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eBook Piracy: Pogue vs. Engst

Pirate flag It all started with this blog post from David Pogue regarding his concerns about e-content copyright protection.  David very effectively communicated his stance against e-content distribution, primarily because of piracy issues.  I can't say I really agreed with him, but I admire the way he framed his argument and supported it with a couple of examples from his own books.

Then I read Adam Engst's point of view in this article.  Now that's an argument I can really get behind.  I think Adam nailed it and I found myself nodding in agreement as I read what he had to say.  Adam also brings a lot of credibility to the table as the Publisher of TidBITS and their ebooks arm, Take Control Ebooks.  I'm grateful that Adam was willing to share so much in that article, particularly when it comes to his experience at Take Control.  Here are a few points in Adam's article that really made an impression on me:

First, Take Control takes a few extra steps to discourage unauthorized copying of their DRM-free ebooks.  For example, they display the price prominently on the first page of every ebook.  That sounds subtle, but I can see where that would serve as a deterrent and help remind readers that there's a stated value associated with the product.  They also offer a lot of free updates and discount offers readers can share with their friends; nice touches.

He also noted that, "by publishing DRM-free ebooks, acknowledging that it's OK to lend one of our ebooks to a friend or colleague, and providing free and discounted updates, I believe we come down squarely on the side of the reader."  What a novel concept...treating your customers like they're something other than convicted criminals.  Another winning idea.

Next up, Adam believes that "voluntary payments don't constitute a viable business model."  I'm not quite ready to throw in the towel on this one.  I figure it's just that nobody has found the right formula here.  Give it time, add a new element or two and we might have something...but don't give up already!

Finally, he makes this statement: "Core to that idea [enhanced iPod/iPhone] was the suggestion that the iTunes Store sell ebooks; I'd bet that Apple would become the largest ebook retailer in the world nearly instantly."  That's probably the one scary thought that leaves the Kindle team sleepless in Seattle...


david Pogue

What both you and Adam miss is the difference between the size of our operations. Adam notes that even though he's sold 150,000 of his e-books in all the years he's been in business, he's never seen pirated copies.

Well, that's the point. He likes online distribution for the same reason unknown bands do: for him, it's all advertising.

The Missing Manual series is MUCH bigger--we sell in the millions--some of our individual titles sell 150,000 copies PER YEAR. So we're pirated much more heavily, because the demand is there. And because these are reference books, I fear that every illegal download is a lost sale to me.

We're going to try an experiment with my Windows Vista book, but overall, I don't believe that Adam's experience is at all relevant to mine, for the same reason that Metallica (for example) is against online distribution but a garage band is not.


Adam Engst

The small band/big band question is one worth exploring. There's no question that a garage band that plays occasional local gigs and sells a few CDs at each isn't dealing with the same pressures as Metallica, but where do you draw the lines? I do believe Take Control's 150,000 copies sold are relatively small in comparison to Pogue's, but only by a factor of 20 (working from the 3 million copies quote on his O'Reilly author bio page), not by a factor of 1,000, 10,000 or 1,000,000.

Plus, I'd like to note that even at the height of the popularity of my Internet Starter Kit for Macintosh, which sold about 600,000 copies lifetime, I put the full text of the 3rd edition on the Web for free (it's still there at ). I have no idea if that helped or hurt sales; as I said in my original piece, I suspect it didn't really make a huge difference in either direction, but the end result is that a book that would otherwise be entirely unavailable is still readable on the Internet for free, some 13 years later. To my mind, that's a good thing for society in general.

And finally, it seems that if we're looking at "big bands," wouldn't O'Reilly Media itself be a bigger band than Pogue on his own, since they publish lots of books other than the Missing Manuals? O'Reilly sells DRM-free versions of many of their books, so I can't see them being worried about it, especially given their recent announcement of increased ebook efforts.

So I guess what I'm saying is that although there may be a size at which the band is so big that the pressures change, I'm not sure Pogue is at that point. I'm speaking somewhat off the top of my head here, but one way to judge that point might be to look at how a company does marketing and advertising. If the goal is to introduce the product to new customers, that is, if not everyone who might buy the product already knows about it, then perhaps you're not really a big band yet. The product that jumps to mind in this category is Microsoft Office - Microsoft doesn't advertise Office to introduce it to people, but to convince people who already know about it to buy it. I'm occasionally asked for beginning Mac book recommendations, and on some of those occasions I've recommended a Missing Manual, so anecdotally at least, the Missing Manuals are not yet a household name.

Another way to look at it is to figure out what the potential audience for a product is, and compare that to sales. How many million Macintosh users are there, and what percent of them have bought Mac OS X: The Missing Manual? Since Apple has sold 1 to 2 million Macs every quarter for quite a few years now, that would imply the potential audience for the book is very large at this point.

Let's estimate that Apple sold 5,000,000 Macs in the last year, and that Mac OS X: The Missing Manual sold 150,000 copies in that time (picking numbers somewhat out of a hat). That would imply that 3% of the possible customers purchased a copy. I think that's wonderful for Pogue, but it also means that 97% of new Mac purchasers didn't need the book, didn't know about the book, or chose not to buy it. Seems to me that anything that could eat into that 97% number would be worth trying.

I'd certainly try it, and I have. It doesn't mean I've managed to recreate the kind of success I happened into with Internet Starter Kit for Macintosh, or that Pogue has with the Missing Manuals, but I'll keep trying.

cheers... -Adam

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