What publishers and writers can do about piracy right now … and in the future

If you haven’t already read Nick Robinson’s excellent post on ELTjam about book piracy and the lively conversation it’s started, go check it out. To sum it up, just about every ELT textbook that’s ever been published (including mine) have been ripped off by pirates and put on innumerable free PDF download sites all over the Internet. I’m obviously not going to link to those sites, and if I were you I wouldn’t visit them or ever download things from them. Baby Jesus is watching.

The conversation on the original post has branched off in many directions: Is piracy really that bad? Is copyright law generally a moral thing? Are authors totally screwed? And so on. One thing I think hasn’t been addressed fully is what we can do to limit piracy or make it work for us. Expanding on suggestions I’ve made in comments on the original post, why can’t some of these things be done?

1. If people really want to download PDFs of ELT print textbooks, why don’t more big publishers sell PDF downloads on their sites? At this time I don’t think any of them do. If the price is reasonable, you could at least get sales from people who would be willing to pay if they could get the product right away.

2. To make that happen, publishers need to up their SEO and e-commerce game. I’m sorry if this seems critical, but it’s true. Google searches for terms like “Headway free download” should return the publisher’s site as the #1 result, or at least in the first page of results. And then, once you get to the publisher site, you should be able to click to make a purchase, either the print book or some kind of download. Right now this is actually not possible on some publisher sites. There are even publisher sites that are so hard to navigate that you can type in the book title (or even ISBN!) and not get to the book’s product page.

3. There are too many places in the world where people cannot buy the books that I’ve written. China is just one example of this. I study Chinese online, and I can’t tell you how many times someone has asked where they can go in China (physically or online) to buy my books, and I have to tell them they’re unavailable. Then they will invariably next ask where they can “download” the books. The point is that they are willing to buy them, but can’t. I’m not justifying piracy by any means, but what other choice do these students have?

I realize there are good reasons why textbooks are not available in some markets. In China, for example, foreign publishers need to partner with a local publisher and also need to scrub the book for inappropriate content and then produce some sort of “mainland only” cover to keep it from being reimported into Taiwan. I get that this process takes time and money, and that many people will still buy the cheaper pirated version anyway. But you can’t complain much if you don’t even offer the option of legitimately purchasing the product. Interchange has a China-only edition that sells millions of copies (literally millions) at a very low price. It can be done.

4. Piracy reveals interesting opportunities that not all publishers are fully exploiting. Here’s what I mean by that. Coursebooks are meant to be used in a classroom with a teacher. Those classes are expensive, and the cost of the coursebook is very frequently bundled into that price. If a person is downloading the coursebook because they’re unable or unwilling to buy the genuine book, it’s highly unlikely that they are shelling out for classes in a language school. So they’re stealing from the author and publisher, of course, but they’re also using a product that is not really meant to be used for individual self-study and won’t help them much.

What they need, and would perhaps be willing to buy at the right price, is content that helps them learn even though they’re not in a class. Unfortunately, until recently the big publishers have not really had these users on their radar. Instead, they’ve only focused on big coursebooks and big adoptions from schools that charge for pricey classes. In other words, the publishers have only engaged with English learners who are willing to learn in the most expensive way possible: by paying tuition and buying print books. If you are not willing or able to sign up for English classes at Wall Street English or wherever, the big publishers have not had a lot to offer. This is changing now, which is good, but in the meantime that gap was filled by competing companies (e.g., Global English, Duolingo, etc.), but also by pirates.

5. Publishers need to do more to bundle print textbooks with online extras, like user accounts and community tools, that can’t easily be pirated. The Macmillan Skillful course that I helped write does a good job of this. Every printed book has a unique user access code on the back that you can use to access the “digibook” — an online version of the book with integrated audio and lots of cool features and extras. Because every book has a unique code, a pirated book won’t get you this access. Skillful is certainly not the first or only series to do this, but I think that if we are serious about limiting piracy then all the books need to have features like this.

