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JA Konrath on piracy & ebooks

JA Konrath is currently on a blog tour, posting on different sites every day in March to promote the release of Afraid, a horror novel he wrote under the name Jack Kilborn. I put my hand up to participate in the blog tour, and when it came to the topic I said 'give me something on ebooks'.

Here's JA Konrath's article on the subject ...

Let's talk about illegal downloading and ebooks.

As of this writing, you can Google "JA Konrath"+torrent and get over two thousand hits. Add in Usenet, eMule, Limewire, and other file sharing clients, and there are a whole lot of people downloading my ebooks and audiobooks without permission. Last year it was less than a thousand. The year before, just a few hundred.

While I love used books, many authors hate them. Some authors aren't keen on libraries, either. After all, authors only make money for each new book sold. If the books are traded, resold, or lent out, they feel they're losing money.

These authors are in for quite a shock in the upcoming years.

Once ebook readers come down in price and become as prevalent as iPods, the 4 billion dollar a year used book industry will be the least of their worries. One $10 ebook download will be up on the torrent sites the day it is released, if not leaked sooner, and will be shared by thousands.

This industry will go digital. DRM doesn't work. People don't consider file-sharing to be stealing. Sales will drop, guaranteed.

Technically, it's impossible to count illegal downloads as lost sales, because chances are most people stealing a copy wouldn't pay for a copy. If they had no way to get it for free, they'd do without it.

At least, that's how I feel about the majority of stuff I steal on the net.

But can we really blame the consumers? Or can the publishers take some of the blame? In this economy, can anyone even afford to pat $25 for a hardcover that will entertain them for 9 hours, when that same money can be used to buy dinner and rent 2 dvds?

Books are overpriced. So is music. And we all know what happened there.

The music industry blew it. Here they had a free distribution system set up by fans. No more production costs. No more shipping charges. No more wholesalers and retailers taking part of the profit. But instead of figuring out how to work within this system, they tried to shut it down and created a hydra.

If Google (with their Kindle), and Sony (with their Ereader), were smart, they'd begin signing writers exclusively to their platforms, split the royalties 50/50 with the writers, and charge a dollar or two for ebook downloads. An easy-to-access online store, well organized and cheap, could cut down on pirating.

Of course, if they were really smart, they'd give the books away for free and charge advertisers for spots. Then piracy wouldn't be a factor.

But print, as we know it, is doomed. The publishing business model is broken, books are too expensive and increasingly harder to find on store shelves, and the ebook revolution is just around the corner.

We can bemoan the change, but we can't fight it, even with contract renegotiations. The used book industry is peanuts compared to the ability of one ebook buyer to distribute thousands of copies for free.

And telling folks that stealing is bad isn't going to change a thing, any more than it did for music. Copy protection won't change a thing either.

Here's a fun thought experiment about new technologies: Pretend print books never existed. What advantage would they have over ebooks?

Let's say we grew up with ebook devices, like my son is growing up with his iPod. Would print even exist?

Ebook devices are still too expensive. But when they come down to under a hundred bucks, and are scratch proof and waterproof, then print no longer has any advantages. Ebooks can be cheaper or free, faster to acquire, you can adjust the font size and type, read without a light, carry 5000 books at once, the books can be interactive and searchable with extra content like DVDs, and the list goes on.

If such a device existed, would there be a single reason to invent print
books? What's the advantage of printing, shipping, and killing 40 million trees a year? (and that's just for the book industry, not newspapers or magazines.)

But we grew up with print books, so we're reluctant to give them up. That is, until we actually try a Kindle 2 and go nuts over that the same way we went nuts over out first iPod.

Some steps are being made in this direction. Amazon, and Sony (which just made a deal with Google for their library of public domain books) are now publishers.

Agents, and all of the big publishers, are anxious to hop into bed with them, rather than consider alternatives. No publisher that I'm aware of has been able to generate much in the way of website traffic and online sales.

But if Random House suddenly made it's entire backlist available online as pdfs for 99 cents a download, that could change the playing field.

They won't, of course. It isn't in their best interest to go digital. They consider erights to be subsidiary, not primary. While everyone is very interested in ebooks, no one believes it will actually replace print, so no one is taking steps to prepare for that.

