Last week during the London Book Fair there was one (digital) topic that came back a few times: piracy. This was not surprising. The book industry is increasingly digital, and it is understandable that the piracy of books is a subject people are concerned about.
However, the thing I found really surprising was that David Shelley of Little Brown (not the smallest publishing house) made, in my eyes, a very strange statement, which was supported by several others. Speaking at the London Book Fair digital conference, Shelley said one of the reasons publishers could not increase digital royalty rates was because of the increasing costs of fighting piracy. Okay… WTF?!
First: fighting piracy (actively) is pretty much the dumbest thing you can do. It seems that no one in the book industry wants to learn from the music industry. That you act against illegal suppliers of your content makes sense (also as a message to your authors: I’ll try my best for your work), as long as you don’t make it your day job. Because actively spending time and money on fighting piracy is the worst investment for your business.
Second: not only does it cost you time and money (and hardly shows results, again learn from the music industry), it can cost you your image. This might be a difficult one to grasp. Especially if you do not want/dare to look at other industries that have already dealt with this before. The reason people illegally download is not always because they want something for free. Common reasons are: convenience (in a file format of your choice to use on a device of your choice), speed (why wait for it to become available here if you can already get it elsewhere? It feels unfair, and more important: the consumer doesn’t want to wait) or availability (see the Harry Potter example, as mentioned on FutureBook two weeks ago).
If these are the reasons for people to download illegally, then how can it make sense for publishers to start actively fighting them. Because the most important fact is: they want your product! It’s up to you (as a content creator/provider) to ensure that consumers can buy your products in the simplest way, as quickly as possible, for a good (reasonable) price and without any fuss (no DRM, no unnecessary copyright notices and usable on a device of their own choice).
So stop thinking in terms of: they all want it for absurdly low prices, or even worse, free. It is very dangerous to assume that this type of person is the dominant group that illegally downloads your titles, or that this group download illegally because they don’t want to spend any money and would have bought your product in the first place. Downloading is like sampling: you taste it and might even want to buy it when you like it (it’s up to you to catch those people and guide them to the simple, fairly priced and fuss-free cash desk). Simple being the key term here.
Another common misconception is that every download is a missed sale. Most downloaders never even had the slightest urge to buy your product. So forget them, don’t even pay one second of your attention to them, but focus for the full 100% on the (potential) buyers that do want your product. That is the one and only good strategy.
But there is also a third reason why I was so shocked. Actually, the biggest reason why. Authors are the most important asset for a publishing house. Authors are the true brands of every publisher. And with your authors you build on a relationship—hopefully for the long term. With that in mind: how can you ever say to them, even worse, not directly to them but at a very large conference (and the author may only hope that he or she hears of it), that the royalties for digital products cannot go up because that money will be reserved for anti-piracy?!
It would not surprise me if some authors are reconsidering if their publisher is still the right one for them.