So far, few consumers think books should be free—a fact that I attribute to the klugy Kindle and its affordable Amazon store. I conducted an informal census of friends and associates who read lots of books, and I found none who partake of the bootlegged variety. But that could change in a matter of months if the book industry insists on 1) jacking up the price of e-books and 2) withholding potential best-sellers from the e-book market. Cool devices that make electronic reading painless are just around the corner, and the e-book market is about to explode. If publishers insist on pushing prices too high and curbing availability, consumers could rebel—as they did with the sharing of MP3s—and normalize the trafficking of infringing e-books.
My sense that not all publishers understand their readers is shared by Forrester Research analyst Sarah Rotman Epps. "Publishers are in denial about the economics of digital content," she told the Wall Street Journal this month. "What we've seen in other industries and in the evolution of digital content is that consumers are not willing to pay as much for content that is separated from its physical medium."
Obviously, it's easy to exaggerate the parallels between the book and music industries, but it's only a matter of scale. Every e-booker who decides to sidestep the book industry by downloading unauthorized copies is a potential seeder of the illicit market. As long as he takes the right precautions, it's not very likely that he'll get caught.
No title is safe from file-sharing. As the Instructables Web site detailed a couple of months ago, a do-it-yourself, high-speed book scanner can be made for about $300. The file for a hefty book like Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid is about the size of a five-minute MP3 and can be downloaded in a couple of minutes. Does the book industry want to join the digital flow, the way the TV industry has with Hulu and TV.com? Or by its obstruction does it intend to encourage the establishment of a Bookster?
If I can't find a book I need at any of the four bookstores near my office or at the university library just a 10-minute walk from my desk or in the personal library of a colleague or at the public library a mile from my home, or if the passage I seek can't be found in the "Look Inside" feature at Amazon or via a search of Google Books, I can imagine asking my officemate Tim Noah for permission to use his Kindle to download the title. But it hasn't happened yet. Send your best the-Kindle-saved-my-ass story to email@example.com and listen to the gas music on my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)