Smart companies look ahead and change accordingly, even if it means abandoning what originally made them companies. But often, people spend so much energy clinging to the now, they don't have any hands left to reach for what's coming.

But all this is going to do is make it easier for the thieves. Unless Amazon, Sony, and all of the publishers make the ebooks cheap, they'll be stolen.

Actually, they'll be stolen anyway, but the cheaper the book, the more copies that will sell. Why should I search for and download a torrent when I can get the book with a click of a button for 99 cents?

Then again, I have filled my iPod, and it wasn't using iTunes. Chances are, even if books are cheap, they'll still be stolen. But without wholesalers, retailers, or distributors to take a cut, it makes no sense why an author shouldn't make half of the one dollar download, or more. In fact, do we even need publishers any more? Why not just hire a freelancer to copyedit, then the entire dollar goes to the author?

Publishers are falling into the same trap that a lot of companies fall into when new technology comes along, which is: How can I make sure I'm still relevant?

So their business models obviously include themselves.

But what do publishers really do for writers? They print, distribute, and promote. With all the costs along the way, they profit about $3 on a $24 hardcover, same as the author.

Now there are much lower costs. Printing and distributing, which involves shipping and giving percentages to middle-men, are all but gone now.

So what exactly do we need publishers for in an ebook world? What service are they providing?

None at all.

Amazon realizes this. Why should they share money with a publisher for
an ebook? Why not publish the ebook themselves?

But Amazon is still taking a healthy cut, because they feel they're using their distribution system.

Sorry, Amazon, but $10 for an ebook is too much. People are going to steal it. And their distribution, while the only real game in town (except for Sony), still isn't that great. Amazon doesn't sell that many books, and they don't sell that many ebooks.

But has anyone actually compared cheap ebooks to free ebooks to see which people prefer?

I have.

As an experiment, I'm offering an ebook download on my website for 99 cents.

In four weeks, 183 people have downloaded it. Not bad for a midlist author. But I have several hundred thousand books in print, so 183 is actually pretty minuscule.

Also, as an experiment, I've been offering free ebook downloads on my website.

As of today, my free ebooks (not excerpts, these are full books) have been downloaded 16,534 times.

If I'd sold ad space in those ebooks, I could have made some money--a lot more than the 183 ebooks I sold.

So, even at 99 cents per book, even if the author made the entire 99 cents, I'm pretty sure free is the way to go.

Project Gutenberg has over 120,000 ebook downloads per day, for free.

If Amazon thinks they can compete with free, they're crazy.


JA Konrath is currently on a blog tour, posting on different sites every
day in March to promote the release of Afraid, a horror novel he wrote
under the name Jack Kilborn. Visit him at www.JAKonrath.com


That was a very cool rant.
Follow JA's blog and you'll read plenty of those ;-) A very straight talker.
I was amused to see his name, because I was reading him only last week.
Would that have been via you?
I'm always very wary of the claim "people who download pirated material wouldn't have paid for it anyway, so no real loss there", because there are so many industries such as comic books and videogames where there have been measurable losses in sales in the past 3-4 years, and in many cases independent comic publishers and game developers are having to close up shop because not enough people are buying their product any more. Of course, if you go to a bittorrent site, you can discover that thousands of potential consumers are reading and playing their art for free.

Does the system work? No. Are people who download all their games and comics guilt-free? No.
I think it sometimes comes down to user-friendliness. Is it easier to click and download 300mb of archived comics (for example), or seek out e-copies and add them to the basket one by one, then pay? That's assuming there are e-versions available in the first place. (Aside from that, I've read a couple of A4-sized comics on-screen and the experience is lousy.)

On the subject of user-friendliness, I confess I buy most of my PC games & DVDs on ebay rather than via brick & mortar stores. I end up paying a similar amount (I usually only buy new, plus the postage), but it's the convenience of search, click, buy vs trawling through endless shops and racks of DVD cases in the hope of finding what I want. I'm not big on real-life browsing and I don't do impulse buying.

Online purchases are one thing, it's the piracy that annoys me.
I get what you're saying - but I still believe SH has a point with the convenience thing. Regardless of the morality of it, it's a dozen times easier to download something than to buy it. I think there's no question that publishers *should* be looking for a business model that embraces that.

Doesn't make downloading right - it just acknowledges that it's what happens.

