More on the Death of Publishers

If book publishers want to see the next decade in any reasonable health, then it’s absolutely imperative that they rethink their pricing strategies and business models right now. Hopefully this example will illustrate why:

I’m a big fan of Iain Banks’ novels; I always buy them in hardback as soon as they come out. It doesn’t matter what reviewers say, I need to have his books immediately. His latest novel, Surface Detail, came out a few days ago and promptly arrived at my office – all 627 pages of it. I lugged the thing home and began reading it this morning.


Being a Culture novel, it’s a real page-turner and I found it difficult to pull myself away from it. I didn’t want to lug it back to the office again, not least because I didn’t have any space left in my bag, so I did the unthinkable – I googled surface detail ePub so I could download and read it on my iPad (and iPhone).

I try doing this every six months or so, and I usually end up mired in a swamp of fake torrent links and horrible PDF versions; for what it’s worth, this was mostly out of curiosity, since six months ago I didn’t own an iPad.

This time, it took me 60 seconds to download a pristine ePub file, and another five minutes to move it to my iPad and iPhone. While this was going on, I took the opportunity to poke around the torrent sites and forums that my search had yielded, and discovered a wonderful selection of books, including:

  • Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen
  • Our Kind of Traitor, by John le Carre
  • Jump! by Jilly Cooper
  • The Fry Chronicles, by Stephen Fry
  • Eat Pray Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert
  • Solar, by Ian McEwan
  • Zero History, by William Gibson
  • Obama’s Wars, by Bob Woodward

Now, that’s not all of the current bestsellers, but it’s not a bad start. “Oh, but we’ve still got the backlist!” I hear some publisher cry. No such luck, because some helpful pirate has bundled entire collections of popular backlist novels into single torrents, including:

  • Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels
  • Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels
  • Lord of the Rings
  • Narnia
  • Harry Potter
  • Artemis Fowl
  • Twilight
  • The Hunger Games
  • Every Ken Follett book
  • Every Stieg Larsson book
  • Every Stephen King book
  • Every Douglas Adams book
  • etc.

Pretty much all of these books are available in ePub, mobi, PDF and every other popular format (the non-fiction and literary selection is much worse though, which probably reflects the tastes of the people uploading the torrents – that’ll change soon enough).

I am not a torrent-finding genius – I just know how to add ‘ePub’ to the name of a book or author. I don’t need a fast internet connection, because most books are below 1MB in size, even in a bundle of multiple formats. I don’t need to learn how to use Bittorrent, because I already use that for TV shows. And Apple has made it very easy for me to add ePub files to my iPad and iPhone. So really, there is nothing stopping me from downloading several hundred books other than the fact that I already have too much to read and I think authors should be paid.

But why would the average person not pirate eBooks? Like Cory Doctorow says, it’s not going to become any harder to type in ‘Toy Story 3 bittorrent’ in the future – and ‘Twilight ePub’ is even easier to type, and much faster to download to boot.

After Christmas, tens of millions of people will have the motive, the means, and the opportunity to perform book piracy on a massive scale. It won’t happen immediately, but it will happen. It’ll begin with people downloading electronic copies of books they already own, just for convenience’s sake (and hey, the New York Times says it’s ethical!). This will of course handily introduce them to the world of ebook torrents.

Next, you’ll have people downloading classics – they’ll say to themselves, “Tolkein and C. S. Lewis are both dead, so why should I feel bad about pirating their books?” Then you’ll have people downloading ebooks not available in their country yet. Then it’ll be people downloading entire collections, just because it’s quicker. Then they’ll start wondering why they should buy any ebooks at all, when they cost so much. And then you go bust.

(In case you think this is just a scary story, think again – a conservative estimate this month suggests there are 1.5-3 million people looking for pirated eBooks every day (PDF). A suggestion: If you gave away a free eBook copy with physical books, that might help things. A bit.)

But of course I’m exaggerating. Most publishers won’t go bust. eBook prices will be forced down, margins will be cut, consolidation will occur. New publishers will spring up, with lower overheads and offering authors a bigger cut. A few publishers will thrive; most publishers will suffer. Some new entrants will make a ton of cash; maybe there’ll be a Spotify or Netflix for books. Life will go on. Authors will continue writing – it’s not as if they ever did it for the money – and books will continue being published.

