The Pirate’s (And Author’s) Dilemma

The Pirate's DilemmaPiracy is something all of us have a complex relationship with, none more so than those of us who work in the creative industries. Too often we poor, practically starving artists (where ‘starving’ means ‘working sh%tty, menial casual jobs in hospitality or retail in order to pursue our dreams) are the ones having our work ripped off and it’s, well, totally not ok.

For many years I worked for Sanity/Virgin/HMV (see above re: starving artists working sh%tty, menial casual jobs in order to pursue our dreams). As in some of the companies affected first-hand by the epidemic of music piracy. It used to irk me enormously when friends, vague acquaintances, and random, obnoxious customers talked openly and off-handedly about the music and movies they’d ripped free from the interwebs. They didn’t see this issue with their actions. In fact, few to none of them even seemed momentarily plagued by the ethical dilemma.

Bizarrely, my own attitudes have morphed in recent years. It in part had something to do with Matt Mason’s book, The Pirate’s Dilemma, which turned my thinking of piracy and business models on its head. Mason consults for big-time broadcasters, getting them to give away some content free while also helping them work out ways to monetise their entertainment in this age of digital piracy. Fittingly, he gave the option of buying his book or downloading it for free.

My attitude change also reflected this, what the Oatmeal guy drew better than me: I tried to watch Game of Thrones and this is what happened. The summary of that cartoon, should you have decided not to click on the link, is that by not enabling fans to access content legitimately, content producers and gatekeepers are, on some level, forcing us to pirate content.

That’s a simplified view that conveniently skirts some of the big moral issues, I admit, so please spare me the million emails rebutting it. But, as the Oatmeal points out, when you go to every possible legitimate channel to purchase Game of Thrones (for me you could replace that series with Vampire Diaries Season 3) and it’s made stupidly impossible for you to do so … well, I’m saying there’s a whole area of grey that opens up.

I didn’t know that such sites as Mobilism exist—they’re kind of aggregate sites for pirated links but are at pains to explain that, according to that handy interwebs legal loophole, they’re not the bad guys. That is, they don’t make or host the pirate copies, they only collate links to them. Huh. I think it’s fair to say that’s not really cool.

I was pretty interested, then, to discover this Guardian article, which documents a first-time novelist’s discovery that someone was after a pirated copy of his book. This is a double conundrum because he didn’t find the pirated copy, but rather a post asking if anyone had one. So Lloyd Shepherd, the author, did something very interesting. He wrote to the seeker not blowing up about the evils of piracy and how they destroy the starving artist, but to ask questions and attempt to understand why he/she considered piracy ok:

So, I’m the author of The English Monster. Can it be that you’re offering to pay someone to create an ebook of the book I wrote? I’d be interested to hear your justification for this. For your interest, this book took me two years to write, and represents (on a rough estimate) perhaps 500 hours of work on my part, not to mention the time and effort put in by others to design, print, copy-edit and produce the final version. And you’re proposing to pay someone else—someone who had no part in the making of the book—to produce a copy for you. Is there a good reason why you can’t pay through normal channels for my book?

Please understand me—I am genuinely interested in what you’ve got to say about this. This is my first book, and this is my first experience of someone attempting to produce a pirate version of it (I do not use the word ‘pirate’ pejoratively, mind). Is there any reason why I shouldn’t expect to be compensated for the time I have put into this.

The English MonsterThe answers, I’m afraid, were clichéd, lame, and deliberately nonsensical. For example:

Mr Shepherd, I can tell by your measured reply that you are trying to be as fair and nonjudgmental as possible, so thank you. I am not sure how to answer you—and our messages will no doubt be deleted soon.

Bottom line is, there is no justification or reason that would or should ever satisfy the author of original content. Anyone that tries to make sense of this process (that publishing houses are greedy; that knowledge should be free … just two reasons that I have seen bandied about) is just fooling themselves. There is also a Robin Hood aspect to this, that perhaps you may understand. Either way, I don’t think there is a way of putting this digital information era genie back into the bottle. I wish you every luck in future.

I mean, is there an answer in there at all? The answers got worse, including citing having once lived in Africa and Asia, where ebooks aren’t easily accessible. Note, though, that’s the past tense of lived and not the present tense of living.

Shepherd’s Guardian article reminded me where my line in the sand is: piracy isn’t ok, especially when there are avenues through which to buy the book/movie/[insert creative work of choice here] legitimately; however, I won’t say that there isn’t room for improvement in all this online technological availability thingy.

