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The E-book Pirate Ship Sets Sail

It's now possible to download e-books for free from piracy Web sites. How will the already downtrodden publishing industry fight back?

Last week, Randall Stross wrote an article in the New York Times called "Will Books Be Napsterized?". Stross reports as more readers opt for e-books over print or audio versions, the usual slew of piracy web sites that traffics in free music downloads is making it possible to download e-books for free. In other words: more grim news for the already beaten-down publishing industry. Book sales have been plummeting for the past two years anyway; the article reports a 13% decrease in 2008 and a 15.5% decrease in July 2009. Of course sales were down in every industry in 2009, but everyone knows that the book industry has troubles of its own.

The business model has never been particularly cost effective, with publishers footing the bill for printing, shipping copies off to booksellers and hoping for the best. E-books are certainly a more viable model in terms of overhead costs, but if the piracy of e-books takes off, the publishing industry is in big trouble. And of course, that's not really an "if". The piracy of e-books will take off, and it's inevitable that books are headed down the path of CDS: towards the graveyard.

I say that despite being a person who sneers whenever I see a Kindle, vowing that I will never read a book online. I just received two books for review that are beautiful examples of books that need to be in book form, The City Out My Window: 63 Views on New York and 44 Days: Iran and the Remaking of The World. The first is a sketchbook of views from New York City windows, done by Matteo Pericoli. The cover of the book actually looks like a window. The entire book feels like an architect’s sketchpad. The second is David Burnet's photo journal of the revolution in Iran. I left both books proudly in the common area of our apartment, so my roommates could admire them as well. But the books have something very essential in common: They are, for the most part, art books. The writing in them plays a secondary role.

Along that vein, while there are some books that require binding more than others, the idea that somebody's first novel needs to be published with a book jacket seems ludicrous at this point. There are people who would prefer to carry a book with them, but the ability of that handful of people to sustain an industry is unlikely. And it's going to be the new authors, the literary fiction writers and the memoirists who need to find other methods of distribution. After all, when you compare a publisher’s arbitrary decision to print someone's first novel with the release of the low-budget movie Paranormal Activity, which was only produced because online users demanded it, the differences are glaring. But is it possible to imagine a world in which readers get to commission books?

As it turns out, we don't actually have to imagine it at all. All we have to do in bring to mind a few well-known authors like Charles Dickens, Louisa May Alcott, and Leo Tolstoy. (To name a few.) All of them wrote books that were published in installments, geared to leave readers on cliffhangers, and sometimes written with the readers' preferences in mind. Jo, the heroine of Little Women, seems on track to marry her best friend Laurie, because that's what readers wanted, but doesn't marry him because Alcott didn't want to give in to readers' demands then ultimately marries someone else, because readers were horrified by the idea of a spinster. If you think about it, the books of the past, which were published on a chapter by chapter basis, were a lot more like blogs than the epic novels we see them as today.

Maybe the solution for publishers is to take another look at this model. Publishing by chapter would provide an opportunity to keep distribution costs low. Furthermore, it would be incumbent on authors to engage readers. If nobody signs up for the next chapter of your book, it’s too bad. And I can certainly think of a few instances when stopping an author in his tracks would have saved a lot of wasted paper.

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