Another thing you can’t pirate is community. A site like Facebook could be cloned, and a lot of its source code could probably be directly pirated, but what would be the point? All of your friends and family are on real Facebook, not pirate Facebook. In the same way, publishers need to do more to tie the purchaser of each book to an unique account that brings them into a community site. This could be a place to share resources, to practice conversation, to discuss readings from the book, etc. And you can only get into the community if you’ve bought the book. This would of course cost money to do, but it amazes me that nothing like this exists. How many millions of people use Interchange? And yet as far as I know there is still no Interchange community site, not even a simple user’s forum or message board.

Got any other ideas? I’d love to hear them!

Mike S. Boyle is one of the authors of American English File. You can follow him on Twitter at @heyboyle.

Featured Photo Credit: Free Grunge Textures – www.freestock.ca via Compfight cc. Text added by ELTjam.

18 thoughts on “What publishers and writers can do about piracy right now … and in the future”

  1. “Interchange has a China-only edition that sells millions of copies(literally millions) at a very low price.”
    Selling at very low prices may be the simplest global solution for Publishers to fight successfully against illegal copies!

    • Yes, I saw huge shelves full of that book and others were all squeezed together. There was one, maybe that one, that some kids had at school for years and at uni too as it was the ‘official’ one that the system used. That is hard to compete against.

  2. Nice ideas, Mike. I like the forum and sense of community approach. No mention of the much hated DRM? Much hated by people who download a book onto their computer but then want to look at it on their ipad and find they can’t as the content is locked to that one device. But if the material is not locked then there is nothing stopping them passing on the material to friends – Napster style – or even selling the material. There are DRM strippers which the more determined pirates will use and there is the argument that any pirate who steals your book is unlikely to have bought it anyway.
    I’ve decided to go DRM-free and see what happens…
    Jeremy Taylor
    Freelance author and teacher trainer

    • @Jeremy, I’m sure if publishers implemented this they would want DRM (as evidenced by some of the other comments below). Whether DRM is the right choice in every situation is maybe not for me to judge, although personally I don’t like it myself, and I only buy and download legally for my own use.

  3. Hi Mike,
    Thanks very much for this blog. I’ll try and address some of the points below.

    Point 1: PDFs

    If you provide a PDF of a coursebook, then you’re actually making it super-easy to pirate: you’re giving the pirates, and all casual users, too, an opportunity to replicate and share easily. Yes, there are Adobe tools to mitigate against this, but they are expensive and awkward.

    Permissions for digital publication can often be a nightmare. Honestly, the hours (no, months, years?) of pain I’ve encountered trying to clear the manifold, varied items (pictures, illustrations, songs, lyrics, articles, audio, etc.) for digital publication is enough to make me weep. There is almost always some content you can’t get permission for, and you either leave a big blank hole in that page or you have to go out and commission new content to fill the gaps. New contracts, countless negotiation loops, tracking every contributor, and so on, takes time and resources. Publishers are getting better at this, though, at the planning stage of products, and are introducing digital publishing rights into contracts, flat fee payments and are keeping better records of assets.

    Also, the actual demand for PDFs until recently has been very low. Few schools want them, though with the growth of small computing devices in classrooms, we’re seeing a growth in demand for e-books. However, if schools invest in tablets or notebooks, they want more than PDFs – they want interactivity. In a way, we have to leapfrog PDFs and offer something better. The ‘something better’ discussion needs a separate blog, though.

    Point 2: better e-commerce and search results

    Excellent point – e-commerce should be much, much better across the board for all publishers. There are two explanations I can offer for this sorry state of affairs: firstly, the majority of big sales revolve around coursebooks, and these are more likely to be sold in physical transactions; and secondly, it has proved challenging to provide price elasticity through e-commerce, where the norm is to fix the price at its highest retail point. This, of course, would place the non-discounted products out of the reach of many markets where piracy is an issue.

    If the e-commerce price was set at the lowest rate (highest discount), millions would be wiped off the balance sheet. Yes, Amazon can do this, and publishers do exploit this through Amazon sales, but there are issues with Amazon, and it has to be looked at differently from e-commerce on publisher-owned sites.

