There is a very simple way the publishers of The President’s Keepers can stop the illegal download of the .pdf version: make the version legal. They should have done so from the start.
You don’t have to look far to get The President’s Keepers for free, and you don’t have to look much farther to find public opinion on the irony of illegally distributing a book that in itself is all about lawlessness. That dilemma could have been avoided all together had the publisher released an online version of the book under an appropriate Creative Commons licence, thus not only allowing but actually encouraging the book’s free, non commercial, distribution. It seems a bit disingenuous to publish an explosive book about how key members of our government are breaking the law, but not anticipate and prevent the inevitable irony of an outraged audience reading illegal versions of the book. With a legal online version, readers can be unrepentant for putting it in the hands of as many people as we are able, all threats of censure would be moot… and the money would flow anyway.
It was inevitable that illegal copies of the book would become available almost immediately on publication. For there to not have been such copies would be the equivalent of a bad opening weekend in a Hollywood movie: inevitable overall doom for the future success of the book. Good books get pirated. This is a fact of publishing, and different publishers have different ways of dealing with it (the most prevalent, to me, seems to be the strangely appropriate “head in the sand approach” approach).
The idea that piracy does not hurt sales is hardly novel. A European Commission study found that “illegal consumption of (games) leads to increased legal consumption”. Specifically, the study estimates that for every 100 illegally downloaded games, players legally obtain 24 more games than they would have if piracy did not exist. Books are probably not different. An analysis of data put out by O’Reilly publishers showed a net increase for sales for books that had been pirated.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that there is much precedent of authors and publishers releasing books both in printed and digital format for a price, while simultaneously making a free version of the book available to those who can’t pay for it or who choose to simply not pay for it. An obvious extended example of such a system is your local library, but there are many individual examples too.
Getting Real by Jason Fried is a great little business book that shows you how to stop talking and start doing. It is available for purchase for $20 but when it was released, a free online version was immediately made available on the author’s website. Nevertheless – or, therefore – it has gone on to sell over half a million copies. And that release model spurred the author to write many more books, all with similar publishing models and sales. You can read his free Rework online – or download the pdf.
What makes people buy books when a free version is available? Lots of things. Convenience. Preference of format. Willingness to support author. The inability to navigate free downloads (I’m looking at you, mom). Whatever the reason, we have current proof in the 25,000 sales of The President’s Keepers that free versions of good books do not – at the least – eradicate sales. And we also have proof that not making a free copy available at time of publication is hardly going to stop one from being shared anyway.
But the publishers shouldn’t have released a free version of the book just to spur on sales: there are at least three other good reasons to have done so. First, a free online version would spread even faster than the pirated one did, making any attempts to censure the book as futile as trying to remove pee from a swimming pool. Secondly, legitimate free versions encourage legitimate free translations. And last… because of course the book is indeed a “public good” that needs to be read by as many South Africans as possible. And many, many South Africans simply cannot afford a R200 book.
Jacques Pauw has done a great service to his country by writing the book. He did so at phenomenal risk to himself. He and his publishers should now release a free, online version of the book and allow us the readers to choose whether we support them financially or not. Unconventional? Only slightly. But I think they will have millions of reasons to be surprised by the end result. And I’m not just talking about money. DM
Despite receiving a knighthood from the Queen, Bill Gates cannot use the title "Sir" due to his being American.