E-book piracy may have unexpected benefits for publishers

My CBC tech column this week is all about e-book piracy. A copy is up at, and below, for posterity.


According to a new report from the American Association of Publishers, electronic books outsold both paperbacks and hardcovers this past February. This, just a few months after online retailer Amazon announced that it now sells more Kindle digital books than paperbacks.

But it’s not just e-book sales that are on the rise. E-book piracy is growing, too.

I first realized the scale and scope of digital book piracy back in 2009 when I heard researcher Gabriella Coleman describe the then-exploding DIY book-scanning scene. She described projects like the BookLiberator, which allow for rapid scanning of analogue books, with or without the permission of copyright holders.

But now, as e-book readers, tablets, and digital bookstores have become more commonplace, some pirates have switched tactics. Rather than manually scan physical books, some pirates download original e-book files from paid sources, then remove the digital locks.

It’s difficult to put hard numbers of the scale of e-book piracy. O’Leary says that while it’s simple to assess the instances of piracy for a given publisher or series of titles, getting accurate numbers for the entire industry is much harder.

Hundreds of thousands of new books are published every year in North America. Tracking them all would be a monumental task. But O’Leary says the overall trend is clear.

“There’s no ambiguity that more book files are available on the internet now than there have been in the past. That’s partly a function of there being more digital book files, and also that there are more e-book readers. But that’s not necessarily synonymous with an impact on the business of publishing.”

O’Leary makes the distinction between the instances of e-book piracy (the number of pirated e-book files available for download) and the impact of e-book piracy (the actual effect on the business of publishing). For O’Leary, the two are related, but different. He says that one way to measure impact is to pick a book, wait for it to be pirated, and then compare sales before and after.

Back in 2009, O’Leary did this for one publisher, O’Reilly Media, which publishes technical books. Surprisingly, he found that sales actually increased after their books showed up on pirate sites. Piracy seems to have boosted sales. O’Leary says people may have been using the pirated editions to sample books before they actually opened up their wallets.

This is just one example, and we shouldn’t extrapolate one publisher’s experience to the whole publishing industry. A technical book is different from a romance novel, which is different than a history textbook. But it goes to show: though e-book piracy is on the rise, it doesn’t necessarily come at the expense of legit e-book sales.

Publishers need more research (and more nuanced research) about the impact of book piracy in order to have a more informed perspective on how to approach it.

People pirate for many reasons. Some do it simply for the love of pirating. Some people amass large collections of movies and music and books that they may never watch, listen to, or read. Others pirate because they feel they simply can’t afford to pay. These types of pirates are probably the hardest to convert into paying customers.

But there are also people who pirate because legit, paid options aren’t available to them. When it comes to books, movies and TV, increasingly, people want what they want when they want it. The lack of a legitimate paid option can turn willing customers towards piracy. According to Brian O’Leary, “Piracy really is the consequence of not meeting consumer demand.”

So, if book publishers want to avoid some of the piracy issues that have plagued the music, movie, and television industries, what should they do?

It seems to me that they need to better understand the real impact of piracy. They need to understand the motivations behind piracy, and they need to address the appetites of underserved customers.

“I think the average consumer cares about getting the content that they want, when they want it, in the format that they want, without a lot of overhead, at a reasonable price,” says Brian O’Leary. “I think that publishers who realize that and organize their work and their publishing strategies to address those needs are going to succeed.”

E-books, both purchased and pirated, are on a serious uptick. The challenges around piracy are huge, but so are the opportunities.