    Point 3: making books available globally

    True, Interchange sells massively in China at very small margins. But, if you don’t get the volume, the exercise becomes financially fruitless. Low price points require large-scale sales, and not every coursebook will sell in those numbers.

    Points 4 and 5: interesting opportunities and bundled products

    This is all happening now. A prerequisite for good digital self-study materials is a good learning platform. Publishers have traditionally been content developers, rather than platform or software developers, and the process of building large platforms has been expensive and painful. We’re nearly there, though.

    You could also argue that the bundled product offering is something that has existed for a while (think Macmillan and MEC – to which you can now add many other products from different publishers), but markets have been slow to respond. Early developments typically saw massive investments with small returns – hardly an incentive to continue down that path.

    Regarding communities, historical apathy to online community sites in ELT has been high, and this dates back to the first course-related forums I saw years ago, which later became ghost forums: typically, there was a post, which was then responded to six months later and then died. Wikipedia data shows, for example, massive passive engagement, but only the smallest minority contributing regularly. Without massive volume, it wouldn’t work. Community sites are very difficult to develop.

    However, things are changing. We will see the CD-ROM and/or DVD-ROM disappear and be replaced by online codes across the board soon. And, we can expect the bundles to become increasingly varied: publishers are now repositioning themselves as solutions providers, rather than uniquely content providers. The new bundles will include learning platforms, analytics, bespoke curriculum design, teacher training, and assessment, just to name a few things. Indeed, some publishers are actually investing in bricks and mortar and buying up schools.

    The changes we are starting to witness now, I must admit, have been driven by an evolving market and new requirements, rather than piracy, though they do also cover that base. I think the key factor for previous inactivity is this: if your total revenue is Y, and your lost revenue through piracy is X, tackling X was not viable if it reduced the value of Y. Or, simply put: if the solutions cost more than they saved, then there was no point to it.

    • @Brendan, thanks for reading and sharing your point of view! My ELTjam bio doesn’t mention that I actually spent about a decade in commissioning editor roles at two major publishers, one of them being the place you work for. So although none of your points are new to me — I’ve heard them many times now, both as a staff member and an author — it is good for all the readers to read them, as they are really a good representation of the conventional wisdom at big publishers.
      First, regarding PDFs and e-commerce, your arguments seems to be of two minds. On one hand you are saying that nobody really wants a PDF download so it’s not worth the hassle and investment for publishers to sell them. But on the other hand you are also concerned that if publishers sold PDF downloads it would unleash a catastrophic wave that enabled mass piracy and cannibalized sales from print products (“millions would be wiped off the balance sheet”). So one argument assumes there is no demand and the other assumes there is a massive demand.
      So those two arguments can’t stand together and I’m not convinced they can stand individually, either. The point about the hassle of clearing permissions is a bit dated. All projects now are planned with digital rights in mind. I’m sure it’s still a pain for older titles, but going forward it is much less of an issue. At any rate, publishers will need to produce content on multiple platforms and modes in the future, so those rights hurdles will have to be overcome regardless of whether PDFs are done or not.
      The second argument was that PDFs will make piracy worse and cause everyone to get a cheaper price online. First, the PDFs are already out there on the pirate sites, so there’s really no point in fretting about that. And plenty of solutions have already been put in place by other ecommerce sites and digital products to ensure that different markets pay different prices, often simply by filtering results based on a user’s IP range. Yes, this can be defeated by a determined person, but that person could just as well download a pirate PDF anyway.
      The point is to give honest people an opportunity to actually pay for the product to be delivered in the format they want. If the publishers continue to find reasons not to provide that opportunity, that is their choice, but in that case they really can’t complain when people download pirated books for free.
      As for making books available globally, Interchange’s success in China cannot be duplicated by all other courses, but certainly could be replicated by other very successful big coursebooks. Not all of them have tried to do that. Again, if publishers would rather think up reasons not to act, that is their right, but they really can’t complain about piracy in a market that they refuse to enter.
      Finally, community resources. I actually do not think that there is “historical apathy to online community sites in ELT.” Look at Dave’s ESL Cafe, which has been thriving for close to 20 years now. You might also consider the huge #ELTchat Twitter community, or even the success of sites like ELTjam. What I will agree with is that, historically, the big publishers have bungled the rollout of their own community sites and those projects have failed. Of course, many of those sites appeared before the explosion of social networking, but publishers have long memories and, as a culture, tend to prefer doing things the way they have always been done. It is a bit sad to me because I have so many good friends at the big publishers, and I am sorry that they are going to miss out on these opportunities and cede the territory to new entrants into the market.