Konrath's comment - that he'd make vastly more money with a per-download ad deal than by selling downloads - is pretty close to the mark.
It's interesting re: comics, because the distributor with a near-monopoly in the US (Diamond) just changes their terms of service and cut half the small press publishers out of the industry in the process. It's a bit early to tell, but it looks like the future model for comics may be free webcomics followed up by print collected editions sold online afterwards - which is a model I can get behind if the creators can get paid a decent amount for their work.
Mm. I think most webcomics that get by do so by merchandising and advertising. The only webcomic I've bought in printed form was Girl Genius. There's a few others that I might buy if I could - but the fact that it's not more prevalent suggests that the costs don't work out in the artist's favour very often.
I think Lulu does picture/colour books. I wonder whether it could be a way to get POD versions of webcomics out there? It's a pity they don't have an Aussie branch though.
I *think* Platinum Grit experimented with POD. I'd have to chase it up.

The web version of PG is awesome - but new eps come out so slowly!
They did POD for a while, but they've signed up with Image Comics now - pretty sure the first volume just came out (haven't visited my local comics shop yet to see if it's in).
That's interesting - I got the first three volumes from my local comics shop. They were quite pricey (though worth it!). I'll look into it.
I think the new Vol 1 (issues 1-6, from memory) will wind up cost around the AUS$35-40 mark, depending on your store.
I saw a release from Lulu that said they *did* have an Aussie partner... but I can not find any thing more on that subject.
I've bought a bunch myself - not just "traditional" webcomics like Penny Arcade and Perry Bible Fellowship but also stuff like Freakangels. I think as webcomics shift out to incorporate more high quality serious stuff (not just three-panel "gag" strips) the potential for print editions is going to become a lot bigger.
I think GG does well because it's written as a physical book, which is then put up on the site page-by-page. I feel the book is the better experience. Same for The Order of the Stick, say.

(I'm totally going to look up Freakangels tonight.)
Order of the Stick I loved at first, but I think it's lost its way now - it is certainly a lot easier to read as a book than on the screen though!
OOTS has kept my interest well enough. I hope he intends to bring the loose threads back together at some point, though.
I think it kind of lost me when the plot became more important than the silly jokes, because I *loved* the silly jokes a lot more.
I prefer the silly jokes, but don't mind the plot. :)


because there are so many industries such as comic books and videogames where there have been measurable losses in sales in the past 3-4 years, and in many cases independent comic publishers and game developers are having to close up shop because not enough people are buying their product any more.

Is that because of piracy? While piracy is certainly a factor, there are also distributors like Diamond and companies like Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony, who take a big cut of the profits, practically ensuring that smaller comics and games will never see a profit unless they sell a ton.

The problem with most media is that losses are factored into profit margins, so products are overpriced, and the creator often doesn't get a proper cut.

I've heard that musicians make less than a dollar on a $15 CD sale. So why are CDs so expensive? You can buy blank CDs for ten cents each.

Are downloaders breaking the law? Yes.

Are they going to stop? No.

If a large segment of society breaks an unenforceable law, the only thing that will change is the law, not the behavior.
The 'X are too expensive' agument absolutely applies to comics, though.

Going up to half the price of a mass market paperback bunches of them, right? Which, entertainment-wise, looks pretty piss poor. A few minutes for $4.00 is pretty ugly.

Doesn't look sustainable to me.

Then don't buy them. But for god's sake don't download them for free and read them - if you (the general you, that is - not you you) don't want to read the $4 comic then don't read it.

Comics are an expensive business. You've got to pay for printing and freight, and pay the writer, and pay the artist, and the letterer, and the colourist, and the inker, and an editor. They're not necessarily $3 and $4 an issue because somewhere some evil corporation is gouging you.

important issue

Thanks for posting this. While I don't necessarily agree with everything said, I think this is an extremely important topic that needs to be discussed in depth, right now (or preferably yesterday) by as many people as possible, if only to make the publishers, tech-sellers, etc, sit up, take notice, and move to keep up with inevitable changes.
I've read one Konrath horror story. Guess I might see some more, now. :)

Looking up his site, he seriously has a character named Jack Daniels. Wonder if he has cousins Johnny Walker and Jim Beam?

Although apparently it is a she.