bitTorrent, e-books and piracy – NYT Tech guru David Pogue’s experiment

For the last month or so, David Pogue, the New York Times technology columnist, has been posting his views on the debate surrounding the effect of ebooks on sales of the dead-tree variety. He’s one the technology world’s most prolific authors, having created the “Missing Manual” series of user-friendly help books. Every time a new gadget or software program is released, you can count on a “Missing Manual” to be published at about the same time. But Pogue has resisted making his books available in electronic format, apparently after being burned a couple of times by the file sharing sites that illicitly obtained copies of his books and spread them all over cyberspace, ostensibly having a negative effect on his royalty income. He has received volumes of email from readers suggesting this is a shortsighted strategy. Well yesterday he announced that he is willing to take a dive into the digital pool, along with his publisher, O’Reilly Books:

Early next month, the company will also start selling electronic versions of certain books with no copy protection. For a single price (cheaper than the printed-book price), the package will include the book in three formats: PDF, Mobipub (compatible with the Amazon Kindle), and Epub (soon to be compatible with the Sony Reader). Anyway, I’ve agreed to try an experiment involving one of my books (“Windows Vista: The Missing Manual”): to offer it as part of that buy-the-electronic-versions program.

Pogue writes that he’s not sure how the experiment will turn out, and that he’ll report back in a few months, and concludes his column:

But at least I’m defusing the argument that says, “The only reason people are pirating your books is that you’re not offering e-versions for legitimate sale.”

I suggest that authors like David Pogue view their readers in much the same way that public radio regards its audience. Public radio, like all non-satellite programming, is free to anyone with a receiver, and anyone can listen to it. A typical ratio of listeners to paying public broadcasting subscribers is ten to one. So if a station averages 100,000 listeners, then it can expect to have about 10,000 paid members. So if through some well orchestrated viral marketing campaign, the number of listeners of a given station doubles to 200,000, the result of this increase in audience reach could be expected to yield a doubling of dues paying members during the next membership campaign. (It would also have ancillary benefits to the station, if it charges its underwriters fees based on audience size.) Most stations would regard this outcome as a good thing, and would expend considerable effort to double their audience size.

While few reliable studies have been conducted in the publishing world to determine the relationship between downloads and book sales, data collected by O’Reilly Media (publisher of Pogue’s Missing Manual series) reveals a similar result with another title:

As part of our continued effort to understand the impact on book sales of the availability of free downloads, I wanted to share some data on downloads versus sales of the book Asterisk: The Future of Telephony, by Leif Madsen, Jared Smith, and Jim Van Meggelen, which was released for free download under a Creative Commons license.The quick answer from this experiment is that we saw no definitive correlation, but there is little sign that the free downloads hurt sales. More than 180,000 copies were downloaded yet the book has still been quite successful, selling almost 19,000 copies in a year and a half. This is quite good for a technical book these days: the book is far and away the bestseller in the category, far outperforming books on the same subject from other publishers.

So here we see a similar, approximately ten to one ratio of free-riders to paying customers. If it costs the author nothing to implement a viral marketing campaign that leads to a tenfold increase in the number of downloads (via file sharing networks such as bitTorrent), it’s reasonable to expect a corresponding growth in the number of readers who are willing to buy the actual book.

This approach actually yields additional benefits to the author who is willing to emulate the public broadcasting underwriting model. If the “free” (pirated?) downloads included the name of the underwriter (“this free e-book is brought to you by Ford”), the sponsorship method could generate substantial income to the author based on the number of downloads – which can be accurately tracked via the file-sharing sites. This is the great thing about the web, even the illegal file sharing sites have more precise metrics than Arbitron and Nielsen.

So if sales of Mr. Pogue’s book, “Windows Vista, the Missing Manual” track much higher than his other titles, he can probably attribute at least some of the incremental volume to its availability in a digital format, even if some copies are pirated. Of course, if sales are much lower than all his other books, that can only be due to poor customer acceptance of Windows Vista!

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