Monday, March 23, 2009

JA Konrath on piracy & ebooks

JA Konrath is currently on a blog tour, posting on different sites every day in March to promote the release of Afraid, a horror novel he wrote under the name Jack Kilborn. I put my hand up to participate in the blog tour, and when it came to the topic I said 'give me something on ebooks'.

Here's JA Konrath's article on the subject ...

Let's talk about illegal downloading and ebooks.

As of this writing, you can Google "JA Konrath"+torrent and get over two thousand hits. Add in Usenet, eMule, Limewire, and other file sharing clients, and there are a whole lot of people downloading my ebooks and audiobooks without permission. Last year it was less than a thousand. The year before, just a few hundred.

While I love used books, many authors hate them. Some authors aren't keen on libraries, either. After all, authors only make money for each new book sold. If the books are traded, resold, or lent out, they feel they're losing money.

These authors are in for quite a shock in the upcoming years.

Once ebook readers come down in price and become as prevalent as iPods, the 4 billion dollar a year used book industry will be the least of their worries. One $10 ebook download will be up on the torrent sites the day it is released, if not leaked sooner, and will be shared by thousands.

This industry will go digital. DRM doesn't work. People don't consider file-sharing to be stealing. Sales will drop, guaranteed.

Technically, it's impossible to count illegal downloads as lost sales, because chances are most people stealing a copy wouldn't pay for a copy. If they had no way to get it for free, they'd do without it.

At least, that's how I feel about the majority of stuff I steal on the net.

But can we really blame the consumers? Or can the publishers take some of the blame? In this economy, can anyone even afford to pat $25 for a hardcover that will entertain them for 9 hours, when that same money can be used to buy dinner and rent 2 dvds?

Books are overpriced. So is music. And we all know what happened there.

The music industry blew it. Here they had a free distribution system set up by fans. No more production costs. No more shipping charges. No more wholesalers and retailers taking part of the profit. But instead of figuring out how to work within this system, they tried to shut it down and created a hydra.

If Google (with their Kindle), and Sony (with their Ereader), were smart, they'd begin signing writers exclusively to their platforms, split the royalties 50/50 with the writers, and charge a dollar or two for ebook downloads. An easy-to-access online store, well organized and cheap, could cut down on pirating.

Of course, if they were really smart, they'd give the books away for free and charge advertisers for spots. Then piracy wouldn't be a factor.

But print, as we know it, is doomed. The publishing business model is broken, books are too expensive and increasingly harder to find on store shelves, and the ebook revolution is just around the corner.

We can bemoan the change, but we can't fight it, even with contract renegotiations. The used book industry is peanuts compared to the ability of one ebook buyer to distribute thousands of copies for free.

And telling folks that stealing is bad isn't going to change a thing, any more than it did for music. Copy protection won't change a thing either.

Here's a fun thought experiment about new technologies: Pretend print books never existed. What advantage would they have over ebooks?

Let's say we grew up with ebook devices, like my son is growing up with his iPod. Would print even exist?

Ebook devices are still too expensive. But when they come down to under a hundred bucks, and are scratch proof and waterproof, then print no longer has any advantages. Ebooks can be cheaper or free, faster to acquire, you can adjust the font size and type, read without a light, carry 5000 books at once, the books can be interactive and searchable with extra content like DVDs, and the list goes on.

If such a device existed, would there be a single reason to invent print
books? What's the advantage of printing, shipping, and killing 40 million trees a year? (and that's just for the book industry, not newspapers or magazines.)

But we grew up with print books, so we're reluctant to give them up. That is, until we actually try a Kindle 2 and go nuts over that the same way we went nuts over out first iPod.

Some steps are being made in this direction. Amazon, and Sony (which just made a deal with Google for their library of public domain books) are now publishers.

Agents, and all of the big publishers, are anxious to hop into bed with them, rather than consider alternatives. No publisher that I'm aware of has been able to generate much in the way of website traffic and online sales.

