Life after being Tormented by Torrenting

How can you sustain a publishing business when what you sell is pirated somewhere else on torrenting sites offering your stuff for free – music, films, books that would ordinarily cost on legit sites.  A publisher wrote to me recently:

How do we sustain our business when everything we used to sell is now free somewhere? It may only be a small part of the audience -NOW- but I suspect we DO have to rethink the way we present to the world and we need to come up with some way of actually charging for SOMETHING to keep a business running!

So it’s got to be something different and for that we all need to reinvent ourselves, however, reinventing a whole business is another quite daunting task that I need another coffee to contemplate!!

I’ve chatted to all sorts of people about torrenting and have learned lots. I am gathering intelligence. But I don’t feel very enthused about publishing any new books now. So I need to find a new way of getting the info out there and staying afloat.

The phrase ‘head in hands’ was mentioned as daily new pirated copies of the book emerged – this is no small issue for publishing companies who are getting their heads round new technologies, new media and different sales streams, only to find that no sooner is their offering available than it’s provided somewhere for free.  Where is the new business model?

UPDATE: the publisher of the above quote has now started a new blog publishing under a secret identity.  Worth checking out along with the Glossary.

An article I would recommend: Embracing Piracy: How to make money from online content, even after it gets loose on third-party websites.

For every article, we typically find 20 copies around the Web, some full and some partial

It has been suggested that creators of online content need to use the wide distribution of pirated content, instead of trying to stop the piracy. Some companies are making it easier to use third-party content with permission, others are working on technologies that can find content wherever it ends up, and sometimes serve ads along with it.

One company mentioned is Attributor, a company that specializes in identifying text and video that appears online (also available for bloggers). After breaking content into small chunks, Attributor creates digital fingerprints for each chunk, crawls the Web and searches for matches for those fingerprints, notifying the owner of the results. The clever bit is how to make money from it.

Content creators are already changing their attitudes toward the piracy they discover.… two years ago, most of Attributor’s customers used the technology to serve takedown notices. Today, most are using it to gather statistics on where their content is appearing.

Attributor is addressing the problem in two ways. First, the company is working with online ad networks to share revenue with the owner of any content that appears on an ad-supported site. Attributor is also testing code that attaches ads to articles, no matter where the article appears. A site can grab an article with permission, as long as the code that handles the ads is in place.

The business of giving stuff away for free – open access

Some publishers are experimenting with the open access model (you can’t make something free illegally if it’s already freely available) – in this case the business models are author pays for the publication process (which can come from the research grant if there is one)

The traditional business model for scientific publishers relies on restricting access to published research in order to recoup the costs of the publication process, this restriction of access to published research prevents full use being made of digital technologies, and is contrary to the interests of authors, funders and the scientific community as a whole.

The Public Library of Science (PLoS) is a non-profit organization of scientists committed to making the world’s scientific and medical literature freely accessible as a public resource. This from thejournal editor at PLOS who has just left to take up a new position in academia:

My move to academia has made me even more aware of how important the open access movement really is.  Now that I am at UCSF, I have access to a vast array of full text journals, all at the click of a mouse.  In fact, I simply log in to my account and go to a website called ‘PubMed@UCSF.’  From here, any PubMed search takes me to the full text version of any article.  I’ve never had this kind of access before, and it has changed my life.  At PLoS, our access to journals was restricted (we could not afford to pay the usual $30 fee to just read one research paper).  So I’m experiencing a flood of full text access after a drought. Everyone on the planet should surely be given the same opportunity that I now have

As a new business model, this is still in development but gaining much ground.

Why is there a move for easy access to content

Sometimes torrenting does serve a use in finding obscure or no longer available material – a recent MindHacks blog when writing about an archive interview by ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind from 1978 with psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (a pioneer of treatment for patients who were terminally ill) says

….The 2002 documentary film Facing Death: Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (a pain to get hold of but available on some torrent servers) captures her when she herself was slowly dying….

Or, you can take another route – and pirate your own book: ‘My publisher will disown me after I pirate my book on TechCrunch

“So that’s your advice is it? As my agent? On the week my book comes out in paperback, I should produce my own pirated version and give it away free? Why don’t I just punch my publisher in the face? That would be less work. My agent rocked back in his chair (a chair bought with 15% of my earnings) and laughed. “I didn’t say it was my advice, I just said there’s nothing they can do to stop you.”

Or as the New York Times says – with e-readers comes wider piracy of books. Why? Because while Publishing companies are bickering about Digital Rights Management, Copyright, price of ebooks and the general ‘It’s not Fair’ principle, people are going out and sourcing their own material because they want content to be found and accessible. As one author wrote in the NY:

I really feel like my problem isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity


The benefits piracy and torrenting?  It’s making us adapt and change our business models. One solution for small publishing companies especially, is to look at these piracy sites as free advertising, and also to pull people back to your site by offer something in addition – something that is free or of excellent value, with a social element enabling people to interact and while they are there they may (or may not) chose to buy your product.  That is why engaging in social media becomes important.

Here’s an outrageous idea (my previous publisher didn’t buy it)…. the second hand book market for students is something Publishers wished didn’t happen (it means they lose a significant chunck of sales of new books). Why not enable it to happen more easily?

Why not enable students to sell their second hand books and notes on your site – like an ebay for students, and you don’t take a penny from any sales. Word gets around because it’s a place students can make money and you end up with many student visitors to your site. While they are there they will also look at other new books, notes, study aides.  My prediction?  Sales would go up and these would be direct sales not via a third party.

Small publishing companies need to offer value adds that can’t be downloaded via torrents, or even if they can, it’s just not as convenient.  Make your content available, and make yourself accessible to your customers. Add, listen, engage and be inventive.

As to the option of trying to shut down these sites? @neerav suggested that would be about as useful as King Canute trying to stop the tide coming in. I agree.