I’m working on the 2nd edition of Let’s Get Digital this month and I thought it might be fun to share some of the ideas I’m sketching out. The following excerpt is part of the chapter on piracy (about a third of it, if you’re counting).
There’s more details on Digital 2 (and other releases) at the end of this post, but let me open with a disclaimer: authors are entitled to take whatever approach they like to piracy. It’s their stuff.
That said, I’d like to see if I can convince some of you to approach the issue a little differently, because I think taking a hard-line approach can be counter-productive.
How To Increase Piracy
A common misconception in publishing is that Amazon has the exclusive right to sell Kindle-compatible e-books. For example, I was at the London Book Fair’s Great Debate in 2013 when author Robert Levine said that once someone purchases a Kindle, Amazon has a monopoly on selling that user e-books. Levine gave it as another example of (and reason to fear) Amazon’s dominance.
It’s a compelling narrative. Big Bad Amazon suckers people in with cheap devices and then locks them into their walled garden, turning them into customers-for-life whether they like it or not. The only problem is that it’s not true.
Smashwords, Omnilit, All Romance Ebooks and DriveThruFiction are just four examples of retailers who sell Kindle-compatible e-books. There’s no restriction, legal or otherwise, on anybody else doing the same. Indeed, Amazon’s primary competitors – Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo – could start selling Kindle-compatible e-books tomorrow if they chose to.
The reason why so few retailers sell Kindle-compatible e-books is fascinating and illustrates how taking a hard-line approach to piracy is a mistake.
At the London Book Fair in 2011, Evan Schnittman said that the dominance of Amazon’s “closed platform” posed a tremendous problem for publishers. At the time, he was working for Bloomsbury, so I went to their website, curious to see if they sold direct to readers. They did, but epub files only, not the mobi files needed to work with Kindle devices. Those readers were provided with a link to Amazon instead.
This amused me greatly: a publishing executive complaining about Amazon and lack of competition when his own company was choosing not to compete with Amazon, and was instead delivering customers to Amazon – readers who wished to buy from Bloosmbury direct!
I don’t want to single out Bloomsbury because most large publishers take this approach. Most don’t sell direct to consumers, and even when they do, they only sell epubs (which aren’t Kindle-compatible) – not mobis (which are). This is particularly crazy when you consider that Kindle owners and app users make up two-thirds of the US market and over four-fifths of the UK market.
The reason why publishers made this decision is fascinating. While there are no restrictions on anyone selling mobi files, Kindle DRM is proprietary software, owned by Amazon. If publishers wish to place DRM on Kindle-compatible books, they can only sell those files in the Kindle Store.
Publishers’ fear of piracy was so great that they chose not to sell direct to Kindle owners or indeed sell Kindle-compatible books through any non-Amazon retailer. In other words, it’s publishers who are building the high walls around Amazon’s garden through their insistence on DRM (applying it as a choice when selling on Amazon, not a requirement). This DRM-centric approach prevents publishers from doing all sorts of other things too, such as bundling print and digital, and it often leads them to place ridiculous restrictions on their authors who want (and need) to give free copies to reviewers.
All this might have made some convoluted sort of sense if DRM was in any way effective at combating piracy. But it’s not. Any hacker worth their salt can crack DRM in two seconds flat. And it only takes one before that book is set free on torrent sites and endlessly copied.
So what’s the solution? Can’t these billion dollar companies come up with some kind of unbreakable DRM? Well, no. Millions of dollars have been spent in the attempt but, to be frank, it’s a waste of time. E-books are very basic files, essentially a collection of HTML files (one per chapter) held together in a zip-like wrapper.
DRM is just another wrapper around that, (supposedly) locking down the content to a specific device, or set of devices, which prevents users from sharing. But for readers to open this “lock” you have to give them the “key.” Which makes it simple for anyone who knows what they’re doing to strip off the lock. It doesn’t matter how sophisticated you make the lock when you have to also supply the key!
