Napster for books?

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Aug. 8 2003 12:42 PM

Steal This Book

The latest Harry Potter was digitally pirated. What's next?

Last week, an e-mail with the subject line "Free Stuff" appeared in my inbox. But this e-mail didn't contain a virus or an invitation to enlarge my penis. It was a large file purporting to be the new cookbook from Jamie Oliver, who achieved international celebrity as "the Naked Chef," with several best sellers and a popular cooking series on the Food Network. Complete with well-designed pages and color photos, this digital "book" quickly whipped its way around the world, even after Oliver's British publisher declared it a hoax. These were genuine Oliver recipes, but the book was cobbled together from his previously published cookbooks.

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Scam or not, the speed with which the Naked Chef streaked across the Internet suggests that a new, disquieting era for the publishing world may be in sight. In an age when manuscripts circulate in digital form and scanners can swiftly convert hard copy into e-mail-able material, books are clearly vulnerable to piracy. Right now, devastated by file-sharing and bootlegging, the record industry is desperately trying to shut the barn door long after the horse has bolted. Hollywood, too, has been spooked by hackers uploading movies to the Internet. Can the publishing business afford to make the same mistakes?

Bibliophiles find absurd the idea that people will ever abandon the sensuous pleasures of reading—the smell of the paper, the heft of the book—for dematerialized text on a screen. But record collectors said the exact same thing about the compact disc, complaining about the sterile perfection of digital sound and the disappearance of lavish album sleeves. Since then, a new generation has emerged that is totally comfortable with the idea of music as disembodied, digitally encoded information. Instead of records, the new fetish objects are the sleekly futuristic-looking MP3 players and iPods, which are prized more for their portability, ease of use, and ability to amass vast quantities of sound files than for the actual music coming out of them.

Still, most publishers are skeptical that readers will trade paper for pixel, pointing to the relative failure of the eBook as proof that people don't enjoy viewing text on a screen. (There are plenty of other reasons eBooks haven't caught on, though: The technology isn't yet up to snuff, and the lack of a uniform format for eBook players severely limits which eBooks you can access.) But if a book you were dying to read—let's say the new Jonathan Franzen novel—just popped up in your e-mail box, would you delete it? And if you already have it, or know you can get it for nothing, would you really trudge to Barnes & Noble and pay the full hardback price? Be honest: not always. This is what has left record stores like Tower looking like the Marie Celeste.

What steps are publishers taking to prevent piracy? Surprisingly, the answer is: very few. "If it's really important, I hide the manuscript under my desk," laughed an editor at a major house. Security measures are only used with heavily embargoed books, when advance copies are limited to an extremely select few reviewers and in-house personnel. EBook publishers had hoped to protect content from bootlegging with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a controversial statute prohibiting the development of technologies that interfere with copyrighted material, but a lawsuit last year suggests these legal issues are still up in the air. Despite the risks of piracy, some mainstream and university press publishers are embracing the idea of digitizing back lists as a step toward creating a system where college students pay for downloaded texts, rather than just photocopy them. Of course, it was computer-savvy college kids who pioneered the whole peer-to-peer MP3-sharing free-for-all.

Now, academic texts aren't likely to fuel a roaring black market trade. And it's hard to imagine anyone going out of their way to pirate collections of literary short fiction or novels (bar the occasional cult figure like Thomas Pynchon or Neil Gaiman). But many categories clearly are vulnerable to piracy, such as self-help, travel guides, cookbooks, technical and reference books—all of which are designed to be used piecemeal rather than read all the way through. Digital versions of these books might actually make for easier use—you can efficiently search for a citation or pasta recipe.

And surely any timely or hotly anticipated book—political memoirs, blockbuster sequels, salacious tell-alls—is highly susceptible to future bootlegging; in the last few months alone, we've seen a sharp increase in publishers embargoing books, hoping to keep contents from seeping out in advance. Just imagine the wildfire Web circulation that would ensue if something like the recent Hillary memoir had somehow leaked in digitized form.

In fact, something equally dramatic has already occurred: A file containing The Order of the Phoenix, the most recent Harry Potter book, did make the rounds on the Internet just hours after the book went on sale, its 870 pages apparently scanned in and distributed by rabid fans. If this doesn't signal that it's time for book publisher to perk up and pay attention, what would?

How exactly would books escape in digitized form? When I worked as an editorial assistant in book publishing in the early '90s, we trafficked in paper manuscripts, and the main fear was leaks to Hollywood scouts. Now leaks are often considered an integral part of creating a buzz; when publishers aren't trying to keep contents to themselves, they're looking to leak them strategically. In some cases, agents and editors e-mail entire manuscripts around town. Even if something's sent out in old-school paper style, today's scanners can quickly convert a whole book to a format that's easily e-mailed or uploaded. That's apparently how Harry Potter pirates got The Order of the Phoenix online, scanning every one of its 870 pages manually. This takes longer than creating a sound file, and digital files don't look as good as a well-packaged book. But the visual experience of reading onscreen may soon improve drastically, thanks to new technology like the TabletPC—screens that are the same size as a piece of paper, more portable than a laptop, and have crisper imaging.

The old argument that no one likes reading on a computer has pretty much eroded. In the last five years or so, we have all become accustomed to reading newspapers online, not to mention the explosion of Web media—from blogs to the magazine you are looking at right now—that don't exist in print at all. This will only become more true not less true. Just because publishing people can't conceive of book piracy doesn't mean it can't happen.

Joy Press is the chief book and TV critic at the Village Voice.