There are always going to be people who rort the system, but distributors also need to make it feasible and easy for those of us keen to ‘do the right thing’ to actually do so. It’s no longer ok to stagger worldwide releases of content—it it’s available in the US, it needs to be simultaneously available in Australia. It’s particularly ridiculous when fans are seeing spoilers via social media, but then being told they’re to wait a long, long time to get to see said spoiled show.

Likewise, if it’s airing on TV, it needs to be purchase-able online immediately afterwards (and I mean immediately—as in as soon as the final credits roll). Distributors also need to look at such options as ABC’s iView, which provides content for free for a certain period of time. In short, the list of tweaks is endless.

Sure, all of challenges traditional business models, but so too does piracy. If something isn’t re-thunk soon and if doing the right thing isn’t the easiest and best option, I suspect more and more people will find themselves sharing the Oatmeal’s (and my) ethical conundrum. For the record, I’m holding out until Vampire Diaries 3 is released in Australia legitimately. For the record, though it might be the right thing to do, that doesn’t mean I feel pious, vindicated, or one iota of happy.

It’s time to snub Microsoft and Nine

The withdrawn Cudo deal.
How should Microsoft and Nine be punished for this week’s unbelievable Cudo book piracy scandal?

Cudo, a daily deals site, offered Australians a $99 ereader package featuring 4000 free ebooks, many of which neither Cudo nor its Chinese business partner owned the rights for. It had sold 2317 e-readers, grossing $229,383, by the time the deal ended, Paidcontent.org reports.

Cudo had been proudly spruiking the fact that the Harry Potter books were in the mix, when JK Rowling has yet to make her series available as ebooks anywhere in the world (they are due for launch soon as part of her Pottermore venture with Sony, and will no doubt sell like hotcakes).

The Lord of the Rings books were also among the freebies, and Rupert Murdoch might have something to say about that given his publishing house, HarperCollins, owns the copyright to Tolkien’s works in Australia.

Has anyone told Rupert or JK about it? Presumably they heard about it on Twitter and began to fume, just as I did.

I cannot believe that a mainstream business could be so ignorant about copyright. Until the error was pointed out, Cudo was actively onselling stolen goods to the Australian public, showing an utter disregard for the livelihoods of authors, publishers and booksellers.

As the Australian Booksellers Association put it in their press release on the issue, “That this site is supported by two media organisations that regularly take significant steps to protect their own rights in relation to their intellectual property and content also raises serious questions.

“The ABA would have thought that the Nine Network and Microsoft, who are both partners of NineMSN, would be sensitive to the issue of piracy given the effect piracy has had on the television and software markets. This is apparently not the case.”

It is scenarios like this that threaten the viability of our literary culture. How many Australians saw the deal and will now feel entitled to download in-copyright books illegally? Because if an organisation like Cudo, affiliated with two major corporations, can do it, why can’t they? Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that everyone who saw the deal before it was taken down has since been made aware of its scandalous nature.

Cudo says had not shipped the ereader and CD in question before pulling the deal, and is providing a replacement ereader with a selection of out of copyright titles to those who had placed an order. This is something, but not enough to make amends.

So, back to punishment.

We could all go and download pirated versions of Microsoft software and upcoming blockbusters on Channel Nine as revenge.

Though I can’t think of a single Nine program I could be bothered to pirate even if I was the pirating type (I’m not, I want to support the creative industries so that they will always be in a position to provide us with film, television and literary brilliance).

As for software, I’d rather pay than pirate to support innovation where I can there too, but I’m over Microsoft in any case. I have spent far too much of my precious time trying to get around the fact that Explorer prefers us to use Bing for search over Google.

Two wrongs don’t make a right, and piracy is always wrong.

I’d suggest that instead, we start a campaign to switch from Microsoft Office to OpenOffice.org, Apple iWork or Google Docs, and from Channel Nine to, well, just about any other channel (this should be easier, most of us have already done so).

Make the switch! And say no to Cudo.

News Roundup: The Potterless is More Edition

The Pottermore ship has landed. Or at least, it has been announced. For everyone who doesn’t already know, JK Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series of novels, has finally announced her secret plans (based on rumours that have been bouncing around the internet for a while). They involve an immersive online game based on the books and a portal to buy the Harry Potter ebooks.

