Why Even the Most Pirated E-Books of 2010 Won't Bring Down Publishing

Last Updated Jan 12, 2010 6:33 PM EST

It's not scientific, but e-book sales could be the next barometer to measure the strength -- or weakness -- of publishing.

Why? Because e-book sales accounted for $46.5 million at the end of Q3 last year, according to the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF), which noted that retail sales could be double that figure due to industry wholesale discounts.

It's a small but growing number that has publishers worried about the future of the industry, for two reasons: E-books are cheap, and they're easy to rip off and distribute (illegally) for free.

As for encryption, we saw how well that protected movies and music.

Still, publishers shouldn't worry. Bestsellers weren't the most pirated e-books of 2009 (geek tech manuals, the Kama Sutra, and Harry Potter were). To fight back, some publishers are delaying release of potential bestsellers and others are simply refusing to create digital editions. The NYT's David Pogue argues that this is an exercise in silliness and notes after conducting an experiment with his own Windows book, that while it was "pirated to the skies" sales actually rose.

Brian O'Leary, founder of Magellan Media, a consulting and research firm, agrees:

We have also found instances in which piracy is correlated with an increase in paid sales. In these cases, availability of pirated content may be in effect promoting awareness and sampling ahead of paid purchase.
O'Leary's conversations with execs at digital rights firms suggest that content with smaller markets (selling fewer than 12,000 to 15,000 total units) priced at $100+ are most likely to feel the economic impact of piracy. He adds, "Books that have much wider audiences or that sell for much lower prices may be pirated more often, but the overall impact of piracy (revenue lost as a share of total sales) is not as great for these books."

With that in mind, I've taken a (decidedly non-scientific) stab at predicting which will be the most pirated e-books of this year that won't have too much of an impact on traditional sales.

  • War by Sebastian Junger -- Hachette will likely delay the release of the electronic version of this first-hand account of a single platoon's 15-month tour of duty in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley.
  • Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America by Peter Biskind -- the book that claims Beatty slept with 12,775 women (!!) is sure to, er, arouse interest among the aforementioned sexy pirates while the e-book is delayed from Simon & Schuster.
  • Steig Larsen's Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is the final book in the Dragon Tattoo trilogy. Knopf is postponing the e-book but the popularity of the deceased author's work and the anticipation for the last installment is sure to send rabid fans scouring the Web for whatever they can get for free.
  • College Texts (any or all) -- Why buy the Principals of Microeconomics if you could get it for free? College student + beer + pizza = you do the math.
  • J.K. Rowling's books -- I'd wager they'll be perennially pirated-- until the author lifts her ban on allowing legal electronic versions.