Publishers Fear eBook Piracy, But Shouldn’t

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The music industry has made it quite clear that the Internet is a scary place full of pirates. These same fears have spread into the minds of book publishers, who are about to make the same mistakes as the major record labels did. It's not too late though.

The list of most pirated eBooks of 2009 is mostly filled with geek manuals, dating tips and self-help guides. At the end of the year, Dan Brown, Stephen King, Stephenie Meyer and J.K Rowling were the only best selling authors that made it into the top 25.

One of the explanations for this apparent ‘lack of piracy’ is the fact that eBook readers are still an exclusive gadget. When compared to uptake of MP3-players, only a tiny fraction of the online population has an eBook reader, which makes it a niche audience.

Theoretically the piracy figure could explode when eBook devices become both affordable and desirable to the mainstream public, especially if the publishing industry makes the same mistakes as the major record labels did. Let’s take a look at how they’re doing thus far.

Before we start it’s worth noting that three of the classic mistakes discussed below are made by the publishers or authors whose books were pirated the most. Coincidence?


DRM doesn’t work. It only takes one person to strip the DRM from an eBook to make it available to millions, but it also prevents legitimate customers from using the book they way they want to. Unfortunately not all book publishers have learned from the music industry’s DRM failures.

According to CNN, Hachette Book Group, publisher of the ‘Twilight’ series, “considers copyright protection to be of paramount importance,” claiming that “piracy is a serious issue for publishers.” You can almost hear the fear in these statements, fear that will most likely result in a strong focus on DRM instead of offering a great service to readers.

Stephenie Meyer, the author of the ‘Twilight’ books, is even more pro-DRM than her publisher. After one of her forthcoming books leaked onto the Internet in 2008, she simply cancelled the book. You can’t get more restrictive than that.


Simon & Schuster, the publisher of Stephen King’s ‘Under the Dome’, delayed the release of the eBook version for a few weeks, allegedly because they feared that it would cannibalize hardcover sales. This is one of the stupidest mistakes a publisher can make. The only thing it does is annoy customers, guaranteeing less sales.

Those interested in a digital version of the book could get one on file-sharing sites anyway. Within days, scanned versions of ‘Under the Dome’ surfaced online, and even perfect replications of the book in text format. The result for the publisher is that tens of thousands of people have downloaded the unauthorized eBook versions, many of which might have bought it if it was available.

Digital Ban

J.K Rowling is copying the Beatles by refusing to make her Harry Potter books available in digital form. As a result her books are among the most pirated titles year after year. Every single book from the Harry Potter series is available digitally, either scanned or transcribed by fans.

Luckily, there are also publishers who have learned from the mistakes made by the music industry. CNN quotes Ana Maria Allessi, publisher for Harper Media, who focuses on the upside of digital books. According to Allessi, new technologies will offer benefits to consumers, authors and publishers.

“Consumers who invest in one of these dedicated e-book readers tend to load it up and read more,” she added. “And what’s wrong with that?”

Alessi’s right. The focus should be on offering an outstanding product and user experience. Give consumers what they want, for a decent price, and don’t let those music industry folks scare you.


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