Piracy, Technology and the Publishing Business

Fair warning! This is going to be a long one with a lot to think about. Grab a drink and feel free to take notes.

Piracy issues have been forefront on many blogs and forums in the last couple of years. Jerry Pournelle has covered a recent legal battle between the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) and ScribD over their hosting complete collections of all of his works as well as Larry Niven, Mercedes Lacky and many other authors. Unfortunately, this was turned all around by Cory Doctrow and a lot of misguided people on SlashDot and the shock waves are still being felt.


In that piece, he refers to Eric Flint’s series of articles “Salvos Against Big Brother” and how Baen Books handles all their freebies. Here are the relevant essays:








Those four essays pretty well sum up his arguments. For the time being, with our current level of technology, these arguments seem to hold up. DRM doesn’t work and the opacity of our industry means that freebies only increase sales by getting the word out to those that wouldn’t normally read your works. The Baen Free Library as well as the dozen or so promotional CDs that Baen has distributed at conventions have proven their point. You can see some of them here:


The biggest problem with all this is that it works only as long as we are still using conventional paper books. I have read a lot of Baen’s free novels and have gone out and purchased the paperbacks as gifts for friends and to reread myself, when I’m not near my computer. This is going to change in the next few years.

eReader Problems!

The problem is, that in the very near future, eInk (electronic ink) technology is going to become so incredibly cheap, that it will replace paperbacks, newspaper and magazines entirely.

Oh sure, there will be a few collectors and old foggies that refuse to play the game. Sort of like those people that refuse to use a digital camera now. Once they drop to less than 10% of the buying public, the market can safely ignore them.

Current eReaders are expensive, fragile, ugly and use proprietary formats in order to enforce abusive Digital Rights Management (DRM). Since most of them depend on proprietary formats, they charge way too much for books and don’t pass any extra profit to the authors, editors and publishers.

Wikipedia lists technical pros and cons of the current crop of eReaders.


If you’ve ever tried to read a novel on your cellular phone, Blackberry or other PDA, you know the screens really suck! Anything using LCD technology is doomed to failure as a reading device because they are hard to read in bright light, small and very fragile.

With the exception of the Sony 150/155 readers and the Amazon Kindle, all the other alternatives are already dead in the water. I mention those two because they are the two most notable users of eInk technology. If you’re not familiar with eInk technology, or are confusing it with the current crop of expensive and hard to view eReaders, let me describe it.

Imagine the pretty color monitor you are looking at right now is turned sideways and is the same size as a standard sheet of paper. Now imagine it as being less than a 1/4” thick and weighs less than a copy of favorite print magazine. You can toss it on the couch like an old newspaper or drop it when you get out of the car with your arms full, and there will be no damage. It will be sturdier than your cellphone.

Now imagine that display has a terrabyte of memory and a wireless connection to the internet. This is not Science Fiction; that technology exists in laboratories, today. Here are a few of the many design variations that have shown up in the last couple of years:






You will see the first really useful commercial versions in the next five years for under five hundred dollars. Within ten years, they will cost less than a hardback book.

As an early example, here is a review of the Amazon Kindle:


In my not so humble opinion, the Kindle is way too expensive, they are asking way too much for the books and it is ugly as a stump. But that’s just me.

DRM Problems

And you can forget about any sort of ‘real’ encryption because right now, you can build a desktop multi-processor computer for less than $2000 that equals the processing ability of most of the ‘super computers’ in the world. Any sort of encryption can be broken or sidetracked. If you can read it, then someone else can copy it.

DRM in the form of encryption, electronic watermarks and tightly controlled distribution channels will work only for the very near term. The problem is that when you make things difficult for your intended audience they will either go someplace else or they will get angry enough to bypass your systems and feel justified in ripping you off.

Last minute news: The DRM for the Amazon Kindle has already been hacked!




That means that if a person is willing to spend a few minutes downloading an illicit program, you can convert your existing Mobipocket collection to Kindle format. The fact that this happened less than two weeks after release means that it won’t be long until all the rest of the formats are usable as well.

Here’s a prediction: In the next couple of years, we’re going to see an easily-hacked, DRM-free clone of the Kindle with a better case and more features (MP3 playback for one) for under a $100. When this happens, copying and trading novels will be as easy as tapping a ‘share’ icon on your tablet.

Wikipedia also lists more than 20 eBook formats!


Publishers are VERY useful!

Where does this leave us as writers, editors and publishers?

The author-editor dynamic isn’t going to change very much, but in the long term, we are going to have to take a serious look at the distribution process.

One of the suggestions is to take a look at history and that can be a scary thing.