But if Random House suddenly made it's entire backlist available online as pdfs for 99 cents a download, that could change the playing field.

They won't, of course. It isn't in their best interest to go digital. They consider erights to be subsidiary, not primary. While everyone is very interested in ebooks, no one believes it will actually replace print, so no one is taking steps to prepare for that.

Smart companies look ahead and change accordingly, even if it means abandoning what originally made them companies. But often, people spend so much energy clinging to the now, they don't have any hands left to reach for what's coming.

But all this is going to do is make it easier for the thieves. Unless Amazon, Sony, and all of the publishers make the ebooks cheap, they'll be stolen.

Actually, they'll be stolen anyway, but the cheaper the book, the more copies that will sell. Why should I search for and download a torrent when I can get the book with a click of a button for 99 cents?

Then again, I have filled my iPod, and it wasn't using iTunes. Chances are, even if books are cheap, they'll still be stolen. But without wholesalers, retailers, or distributors to take a cut, it makes no sense why an author shouldn't make half of the one dollar download, or more. In fact, do we even need publishers any more? Why not just hire a freelancer to copyedit, then the entire dollar goes to the author?

Publishers are falling into the same trap that a lot of companies fall into when new technology comes along, which is: How can I make sure I'm still relevant?

So their business models obviously include themselves.

But what do publishers really do for writers? They print, distribute, and promote. With all the costs along the way, they profit about $3 on a $24 hardcover, same as the author.

Now there are much lower costs. Printing and distributing, which involves shipping and giving percentages to middle-men, are all but gone now.

So what exactly do we need publishers for in an ebook world? What service are they providing?

None at all.

Amazon realizes this. Why should they share money with a publisher for
an ebook? Why not publish the ebook themselves?

But Amazon is still taking a healthy cut, because they feel they're using their distribution system.

Sorry, Amazon, but $10 for an ebook is too much. People are going to steal it. And their distribution, while the only real game in town (except for Sony), still isn't that great. Amazon doesn't sell that many books, and they don't sell that many ebooks.

But has anyone actually compared cheap ebooks to free ebooks to see which people prefer?

I have.

As an experiment, I'm offering an ebook download on my website for 99 cents.

In four weeks, 183 people have downloaded it. Not bad for a midlist author. But I have several hundred thousand books in print, so 183 is actually pretty minuscule.

Also, as an experiment, I've been offering free ebook downloads on my website.

As of today, my free ebooks (not excerpts, these are full books) have been downloaded 16,534 times.

If I'd sold ad space in those ebooks, I could have made some money--a lot more than the 183 ebooks I sold.

So, even at 99 cents per book, even if the author made the entire 99 cents, I'm pretty sure free is the way to go.

Project Gutenberg has over 120,000 ebook downloads per day, for free.

If Amazon thinks they can compete with free, they're crazy.


JA Konrath is currently on a blog tour, posting on different sites every
day in March to promote the release of Afraid, a horror novel he wrote
under the name Jack Kilborn. Visit him at

Simon Haynes is the author of the Hal Spacejock and Hal Junior series (Amazon / Smashwords / other formats)


KenP said...

Well, I went to his site to buy the .99 book. Clicked on the donate and paypal didn't do it. Just logged me in to my account. Maybe he'd have gotten better results with better site design.

As to the books, I downloaded a couple of freebies of Jack Carver out-of-prints on Baen. He had a sequel offered for a donation. Sent him a tenner as I really got to read 3 books and thought it fair. Didn't even get a thank you. Authors might need a bit of tutoring about how to operate successfully without hand holding. ROFL

JA Konrath said...

Thanks for having me here today. Simon.

@KenP - The link on my site seems to work fine for me. You have to sign into Paypal, and once you sign in it should take you to check out. BTW, my website has several free ebooks, and I don't ask for donations. But if you had sent me a tenner, I would have not only thanked you, but sent you a free print book or two. Authors need to take care of their fans...