, acknowledging that it’s OK to lend one of our ebooks to a friend or colleague, and providing free and discounted updates, I believe we come down squarely on the side of the reader, reducing the number of people who would feel inclined to distribute our books for free. However, this is more of a contrast with publishers other than O’Reilly, whose PDFs are also DRM-free.
  • The fact that subscriptions to Safari Books Online are often institutional may increase the likelihood that people will share books from that service. My suspicion is that people spending their own money are less likely to upload an ebook to a file sharing site. This is born out anecdotally by the large number of Missing Manuals I found in CHM format that were extracted from Safari Books Online, in contrast with the single title I found in PDF format.

Try iTunes Instead of Voluntary Payments — Pogue segues from his personal story to the experience of author Steven Poole, who gave away copies of a 7-year-old book about “the aesthetics of videogames – what they share with cinema, the history of painting, or literature; and what makes them different, in terms of form, psychology and semiotics.” In November 2007, Poole released the book as a DRM-free PDF under a Creative Commons license, and included a PayPal button with the text “If you like the book, you can leave a tip via PayPal.”

Although the book was downloaded nearly 32,000 times, fewer than 20 people paid anything, and a few tipped Poole only a cent. Poole seems neither surprised nor particularly dismayed about his specific results (it was an old book about past technology, after all), but correctly concludes that, despite the much-discussed Radiohead experiment, voluntary payments don’t constitute a viable business model. We dabbled with voluntary payments a while back with what we called PayBITS, and came to the same conclusion – it’s fine for an author to ask for a voluntary payment every so often, but it works best for very well-known
creators, and only infrequently even then.

TidBITS contributing editor Glenn Fleishman had a brush with this sort of model when he distributed a DRM-free copy of “Real World Adobe GoLive 6” after the useful life span of that book had passed. He didn’t ask for any contribution originally, but due to a hosting error, he nearly faced a $15,000 bill for the many thousands of downloads. The bill was narrowly averted (a threshold wasn’t crossed for bandwidth usage), but a simple general appeal – since he wasn’t tracking individual downloaders – brought in $2,000, which, with donors’ permission, he gave to Project Gutenberg. (See “Publish (Electronically) and Perish?“, 2003-03-24, for the whole

What I don’t quite understand is why Pogue chose to quote Poole’s description of the failure of his voluntary payment experiment without also acknowledging that Poole touches on the obvious solution:

A reasonable outcome, perhaps, would be something like an iTunes for books, where people choose to buy (DRM-free or at least DRM-lite) copies because it's still easier for most folk than hunting down a torrent.

Precisely! Although I haven’t seen reports from individual artists about how much they’re making from the iTunes Store, the fact that the iTunes Store is, as of April 2008, the largest music retailer in the United States, probably means that it’s generating real revenue for artists as a collective whole.

All this reminds me of my call for Apple to enhance the text-reading capabilities of the iPhone and iPod, perhaps even with an iPod reader that would feature a larger screen (see “Open Letter to Steve Jobs: In Support of an iPod reader,” 2008-03-05). Core to that idea was the suggestion that the iTunes Store sell ebooks; I’d bet that Apple would become the largest ebook retailer in the world nearly instantly.

In fact, Amazon pairs their ebook reader, the Kindle, with just such an ebook store. Even though the Kindle’s interface and hardware design could stand improvement, its frictionless approach to buying books is one of the few online experiences akin to the iTunes Store. (See Tonya’s take on the Kindle in “First Kindly Impressions about My Kindle,” 2008-03-27.) For those who might be wondering, we are looking closely at the Kindle, but we’re hoping Amazon will add more formatting options soon, because converting the Take Control series to Kindle format would require a lot of work to pare down our rich formatting to the Kindle’s feeble display capabilities.

