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E-Book Prices and the Possibility of Piracy

I’ve written in the past about the $9.99 ebook and my belief that supply and demand is the most important factor in arriving at this price point. Over in Slate, Jack Schafer argues that a side-effect of publishers trying to increase ebook prices (because they’re afraid that a cheap ebook will cannibalize the expensive hardcover market, cutting into their already diminishing profit margins), will be a huge rise in piracy:

What has kept illegal e-books from taking off? First, all the electronic reading gadgets on the market are subpar, if you ask me, making the reading of books, newspapers, magazines, and even cereal boxes painful. The resolution is poor. The fonts are crap. The navigation is chunky. Not since the eight-track player has modern technology produced such a heap of garbage. If you’re looking for the reason e-books constitute just 1 percent or 2 percent of all book sales, stop the search. Second, the hassle factor is too great. Only a student or a deadbeat with a lot of time on his hands is going to want to search the Web and scour the torrents for, say, a free, bootlegged copy of A.J. Liebling’s The Telephone Booth Indian. It’s as tedious as fishing! Third, not all bootlegged e-books are created equal. On finally finding that free book you so desire, you may find yourself wishing you had purchased the legal edition: Your bootleg may be filled with typographical errors, thanks to the slipshod application of optical character-recognition software. If a nicely produced Kindle version of The Telephone Booth Indian that doesn’t have to be monkeyed around with can be easily nabbed for $9.99, which it can, why bother breaking the law to obtain an inferior edition for display on a rotten device? It’s like using an acetylene torch to loot a kid’s piggy bank. [. . .]

So far, few consumers think books should be free—a fact that I attribute to the klugy Kindle and its affordable Amazon store. I conducted an informal census of friends and associates who read lots of books, and I found none who partake of the bootlegged variety. But that could change in a matter of months if the book industry insists on 1) jacking up the price of e-books and 2) withholding potential best-sellers from the e-book market. Cool devices that make electronic reading painless are just around the corner, and the e-book market is about to explode. If publishers insist on pushing prices too high and curbing availability, consumers could rebel—as they did with the sharing of MP3s—and normalize the trafficking of infringing e-books.



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