  4. Hi Mike,

    Nice post, some great suggestions, but I feel that some of them are not really helpful or practical and maybe even divert attention away from the crux of the issue, which is that value needs to be sought elsewhere.

    For example, I completely agree with your 5th point, that publishers should bundle products and maybe add value in the way that facebook do with community and additional features. Time spend working out how to differentiate products from those that are available for free is time well spent, as you said in point 3. How can we really add something to a learner, help them in a way they can’t be helped with freely downloaded pdf versions? How can we create some value which can’t just be copied and shared for free. This is the challenge for now.

    Spending time and effort trying to stop people downloading for free is a waste I think. I.e Suggesting publishers spend SEM cash and SEO time and resource on ranking when people search “English file free download” is pointless, because people are looking for a free download. Or asking people to pay small amounts for something they know and are used to getting for nothing just isn’t going to work.

    As Nick Lovell says in his book The Curve, we need to embrace free, and work out how to use it to our advantage, not desperately try and stop people getting something for nothing. If something has already reached a base price of zero, it’s basically impossible to bring it up to being worth anything. But if that free version of the product reaches as big an audience as possible, that offers an opportunity to leverage other things which do have value, both for the user and the producer of the content.

    So, better than stopping people getting downloads for free, why not actively encourage it and use that base of fans to sell other products and services to? I thunk that’s where the time and effort should be spent.


    • Hi Jo,

      I think this may be one of the rare occasions when you have wandered away from the crux of the issue.

      The blog is about dealing with piracy, not reacting to a scenario where a product’s value has hit a base value of zero. It is an easily evidenced fact that books (or indeed products of any sort) can continue to generate handsome revenues through traditional sales models despite widescale piracy. A quick email to Raymond Murphy should clear this up immediately. Ditto an email to Oxford University Press, requesting net sales data on Headway sales – a coursebook which has been pirated for decades, both before and after the Internet went mainstream.

      Although piracy can contribute to a book or product’s declining revenue, it might also have nothing to do with it.Demand may have dropped for many reasons, or it may have been marginal from the start.

      However, your point of exploring new and different methods of leveraging revenue when traditional sales value fall below a certain point is good (and can mutually coexist with Mike’s points). In fact, it would be useful to consider when and how this might happen.

      Let’s assume that there are other ways to create wealth from a person’s IP. The first challenge is working out what revenue these other streams may generate. If that revenue is less than what the traditional model continues to offer, then they will logically be a less effective and less prosperous option. If not, then the alternatives make sense, and …if the product has truly hit a base value of zero, then there’s nothing to lose.

      But what are the other options? I think this would be an excellent blog/discussion point. Free content plus advertising revenue is one, but may offer marginal returns, particularly if the website is packed full of other free stuff – the sum of micro-payments may be disappointing.

      Raising the profile of the author is another option. This could be used to monetise more recent publications, promote consultancy work,or lead to enhanced teaching contracts? Just some thoughts … but worth considering, especially in light of the fact that materials writers aren’t rock stars and are unlikely to ever a) sell out Wembley Stadium, or b) shift thousands of units of merchandise. That said, I would seriously pay out for an eltjam mug, a Nick Robinson-endorsed suit jacket handkerchief, and/or a miniature plastic figure of Laurie Harrison. The latter I would place on my bookshelf next to my mini statue of Howard Wolowitz from Big Bang Theory.

      • Well, Brendan, I’ve been going on about the idea of a free course for a few years, now. I might see if I can gather my thoughts on that and turn them into a post. And the idea of a Laurie Harrison figurine is, of course, brilliant. I’m sure that’s an ELTjam product idea Jo will be taking forward.

