The dangers and creative potential of book piracy
According to industry figures, sales of digital books have tripled in 2010, which is surely cause for cheer amongst publishers. But this success comes coupled with an issue already very familiar- and troubling- to the music industry: piracy.
While piracy, or accessing e-books through file-sharing sites, arguably shares some characteristics with borrowing from libraries, or indeed off friends, the big difference is distribution. A digital file can travel swiftly and extensively, reaching millions of readers in a way no physical library could; and only one copy is needed, however many people access it.
Also, pirate book bundles often number up to 2500 titles- far more than most people have ever got the time to read- yet it takes only a few hours to access, unlike the far bigger files (and download times) associated with films and music. This ease of acquisition and instant gratification is a key attraction of pirated media. These factors- the volume, variety of titles, and easy access all spell big trouble for publishing houses who are, according to a recent study, losing nearly $3 billion, or over 10 percent of total revenue due to e-book piracy.
One of the ironies of the digital book boom is that as demand for e-readers grows, so does book piracy; Torrentfreak found that illegal book downloads tripled after the launch of the iPad, echoing the effect the iPod had on pirated music. The digital generation already fully expects to access music and film for free; why would books be any different?
Publishers are obviously aware of this prevailing attitude and subsequently regard piracy as a big problem, yet just like the music industry, addressing it while making profits has proven difficult. Some publishers release the e-book later, at exactly same the price as the hard copy; this strategy has infuriated readers unhappy to wait, especially when it comes with no price reduction.
Meanwhile some writers challenge this punitive approach altogether by actively embracing free material. Some, like Mark Fisher and Nina Power, started off writing blogs but, having built up a loyal fan base, Zero Books were able to profitably publish hard copies of their work. The success of books like Diary of a Call Girl, which started as a blog, also illustrates the effectiveness of this route.
While publishers battle with circumventing piracy, London-based AND publishing, which describes itself as ‘a platform exploring print on demand technologies and publishing conceptually driven artists' books’ has directly addressed the creative potential of piracy in The Piracy Project.
Partly inspired by the observation that in many parts of the world pirated books are not only copied but also reworked, often to reflect local concerns, the project invites artists to produce books that explore plagiarism and the idea of ‘creative modes of reproduction’.