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David Pogue Revisits DRM Question about Ebooks

In a blog post today, New York Times Columnist (and bestselling O’Reilly author) David Pogue responds to a reader question about DRM (he calls it “copy protection”) in light of all the recent ereader buzz, and he’s very honest and open about his (very natural) reaction to finding copies of his books out in the wild:

As an author myself, I, too, am terrified by the thought of piracy. I can’t stand seeing my books, which are the primary source of my income, posted on all these piracy Web sites, available for anyone to download free.

He then discusses sales for one of his books since we began offering it as a (DRM-free) ebook:

Well, it sounded like it could be a very costly experiment. But I agreed. My publisher, O’Reilly, decided to try an experiment, offering one of my Windows books for sale as an unprotected pdf file. After a year, we could compare the results with the previous year’s sales.

The results? It was true. The thing was pirated to the skies. It’s all over the Web now, ridiculously easy to download without paying.

The crazy thing was, sales of the book did not fall. In fact, sales rose slightly during that year. That’s not a perfect, all-variables-equal experiment, of course; any number of factors could explain the results. But for sure, it wasn’t the disaster I’d feared.

I’m thrilled David was willing to take a look at the data, and at least be willing to consider that piracy is less of a threat than many publishers and authors fear, especially when readers are given great reasons to pay for the ebooks (in our case, multiple DRM-free formats, perpetual access, and free updates).

What’s worth also pointing out about David’s books (and it’s something I tried pointing out in the comments section of his blog post, but at last check my comment is still “awaiting moderation”) is that while his print books continue to sell like proverbial hotcakes (one of his books made up about 4% of sales across the entire computer book market in a recent week), those DRM-free ebooks are also outperforming. The app version of iPhone: The Missing Manual is our best selling app of 2009, and two of his books are #1 and #3 for us on Kindle this year.

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  • http://www.sviokla.com john sviokla

    interesting. sounds like what the grateful dead have known for a while. john perry barlow convinced them to open up to the tapers a long time ago…

  • bowerbird

    pogue said:
    > The results? It was true.
    > The thing was pirated to the skies.
    > It’s all over the Web now,
    > ridiculously easy to download without paying.
    >
    > The crazy thing was,
    > sales of the book did not fall.
    > In fact, sales rose slightly during that year.

    you know what’s amusing to me?

    the fact that he said “the crazy thing was”…

    people strongly believe “piracy” kills sales.

    so even when they open themselves up enough to
    _test_ that belief, and the test disconfirms it,
    they _still_ don’t know if they _believe_ it…

    they think it must be “crazy” to get that result.

    we saw this with brian o’leary’s research too.
    the corporate executives refused to believe it,
    simply because they didn’t _want_ to believe it.
    they “knew” what was true, and this wasn’t it…

    like i said, quite amusing…

    -bowerbird

  • http://redhillpublishing.com Robert Collings

    There are quite a number of empirical studies analysing sales vis piracy in the music industry and those that appear to be independent (i.e. not somehow funded by the RIAA et al) found that the effect of piracy is anywhere from statistically zero to nominal.

    Music biz execs of course blamed piracy, when there were other fundamental issues with their business model/s that needed to be addressed and weren’t.

    May well be the same with book publishers…?

    Yet still no-one seems to have gotten their head around the use of DRM as a means of facilitating and encouraging online commerce rather than crushing it.

  • JulesLt

    The Grateful Dead comparison isn’t wholly accurate, in that the question there is whether having free live recordings impacts on the sale of studio recordings – in the same fan base.

    What’s closer is the old ‘home taping is killing music’ argument – which presumed that at least some of the taped copies represented lost sales.

    The reason why a book, CD, game can be massively pirated and sell massively is that many of the pirates were never potential customers – as a teenager, I spent all my part-time earnings on games and music – yet I copied far more.

    A lot of the people who will copy a David Pogue book for free would NEVER have paid for one, so it doesn’t represent a lost sale.

    On the other hand, the argument is not straight forward – there are definitely cases where sales are being lost (evidence that people are allocating spending towards DRM’d items like console games, at the cost of stuff they can copy easily) – while the freetard position pretends this isn’t true – that it’s all a matter of business models.

    (There is no acceptance that some people will simply do the ‘wrong thing’, despite knowing the ‘right thing’ because they are selfish, rather than, say, because they are poor).

  • Fred

    I think it all depends upon whether piracy is widely accepted or only practiced by young kids with little money. If it’s only a margin activity enjoyed by those with much more time than money, then piracy isn’t much of a problem. But if it becomes widely accepted by the mainstream, then it’s going to destroy sales.

    This is, btw, a different problem for different markets. Textbooks are heavily pirated and the sales are falling dramatically. Piracy is more mainstream on college campuses and the sales show it.

    There is a real danger of being cool about piracy. While it may be accurate to say that piracy isn’t affecting sales now, downplaying it too much or saying that’s acceptable will certain affect sales.

  • Fredbo

    Pogue’s books aren’t the best indicators. The people who pay for his books need help using an iPhone. They’re not going to be able to work any bittorrent client.

    But if the piracy becomes widespread and anyone can pop up a copy of the book by clicking on a Google link, well then the game is different.

    Piracy will kill sales when that happens.

