In my daily trawl of Wired News, I just happened to notice this article. It’s all about how J.K. Rowling and her publisher opted not to license any legitimate Harry Potter ebooks, out of concern that it would not sell well and fears that it would lead to piracy. Naturally, an illicit version of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince appeared complete on the Internet within about 12 hours of its release. It’s also been mentioned in BoingBoing, and there was some recent discussion of this issue on the Yahoogroups ebook mailing list. It kind of amuses me.
People are acting as if Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince‘s sudden appearance in illicit ebook form was magically called into being by Rowling’s recent public refusal to license the ebook rights. Nothing could be further from the truth. With a bit of Google-searching, you will discover any number of articles from 2003, such as this one, marvelling at how fast Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix made the jump from printed page to purloined pixels. It’s not being pirated because Rowling has been revealed as a “luddite.” It’s being pirated simply because it’s such a popular book. Rowling’s anti-ebook pronounciation is simply the icing on the cake; now not only do the scanners get the warm fuzzy feeling of making the book available to those who might otherwise not be able to obtain it, they get the double warm fuzzy feeling of “giving the finger to ‘the man.'” By making the ebook available in complete pirated form barely twelve hours after its release, they do render irrelevant the publisher’s claim that they’re not licensing the ebook to prevent piracy—but they would have done it anyway.
It’s a pity, because when you get right down to it, a Harry Potter ebook would have made an excellent test-case to see how many people would willingly buy a “real” ebook of a popular title. The closest thing we’ve had to that in the past was Stephen King’s e-release of “Riding the Bullet,” but King then torpedoed himself (and the nascent ebook industry) by setting unrealistic and unmeetable success conditions for The Plant. Meanwhile, Baen Books delivers solid evidence that having a legitimate ebook available inexpensively or even free can aid print sales for lesser-known authors dramatically—and even piracy may not be that bad for those authors’ bottom lines in the end.