Home Will E-Book Prices & Restrictions Lead to E-Book Piracy?

Will E-Book Prices & Restrictions Lead to E-Book Piracy?

Last week, Random House agreed to the agency price model, the last of the top six publishing companies in the world to do so. The move allowed the publisher’s books entry into Apple’s iBookstore, something that Steve Jobs touted on stage during the iPad 2 announcement as giving customers a better, more complete e-book catalog from which to shop.

But as many customers have noticed, that more complete e-book catalog doesn’t contain a lot of price variation. Indeed, the agency price model lets the publishers set the pricing for their books (rather than allowing retailers to determine the price) and, according to a story in The Guardian, investigations are underway in Europe to determine if the agency model and its highly uniform pricing structure may actually constitute price-fixing and the work of an illegal cartel.

The Uniformly High Price of E-Books

It isn’t simply the lack of differentiation between publishers that has some consumers frustrated. It’s that that price for e-books – typically around $9.99 – is often a lot higher than other book formats. A thread on Reddit, now boasting almost 300 comments, makes the case:

The Book Thief

Kindle $9.99

Paperback $7.79

A Thousand Splendid Suns

Kindle $12.99

Paperback $9.40

The Kite Runner

Kindle $12.99

Paperback $7.81

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest

Kindle $11.99


There’s no paper, no binding, no shipping, no storage necessary for an e-book. So why the higher price?

A Question of Ethics

As Reddit threads are wont to do, the discussion of spendy e-books quickly changes direction as the first commenter asks, “Is it morally wrong to purchase a paper copy of the book and torrent the ebook?”

That’s a good question, I think, and one debated not just by a bevvy of Reddit users in the thread, but answered by the ethicist Randy Cohen in The New York Times last year, who (in case you were wondering) said that pirating a copy of an e-book, one that you already own in print format – was not unethical.

Illegal, yes. Unethical, no.

Before the lawyers unleash the hounds, here’s Cohen’s justification for his statement: “Author and publisher are entitled to be paid for their work, and by purchasing the hardcover, you did so. Your subsequent downloading is akin to buying a CD, then copying it to your iPod. Buying a book or a piece of music should be regarded as a license to enjoy it on any platform. Sadly, the anachronistic conventions of bookselling and copyright law lag the technology. Thus you’ve violated the publishing company’s legal right to control the distribution of its intellectual property, but you’ve done no harm or so little as to meet my threshold of acceptability.”

Cohen was roundly taken to task for his response. But his sentiments seem to be echoed by many consumers who are beginning to feel as though that $9.99 price-tag for e-books may be set too high.

A Question of (Digital) History

Randy Cohen’s comparison of e-books to MP3s is an interesting one as publishing companies are no doubt loathe to tread what seems to be generally accepted as the historical path that the record industry traversed, in which the move to digitized content meant a downward spiral of profitability (whether that was the result of piracy, as they’d like to have us believe, or of lousy artists signed to recording contracts or of some other factors altogether).

But as someone who owned certain records on LP, then in some cases paid for these same albums again on cassette so I could play them in my car, I admit, I do remember balking when I was expected to purchase the same music a third time around, just to have it on CD, just so I could easily convert it to MP3 or put it on my iPod. Adding to my displeasure, this new medium – the CD – was almost twice the price as the cassettes and records. That, not my wanton desire to destroy the members of Metallica’s ability to earn a decent living, was what made piracy appealing.

I have to wonder if we are we headed down this same course with digital books. It isn’t as though most book lovers want to deprive authors from earning their keep. “I buy the real book” say many Reddit commenters on the aforementioned thread, “but then I pirate the e-book.”

But when we find ourselves, yet again, paying more for a digital copy – one that has none of the materiality of a paperback or hardback, one that has none of the benefits of being able to share this work of art freely with our friends and family – it may be no surprise that we look for other ways to read or watch or listen. When we already own a copy of a beloved book and want a digital copy to tote about on our iPads, the demand for another $9.99 seems all the more ridiculous.

Are We Buying the Content? Or the Content Delivery Mechanism?

Many of the participants in the Reddit thread on e-book pricing question whether, when we buy something, we’re buying the content – the novel or the album, for example – or whether we’re buying access to a sanctioned content delivery mechanism – a DRM version of that book or record. The publishing and record industry may want to keep those intertwined, but I’m not sure consumers see content the same way.

Artists and publishers are no doubt looking for new business models as we move to digital books and music. The question remains whether or not these models will meet everyone’s needs – artists’, publishers’, consumers’. But it seems just as significant to watch whether or not these new business models work with consumers’ ethical codes of conduct, for art, literature, music they feel they should be able to get for free or for cheap or that they already actually own.

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