No easy answers

The dangers of losing out to e-book piracy is a real one. It can mean hundreds, perhaps thousands, of dollars in lost sales and little to show for the author’s efforts. In situations where the authors themselves have seen rampant piracy affect their books, a debate on whether or not DRM should be employed is in itself a futile exercise. Employing social DRM or the complete absence of DRM makes little sense in such a context.

At CinnamonTeal we have advocated the absence of DRM and have partnered with channels like Smashwords that think likewise. Our belief is that DRM is a costly investment that will, in any case, be tampered with and rendered ineffective. If a hacker wishes to get a book pirated, he/she will find a way to do and the presence of DRM will be but a mere irritant. In the case of people who have genuinely bought an e-book and wish to read it on multiple devices, the presence of DRM might actually dissuade sales.

Therefore the space between a rock and a hard place is a very real one for exponents of digital books. On the one hand, digital book sales are expected to grow manifold judging by the sales of e-book readers last Christmas. e-Books also present new authors with a very real chance of reaching out to new readers at a fraction of the cost it might take in the case of printed books. However, the threat of piracy negating all such expectations is equally real and must be dealt with.

An author once told me how she thought that her friends would each buy a copy of her new book only to discover that they had bought just one copy and passed it on among themselves. One man’s sharing is another man’s piracy (which is how ebook publishers would describe it). Effective DRM means that a father reading on a iPad cannot share a book with his daughter reading on a Nook. Expecting users to agree to such controls is maybe expecting too much. There has to be some middle ground found.

This debate over e-book piracy has certainly questioned some age-old assumptions we have had. While it seemed okay to borrow printed versions of the book at the library until they were tattered and torn and forced the purchase of another copy, publishers have questioned the logic of extending this practice to e-books (whose condition does not deteriorate over time). HarperCollins recently announced that libraries could lend an e-book only 26 times before they had to purchase it again. How the publisher arrived at that number is anyone’s guess.

Borrowing and sharing aside, piracy has always been a thorn in the publisher’s side. Music industry veterans will remember an eerily similar situation that occurred when digital music, originally seen as an additional sales channel, proved to be a menace that allowed easy piracy.

There are no easy answers. As e-books proliferate, sometimes at the expense of printed versions of the book, publishers will try and err in their quest to find what works best for them. One only hopes that publishers take decisions that are in everyone’s interest, those of the publisher, the author and the reader.

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