I’ve had quite a few people ask me in the week since this was announced whether this news will drive adoption of ebooks. The answer is – probably not. It won’t hurt, but ebooks are pretty much driving their own adoption at this point. The Pottermore announcement is good news for Harry Potter fans who are also ebook readers, in that they no longer have to go to pirate websites in order to read the novels. It will probably also sell a truckload of ebooks. But it’s also interesting because it sounds like JK Rowling is going to try to sell her ebooks exclusively from her own site without DRM, which will be an interesting digital distribution experiment. It also means it will cut out ebook vendors like Amazon. (Though apparently the backend will be handled by OverDrive, the same people who do the backend for Booku – so you never know!). Having said that, it’s an experiment that won’t have many applications in the future. The Harry Potter series is virtually unique in the publishing world – an phenomenon, written by a living author (who owns her own digital rights) with unprecedented fan attention. It’s not an experiment that can necessary be replicated elsewhere. Nonetheless, it’s fun and I’m really looking forward to delving into the new site and the new movie.

In other news, self-publisher extraordinaire John Locke has just announced that he’s sold a million ebooks. That’s a million. With six zeroes. Despite the fact that there are a legion of (clearly quite jealous) snobs who are getting predictably sniffy about Locke’s writing ability and his $0.99 price point, you can’t argue that this is not a significant milestone. At any rate there are thousands of other authors on the Kindle store with books selling for $0.99 who haven’t sold anywhere near a million copies, so the guy must be doing something right, love him or not. And now he’s written an ebook explaining how he did it: How I Sold One Million eBooks in Five Months. Curious and curioser – Mike Shatzkin thinks he might be selling better and more profitably with a traditional publisher.

In related news, an article by Laura Miller on Slate (titled Spamazon) has drawn attention to the electronic spam onslaught facing Amazon as more and more entrepreneurial authors and collators of out-of-copyright material have cottoned on to the ease of distributing so-called ebooks for a buck or two. Without the curation of either Amazon, an agent or a publisher, the market for ridiculously low-priced ebooks have become so flooded with new material that it’s virtually impossible to tell the spam from the authentic writers. Miller worries that these junk ebooks may actually end up discrediting the whole bottom tranche of cheap ebooks on Amazon – driving legitimate purchasers to the upper levels just so that people buying them will take them more seriously. I’m not sure about this, myself, but it’s certainly something to think about when pricing your self-published books (and when buying them).

Not for holiday reading Pt 2 – Deadly Waters and tourist ferries

Some books you shouldn’t read while traveling. Avoid Alive if you plan to fly a lot (especially if, like me, you are packing a few extra pounds on your derriere) or The Beach if you are planning on hiking in Asia. And if you are planning on spending a lot of time on slow moving ferries, I would recommend leaving reading Deadly Waters by Jay Bahadur until you get safely back on land.

I got my hands on an advance copy of Deadly Waters, which explores the modern reality of piracy in Somalia. If, like me, your brain instantly goes to Captain Jack Sparrow amusingly asking where all the rum has gone when someone mentions pirates, you’ll find the reality very different. As of 11 December 2010, Somali pirates are holding at least 35 ships with more than 650 hostages. Pirate income was estimated to be about $238 million in 2010 and the indirect costs of piracy are much higher ($7 to 12 billion) as they also include insurance, naval support, legal proceedings, re-routing of slower ships, and individual protective steps taken by ship-owners.

International organizations, including the International Maritime Organization and the World Food Programme, have expressed concern over recent rises in piracy, which increases shipping costs and often impedes the delivery of food aid shipments. While the pirates usually go for large cargo shipping vessels, being a tourist is no guarantee of protection – in February of this year four Americans were killed aboard their yacht by their captors and a Danish family was captured by pirates. It’s very easy to see why pirates are feared and to see everyone not on your vessel as unequivocally the bad guys.

But in their home country, pirates are seen by some as heroes, protesting the illegal fishing that has decimated Somalia’s coastline for local fishermen and the alleged dumping of toxic waste in their waters. Some pirates refer to themselves as badaadinta badah, or “saviours of the sea”, or in the English “coastguard”. Others see piracy as a career choice – a chance to make good money and enjoy the best that life can offer – and are willing to dice with death and imprisonment in the hope of a big break. Still others see piracy as a viable investment offering high returns if it succeeds and caring nothing that the pirates, young men desperate to earn cash, often run out of food and fuel and die in their small skiffs in the Indian Ocean.

This complexity is the more confusing as there is little indepth coverage of piracy – just sensationalistic coverage when an attempt to hijack a vessel goes right – or very, very wrong. Bahadur travels to Puntland in northeastern Somalia to interview and hopefully gain the trust of the pirates, to find out about their  lives; how they spend their money, how they do business and why they are willing – and indeed eager – to risk their lives in often suicidal missions. It’s a fascinating and occasionally uncomfortable look at the reality of an industry and some areas so destitute that killing and dying at sea are acceptable career risks.

