Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Author Enemy Number One Isn't Piracy ... It's Obscurity

From the fables of Aesop and the earliest books of the Bible, through Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde and Douglas Adams, this writing life has always been about making words stick. Literature is an inexhaustible goldmine of quotable quotes.

One simple line that registered with me recently, though, wasn't from a great man of letters at all, but from hard-nosed business scribe Seth Godin in the US. He said: "The enemy of the author is not piracy but obscurity."

Simple, memorable, to the point ... and oh so bloody true!

Take ebook piracy, for instance. The big boys of the publishing industry are frantically trying to safeguard their investments by slapping Digital Rights Management padlocks and geographical restrictions on their best sellers. At least, war on piracy is their official line.

Who're they trying to kid? The rawest young intern in the mail room knows that it's just as easy to scan and pirate a paper book as it is to hijack an electronic copy online. The most pirated books are, in fact, books that have not even been officially published in digital form. (JK Rowling, who flatly refuses to allow her publishers to release ebooks of her Harry Potter series has seen all her novels offered as free ebook downloads all over the net in all digital formats, available within hours of official launch of hardback, courtesy of the pirates.)

We've said this before, so I won't go into detail again, but -- in a nutshell -- DRM and geographical restrictions do not discourage piracy as is claimed, they merely greatly inconvenience the honest customer, garner superfluous sales ... and actively encourage frustrated readers to turn to the black market.

So that's out of the way. Piracy ain't the enemy.

But what about obscurity? How about those brilliant authors whose names are so massively and universally unknown that no self-respecting pirate would even bother to run up his Jolly Roger to give chase?

How do we turn an author into someone worth ripping off? What's the recipe for buccaneer bait?

Answers on a postcard please ... Neil


  1. Amen, amen and three times amen to this post (and I'm not religious, so that's how good it is).

    And if I had the answer to your bottom questions, then I'd be knee deep in hookers and gin by now, my friend!

  2. Agreed - my books are DRM-free. Anything that requires a code to make it work is just fiddly and annoying - signing on to my bank's website is a case in point. It drives me crazy and takes me half an hour every time I want to pay a bill online. I don't want reading a book to feel like that - especially not one of my books!

  3. Right you are, Helen: A visit to the excellent www.mobileread.com forums is an eye-opener. The length some folks must go to, first to buy and then ro read, ebooks is simply amazing.

    And you'll find no end of otherwise honest people telling lies and giving phony addresses they've picked up from Google Earth, and registering devices in countries on the other side of the globe just to pay out good money for what they want to read.

    Stripping DRM from files has become routine -- instructions on how to do it are freely available all over the net -- so that customers can buy a book from one device-dedicated store to read on the particular device they happen to own. Imagine buying a paperback novel that you can only read in the loo or a car that will only run on one brand of gas/petrol.

    It's as though the top end of the industry just flat out wants to discourage customers. And the restrictions they force on the e-reading public is turning thousands of honest, bookworm citizens into petty criminals.

    If piracy flourishes, it is the fault of big publishers, greedy retailers and rich, brand-name authors playing silly games. How dare Rolling dictate to her readers? Imagine, say, Jay Leno, insisting that his show not be watched on TV sets made in Japan.

    There are many offenders who are a disgrace to the industry, but the biggest rogue of all seems to me to be Amazon with its mind-bogglingly restrictive Kindle and Kindle books store. Why anyone outside the US would ever dream of buying a Kindle puzzles the heck out of me.


  4. Good article based on a good quote.

    The postcard answer is: lots of money.

  5. On your second point, Terry (and sadly) how darned right you are. Thanks. Neil