Soul-killing and software piracy

Last weekend, I hit a treasure trove of digital piracy – the entire collection of Dilbert in PDF format. I’m not sure where I stand on digital rights in the abstract, although seeing how Disney managed to ram another 25 years of copyright protection through the Congress has me leaning towards the “DR is a myth” crowd. In practice, I’m a lifelong software pirate, which may be part of why my computer game company became “the most profitable game developer you’ve never heard of” in the words of Computer Gaming World, through our focus on bundled distribution.

Since game companies happily send me whatever games I ask for now, that’s taken all the fun out of the hunt and so I don’t bother anymore except for the occasional emulator ROM. But it’s still fun hunting down ebooks, although I wish someone would write a decent ebook reader/text converter for Linux. Doesn’t this directly contradict my existence as a writer? Not at all. In fact, I’ve even lobbied my publisher to release my books as free and open ebooks, since the main obstacle to book-selling success is not people reading for free what they could have bought, but people never having heard of you or your work in the first place.

Pirate readers don’t pay, but they still engage in word of mouth, and from my own experience, I know that people buy what they like and want to support. I have an ebook of QUICKSILVER that I’ve never read, because I am a Neal Stephenson fan and I wanted to support him by buying the big fat tome. I have multiple copies of Umberto Eco’s THE NAME OF THE ROSE simply because I love the book, and that’s not even counting the .PDB files.

The problem is that for-sale ebooks are still priced too high. We can separate out the value of the author’s contribution from the publisher’s fairly easily. The publisher’s and distributor’s shares of production and distribution are the major components of the total price of a book. The actual value of the copyrighted aspect, then, is approximately 10 percent of the retail price if we average out hardcovers, trade paperbacks and mass-market paperbacks. Now, the production cost of an ebook is trivial; the Original Cyberpunk converted REBEL MOON in about a day. Even at his lofty, big-brain rates, that’s a trivial amount compared to the cost of printing 20,000 copies.

So, in other words, the value of an ebook as determined by the market is around 70 cents. Make it 75 to cover the production and transaction costs. That’s the model that authors should be pursuing – perhaps a big-name author can command a premium of 2x or 3x. The challenge is that it has to be made as easy to pay for the book as it is to otherwise pirate.

My suggestion would be to follow the newsgroup example. Sell a subscription for $7.50/month (+ whatever distribution cost is required – that’s outside the example). Subscribers can download ten books per month, and be billed an additional .75 for each additional book they download. The books are properly formatted and the buyer knows that .75 is going directly to the author. People are already paying $12/month for access to poorly formatted texts that often need to be reformatted; presumably more people would pay an equivalent sum for proper, fully legal texts as well.

This will frighten the publishers, of course, but in the meantime, the market will be served, legally or illegally, just as it always is. Anyhow, back to my intended point….

I talked with a friend of mine last week and asked him about four things. He wasn’t sure about what I meant by one of them, so he provided answers to none of them. It’s no big deal; there was nothing urgent about the questions but it was so utterly uncharacteristic of him that I was truly taken aback. Then, after reading through a year or three of Dilbert, it suddenly occurred to me that this was a corporate version of what I wrote about two weeks ago.

Your environment will affect you, whether you are a child in a public school, an employee at a giant corporation or a bureaucrat in a government agency. The frightening thing is that you will probably not even realize that it has modified your customary behavior. After all, unless one is very ill or desperately unhappy, everybody thinks he’s fine.