Bahadur breaks down the odds of getting attacked by pirates (about 1 in 550 in the Gulf of Aden), as well as what makes you makes you a good target (slow moving vessels with low decks  are particularly easy to commandeer), as well as talking through defense strategies both for the vessels and the governments and maritime agencies involved.  It’s interesting reading and something I would highly recommend – to anyone who isn’t  planning on spending time sitting on a ferry. As it was, I burnt through far too much of my vacation time glaring suspiciously at the local kids who were fishing from their tinnies.

 

And as a side note, if you have a yearning for free and review copies like this copy of Deadly Waters by Jay Bahadur, have you considered signing up to the Boomerang Critics’ Club? It’s free and easy – you have nothing to lose but hours curled up in a comfy chair with a free new book.

The book they had to write

It started as a joke and it’s not even out yet but Adam Mansbach’s expletive laden children’s’ bedtime tale is already at the top of charts, selling more than 100,000 copies in pre-orders since it surfaced as a pirated pdf less than a month ago.

This tongue-in-cheek bedtime book for parents was the sleep-deprived brainchild of novelist Adam Mansbach who, frustrated at trying to get his own daughter to nod off night after night, joked to friends that his next book would be called “Go the F**k to Sleep“.

He meant it as a joke, but soon realised that he was on to a winning idea with Akashic Books taking an interest. Originally due out in October, the book became famous when a pirated PDF of it went viral and hit a chord with tired parents everywhere.

Not that you are meant to use the book to send your little ones to the land of nod.  Contrasting cutesey ryhmes and stunning illustrations by Ricardo Cortes with exasperated and exhausted profanity, it’s “definitely not a book to read to your child”, said the publisher in an interview with The Guardian, but “it will resonate with anyone who has ever spent 20 minutes, 40 minutes, four hours reading ‘just one more bedtime story’.”

For something that started as a joke, it’s doing pretty well in the real world. Pre-order sales of the books have taken the top spot on Amazon.com’s bestseller charts before it was even officially released, film rights have been optioned by Fox and the book has sold more than 100,000 copies in pre-orders since it surfaced less than a month ago. It’s easy to see the appeal, if you just read one of the sample verses. (Profanity has been carefully occluded, but you can use your imagination. The writer certainly does.)

The cats nestle close to their kittens now.
The lambs have laid down with the sheep.
You’re cozy and warm in your bed, my dear
Please go the <bleep> to sleep.

Joel over at BookU has already written at length about the book, and the implications that it has for evaluating the effects of piracy on book sales, but mainly I’m hoping that it will set off a spate of other books that I have longed for since people joked about them.

Chief amongst those is a books of poetry by cats, called “I Could Pee on This“, but there are plenty of other fictional books that I’d like to take a look over. JK Rowling has already published one such book that was originally just a fictional book, the Tales of Beedle the Bard. Maybe it could be the coming trend?

Wikipedia has a massive list of books mentioned but not yet penned, but my vote for the first one I’d like to see off the press has to be an actual copy of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, complete with DON’T PANIC written in massive letters on the front. Which is advice that the poor parents currently reading Go the F**k to Sleep could probably do with.

 

News Round-up: The Go the F**k to Sleep Edition

Lots happening around the ebook traps this week and last. You’d have to be living in a ditch not to have at least heard someone mention Go the Fuck to Sleep, a humorous children’s book that has gone viral on the internet. What’s interesting about this particular development is that the full colour, full text PDF of the book has been circulating via email and is freely available on the internet, yet that has not stopped the book from going to number one on Amazon. Now seems to be the perfect time to re-link to this post and re-iterate the argument I made therein: if your book has been pirated 500,000 times, you are not in danger of never making any money from it.

Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon has basically come out and said that the company will be making a tablet this year, and rumours are flying that they’re not making one tablet but several (or at least two), with different screen sizes and processor speeds. Their product codenames are “Coyote” and “Hollywood”, proving that no matter how cool the news gets, codenames will always be cooler. And if that news didn’t convince you that Amazon is trying to take over the world, then check this out. If they don’t own your soul yet, they soon will.

More news on the Apple 30% vig stories. The app (and store) iFlow Reader has decided to close its doors due to Apple’s policy. In case you don’t remember me writing about this earlier, Apple has introduced a policy (or, more accurately, begun enforcing an old policy) whereby digital content apps, including all book reading apps, must go through Apple’s in-app purchasing system in order to on-sell their content. Apple’s in-app system skims 30% off the top of all sales, making it impossible for smaller businesses (like iFlow) to make the numbers work. Apple will begin enforcing this policy from June 1, so there’s likely to be a bit of news about this in the coming week.

