On the Rising scourge of textbook pirates
There’s an article today The Chronicles on Higher Education about a new pirate textbook site.
Textbook pirates have struck again. Nearly three years after publishers shut down a large Web site devoted to illegally trading e-textbooks, a copycat site has sprung up—with its leaders arguing that it is operating overseas in a way that will be more difficult to stop.
"Sprung up"? That site has been around for months. What’s more, it’s just one of a bunchaton of pirate sites that I’ve uncovered over the years. (I could almost joke that I encounter new pirate sites only on days ending in "y".) This is really a non-story. Piracy has been around for decades, and even textbook piracy has been around for years.
But the story that no one has told you yet is that textbook piracy is going to get worse; it still hasn’t had a Napster moment.
This post was inspired by a chat I had a few weeks back with an industry insider. We talked about digital textbooks. I was confused by Inkling getting another $17 million in capital when they haven’t produced any significant number of textbooks. Here’s what he told me.
Publishers are pushing hard to get into digital textbooks not because they save students money or are a better product but because they cannot be resold. This would cut out the used textbook market, and that’s what has the publishers running scared. I’m told that rental and used textbooks will make up nearly half the market this coming school year. And that’s up from last year, too, when used were only about 35% of the market.
One prediction he made, and it’s one I agree with, is that some textbook publishers will release the next edition of select titles as digital only with the only paper copies sold published as POD. This would completely cut out the used and (paper) rental markets, which I’m sure the publishers would like to do. I don’t have any real proof to support this idea, but it makes a lot of sense.
If publishers do follow through on this plan, the inevitable result will be piracy.
The most serious problem with the current textbook market isn’t piracy; it’s that textbooks cost too much. I very rarely bought textbooks at the retail price because I simply didn’t have the money. Furthermore, 2 of my undergraduate years were spent at a community college, and I can probably say that most the other students at NVCC went there because they didn’t have much money either.
If publishers try to keep textbook prices up near current retail then all they will accomplish is to inspire students to crack the DRM on the textbooks. Publishers will solve the "problem" of the used textbook market by replacing it with a pirate market.
They’ll take people who were paying for content and turn them into people who can’t afford to pay for content.
Do you know one of the common arguments against piracy "if you can’t afford it don’t buy it"? Students won’t have a choice. Actually, they will have a choice; pirate the textbook or drop the class. But that kind of choice isn’t a choice at all.
Just for fun, let me make the situation even worse. Let’s look another 4 or 5 years down the road. These students, who are now in the habit of pirating textbooks, will leave school and need to buy (for various reasons) more books. They won’t look for a retail site; they’ll look for ebooks where they are used to finding them – on pirate sites.
And now everyone has a problem.