27 November 2009

Pirates Go After the Big Ships, Not the Little Ones?

Publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin offered more to think about in a posting addressing established publishers’ fears about piracy. In particular, Shatzkin invoked a couple of points that non-establishment publisher Tim O’Reilly made in 2002, including:

Piracy is a kind of progressive taxation, which may shave a few percentage points off the sales of well-known artists (and I say “may” because even that point is not proven), in exchange for massive benefits to the far greater number for whom exposure may lead to increased revenues.

Our current distribution systems for books, music, and movies are skewed heavily in favor of the “haves” against the “have nots.” A few high-profile products receive the bulk of the promotional budget and are distributed in large quantities; the majority depend, in the words of Tennessee Williams’ character Blanche DuBois, “on the kindness of strangers.”
Shatzkin elaborated:
…piracy, or file-sharing that may fall short of actual piracy, can serve the purpose of spreading the word about a book and triggering more sales.

Except there are some authors, and those are the ones that sell the most books for the biggest publishers, who don’t need marketing to inform their audience; their audience, in effect, informs their audience! And those are the ones who would surely lose sales if there were no DRM [i.e., anti-copying protections] and books could be freely shared or are made available through illicit channels.

But those authors are also the ones who have the biggest personal followings. They are the most capable of adding material: notes about what they’re working on, correspondence with fans or critics, even observations about other people’s books, that would add some value for many of the readers of their stories. In fact, a regular “update to my readers” from a top-flight author that is available only in their ebooks, or to purchasers of their ebooks, would be an attraction to many and could serve as a constant reminder that downloading their books from illegitimate sources is cheating them.
A lot of Americans perceive their interests as aligned with the wealthy. Indeed, back in 2000 a Time-CNN poll asked a cross-section of voters if they were in the top 1% of income earners; 19% said yes, and 20% said they expected to be. (One almost suspects 5% planned to do so by playing in the NBA.)

That perception helps to skew national discussions of progressive taxation, inheritance taxes, health insurance reform, and many other political issues. Even people who insist they’re acting only for their self-interest don’t know what will really benefit them, much less benefit society as a whole.

Does a similar perception affect how beginning and intermediate authors and other creative artists view piracy? Do we worry about unauthorized copying when that’s really a problem only for the people and companies who can best afford the costs (and make the loudest complaints)?

No comments: