Book piracy: Less DRM, more data - O'Reilly Radar

What's the current impact of piracy on the book publishing industry?

Brian O'LearyBrian O'Leary: We don't know. Some people will tell you that it's the biggest problem facing publishing or that ebook piracy will kill publishing. None of those perspectives are informed by solid data.

We undertook research two-and-a-half-years ago with O'Reilly, and we've been studying Thomas Nelson as well, to measure the impact of piracy on paid content sales. We approached it as if it were cooperative marketing. We would look at the impact of what sales looked like before there was piracy, say for four to eight weeks, and then we'd look at the impact of piracy afterward. Essentially, if the net impact of piracy is negative, then you would see sales fall off more quickly after piracy; if it were positive, the opposite.

Data that we collected for the titles O'Reilly put out showed a net lift in sales for books that had been pirated. So, it actually spurred, not hurt, sales. But we were only looking at O'Reilly and Thomas Nelson. The results are not emblematic of publishing overall. It could be more conservative, it could be less conservative. We just don't have enough data. I've tried to get other publishers to join in, but it really hasn't been a successful mission. Even at a low- or no-cost offer, publishers seem reluctant to collect the data required to reveal the true impact of book piracy.

Now, you could argue that O'Reilly's target audience is different from say, music and film industry audiences - and you'd be right.

However, O'Reilly's target audience is much more technologically savvy than the general music and film industry audiences - and therefore much more able to grab stuff and run away without paying, if so inclined.

And yet there was a net lift in sales for books that had been pirated.

Unfortunately, there's a lot of chest-banging around the issue of DRM, and not all that much hard data or research. Need moar infoz!

4 responses
Another great example is the Baen free library. According to them, uploading a bunch of titles for absolutely free boosted the sales, for both the new titles AND the titles they already gave for free.

So, your customers appreciate being handled nicely and are ready to show it with their wallets? Go figure =P. Wish the gaming industry would get this in their heads.

I believe the Swiss government did a study as well, which caused them to rule that the downloading of copyrighted material for personal use wasn't illegal.

One of the things their study showed was that pirates on average spend more on entertainment than non-pirates (I'm paraphrasing here), so they didn't see it as a big deal, as to them, it meant that people were still paying for entertainment - just more wisely!

Of course, one could say, 'But pirates consume a lot more!' (unknown by a nugget), and, 'But not all the right content creators get paid!' (see O'Reilly above), and these statements, if valid, are true.

That being said, what I've read from Baen also supports what you've said, so maybe it's a case of waiting for the medium to mature. After all, crazed mediafolk once wanted to ban all VCRs, yar?

Funny story! A looooong time ago, Nugget worked on a Symbian app for Nokia called 'Camsters'. I still remember one of our dev team hooting in delight, 'GUYSSSSS!!!! THEY PIRATED OUR GAME!!!!!!' XD
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