18 January 2010

Piracy Scare off the Publishing Coast

A recent report for publishers about electronic book piracy by the consultancy Attributor generated coverage in Publishers Weekly, as well as icv2. But I think some points were missed between the research, the public report (PDF download), and the articles.

For one thing, the PW article says, “The average number of free fiction downloads was just over 2,000.” But the chart in the report indicates that figure should be 6,000. I suspect the reporter simply read the figure for the next category, reference books. So I’ll use the 6,000 figure.

How did Attributor derive that number? The public report offers no specific titles or download counts to back it up. PW mentions “7,951 illegal downloads of Angels and Demons and 1,604 downloads of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”

Both those books have been international bestsellers, the first for a long time. And yet, if the 6,000 figure is correct, the first has been downloaded just about a third above the average and the second well below average. The vast majority of fiction books aren’t international bestsellers, and probably don’t come close to either of those quantities of downloads, yet the report implies that 6,000 downloads is typical for fiction.

With similar exaggeration, the report states, “On average, nearly 10,000 copies of every book published are downloaded for free.” But the chart on the following page shows only one out of seven category bars hitting the 10,000 level. The average for the categories shown is about 8,000.

And the research methodology was tilted to produce higher numbers. Attributor says its researchers looked at “913 popular books” in various categories. Choosing “popular” books rather than random titles means by definition books that are more likely to be downloaded.

Furthermore, selecting popular books means that the titles come disproportionately from the biggest publishers, which pay the biggest advances and have the largest marketing budgets and sales staff. Yet the report later tries to make this sample into something typical of the industry as a whole:

The 913 titles in this study represent works from publishers totaling 13.5% of the U.S. book publishing market. Projecting this $380 million value to the entire industry results in total potential piracy figure of $2.8 billion.
Perhaps a better use of research time would be asking why a sample of over 900 “popular books” ended up leaving out every title from more than 85% of the industry.

But my favorite factoid from this report is the finding of where the most piracy is taking place. To quote PW:
Of the 14 book categories tracked, piracy was most prevalent in the business and investing segment which had an average of 13,000 free downloads per title, the report found.
The field most dependent on the concept of property thus has the most people pirating and using pirated texts.

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