Despite this, other rumours have emerged that there is a loophole to this rule – companies that would like to allow their content to be read on iOS devices but not purchased need only remove any link to their store. So, for example, those of you who have used the Kindle app on their iPhone or iPad will likely see a little “Kindle Store” icon in the top-right hand corner of the main screen. Using the new loophole, Amazon would only need to remove this link in order to make the app compliant. I guess you could argue this is a good thing, but you have to wonder who this is really hurting. Are Kindle shoppers really going to stop buying Kindle books because the link is no longer inside the app? No, probably not. But smaller indie publishers and retailers with extremely low margins and non-existent brand recognition will likely close down or labour in obscurity until they fail. This move by Apple is anti-competitive, anti-user and ultimately bad for everyone except Apple. If you’d like to complain, you can do so here.

Could ebook piracy boost sales?

Piracy is the bane of the digital content business, whichever way you look at it. If it didn’t happen, content producers wouldn’t spend so much time and effort pursuing it in a fashion that is almost as ethically dubious as the act itself. And if producers didn’t go to such lengths to protect their content, it’s likely piracy would be less of a problem.

Content publishers, be they music producers, movie studios, newspaper companies or book publishers, all seem to be virtually unanimous in their view that piracy is bad for business. These industries, via industry organisations like the RIAA, have spent millions of dollars trying to pursue illegal downloaders and ‘educate‘ people that piracy is bad through advertising.

Despite all this, people continue to pirate content. This in itself proves nothing except that people are greedy and willing to go to great lengths to get free stuff. Ethical problems aside, however, there is mounting evidence that piracy might actually encourage sales of certain digital products.

In a recent interview with Forbes Magazine (titled ‘Steal This E-Book’) Tim O’Reilly, founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media, explained this argument:

… let’s say that if by putting DRM in it I sell 10,000 copies and I make my money, and if by having no DRM 100,000 copies go into circulation and I still sell 10,000 copies. Which of those is the better outcome? I think having 100,000 in circulation and selling 10,000 is way better than having just the 10,000 that are paid for and nobody else benefits.

The argument is basically this: the people who pirate content are not necessarily customers who were it otherwise would have paid money for what they downloaded. Given this, content producers can’t count each pirated download as a lost sale. If this is the case, in what way should content producers consider piracy?

Are content consumers who are not paying for content adding value? O’Reilly would argue they are. Utilising social networks and good old fashioned word of mouth, people who read pirated content help sell ebooks, in much the same way lending books and secondhand book stores help sales of paper books.

O’Reilly is not saying that piracy never hurts content producers, however. He argues that the damage is mostly focused on people (in this case authors) who have a ‘very desirable product’. We’re talking big name authors here who sell hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of copies. O’Reilly has actually written a paper about this called ‘Piracy is Progressive Taxation’, in which he posits that the trade-off from making content more available and visible is that the most desirable products are pirated more often (in the same way that tax brackets should – in theory at least – take more from the wealthy than the poor).

In a similar way, the exposure that you get from free content actually helps drive visibility and awareness for people who are unknown. So we’ve always sort of taken the approach that on balance it’s OK, and we’ve also taken the approach that it’s more important to establish social norms around payment. The way that you do that is by honoring people and respecting how they act, people pay us because they know that if we don’t get paid we don’t do what we do.

This business model seems quite flawed to the kind of publisher who stresses out every time one of their author’s books is discovered on a filesharing website. But there’s more than a grain of truth to it. Books in particular have always been a product that has subsisted on passion: passion from its producers (be they authors or publishers), passion from its sellers and passion from its consumers.

At the very least this issue deserves re-evaluation. Particularly at the low-end of publishing, as book publishers face increasing cuts to their midlist and more authors are dropped. In the case of these authors, at the very least, publishers and agents need to be forward thinking about piracy. As O’Reilly says: “If people wanted 10,000 pirated copies of a book, the publisher and the author would be very, very well off. If 10,000 people are willing to pirate it, there’s a very large number willing to pay for it.”

Google eBooks Launch: What You Need to Know Pt 2

Read first part of review…

Other software features and annoyances

Other than the unique features above, the Google eBooks platform is missing some ebook reader features that some readers may consider standard.

It does allow the user to choose the font, size, line spacing and justification of text, and includes a day/night mode (black text on white background or vice versa), as well as a (thankfully optional) 3D page turning animation (similar to the iBooks app on iPhones and iPads). There’s a contents page on most books, and it also has a search function, which is predictably quite good coming from Google. The software also supports syncing your place between devices, and, unlike the Kindle, it syncs your most recently read spot – not the furthest read – meaning you can flick back and forth in a reference text (or a book with endnotes) without messing your bookmarks up. However, there’s no ability to manually force a bookmark sync, so if you finish up reading on your iPhone in an out-of-service area and want to pick up where you left off later, you’ll be out of luck. You also can’t sync your bookmarks if you read a Google ebook on your Sony, Nook or other dedicated reader.