  • bowerbird

    > The Grateful Dead comparison
    > isn’t wholly accurate, in that
    > the question there is whether
    > having free live recordings
    > impacts on the sale of
    > studio recordings – in the same fan base.

    um, the dead never sold that many studio albums.

    so, to the contrary, the comparison is right on.

    the dead showed letting fans record concerts gave
    more fans more incentive to attend more concerts.

    fans didn’t decide to stay home from a concert
    because they had already taped the last concert.

    instead, watching (and swapping) concert tapes
    got fans even more juiced to attend concerts…

    once you understand that it’s all about the love,
    everything becomes much easier to understand…

    -bowerbird

  • http://toc.oreilly.com Andrew Savikas

    @JulesLt — I acknowledge there are people who are choosing unauthorized free downloads instead of purchasing (just as there are people who shoplift our books from retail stores — a pernicious problem for those titles carried in small numbers). But trying to use DRM to prevent those lost sales isn’t worth the ill will and further lost sales created by annoying and inconveniencing customers who have demonstrated a willingness and desire to pay.

    @Fred — I assure you that customers for most of our books are quite technically proficient, and certainly know how to use a BitTorrent client. We’ve published many books for free online, yet combined sales for these books is well into the millions of dollars (both for print and for digital access). As I’ve written before, it seems people are willing to pay for packaging and convenience as much (or more) than content itself.

    The economics of the textbook industry are different, because the customer (student) isn’t the one making the purchase decision (in the sense of choosing which book is the best for a particular course). The sales mechanism and channel dynamics have not adapted to the regular Web, much less the growing importance of the mobile web as the primary information and communication medium. I don’t believe that piracy is to blame for the declining results of textbook companies.

  • http://farmanor.blogspot.com/ FARfetched

    Surprise, surprise. NOT (to me, anyway). If I want to read a book for free, I’ll go to the library.

    Back when copy-protection was the big thing in software, back in the mid- to late-80s, I knew several pirates. To them, it was about collecting trophies — one kid took me out to his Mustang and opened his trunk; it was full of disks. He probably hadn’t opened most of the programs, let alone used them for free. At work, we bought program crackers just to be able to use backups of the key-disks (and we had to replace a few). Eventually, the backlash grew and customers simply refused to buy copy-protected software. Once the companies gave up, their sales didn’t exactly fill in the ditch, did they?

    eBooks are an interesting animal. Smart companies like O’Reilly, as Andrew points out, provide updates — how could you do that with paper? (OK, we used to do it in the 80s with 3-ring binders and change-pages for user manuals.) Nearly every printed book I’ve bought in the last couple years contains a handful of typos; none of the editors caught them, but if I were the author I’d be embarrassed & would love a way to update the books already sold to fix them.

    Now this is a pretty grey area: I know some elderly folks who check out audiobooks from the library, rip the CDs onto a iPod, and turn the audiobook back in. Then they load up their vehicle and go away for the summer, listening to the ripped book(s) on the road & deleting the files when they’re done. Not adhering to the letter of the law, but the spirit?

  • Alxx

    Isn’t Bruce Eckel the best example of this ?
    Making his books available for free on the web and selling print copies.
    http://www.mindview.net/Books

    Copies of his books are floating around all over the place but he still manages to get good book sales.

    His books are heavily used in introduction to programming classes
    especially java.

  • bowerbird

    alxx said:
    > Isn’t Bruce Eckel the best example of this ?
    > Making his books available for free on the web
    > and selling print copies.
    > http://www.mindview.net/Books

    i don’t think you could call him the “best” example,
    because even people who are paying close attention
    – like me — haven’t heard of mr. eckel…

    but i’m certainly glad you gave us a pointer to him!

    i suspect there are other people out there who are
    experiencing success that is small, but growing, and
    at some point all of these people will burst into our
    general consciousness, and we’ll wonder why we ever
    had any doubts that this model could be workable…

    -bowerbird

  • bowerbird

    i said:
    > at some point all of these people will burst into our
    > general consciousness, and we’ll wonder why we ever
    > had any doubts that this model could be workable…

    and shortly after that, we’ll insist that we never had any doubts,
    and we knew all along that this model was completely workable.

    -bowerbird

  • brown

    Ebooks selling has been a good market for the person who writes it, If the book is quite useful with information people would love buying it. But as the author as pointed out about DRM Question about Ebooks and the new rules that would govern the space, the attention has been into his thoughts. The book was spread over the net and was available for all to download still its sale was working great. But I did did not understand how that would happen just because all of them would get the book free then who would pay for that book? I have also tired selling an ebook called Find Savings Online , the sales was just ok for me.

  • mike

    I find the posturing by publishers (oreilly.com included) surprising. Perhaps, I should not be.

    Any form of digital content benefits from the long-tail, in general, but the publishers behave their products are always the exception. Hence, they scream and shout piracy. The music industry started it and the rest, as they say, is history.

    But the most important is this — the customer decides. Having been a user of the safari service, I have seen and experienced better products from pirated PDFs than the ones I actually paid for. I wonder why I, or anyone else for that matter, should respect copyright and be treated like an idiot (locked PDFS, etc), instead of doing what I need to do — highlight the areas that I think are important.

    In this mature stage of digital consumption, I think it should be obvious non-crippled products such as Unix, Python, and friends can survive. Why bother with the complexity of restricting the customer?

    Good that the DRM-free books are selling like hotcakes. More important is to maintain, or improve, customer retention. Unless of course, the customer loves crippled products.

  • http://www.mirctr.com mırc

    thanks man good that DRM-free books are selling like hotcakes

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  • http://royalmaids.ae/ Royalmaid

    The results? It was real. The factor was stolen to the air. It’s all over the Web now, extremely simple to obtain without spending.