Pirates of the Web

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Yesterday’s New York Times ran an article entitled “Will Books Be Napsterized” and I have to confess it felt as though yet another nail was being hammered into the coffin of traditional publishing. Although I’m not at all the kind of person to a) become neurotic about the whole thing or b) don a placard proclaiming the end of the world is nigh (hold it, I’m an author, I’m exactly that kind of person!), recent articles about the digital piracy issue still give me pause.

According to this article there are currently 166 copies of Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol available free on the web – 102 of these copies attributable to one file sharing site alone (RapidShare). Now I’m all for authors promoting free content on the web and encouraging new readers but only when the writers and publishers get a chance to actually authorize this to occur. Although Dan Brown’s book is clearly still selling strong in both traditional and e-book format, you have to wonder what the impact of digital piracy will be in 3 or 5 years from now when e-books account for a much greater proportion of the market. Illegal file sharing could then significantly impact even a bestseller like Brown – but imagine the impact on smaller publishers and authors alike. It could be (as the NYT article says) a Napster like event.
The article cites evidence from multiple studies that indicate that 95% of music downloads are “unauthorized, with no payments to artists and producers”. Given the angst-ridden state of the publishing industry today – can you imagine if this were true for books one day?
Apparently file sharing sites usually try to console the industry by pointing to the success stories of the music industry – who have used free content as a way of building a sustainable fan base. Again, I totally accept and agree that free content is a great way to introduce readers to your work – and that building a readership base who will hopefully go out and purchase more of your work is critical – yet as the NYT article points out, authors rarely get to recoup their artistic investment by playing to packed arenas or using pirated e-books as ‘concert fliers’. The majority of authors are probably totally unaware of pirated copies of their books available on the web (I certainly am – and given my lowly status I can’t say I’m worried now but I certainly would be if I actually became popular:)).
So what do you think? Are the Napster fears justified? Is the promotional value of free content enough to justify some of the existing file sharing? Look into your crystal ball and tell me what you see (but please if you see me destitute on a street corner talking to myself just keep it to yourself…)