Some Pirateâ€™s Dilemma cover concepts designed by Ji Lee. I really liked the idea of ripping off the covers of successful business books (such as the Freakonomics, The Tipping Point and The Long Tail rip offs pictured) But book stores told us it would create myriad logistical headaches, so we went with the yellow jacket instead, which was no bad thing.
â€œWhat will you do when someone pirates your book?â€
I get asked this question more than any other when Iâ€™m talking to people about The Pirateâ€™s Dilemma. Itâ€™s a good question â€“ Iâ€™m in the business of selling intellectual property, piracy is something I should be concerned about. On the other hand, itâ€™s also a silly question. I say this for two reasons.
Firstly, I think this misses the point of what The Pirateâ€™s Dilemma is all about (which is fair enough, because not many people have read it yet â€“ but itâ€™s out in 12 days, save those xmas book tokens!). The subtext of this question is the assumption that I argue that all piracy is good, and anyone should be able to pirate anything at anytime, so why should my book be any different? Live by the sword, die by the sword right? But this isnâ€™t the argument I make at all. Yes, pirates can create new markets, signal trends and develop innovative ways to reach new audiences. But the real point of The Pirateâ€™s Dilemma is that piracy is a double-edged sword.
Piracy is often bad, and we should fight pirates when they are not adding any kind of value to society. But if society gets behind pirates, because somehow they are adding value to the way we do things, like creating a new more equitable way for artists to distribute music (Hi, Internet!), or creating a simultaneous-release model in the movie industry (Hi, my local Chinese take-out place! Hello again, Internet) then the only real choice is to compete with pirates, not fight. If there is demand for this new way to do things, and it really is adding value to society, it will happen despite what the law does or doesnâ€™t say. In these cases we should elect to legitimize and legalize the innovation instead of criminalizing it.
The second reason itâ€™s a silly question has more to do with the history of piracy in the book industry. One of the most worrying things about it in the West is there really isnâ€™t very much piracy happening, which should indeed be worrying to publishers because the greater threat, as Tim â€˜O Reilly so eloquently put it, is obscurity. Maybe this is because the cost of making a hard pirate copy of a book yourself is higher than buying a bound edition, the cost of printer ink being what it is, and people still prefer hard copies (I expect this will change as better screen densities and things like the Kindle take off).
There isnâ€™t much piracy in the book industry, but authors who do give their works away for free seem to benefit from doing so. One of the worldâ€™s most successful marketing and business authors, Seth Godin, did a Radiohead with his incredible book Unleashing the Idea Virus way before the phrase â€œdid a Radioheadâ€ meant anything to anyone. Science Fiction writer and Boing Boing co-editor Cory Doctorow gives all his books away for free. â€œI’ve been giving away my books ever since my first novel came outâ€ he wrote in Forbes last year, â€œand boy has it ever made me a bunch of money.â€
Books spread ideas and sell authors, but authors donâ€™t just make money from selling books. In fact a lot of, if not most, non-fiction authors make more money selling ideas than they do from selling books. Like the music business, the real money is in the live industry â€“ speaking, consulting and so forth. If people pirate my book, Iâ€™m sure my publishers wonâ€™t be too happy, but it could very well help sell physical books. It would almost certainly create more â€œliveâ€ opportunities for me.
This isnâ€™t the case for all authors â€“ I do worry piracy could damage the world of fiction where there are less obvious revenue streams for authors, although if there is one thing pirates are good at, itâ€™s eking out less than obvious revenue streams. But in my case the answer to this question is straightforward:
Iâ€™m not going to do anything.
I donâ€™t see pirate copies of my book as a problem. My publishers might, and they will do as they see fit, please donâ€™t take this as an invitation to pirate my book, because it isnâ€™t. But while there isnâ€™t any evidence that this would be bad, and some that suggests this might be good, I just canâ€™t see the point in trying to stop it. I assume it will happen at some point because of the subject of the book. That being the case, Iâ€™ll be more worried if it isnâ€™t pirated, because Iâ€™m competing with 120,000 other books that will be released in 2008. Obscurity is by far the greatest threat here.