February 17, 2012

Technology Matters: Internet book piracy - author's view

After the American Century

The thing about being robbed in cyberspace is that you don't even notice. Last year when someone got hold of the number on one of my credit cards  and began spending thousands of my dollars in Florida, I felt and heard nothing for weeks. If someone had robbed me on the street, I certainly would have noticed. But I have not been on the streets of Florida for decades. 

This week I discovered that many different people have been stealing, almost certainly for several years, my book Technology Matters by downloading it for free from the Internet. I stumbled across one site giving it away, notified the publisher, and it was taken off. But then I decided actually to search and see if there were others. I found out that there were at least 8 other sites where the book could also be downloaded for free.

But was this really free? The  book can be purchased on Amazon for $10.06 brand new. It is also for sale as a Kindle edition for about the same price. So this is not at all an expensive book. My publisher has made a great effort to make it available at a reasonable cost. Were someone to download it for free and print out the 296 pages, how much would they save? Assuming two pages on a sheet, these pirates need to print 148 pages, plus the cover. Then it would be wise to bind the whole thing together in some way. And do not forget the cost of the ink and electricity and the wear and tear on the printer. There may be a small savings, but the result is not nearly as nice, as lightweight, or as handy to use as a bound book.

Aside from the economics of this theft, there is the effect on publishing. The more people download illegally, the fewer books the publishers sell, and in fact the fewer books they can afford to publish. The sort of person who wants to read Technology Matters is someone who would like publishers to survive and to bring out a wide variety of academic titles.

Instead of supporting the authors, the publishing industry, and the culture of learning, the Internet downloading pirate is choosing to spend money on printers, ink, electricity, and paper.

Alternately, the thief can read the book in electronic form, but it was not formatted for that medium, and based on my own experience of reading PDF files on both an Ipad and Kindle, this is an awkward business. Try jumping to the index to check something and finding your way back, for example. Try to go look at the footnotes (usually at the end) out of curiosity. Not easy.

Finally, as an author who spent three years researching and writing a book that people are stealing from me, I must point out that royalties are never large enough to cover the costs of going to the archives and libraries, much less provide a plausible hourly wage. As a rational economic man, if sales fall because my work is stolen digitally, I should stop writing books altogether. There is no economic incentive. Internet book piracy can only discourage writers from writing and publishers from publishing.

Stealing books electronically may seem like getting something for nothing. But it takes from some and gives to others. Seen in a larger perspective, there is no free lunch. If this trend accelerates, we will eventually have no more books, but instead printers, copy machines, and blank paper that no one wants to write on,