@Guardian: Who’s afraid of digital book piracy?

Over at the Guardian, Alistair Harper’s blog ‘Who’s afraid of digital book piracy?’ has sparked a not unexpected debate between those who see eBook piracy as out and out theft and those who see it as innocent file sharing.  At one end of the spectrum are the authors and publishers whose primary concern is to protect their future – this means preserving a sustainable economic model that, not surprisingly, encourages people to pay rather than pirate. At the other end of the spectrum are the children of Corey Doctorow who, like their idol, are the antithesis of everything Peter Mandelson’s Digital Bill stands for. The fundamental polarity of this debate means a resolution is hard to imagine. But, I have faith we’ll get there. The key is education. Anyone involved in conflict resolution will tell you that the first step to bridging a gap of opposing views is thoroughly communicating each side of the debate.

Many publishing people are not even clear on what an eBook is and thus the communication of product types, retail prices and Digital Rights Management (DRM) issues to customers (and booksellers) is sporadic and confusing. In fact, at the Bookseller‘s Digital Conference in December 2009 Becky Jones, head of ecommerce at Foyles, pointed out that publishers are not even clear on the DRM restrictions attached to their own files, therefore booksellers can’t tell customers what they can do with them once they’ve been purchased. I, for one, would quite like to know if I’ll be able to print off a few chapters of my £10 eBook, or save it to more than one computer.

This issue of eBook pricing is clearly on the agenda for many frustrated bookbuyers. In response to Harper’s post at the Guardian, @MTFlanders says: “The cost of electronic books is quite laughable. How can they expect people to pay almost as much as they do for a paperback on an electronic copy?” As yet there’s no solid research into consumer expectations of the price of an eBook but anecdotal evidence suggests that MTFlanders is not alone. Many existing and potential eBook customers simply cannot compute the cost of eBooks being aligned with printed books but perhaps if they knew what they were paying for there would be much less resistance. Here’s a quick rundown of the three main product types:

1. PDFs: virtually free to produce on the back of the printed edition but the author still needs a royalty and the distributors still need their cut. So, a low price point (below paperback) would be reasonable. BUT The quality should be as good as the printed book. It is difficult to expect customers to pay for scanned text (particularly if it’s out of copyright). The Book Depository seem to understand this with their 11000+ free eBooks (PDFs, scanned from text) that are designed to draw customers to the website and encourage sales of the physical versions.

2. ePub: becoming the industry standard for eBooks as it allows files to be searched and read on multiple devices: computers, mobiles, eReaders and so on. These files require an additional stage of technical development (though if a publisher streamlines their design/typesetting they will be able to consolidate some costly aspects) and authors need their royalty, therefore it is reasonable to expect to pay the paperback price for them. BUT only if the customer can see added value in this product such as being able to transfer the file to various machines (home, work, holiday house, laptop, eReader, phone) and this is where transparency and consistency with DRM is essential. Download a free ePub file here so you can experience it first hand.

3. Enhanced: multimedia eBooks are the next evolution and will almost certainly start to dominate the market with the iPad. Last time I checked Enhanced Editions were charging something like £14.95 for their iPhone version of Nick Cave’s The Death of Bunny Monroe, but as you can see from this trailer the added features such as audio and video easily justify a hardback price.

What would you pay for these products?

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Kristen Harrison

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