As far as software features go, that’s really about it. There’s no highlighting or annotation here, no dictionary, no ability to share snippets on social networks and the software doesn’t even support landscape mode. While the Google eBookstore website is pretty good, it is the only way to purchase books – there’s no in-app store like the Kobo and Borders apps. The platform also doesn’t support loading personal documents, which is disappointing from an ‘openness’ standpoint. Basically if you want to get free books from places other than Google, or read your own work documents or long-form journalism from the web, you’ll have to use a different app.

Having said all this, Google’s software is often released with a basic feature set and expanded over time. However, considering how late in the game Google has launched its ebooks platform, it will want to ramp up these features sooner rather than later if it is to compete with the juggernaut that is the Kindle.

DRM, territorial restrictions and piracy

Before launch, Google was touting Editions as being ‘ebooks without DRM’ – a concept that most people who know a little about ebooks thought was a bit fuzzy. The books were all supposed to be tied to your Google account and that was it – no other encryption or restriction, the books were all stored ‘in the cloud’. This turns out not to be the case precisely. Because Google eBooks also supports standalone readers like the Sony, Nook and a bunch of others, it has built-in support for Adobe’s Digital Editions DRM scheme. The good news for pirates (and bad news for publishers) is that this DRM scheme was cracked years ago, and will make Google’s ebooks just as easy to pirate as those from any other store.

Insofar as territorial restrictions go, however, Google has the store sewn right up. Unlike Amazon’s Kindle, whose territorial restrictions basically function on an honour system, Google restricts access to its US ebook store by determining where your IP originates (meaning you have to do complicated network messings-about to access the store) and also does not allow purchases from non-US credit cards. Australian readers who currently like to get the full range of US ebooks by pretending to live in the States will not be able to do this with the Google eBookstore. It also means that global travellers will need to ensure their books are purchased and pre-downloaded before they leave home – as their own eBookstore will not be accessible outside their home country from the device of their choice. Not a particularly ‘open’ system for Google to set up, but it will probably make old-worlde publishing types who want to restrict territorial copyright quite happy.

In summary

The Google eBooks platform is a welcome addition to the ebook world, particularly when it comes to their support of indie booksellers. With that said, the actual feature set they are offering is, at this time, still miles behind Amazon’s Kindle, and that’s assuming they really can compete with Amazon on range. Google has the resources and the connections to make this platform something pretty damn amazing, so while I’d recommend hedging your bets for now (especially as it won’t officially launch in Australia until next year) – stay tuned and keep an eye out – Google eBooks could be something really interesting very soon.

Google eBooks Launch: What You Need to Know Pt 1

After much anticipation, Google eBooks (formerly Google Editions) launched this week in the US. Claiming to have over 3 million books available (most of which will be free out-of-copyright titles), Google is likely to be the first ebook store to compete with Amazon in terms of range and availability. And the best part? They are offering to partner with independent bookstores worldwide to provide the backend of an ebooks service – giving indies a chance to get in on the ebook game. It’s impossible to know whether Google eBooks will succeed in the long term – but for now, here is a summary of all the available information since the launch.

Unique features

Like any ebook platform, Google eBooks has launched with a few features that make it different to most of the other services out there. Foremost among these is Google’s commitment to openness. Ebooks purchased through Google (or partner sites) will be available to readers on any platform Google supports – and they support a lot. They’re available through a web reader (a feature Kindle has plans to implement, but hasn’t done yet), through iPhone, iPad, Android devices and for a whole host of dedicated ereaders including the Sony and the Nook (but not including the Kindle, which says more about Amazon’s closed door policy than it does about Google). By opening Google up to partner book stores across the world, Google are also dedicating themselves long-term to a sustainable book industry in the digital age. It also means they get to leverage existing retail relationships with readers without having a significant online retail presence (unlike Amazon).

On the software front, the reader itself offers a few features that are rare, if not completely unique to Google eBooks. Because Google has procured much of their content through directly scanning books, they offer an option to flip between the scanned version of a page (as in the image of the book page) and reflowable text. On smaller devices like phones this isn’t going to be much use, but on the iPad, for example, where a general page size is smaller than the screen, this gives readers the opportunity to see the original font, spacing and little touches that many people miss from paper books.

