Monday, February 01, 2010

Beyond the Book: Does Piracy Improve Book Sales?

At the Digital Book World conference last week, founder and principal of Magellan Media Brian O’Leary discussed research his firm has conducted that shows that eBook sales are boosted by pirated copies of eBooks. Brian discussed these findings with Chris Kenneally, host of Copyright Clearance Center’s Beyond the Book (

Brian explains that the publishing industry has always given away content in order to sell content by citing examples like book readings, signings, etc. For more details, you can see the transcript of the interview here:


Marion Gropen said...

I suspect that this is true for fiction, especially in a series. I'm less convinced that it's true for ALL books.

I'm also unconvinced that it will be true when ebooks are the dominant format. And we all know that this will happen sooner or later, probably much later.

Of course, we can hope that by giving away some copies, and selling others, we can preserve the cachet of the galley as an insider's perq and not devalue the ebook for the future.

In any discussion of this issue, it's also important to acknowledge that no one but the rights-holder should be able to control whether free copies are issued, when and how many.

It is not and should never be seen as, a justification for the pirates.

sadder and wiser in the UK said...

First let me commend all readers to Marion’s excellent comments. To those I would like to add the following critiques, based on Mark Twain’s ‘There are three kinds of lie: lies, damned lies - and statistics’.

The basis of Brian’s extrapolations are on such a narrow base that they seem designed to cause argument rather than further debate. And Chris doesn’t help serious discussion.

‘Chris:...Free sounds inviting and maybe promising, but piracy gets people’s back up ...’

They are quite different things! Talk about muddying the water.

Then Brian suggests piracy is common, and still maintains that it is possible to find enough data of books that are not pirated to make a comparison; the idea that it is possible to distinguish the effects of different parts of any promotion mix belies the experience of most publishing before the digital and the net, let alone with so many new net routes.

And is Brian seriously then basing conclusions on a limited number of O’Reilly books?

‘Brian: ‘...the history of the book business is built around giving away free content to promote paid conten ...’

My jaw drops. There has been some aggressive promotion through last century. But I defy Brian to defend this statement. You might as easily say the newspaper free insurance promotions during the depression are evidence that insurance ‘ built insurance...’.

‘Brian: ‘...I don’t worry about piracy that helps sell more books and I just don’t know the difference between the piracy that hurts and the piracy that helps..’

And isn’t this an irrelevance? The question is whether piracy grows and eventually swallows the whole industry. All kinds of piracy seem to have just such a cycle, which is why, when the danger is realised, piracy is fought against.

The ‘Moral’ argument, which was the original question in the interview, is not about ‘goody-goodies’ defending the last bastion of conservatism. Morals are actually distillations of wisdom about maintaining a society. They need, and should have, re-interpretation in every age.

Well, at least I can conclude by agreeing with Brian on this: ‘...and I think that the answer is it’s a very bright future for publishing and the question of how bright it is for individual publishers depends upon their willingness to accept, embrace, and adapt to the new business models

and I think that the answer is it’s a very bright future for publishing and the question of how bright it is for individual publishers depends upon their willingness to accept, embrace, and adapt to the new business models...’

Joseph Harris in the UK

Brian said...

To both commenters, I'm not convinced that piracy helps promote the sales of all books today, and I'm not convinced that whatever is true today would persist in the future.

The piracy research, which is available as a paid report from O'reilly, a presentation ( and is also summarized in a post on my blog (, clearly acknowledges the limits of the sample set and the difference between correlation and causality.

I would like the sample set to be wider, but I am working with the sales of publishers willing to participate.

The research is trying to determine the extent to which pirated content affect sales, negatively or positively. If the argument is a moral one, then no statistics will really help shape a debate.

To Joseph Harris's point about the use of free content to promote paid sales, I was referring to a practice, common in the U.S., of producing galleys, ARCs and partial content like blads to promote channel acceptance, purchase and recommendation. While publishers are comfortable that these samples are "controlled", all you need do is ride the subway in New York to see how quickly they are resold.

In the interview, "free" and "pirated" content were mixed together. Chris Kenneally is someone I've known for a while, we worked without a script and I tried to be responsive to his questions. I was about to moderate a panel on the timing of e-book release, and Chris added other questions.

If you're interested in the research, please do look at the presentation and the post. If you feel that no research will change your mind, I understand, but we're probably not going to find common ground no matter the sample set.