Up until the Victorian era, all the great artists depended on sponsors and once they had created something, it belonged to the sponsor. Royalties on future usage were unknown.

This changed, starting with sheet music and the English ‘penny dreadful’ which were the first paperbacks. With these, we can trace the growth of the modern publishing industry.

The reason is simple. A single author – editor team cannot keep track of the market, handle printing, distribution, sales, marketing, etc… This has been true for the past hundred years or so. That means that publishers do provide a series of very useful services.

  • Layout and Design

  • Artwork

  • Market Analysis

  • Reviews

  • Promotion

  • Distribution

The problem arises that when you remove the actual printing aspects of their service, they need to totally revamp the way they do business. This is a difficult thing in any industry and the ‘old guard’ is going to fight, tooth-and-nail, to avoid change. That why so many of the big companies are screaming that they need stifling laws and abusive DRM.

There were many companies making buggy whips in the 1890s. There are only a couple in the entire world now. Thus it will be with giant printing presses. They need to grow up and get over it.


Now, if you consider that the printing industry itself is in trouble, this means the publishing infrastructure that is built around it has to change.

I for one, don’t see publishers going away, as some have suggested. Most artists, myself included, have no real desire to become a cover artist, market analyst, advertising genius and distribution channel specialist… those jobs as well as some new ones (based on the latest technology) will still need capable people that must be paid. This brings us to the relatively new world of electronic publishing or ePublishers.


Unfortunately, ePublishers have been getting a bad rap recently since more than a few of them have gone under. What people don’t realize is that this is to be expected. It is VERY easy to setup any sort of business website; including publishing. Many of the folks that jumped on the early ePublishing bandwagon were not prepared to address it like any other business.

Much like the dot-bomb meltdown a few years back, we are seeing a Darwinian cleansing of the ePublishing industry. Although some people have been hurt by this, I argue that it is a good thing. Companies that have a proven track record of treating both their authors and readers in a fair manner are going to be truly successful businesses in the future. It took me awhile to choose which one I was going to send my first set of tales and I’m very pleased with the results at Dark Eden Press. [Yeah, that’s a shameless plug!]

All of the ePublishers will continue to be successful as long as they keep the price of their books reasonable (less than a similar paperback) and don’t anger either their authors or readers. The primary business difference is that eBook titles will never see the royalties and spin-offs that are found with paperbacks and hardbound. In my discussions with other eBook authors, I’ve come to the conclusion that 90% of the income is in the first month after release and the rest peters in over the next nine months or so. It is rare for any eBook title to make more than a few bucks after the first year.

That means that an author must turn out at least a couple of novels a year to make any sort of real money. This is harking back to the days of sponsorship and once you finish creating something, you need to start something else if you want to make more money.

Bottom Line?

How will this change? What is a fair solution that addresses the technical issues as well as the long-term financial ones? Is there any way that we can provide a good living for our artists and publishers and yet still give our readers what they can both afford and enjoy?

The bottom line is that I don’t know. A web search using any of the key terms will show a LOT of suggestions, but none seem to answer all the questions. This is something that needs to be addressed though, and soon. Remember the old saying… “If you don’t plan for success, then are you automatically planning for failure.”

If you think you have an answer or a possible avenue to explore, then let’s hear it.

Happy Holidays!

2 thoughts on “Piracy, Technology and the Publishing Business

  1. You really packed alot of info in there. When I made the statement about ebooks and becoming popular I didn’t think about copy rights or how easily it was to redo it and take the profit away from the author. I get ebooks all the time and her the only thing I worry bout are viruses and such being downloaded with it. No matter what happens in the future I will do my bestto make sure that hard working author gets their just dues.

  2. Do you really think that ebooks will replace ink and paper? Some people have argued that it is akin to the vinyl/cd revolution, which seemed to happen more or less overnight. That was merely a format change. I see the conversion of books to e formats as more of a paradigm shift. I know no one who cherishes a tattered vinyl record but I know many people who have a favorite paper book that they take everywhere with them. Others have large format art/photography books that they love. These people will not embrace ebooks any time soon. It is not the technology or the DRM that keeps them hooked to paper. It is the smell and the feel of a book in their hands.

    Then there is the issue of quality. You have to admit, there are a lot of really awful offerings out there. (And I am a published ebook author, so I think I can criticize fairly.) How does one wade through all the dross to get to the gold? I suppose peer review sites will spring up, and that would be a good start, but you’d need one as big as ebay to cover everything that is out there now.

    I’d love to see an affordable, high quality reader (think ipod for books) but I just don’t see the mass appeal thing happening, although for all us ebook authors it would be great if it did.

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