Some thoughts from a writer (and reader).

Earlier this month, I wrote a post that briefly touched upon my experience as an author finding my copyrighted books freely distributable on a pirate Web site. (Refer to “Copyright for Writers and Bloggers – Part I: Why Copyright is Important.”) The post generated some comments that made me think more about the electronic versions of my books that my publishers sell: eBooks.

About eBooks

An eBook is an electronic book. While some eBooks are published in electronic format only, others are published in print and then are followed up with eBook versions of the same book.

Sometimes both print and eBook versions of a book are put out by the same publisher. This is common with modern-day titles. But there are also a number of eBook publishers out there who take older titles that are still in copyright and make arrangements with the publisher or author to create and sell eBook versions. And, of course, anyone can take an out-of-copyright book, like the works of Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe — the list goes on and on — and publish them anyway they like: in print, electronically, or even tattooed on someone’s leg. Project Gutenberg came into existence by making out-of-copyright works available to the world and that’s what you’ll find among its thousands of titles.

eBooks are available in a wide variety of formats, from plain text to PDF to Windows Help Viewer format. They can include or exclude illustrations. They can contain hyperlinks to make it easy to move from one topic to another. They can be printable as a single document or by pages or sections.

My first involvement with eBooks was way back in the 1990s when I used a program called DocMaker on the Mac to create my monthly, freely distributable newsletter, Macintosh Tips & Tricks. I later moved to PDF format. 10 Quick Steps, one of my publishers, publishes all of its books as PDFs optimized for onscreen reading. I later published some of my own eBooks in the same format.

eBooks and Copyright

eBooks are usually sold with the same licensing used for software. One copy, one user. This is pretty basic stuff. Although I admit that I’ve never read an EULA for an eBook, I assume that if an buyer is finished with it and wants to give his/her only copy to someone else, he can. After all, that’s how books work. And, as someone who has legally transferred ownership of software by selling it (after removing the original from my computer), I’m pretty sure eBooks have a legal second hand market.

Unfortunately, due to their portable nature — pop them on a CD or compress them and send them in email or leave them on an FTP server for others to download — they are often the victim of piracy and copyright infringement. People put eBooks — whether they obtained them from legal means or not — on pirate Web sites, FTP servers, or other file sharing systems for free or paid download to anyone who wants them.

As this problem becomes more and more widespread, readers begin to think that there’s nothing wrong with downloading and sharing illegally distributed eBooks. They begin looking to illegal sources of eBooks rather than legal sources, hoping to save $10 or $15 or $20. They justify their participation in this illegal activity by saying that “knowledge should be free” or that the publisher makes enough money or that eBooks cost nothing to produce. And soon this affects the sale of both printed and electronically published books.

Who Suffers?

Are you an author concerned about illegal distribution of your eBooks? You may be interested in the new Authors Against Piracy group I’ve started to discuss the issue and share solutions. It’s a private group, so you’ll need an invitation to join. Contact me to introduce yourself. Be sure to identify your most recent published work; the group is open to published authors only.

The real victim of this is the author, who often makes less than a dollar for every book sold.

Most authors these days can’t afford to just write for a living. Some of them have regular day jobs. Others are consultants or speakers or programmers or some combination of those things.

About 95% of my net income comes from writing books and articles. My helicopter charter business, which is still in its infancy, eats up all the cash it brings in. (Helicopters are extremely costly to own and operate.) And between writing and flying, I simply don’t have time to do anything else to earn money.

So when I find my books being illegally distributed on pirate Web sites, I get angry. Can you blame me?

Is It Worth It?

In the comments for my “Copyright is Important” post, reader Nathanael Holt asked this question: “Do your digital sales warrant the increased risk posed by piracy?”

This is a really good question — one I had to go to my royalty statements to answer. And, after a quick glance at that most recent 60-page document, I’d have to say no.

For example, one of my recent titles sold more than 2,600 printed copies in the quarter ending March 31, 2007. That same title sold only 2 electronic “subscriptions.” Another title, which is older and which I have found online on pirate sites, had 9 copies of the PDF sold during the same quarter, earning me less than $15.

My conclusion from this: eBook versions of my books aren’t selling very well. And apparently the ones that get out there are going to pirate Web sites.

I’ve e-mailed my publisher’s royalty department to get lifetime figures for all of my in-print titles. I’m hoping the numbers they deliver will paint a more rosy picture. But I doubt it.

I’m an eBook Reader, Too

This is disappointing for me. You see, I’m an eBook reader.