Following on from this, Google’s page numbering system is also unique to their ebook platform. Instead of using a location scheme (like the Kindle’s cryptic “5826-36” system) or a percentage of the book read, each Google book is linked to a definitive paper version, and tells you what page (or pages) you are on and the amount of pages overall. This addresses one of the chief complaints I’ve heard about ebooks from dead tree enthusiasts – that reading ebooks doesn’t give you a clear idea of how far through a book you are. It also means that if you’re switching between an ebook and a paper book you have some idea of where you’re up to in both (though different editions of paper books do tend to have different page numbering – so usage may vary).

Rest the rest of review…

Interview with Author Tony Park Pt 2

Tony Park is an author, adventurer and reader of digital books, so I thought I’d interview him to get his unique point of view on the experience. Tony’s currently hooning around somewhere in Africa in his Land Rover, writing his next book and doing the occasional safari, but he was kind enough to take some time out to talk to The Smell of Books. This is Part 2 of the interview. You can read Part 1 here.

Does anything about the experience of reading ebooks annoy you?

There are a couple of things I’d like to see Amazon change on the Kindle. Firstly, I think there should be a ‘blurb’, the back cover summary of what the book’s about, up front when you start the book. Also, there seems to be little easily accessible information about a book, other than reviews by readers, when you actually buy the book online or via wireless. Having said that, I’ve actually found it quite fun to start a new book and not know the first thing about the plot.

Secondly, the Kindle expresses your progress through the book as a percentage of the total book, at the bottom of the page. Honestly, I’d rather know I’m up to page 221 of 663, rather than be told I’m at 33 per cent.

How long have you been reading digitally now? What positives about the experience stand out that you think digital sceptics might not have thought about?

We’ve had our Kindles for about two years now. I’ve found that two of the best things about Kindle that the sceptics probably haven’t thought about are swimming and drinking.

If you’ve just come out of the pool or walked out of the sea and you’re dripping wet and/or covered in sand, you can prop your Kindle a little way away and just reach out with one (dry) finger and turn the pages. You don’t end up with a book whose pages are caked in sand and swollen around the edges from water damage, and you don’t lose your page if the wind picks up.

Same goes for drinking (and eating). It’s a lot easier to turn the pages with a single finger while eating chips and drinking beer than it is to do all that and keep a book balanced on your tummy.

Oh, and another good thing is that you can have several readers on the one Amazon account. This means that both Nicola and I can be reading the same book at the same time, which avoids the fights we’d have over who’s going to read a paper book first.

As an author, do you worry about piracy in a world of easily downloadable books (and devices to read them on)?

Yes, that does concern me. However, it’s a bit like someone telling me that they’ve read one of my books that they borrowed from a friend, or bought at a second hand shop. There’s no money in either of those cases for me, but as an author who’s still relatively new on the scene and hoping to build up my readership I’m just happy that that book is being passed around, so I can get some more exposure. If I was at the other end of the authorly spectrum – selling millions of copies like Wilbur Smith, then I’d probably have too much money to be worried about piracy.

What are you reading now?

Michael Connelly’s The Reversal, on my Kindle, of course. I just finished Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants on Kindle and if I’d had that as a paper book I would have needed to buy a trailer for my Land Rover to transport it.

That’s it, folks, thanks for reading. While you’re waiting for Amazon to ask for Tony’s endorsement of the Kindle (“It’s a lot easier to turn the pages with a single finger while eating chips and drinking beer”), you can read a sample chapter of The Delta here, and if you like it – buy it. His backlist is here. You can visit Tony on the web here.

Is Piracy a Legitimate Part of our Culture?

For my fiftieth post (yes, my fiftieth!), I’d like to revisit a topic close to my heart. Piracy. In the world of digital content, piracy has been around longer than most legitimate forms of digital purchase. Anyone who claims to have been reading ebooks since they had a Palm Pilot probably at some point acquired illegal digital books. Piracy is at the forefront of innovation when it comes to distribution and accessibility and yet, because it clashes with most of our current economic models, it is considered a Very Bad Thing.

So my question for today – can piracy ever be good? Is piracy a legitimate part of our culture? Are the old economic models broken? Like almost every question I post up on this blog, I don’t have an answer. But I think there are lots of reasons why people rush to defend piracy (and it’s not just because pirates are cool).

First of all, there are lots of reasons why people pirate things. I think most of those reasons are not that defensible from a traditional ethical standpoint. That is, people don’t like to pay for things they don’t have to. Piracy enables people with a certain level of technical expertise to not have to pay for things they want. This is the most basic reason for piracy, and it’s the most basic reason why anti-piracy groups want to stop them. On the one hand you’ve got a group of people technically able and willing to get things they want for free, and on the other hand a group of people making things who want to be remunerated for that.

