Skip to main content

E-book boom breeds a new kind of pirate

The rise in popularity of stand-alone e-book readers like Amazon's Kindle and tablet devices like the iPad has created a new category of copyright infringers.

'MILBs' as we have decided to call them (Mothers Into Looting Books) are the latest cause of concern for the publishing industry according to a survey which says that one in every eight women aged over 35 has confessed to downloading an unlicensed e-book.

No doubt fuelled by voracious appetites for literature accelerated by the likes of the UK's lunchtime darlings Richard and Judy and America's Oprah Winnfrey, both of whom have created crusades to get middle-aged mums into reading, e-book piracy is on the up with 29 per cent of e-reader owners and 36 per cent of tablet users admitting to a bit of dodgy downloading on the side, law firm Wiggins reckons.

As usual, crusty publishing industry insiders are carping on about lost sales and poor starving artists whilst burying their heads in the sand about the reality of the way we want to consume literature in a digital age.

There are two simple facts the money men at publishing houses around the world need to understand. Firstly, Digital Rights Management (DRM) doesn't work. It doesn't matter how many millions you spend on developing new copyright protection technology, a 12-year-old with a £300 PC will crack it wide open in a couple of days.

Secondly, people really don't understand why they have to pay the same amount of money - and in some cases even more - for a product which costs nothing to manufacture, ship or distribute.

If a made-from-trees book costs £10, how can a digital download of the same book cost the same amount of money? It just doesn't add up.

Here's a simple lesson in economics. If you sell a book for £10 and it sells ten copies, you make £100. If you sell a digital copy of that same book for £1 you will probably sell 2,000 copies which will earn you £2,000. If you haven't paid for paper, printing, binding, shipping or distribution, your profit margin will probably be about the same if not more. And the few pennies per book you throw at the author will become lots of pennies and make the author very happy. It's a simplistic model which no doubt has many flaws but the basics work.

The Internet is littered with tales of unknown writers becoming millionaires once they realise that bucking the publishing house price fixing trends brings home the bacon.

John Locke, who regularly appears at the top of the Amazon best-seller list, was making a decent living flogging his novels for $2.99, but really hit the big time when he dropped the price of one of his offerings to 99 cents as a 'loss leader', increasing his sales by 20 times in one fell swoop. Amanda Hocking, who followed a similar path, recently signed a $2 million deal with a major publishing house, so you can expect to see her next novel priced at $14.99 and selling about six copies.

Of the top 100 books on Amazon, more than a quarter are independent authors setting their own prices, and it's this revolution which is sending the traditional publishing world into a tail spin

When Big Books tells you that e-book sales dropped by three per cent last year, and tries to pin the decline on middle-aged pirate mums, they don't include sales figures from indie authors, because they aren't paying Publishers Association fees.

Like the music and movie industries before it, publishing needs to wake up and smell the silicon. Digital books need to be substantially cheaper than their papery equivalents, they should be easily transferrable between devices without having to jump through DRM hoops, and anyone who shells out for a made-from-trees book should get the e-book version as part of the purchase price.

Complaining about piracy in an industry which has been based on sharing - for consumers at least - since the printing press was invented just smacks of anachronistic self-interest in our book.