A while back, I was looking for a book about .htaccess. That’s a normally invisible configuration file found on servers. I wanted to modify the .htaccess file for my Web site so it would do certain things for me.

This is an extremely technical topic and one I didn’t expect to find a book about. But I did: The Definitive Guide to Apache mod_rewrite by Rich Bowen. And after a bit of research, I learned that I could either buy the book from Amazon.com for $40 and wait a week to get it or buy it as an eBook in PDF format from the publisher’s Web site for $20 and download it immediately. I admit that the deciding factor was the length of the book: 160 pages. Since I like to be able to look at a computer-related book (rather than switch back and forth between a book and an application onscreen), I could print it for reference.

And that’s what I did: I downloaded the book as a DRM-protected PDF and sent it to my printer. Within an hour, I had the whole thing in a binder and was editing my .htaccess file to my heart’s content, with all kinds of notes jotted in the margins of my new reference book. (That’s another thing: I’m far more likely to mark up a printed eBook than a printed and bound traditionally-published book.)

I also read eBooks on my Treo (when I’m trapped somewhere with nothing to do).

The only reason I don’t buy and read more eBooks to read onscreen is because I think I spend enough time in front of a computer without using one to read, too.

What Does All this Mean?

Well, first I need some solid information from my publisher regarding lifetime eBook sales. Then I need to sit down with my editor (figuratively, of course — we never see each other in person) and decide whether eBook editions of my work are something we want to continue to publish. If we decide to go forward, we need to come up with a solution that will protect eBooks from piracy.

What Do You Think?

Have you ever bought an eBook? Why did you buy that version instead of a traditional print version? Did you like it? What do you think about eBooks in general: pricing, formats, licensing, etc?

Don’t keep it all to yourself! Use the Comments link or form to share your thoughts with me and other readers.

4 thoughts on “eBooks

  1. Hi every one I like to earn a steady, monthly income by creating and selling my own EBook or other people’s EBooks for a substantial profit? Even without my own website? Would I like to create a new, independent future for myself by starting my own website?

  2. Dear Maria,

    I like physical books. Mostly, I like them because my brain is hard-wired to read print on paper. I can remember where I read text in a book — which side, where on the page, which portion of the book — and I can also retain it in my memory. When I read on screen, I cannot do these things. Even tracking back to find where I read an article is difficult after I’ve been browsing around and closed tabs. (I use Firefox, if I used Opera I could use the function that allows a closed tab to be reopened but Opera doesn’t display Amazon book condition descriptions so I switched back to Firefox.)

    There are particular reasons I would want to use an electronic book but I would almost always want the printed version in front of me at the same time. The most obvious is the ability to search electronic text, during those times when my memory for the printed words is not good enough. (Perhaps it’s the ability to use a search facility that weakens my memory for print on paper.)

    I think bound books, with sewn pages rather than glued ones, will soon become luxury items. The print quality of new books is also not as good as it was once. E.g. The text of Joyce’s Ulysses (the 1922 text) which is very cheap at £8.99 is horrible to read. But I have no option if I want that text and to read print on paper.

    What I would prefer is a publishing model whereby books were published as print on paper and in addition in electronic form with the purchaser being offered only the option to buy both. In the printed book would be a code to access the electronic book. This is a model used by some high priced legal texts. The problem is it would probably be prohibitively expensive for mass produced books and people would perceive it as a rip off in them being forced to buy the same thing twice. In effect, what I want is for the e-version to be an add on rather than a stand alone product. I know this is not going to happen and it would not entirely get rid of the problem of illegally downloaded e-versions.

    Another suggestion is a sort of watermark. On your blog you link to John Gruber’s report of Carrier IQ’s ‘Media Alert’, http://daringfireball.net/2011/12/translation_carrier_iq. On his blog he carries a link to the Reuter’s article http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/12/05/us-apple-samsung-ruling-idUSTRE7B425D20111205 on Apple v Samsung which includes a comment on the ‘formatting characteristic’ of an electronic document that allowed redacted material to be viewable when copied and pasted into another document. What is this ‘formatting characteristic’ and could it be usefully used to include a warning visible to viewers of illegally downloaded files? I have no technical knowledge in this area but I am thinking of something along the same lines used by the music industry to protect their material.

    Last thing, I like your blog, so thank you for writing it.

    Best wishes.

    • A few publishers do include a free ebook with the purchased paper book. O’Reilly is one of them. I’ve gotten to the point where I prefer ebooks — except in the instance of a book that relies heavily on page layout to communicate.

      As for ebook piracy, one of my publishers says stopping pirates is like playing Whack-A-Mole. Sadly, I have to agree.

What do you think?