Three years ago, I wrote a blog post called The Death of Publishers. Back then, most commenters didn’t believe that eBook readers would ever rival physical books for convenience and comfort. They didn’t think that it would ever be that easy to pirate books. The post caused a splash at the time, but it didn’t change anything.

Here’s an excerpt:

Book publishers have had a longer grace period than the other entertainment industries. Computers and iPods had an easy time besting DVDs and CDs, but it’s been difficult to make something that can compete with a book. It may be strange to hear, but a book is a fantastic piece of technology. It’s portable, it doesn’t need batteries, it’s cheap to print and easy to read. This has led many publishers to complacency, thinking there’s something special about books that will spare them from the digital revolution. They’ve seen so many poor or substandard eBook readers that they think it’ll never be done properly.

They’re wrong. eBook readers are about to get very good, very quickly. A full colour wireless eBook reader with a battery life of over a week, a storage capacity of a thousand books, and a flexible display will be yours for $150 in ten years time. If this sounds unbelievable, consider this – the first iPod was released only six years ago and cost $400. Imagine what an iPod will look like in four years time.

How wrong I was! It’s only taken us three years to get the Kindle 3 at a mere $189, with a battery life of a month and a storage capacity of 3500 books. Sure, it doesn’t have colour or a flexible display, but it does have global wifi and 3G, and it’s a lot lighter than I thought it might be. Give it another year or two and we’ll have that colour as well.

(I was also wrong about scanning and OCRing being the main way of pirating books – turns out it was people cracking the DRM of eBooks that publishers had helpfully formatted and distributed themselves!)

But I was right about the complacency of publishers. They’ve spent three years bickering about eBook prices and Amazon and Apple and Andrew Wylie, and they’ve ignored that massive growling wolf at the door, the wolf that has transformed the music and TV so much that they’re forced to give their content away for practically nothing.

Time’s up. The wolf is here.

6 Replies to “More on the Death of Publishers”

  1. While it’s certainly true that ebooks are very easy to pirate and will only become increasingly so, I’m not sure that that alone is enough to say publishers are going to die. Music has been easy to pirate for years, but itunes makes tons of money.

    Absolutely, publishers are going to have to adapt to a changing market, possibly in a way that means there will be more blockbuster novels and fewer lesser-known authors, hopefully in a way that means publishers and authors will adopt new storytelling techniques like transmedia, and probably in a way that reexamines the pricing structure of ebooks (like giving away free copies with a physical purchase, as you suggest).

    It just seems a bit drastic to say the current state will destroy them. People will pay for things they think deserve money, like authors they like. After all, you did buy the hardcover.

  2. “iTunes makes tons of money”

    Yes it does but music labels aren’t making as much. I think there is still time but publishers need to be quick to make the deals.

  3. Ebook piracy on the web is the tip of the iceberg. The web isn’t the whole internet, for one thing – huge chunks of it are largely terra incognito for publishers – and for another we also need to worry about the sneakernet; I can swap my whole ebook library with you via USB stick in a matter of seconds. Or Bluetooth: imagine a Tube car full of people with Bluetooth devices set to copy and share every ebook library that comes into range. You’re right: we’ve long since moved past the stage where copyright on texts can viably be enforced.

    This is one reason I am extremely concerned that the new head of the Publisher’s Association, Richard Mollett, has been hired in from the BPI. He’s one of the chief architects of the appalling Digital Economy Act, and I fully expect to see the PA engage in an expensive, doomed, enforcement-based struggle against ebook piracy.

  4. @iucounu or a street vendor in India selling an 8 petabyte thumb drive with the entire Hollywood film catalog.

    Charging for non-rivalrous, non-excludable digital goods will become less and less viable and other business models will emerge.

  5. iTunes is not a music label per se. Traditional music labels have consolidated and gone out of business until there are few large ones left. Large publishers risk going down exactly the same path and for exactly the same reasons. The publishing industry has seen this coming and done nothing. It’s impossible to imagine they’ll entirely change the way they do business now. Their entire focus is working on finding a way to put the genie back in the jar.

    Not going to happen.

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