(Amazon has revealed almost nothing about the Kindle’s adoption rate. Jeff Bezos said recently at the Wall Street Journal’s D: All Things Digital conference that the Kindle’s ebook sales represent 6 percent of all Amazon sales for the 125,000 titles that are available for the Kindle. Unfortunately, that statistic is less than useless, because although many mainstream print best sellers are available for the Kindle, there are also Kindle-only titles that would pull up the average. Plus, Bezos never clarified whether that number is unit sales or dollars. Personally, I suspect that if the Kindle had started a raging fire of
demand, Amazon would be trumpeting that news widely. Their near-complete silence causes me to think it’s more of a fizzle.)

Marketing via Copying? One last point. Pogue’s assumption is that copying is a bad thing – that a copy is equivalent to a lost sale. Although any publisher would prefer a sale to a not-sale, I think this assumption oversimplifies the situation. I see three possible scenarios:

  1. Anne is looking for documentation on Mac OS X, and to avoid purchasing “Mac OS X Leopard: The Missing Manual,” she downloads an illicit copy of the book via BitTorrent.
  2. Bart has a question about how Spaces works, and in the process of trying to find an answer, downloads an illicit copy of “Mac OS X Leopard: The Missing Manual.” Whether or not the book contains the answer is irrelevant, because Bart wasn’t going to buy any book – he just wanted an answer to his question.
  3. Cassie, like Anne, is looking for documentation about Leopard, stumbles on an illicit copy of “Mac OS X Leopard: The Missing Manual,” downloads it, and reads the first few chapters. Impressed, she pops over to Amazon to order a print copy and returns to reading the illicit version until her print copy arrives.

In this first scenario with Anne, Pogue and O’Reilly lose a likely opportunity to make money, but they don’t lose any actual money. In fact, they may gain a future sale to Anne through increased familiarity (for the sake of argument, we’ll assume that Anne’s opinion of the book was positive).

With Bart, in the second scenario, there’s no revenue gained nor opportunity lost, although a future sale to Bart is again more likely than it would be had he not seen the book online.

But in our third scenario with Cassie, where the downloaded version causes a print sale, not only do Pogue and O’Reilly earn money from the sale, they do so without having to pay anything to introduce Cassie to the book. The cost of customer acquisition is nil (or rather, it’s shared by others). That’s a double win.

My guess, and this is pure speculation, is that the people downloading illicit copies of ebooks fall onto a classic bell curve, with the bulk of the population being like Bart and relatively few people acting like either Anne or Cassie.

Clearly, authors and publishers have to earn money at some point, so if everyone downloaded everything for free like Anne, the publishing industry would disintegrate. In managing Take Control, though, I’ve learned that the greatest challenge to increasing sales is reaching a larger audience – customer acquisition rears its ugly head. I’d far rather acquire a customer like Cassie for free than spend marketing money to attract someone new. That doesn’t mean I’m comfortable just giving our ebooks away, since we don’t have a print-based model to promote, as do the Baen Free Library and science-fiction author Cory Doctorow. (Doctorow’s broadly
licensed works, which can be downloaded for free, translated, performed, and adapted, seem to have contributed to his robust print sales.) To be fair, both Baen and Doctorow are publishing fiction, which differs somewhat from technical reference works of the like that we and Pogue publish.

But I am sanguine about what would happen if some of our ebooks were to be shared widely. I don’t believe it would hurt sales because if we (and Google) are doing our jobs right, it will always be easier to find and purchase our legitimate copies than to hunt down some out-of-date illicit version. Would such copying help sales in a noticeable fashion? If I’m right about the bell curve, that’s also unlikely, unless such a shared book also somehow became associated with a fast-spreading Internet meme. But any exposure is better than none, at least for the vast majority of authors. As O’Reilly Media publisher Tim O’Reilly has said, “Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative
artists than piracy.” To tie this back to the music world, encouraging copying may not work for well-known artists with multiple distribution channels, but for the vast majority of unknown musicians, that Internet meme lottery ticket is a way better bet than a spot on American Idol.

In the end, I find myself on the opposite end of the spectrum from David Pogue. I’ve proved over four years that ebook piracy is not a fact of Internet nature, and I’d argue that it’s something that all authors could both control and profit from. The trick, as always, is to watch how the recording industry behaves and do the opposite. Bring on the iTunes Store for ebooks, Apple, and make the Kindle better, Amazon!

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