All of this is merely a long-winded way of saying that DRM not only can’t work, but will never work at combating piracy. Publishers’ insistence on DRM prevents them from competing with Amazon, selling direct, and bundling.
Worst of all, it antagonizes legal, paying customers. The nature of DRM is such that if a reader switches devices (say from a Kindle to a Nook), they could lose their entire library – books they paid for and can no longer access. Guess what readers do in such cases? Learn how to crack DRM and/or download those books from torrent sites.
Congratulations, you have just created a new generation of pirates.
How To Reduce Piracy
There’s no way to get rid of piracy. Once you make a digital product available to the public, it will be pirated by someone, somewhere. There’s no escaping that, but there are ways to reduce piracy that actually work.
Joe Konrath put it succinctly when he said that the only way to combat piracy is with convenience and price. Convenience means making your books available everywhere, in all formats. And price means making your books cheap enough that piracy is more hassle than it’s worth.
Needless to say, publishers took the opposite route. In a foolish attempt to hold back the digital revolution, publishers adopted a go-slow approach to the digitization of backlist, and instituted windowing for e-books. The latter meant that digital editions weren’t released alongside the hardback, but held back to protect those sales – with the e-book coming out several months later.
And publishers abhorred the idea of low prices so much that they were willing to engage in an illegal conspiracy to fix the price of e-books – something that could end up costing them hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements, legal fees and fines.
Now we have a clear picture of the insanity of publishing’s approach to piracy. Publishers rejected a simple method of reducing piracy (which would have endeared them to readers while staving off the threat posed by lower-priced self-published books). Instead they adopted an approach (DRM) which doesn’t work, restricts their opportunities to sell books, hampers their authors’ abilities to promote their books, plays into the hands of their biggest threat (Amazon), and antagonizes readers while teaching them how to be pirates!
Luckily, as self-publishers, we don’t have to be press-ganged onto this ship of fools. We can choose not to let piracy drive us insane. We don’t have to make counter-productive business decisions based on an overblown fears. We can sell our books on Amazon without DRM (an option available to anyone selling on Amazon). We can make our books available everywhere. We can price cheaply.
And we don’t have to waste time and money hunting down pirates.
* * *
As I said up top, this is just a portion of the chapter on piracy. The rest covers the mistakes made by the music business (which were copied by the publishing industry), the pointlessness of taking an active approach to combating piracy, and finishes with a look at how piracy might be beneficial to authors, including some experiments by Joe Konrath and Neil Gaiman with results that might surprise you.
I should also note that I make a clear distinction between file-sharing and pirates who put unauthorized editions of your books on sale (and keep all the money). The latter behavior is definitely worth targeting.
Quick notes on new releases:
My latest historical novel Mercenary is done, edited, and ready to go – I’m just waiting on the cover. Mercenary will be launched at 99c (but will increase to $4.99 soon after release). I’ll be blogging about the launch here, but to be sure of catching the sale price, sign up to my New Release Mailing List.
A Storm Hits Valparaiso is part of a 5-novel box set Sins of The Past, which also launched at the special price of 99c (post here). The price might be increasing soon, so I wanted to give you an opportunity to purchase Sins of The Past before the increase. This could be your last chance to get 5 novels from me, Denise Domning, Michael Wallace, N. Gemini Sasson, and Monique Martin for just 99c. Get it from Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble and Kobo.
The draft for the 2nd edition of Let’s Get Digital should be finished the draft before the end of the month. I will be uploading it directly over the 1st edition, so if you purchased it from Amazon or Smashwords, you will be able to download the 2nd edition for free (I’m waiting to see what’s possible with the other retailers). I will be trying to get Amazon to send an email to all purchasers to notify them that the 2nd edition is available for download, but that’s Amazon’s call and not guaranteed.
If you want an automatic email from me it’s out, sign up to my New Release Mailing List. I only send emails when a new book is released, and won’t clog your inbox with anything else.