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February 7th, 2010:

An (Ebook) Fate Worse Than Piracy

I’ve had it in mind for some months now to conduct and publish an interview like this one with a backchannel correspondent of mine who calls himself The Jolly Pirate. That’s unlikely; Jolly didn’t like the idea much, and more to the point, he doesn’t pay much attention to pirated ebooks. He is not an ubercracker from the Scene and doesn’t want to be. He knows where the stuff is and he downloads its. He doesn’t upload at all, except for the uploading inherent in torrent downloading.

His motivation and modus operandi are interesting and I will describe them at greater length someday; from a height I’d describe him as a hoarder who downloads all sorts of things under the assumption that they may eventually be harder to come by. He’s read a few computer books downloaded from Usenet, all of them .chm files, and treats them like a sort of third-party help system for the technologies he’s interested in. The thing that makes me grin a little is this: He says he has over 50,000 ebook files on his hard drive, but he doesn’t own an ebook reader. He doesn’t read for fun and I get the impression that he doesn’t read much at all unless he has to. I asked him why he downloaded all those books, and his answer was simple and obvious: “Because it was easy.” Most of you have seen my entry for December 29, 2009. Jolly downloaded 10,000 ebooks in a couple of hours. That scares some authors and publishers a lot, and I’m still trying to get my head around the question. Tim O’Reilly said somewhere that piracy is like a progressive tax on success, and that’s a useful metaphor. I rarely see my own material in the pirate channels. That is not true of Steven King or Ms. Rowling.

And in truth, something else makes me worry more than piracy. This isn’t an original insight, though I don’t recall where I first read it (anybody?) but a major threat to success in writing today is the competition from books that have already been published. There are only so many hours in a life, and with most any popular print book available used but in good shape on ABEBooks for $5 or less, a given consumer never has to buy a new book at all, especially fiction. It’s less true in nonfiction covering emerging issues and technologies, but for last year’s news and mature technologies it’s operative: All the Windows XP books that the world needs have already been published, and you can get most of them from the penny sellers for the (slightly padded) cost of shipping.

My point: Existing books compete for reader chair-time with new books. An enormous number of books have been published in the past twenty years or so, and that’s not old enough for them to crumble into shreds. (Alas, my ’60s MM paperbacks are doing exactly that, reminding me constantly what “pulp” means.) They’re all still kicking around the used and unused remainder market, and will be for decades to come. All the arguing about ebook pricing that I’ve seen so far seems to ignore the fact that new books of either type compete with used print books, and ubiquitous Web access makes finding precisely what you want almost effortless.

Paying $15 for an ebook is a sort of impatience tax. Wait a few months, and used copies of the hardcover will be on ABEBooks for $5 or (probably) less, including shipping. Good books, too. If Big Media ever truly embraces ebooks, it will be as a means of defeating the Doctrine of First Sale and eliminating the used book market. (The legal issues there are still very much in play. Expect much agitation in coming years for new laws forbidding the resale of “used” electronic files.)

This shines some different light on the difficulties Google has had getting authors to sign on to the Google Books settlement. I’m not sure that all authors and (especially) publishers even want the orphan copyright issue to be settled. If it is, suddenly the Google scanning machine will drop what may eventually be hundreds of thousands of additional ebooks into the marketplace, all of them competing for quality chair time with whatever current authors are writing. That may explain why I’ve had so much trouble getting SF publishers to talk to me. People may not be reading less these days, but they’re certainly reading and re-reading things that already exist. The value of what I write now is correspondingly less.

When a pulp becomes an ebook, it becomes eternal. Don’t tell me about death due to storage or container format obsolescence. I still have SF copy I wrote using CP/M WordStar in 1979 and stored to 8″ floppies, now safely on a USB thumb drive in .rtf format. If USB ever becomes obsolete, all my files will follow me to whatever comes next–and will probably take five seconds or less to transfer.

There will always be a reliable if modest supply of book crazies and loyal fans who will pay top dollar for The Latest. Beyond that, market cruelties come into play that will make it a lot harder to break into the writing business for the forseeable future.

Piracy? What’s that again?