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Three things that annoy and why I don’t worry about ebook piracy, either

There’s a scene in Lawrence of Arabia that I love. Peter O’Toole is out in the desert. He is Lawrence, alone and relying on his compass to see him across the arid expanse of beautiful desolation. Then, from out of the distance comes the mysterious figure of Omar Sharif, the most handsome stranger on a horse in these here hot parts, “The Anvil of the Sun.” Sharif draws his sword on the lone Englishman. He circles Peter O’Toole, half-amused, half-threatening. “Are you lost, Englishman?”

“No. I am never lost. I have my military compass.”

“And what if I took your compass, Englishman?” Sharif says, snagging the compass belt with the point of his sword. If he rides off with the compass, he will condemn Lawrence to a grisly death.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the movie, so I’m paraphrasing, but I remember this well. Lawrence replies with dignity:

“Then you would be a thief.”

Impressed, Sharif returns the compass.

Which, believe it or not, brings us to stealing ebooks.

Yesterday I posted a piece on why one author doesn’t worry about ebook piracy (I love aggregating and spreading the word using Scoopit!). If you read the piece, you’ll find the writer took kind of an odd angle on the subject. His idea was that piracy would make authors angry at the thievery and they’d be encouraged to write better books and raise prices. (I chose to share that post not because I agreed with everything the author wrote but because the comments on the article were interesting. Check Why I’m Not Worried by Ebook Piracy  if you missed it.)

The author of the post is welcome to his opinion. However, I confess I didn’t really follow his reasoning about pricing. I don’t believe cheap books tell the potential reader your book is crap. My books are cheap but they are not crap. I have a great novelette, The Dangerous Kind, that is my loss leader priced at a mere 99 cents. I’m experimenting with pricing, so three short stories are up at Smashwords for $1.99 and my two larger ebooks are only $2.99. I’m not saying the books are only worth that little.

I am saying, “Hey, look at me! You don’t know me, but for couch change, take a very tiny risk and look at my books! You might fall in love with them.”

Here’s the thing that’s going to annoy someone: Your book isn’t worth more money because it’s “literature,” though pricing isn’t quite arbitrary, either. Things are worth what people are willing to pay for them. I know a gentleman who owns a very nice dining room set that he says is “worth” $14,000. He’s worried that when he leaves his home, the estate auctioneer would sell it for, in his words, “next to nothing.” He’s confusing the price he paid for it many years ago with what it’s worth today to a stranger. Price does not equal worth. If there are no buyers at $14,000, the dining room set is not worth $14,000. At auction, it would sell for a few hundred dollars. A few hundred dollars is what it’s worth on the market because everybody loves a deal.

Here’s another thing that’s going to annoy somebody: Self-publishers should not compare their pricing structures with legacy publishers. Most legacy publishers got into ebooks very recently and many of them don’t know what they are doing or are working from a sense of entitlement. Trad publishers’ ebooks are more expensive because they are still working on a Middleman Pricing Model. They’ve got a lot of shipping bills to pay and lots of overhead and returns from bookstores to credit. They’re trying to ride the Dead Tree Train to the end of the line even though the engine’s running out of steam. Their pricing structure has less to do with ebook pricing and more to do with focusing their attention on books made of paper. They’re playing a different game than you and me in the thick of the e-reader revolution. While traditional publishers chase an old media model with old media trappings and pricing, Amazon sold a million Kindles each week of December .

Side point that makes me feel clever:

Amazon does not deliver your books to readers.

Your books deliver the need for Kindles in the hands of readers.

The medium is where the big money is.

Here’s the third thing that will piss off somebody: High ebook prices is one reason trad publishers’ ebooks are pirated. Pirating a book takes time, but not that much time. Anything published can be pirated. The more expensive the ebook, the more worthwhile it is to pirate. If someone pirates my books at $2.99, I’m not happy about it, but it’s more unlikely since you’d need to be a real douche with too much time on your hands to bother doing it. It’s just so much easier to go ahead and buy my books when they’re at such low prices. I’m not blaming the victim. I’m acknowledging the cost efficiencies that pirates work under.

Use all the Digital Rights Management (DRM) you want. Anti-piracy doesn’t work, unless your goal is to annoy potential customers who want to download your work to multiple devices. I’ve spoken with several trad publishers and authors who asserted they didn’t want to repeat the mistakes of the music industry. That’s where their analysis ended. After that, they talked about the supposed glories of DRM even though—did I mention this?—DRM DOES NOT WORK! The music industry has already explored the strategy of punishing customers and it worked out badly for them. Pirates are either power users who will buy your work if they dig it (as was true with audiophiles) or they’re people who would never buy your book in a million years anyway. It’s not a loss of revenue when the thieves aren’t part of your market. Some authors (and musicians) are just fine with piracy because they see it as (sort of) free publicity. Others hope to make today’s pirates tomorrow’s fans. Louis CK just sold hits stand up (with no middlemen to pay) for $5. Yes, someone still pirated it. Most people didn’t and the payoff to the comedian was huge. He’s probably not very focused on the sales he lost, but on the fortune he made. We may as well take that attitude, too because — I’m sure I mentioned this — DRM doesn’t work! Devise a new strategy today, some lepton will crack it this evening. Or worse, you’ll drive away customers.

Remember getting “verified” on Twitter?

It was such a pain in the ass, many of us sighed and said,

“Never mind! There are plenty of people to follow who don’t make me jump through hoops to be their Twitter friend.”

Several times, I’ve heard DRM proponents object: “You’re saying thieves should be excused and we should just give up on DRM! Horrors!” No, I’m not saying book piracy is a good thing (though I can see how it might be under certain circumstances.) I don’t buy pirated software, games, music or books. I’d worry about what malware I might pick up along the way if I did that. I’m not slutty about my buying habits. I’m loyal and I pay happily for indie books. I think the pricing on most ebooks is very fair. I simply don’t buy ebooks that are overpriced. There are far too many good ebooks available that are inexpensive, so why debase myself by becoming a thief? If an author I grow to love increases his or her price though, what I consider “overpriced” will change. Bigger price tags are for authors with bigger followings.

Most important: Piracy exists and I am powerless to stop it. I do not worry about things I cannot control. That kind of thinking manufactures stomach pains and sleepless nights. You don’t stop water with a sieve and there’s no point sticking with a losing strategy.

Concentrate on making something worth stealing. Go ahead and play with pricing to discover what price point moves the most books and is the most profitable. And keep in mind that the pricing that moves the most books might not make you the most money. See India Drummond’s excellent post from yesterday for more on strategizing about that.

When a pirate says, “What if I steal your ebook?”

Reply, “Then you would be a thief.”

And remember all the people who won’t steal from you.

~ Robert Chazz Chute is the author of six ebooks. Self-help for Stoners  is now available in paperback.  Please follow Chazz on Twitter @rchazzchute. He will release three novels in the coming year. Each week, Chazz broadcasts his comedy podcast, Self-help for Stoners, for free and often reads excerpts from his work. Download the podcast from the author website, iTunes or on Stitcher (and now if you use the PROMO CODE “SELFHELPSTONERS”, you could win a $100 cash card from Stitcher.) 

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