Writing on a piece of paper.

An Open Letter To AG President Scott Turow

Dear Mr. Turow,

Congratulations and best wishes on your election as president of the Authors Guild.  This is an interesting and in some ways challenging time for publishing, and the AG is positioned to serve as a well-reasoned and informed voice for authors.

As it happens, the need for reason and data at a time of uncertainty prompts me to write.  Among other pursuits, I study digital book piracy: its instance (how often and where does it occur?), as well as its impact (what’s the effect on paid sales?).

As a prosecutor and an author, you’ve demonstrated a superior ability to build a case, underscoring the importance of vetting every piece of evidence. In your new role, you’ve said a number of things that clearly position “piracy” as among the biggest threats to your members.

But the claims you make about piracy aren’t based on any real evidence.  I’d like to offer some data that argue for a different point of view.

First, though: I am not a pirate.  I value intellectual property and believe its prudent defense can return value to its creators.  But I’ve also come to believe, in this increasingly digital landscape, that the greater threat to many authors is obscurity, not piracy.

I do believe that there are markets in which digital book piracy is a net loss – college textbooks may provide the most direct example.  But I also believe that there may be markets, and authors, for whom piracy helps improve awareness, trial and paid sales.

That’s why we started studying the impact of piracy on paid sales almost two years ago.  On an admittedly limited sample (something we’d like your help to grow), we’ve found an apparent correlation between piracy and subsequent growth in paid sales.

Now, you recently told GalleyCat’s Jason Boog that “…the larger problem for us is the pirating of books”.  I ask, simply, “How do you know?”

There are no reliable studies of the impact of piracy in the book business.  Because our sample set is limited, I include our own work to date in that bucket.  The studies that arecited most often are based on sampling techniques that try to track the instance of piracy, then apply an assumed number for “substitution rates” (lost sales).

The Government Accounting Office recently “assessed the assessments” of digital piracy and found them all lacking.  That’s not the final word, but it’s an indication that conclusions drawn on the limited data available are premature, at least.

In talking with GalleyCat, you went on to say that “(piracy) has killed large parts of the music industry.”  But, the music industry is not dead, and there are studies that suggest that the more likely shift in buying patterns occurred when vinyl owners finished replacing treasured albums with CDs.

As replacement sales declined, purchase patterns also shifted from whole albums to individual songs.  This was a trend that the music industry actively resisted, in the end fostering the piracy it wanted to prevent.  The lesson here could be more readily distilled as: “Don’t take actions (like delaying the release of e-books) that frustrate consumer demand.”

At a recent BookExpo panel you said, “The transcendent issue for all of us is piracy. Piracy killed off the record store business.”  There’s no doubt that there are far fewer music stores today than there were a decade ago.  But: cause and effect?  The links are not there.

Even a decade ago, most music stores had a limited selection of titles, a problem that only accelerated as album sales declined.  Along the way, Apple introduced a digital storefrontthat is easy to use, offers a wide selection and can deliver immediately.  Think Amazon and Kindle.

Finally, you’ve noted that “Musicians make up for the copies of their songs that get pirated by performing live. I don’t think there will be as many people showing up to hear me read as to hear Beyonce sing.”  It’s a clever line, and it distills an argument that many authors have made about piracy and enforcement.

This line of thinking, though, mixes cause and effect (musicians performed long before they recorded), and it sidesteps some business arrangements that have long favored labels over artists.  It also excludes some innovative pricing and packaging experiments by bands like Nine Inch Nails, approaches that some publishing people (Richard Nash’sCursor comes to mind) have embraced and extended.  Publishing is not just about buying the physical book.

After hearing me out, you may still feel that every copy should be paid for.  The moral argument is a fair one, but it runs counter to the ways that content has been long promoted.  Galleys, blads, advance reading copies, sample chapters – these are all considered legitimate (even mandatory) ways to help build awareness of new titles.

Publishers routinely print and distribute a few hundred to tens of thousands of galleys to help promote their books. ARCs can be redistributed; some are used for purposes other than pure promotion.  As one librarian said, “There’s nothing better than BookExpo America for collection management.

This isn’t to suggest that you declare librarians persons of interest.  But the reflexive “stop pirates” argument doesn’t really work, especially when the pirates are inside the house.

I understand that you want to send the message to AG members that you are on top of the hot button issues they are likely concerned about.  I would hope that you agree that the membership deserves the truth about piracy, its effects, and even potential uses your members or their publishers can make of existing piracy.

So, here’s what I think you should do: keep piracy on the agenda, but change the language you use to describe it.  The goal is not to “stop piracy”, but to understand its impact and use enforcement in markets where doing so has the greatest positive impact.

And work with authors to distinguish between the instance of piracy and its impact. A pirated file is not necessarily equivalent to a lost sale. Most authors want to make money, but I’d wager that all authors would like to be read.  Discovery, even with a pirated file, may lead to more sales (something J.A. Konrath is finding, at least for now).  This is an area where more research data would be helpful.

In that spirit, think about having the AG and the AAP put some money behind impartial data gathering and assessment exercise.  I like the work we’ve been doing, but it need not be us.  Use your influence, both as a well-known author and as president of the AG, to lead and contribute to an objective analysis of piracy.

This is the time to put piracy front and center at the Authors Guild.  We can do as the music industry did, presuming a single answer and defending an existing model.  Or, we can choose a data-driven, more flexible path.  I prefer the latter, and I hope I can convince you that you should, too.  Even with the best of intentions, the walls we build up can lock us in.


Brian F. O’Leary

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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