The problem occurs not because one of these urges is unethical and the other isn’t. Or even because the former precludes the latter. The problem is that most of our cultural industries view a pirated thing as exactly the same as a stolen thing – or more importantly – as a lost sale. However, it’s evident to anybody who has ever pirated anything that this isn’t the case. Making a digital copy does not mean that you are depriving someone else of that thing. People who pirate things still buy things. And a person who pirates something wasn’t necessarily ever going to buy it. Piracy, from numerous studies, doesn’t even seem to affect legitimate sales one way or the other.

So if piracy is done for the wrong reasons, but the consequences aren’t bad – what is it? I prefer to think of it as a form of unpaid, uncontrollable viral marketing. It’s clear that the most successful books are also the most pirated. And anyone who has ever tried to sell a good book will know that the best way to boost sales is to get more people reading that book – through the always-elusive word of mouth. Piracy is dodgy, but it is also the most efficient way to distribute a digital product. And so long as there is an easy-to-use, affordable, legitimate alternative to piracy, most people will still prefer to buy it. And for those in-between cases, like people with disabilities, library sharing and proof copy distribution (problems that have yet to be solved by traditional publishers in regards to ebooks) – the availability of illegal copies means that those people who wouldn’t or couldn’t otherwise read your book will be able to do so. To quote the excellent Tim O’Reilly, e-publisher: “Obscurity is a far great threat to artists than piracy.”

So the way to fight piracy, then, isn’t to try and make people who pirate things feel guilty. If they felt that guilty about it, they probably wouldn’t have done it in the first place. It’s also ethically iffy to sue people for lost sales when they’ve pirated content, as it isn’t clear that all of that content would have been purchased if it hadn’t been acquired illegally. I also don’t see the point in locking up digital purchases with DRM, as it unfairly punishes those of us who buy things legally, and makes piracy a more attractive option. At its best, book piracy is a way of getting people talking about a book who wouldn’t otherwise be reading it. At its worse it’s a bunch of dodgy people whose technical expertise and lack of ethics means that you’ll never be able to stop them getting hold of your product without paying anyway.

What do you think? I’d especially love to hear from authors who have seen their own books end up on filesharing websites. Do you see it as a good or bad thing? How would you prefer your publisher deal with the issue of piracy? And for everyone else: have you ever pirated a digital something? How would you defend your choice to do so?

A Pirate’s Life For Me

The NYT’s The Ethicist created some controversy this week with an article considering the ethics of downloading pirated copies of ebooks. Specifically it responded to the question of whether it is ethical to download a pirated version of an ebook (when it is not available legally) if you purchase the hardcover edition of a book first.

Snip:

An illegal download is — to use an ugly word — illegal. But in this case, it is not unethical. Author and publisher are entitled to be paid for their work, and by purchasing the hardcover, you did so. Your subsequent downloading is akin to buying a CD, then copying it to your iPod.

Under the Dome: A bloody heavy book

Needless to say, this has caused a stir in some publishing circles, and a number of other blogs and opinion pieces have responded to the question and explored many of the flaws in the argument. There’s no clear answer to this conundrum. The central premise seems compelling – people are used to only having to buy one format – you don’t have to worry about illegal downloading when you buy a CD or a DVD, you can easily rip music and movies to your computer yourself. Why should books be any different?

From personal experience, I think the reason this is even an issue is to do with the failure of the book publishing industry to understand the market and to respond to technological (and the resulting cultural) change. I don’t buy an ebook because it’s cheaper than the dead tree version. I buy it for all the other benefits an ebook gives me – I can start reading instantly, it can be searched, I can look up words in the dictionary or Wikipedia, I can carry multiple books around without hefting a load of paper, I can even read it on multiple platforms (PC, iPhone and Kindle) depending on when and where I feel like reading. The $9.99 price point that Amazon tried to set for ebooks is very nice, but more expensive ebooks are not going to turn me towards paper books, they’re just going to turn me towards other, better-priced ebooks.

The publishing industry needs to do more than re-educate consumers about the value of books. They need to respond to consumer need. Since the advent of digital piracy, consumers have a way of getting what they want, when they want it – bugger the ethics or the legality. To combat this, publishers need to make it easier to buy an ebook legitimately than it is to get it illegally. Practices like windowing and DRM are destined for failure for this reason; they punish the ethical. Publishers cannot just expect to change behaviour without meeting their readers halfway.

What do you think? Would you feel bad about downloading a pirated book if you couldn’t find the ebook anywhere else? Do you think owning the physical copy entitles you to a digital one? What can publishers do to lure you away from illegally downloading ebooks?