The Grand Conversation on Ebooks: Elfwreck (Part 1)

This post, by "Elfwreck", originally appeared as a guest post on the blog of author Shane Jiraiya Cummings on 2/12/11.

[Introduction from Shane Jiraiya Cummings:] Elfwreck is the nom de net of an avid (some would say fanatic) ebook reader with over 10 years professional experience with digital imaging and over 25 years with document conversion and editing. She manages the [community profile] ebooks community at Dreamwidth and is active at the Mobileread forums. She lives in the SF Bay Area in California, and is also involved in tabletop RPG gaming, copyright activism, filking, and slash fandom.

“Turning Pirates Into Customers”

Part 1: Customers in Potentia

Everyone knows the title of this post is an attention hook, not an offer, right? Presumably, readers understand that if I actually had any magic button that would turn digital pirates into paying customers, I’d either use it out of the goodness of my heart and make the world a more honest, more profitable place, or sell it to Disney for ten billion dollars and retire to my own island while they completed their takeover of world culture.

I do have some ideas on why it’s important to consider pirates as potential customers and how to convert them (or rather, how to convert the leeches; the uploading pirates are often already good customers).

When I’m being technically accurate, I call it “unauthorized file sharing” because it might not be illegal.[1] Most of the time, I just call it “piracy” because that term has been embraced by several sides. Authors and publishers use it to imply they’re being raided and stolen from by people outside of the reach of normal laws; uploaders and downloaders use it to imply they’re creative rebels fighting against oppressive corporations (who did you root for — Captain Jack or the East India Trading Company?).

While the legal and moral issues of “piracy” aren’t certain, the practical truth is that it’s both frustrating and scary for authors who look at those downloads and think, “why aren’t they buying my book, if so many of them like it?” Which comes to the heart of the problem:

What authors need (and publishers, if those are involved) is not “an end to digital piracy.” What they need is more sales. They need more customers, and more of the current customers buying more ebooks. It doesn’t matter if they stop pirates; book contracts aren’t renewed based on the number of pirates stopped.

DMCA takedown notices to Megaupload and Rapidshare don’t result in more sales. Shutting down ThePirateBay doesn’t sell books. Even if takedown efforts resulted in removal of content, instead of pushing it laterally to somewhere else on the web, there’s no evidence that those people would turn around and buy the legit versions of the content they formerly pirated instead of turning to other legitimate free content online.

I’m focusing on ebooks and not including print as an acceptable substitute. The solution to “the ebook isn’t available at a price I can accept” will not be “just buy the paper version instead.” First, because some of us don’t read print, either as a matter of preference (like me) or ability (people whose hands are too weak or shaky for pbooks, or who need large text); second, because the most affordable print version is often second-hand … which still leaves the author out of royalties. Third … let’s just allow there is a third, and fourth, and more possible reasons why print is not always a reasonable substitute. Telling people they should be reading more pbooks isn’t going to work.

Might as well say, “if my book isn’t available at a price you like, read something else.” That’s a shoot-yourself-in-the-foot approach to potential customers when you stop and think about it.

Read the rest of the post on the blog of author Shane Jiraiya Cummings.