        • Brilliant, Laurie. I think a discussion on how a free (or heavily discounted) course could work, both from the logistical perspective of writing and development, through to the business model of raising revenue would be astonishingly useful. There is most certainly a way forward, but it will take a lot of thinking through. Please do get the ball rolling on that. This blog has a very useful (game-changing??) part to play in all of this.

          By the way, I’ll swap you some of my iPad art for one of those figurines, when they’re ready. I have a nice little abstract number titled (for no particular reason) ‘La Mancha’, which is provoking widespread mockery from friends and family at the moment, which I could send to you.

      • Hi Brendan

        Yes, you’re right, clearly coursebooks themselves still have some value that some people are willing to pay for. But as was pointed out in Mike’s post, this cost is often bundled into the cost of language courses and not paid directly by the learner. It’s true too that the likes of Murphy do continue to make good cash out of books, but this is the exception rather than the norm. It may not even be that piracy is causing the problems, as you said, because publisher sales have always been to schools that pass on the cost to the consumer rather than learners cough up themselves. But what with digital distribution of words having hit practically zero, the value of the product isn’t in the book itself but how it’s used, what value it adds through other services, features and add-ons.

        So my point was, why bother dealing with the effects of piracy of something which is so easy to pirate? Instead (as mentioned in points 4 and 5 of the original post) deal with the effects of changing distribution patterns and the impact of other competitors on the market and focus on adding value in other ways, ones that can’t be put neatly onto a pdf and shared for free.

        And I suppose the place that you try and add value depends on the angle you’re coming from, this may be a lot harder for authors than it is for publishers. As you say, it’s unlikely we’d get an author selling out Wembly. And maybe this is why all the effort is put into stopping piracy. But I still feel the time is better spent elsewhere.

        (As an aside, is more of the anti piracy chat coming from authors or publishers at the moment?)

        Right, better dash off as have a meeting now regarding small ELT figurines…

    • @Jo, I actually agree with your points. As Brendan says in his reply, I’m just looking at the smaller question of piracy here. I agree with you that publishers need to transform their business into something completely new. I didn’t mean to suggest that the only needed to do these five things and everything would be hunky-dory. But anyway, while the publishers are busy transforming themselves, there are these print products which, as Brendan says, definitely have not hit zero. They’re actually generating piles of cash, money the publishers will need to have in order to transform themselves. I really don’t know exactly how much money the publishers have really lost to piracy, and I suspect the publishers don’t know either. My point is simply that there are things that they can do right now to limit those losses. If they don’t want to act to limit those losses, that is their right, but in that case they shouldn’t complain. 🙂

  5. Nobody I know buys books let alone class sets and no students I know want them. And, even if they did, buying them and getting them in time for the course is nearly impossible.

    With so much copying around and the need for change, perhaps we should ‘reboot’ the system to follow demand. People seem to want cheap or free materials for self-study but REALLY self-study and not ‘can be used in a class or for self-study’ books. Next, schools have no budgets for even copying but lots of students.

    I have seen people copy and print off scanned books on Scribd but they were useless. For instance, an IELTS student book.

    Online has to be the way, funded through advertising, as mentioned above. If it is targeted well, it would be suitable for the students and their subjects. They could do online stuff or print stuff off.

    No matter what I say to students, they think free is the norm.

    Otherwise, we should go back to the old days where publishers just sell to schools but very specialised materials which cannot be bought elsewhere and are only useful in that context. However, as EF and Wall Street et al have shown, they often make their own.

    A good teacher once said to me that the book only gives you 30% and the class the rest so that would show the uselessness of pirating them.

    • “Nobody I know buys books let alone class sets and no students I know want them. And, even if they did, buying them and getting them in time for the course is nearly impossible.” With all due respect, this is an outrageous statement in almost every respect. There are specialist ELT booksellers (of which BEBC is the best known) who carry huge stocks of ELT books and are able (in BEBC’s case) to supply more than 90% from stock on the day of ordering for next day delivery in the UK. Phil Wade may not know anyone who buys books but in the UK alone BEBC has sold over 230,000 ELT books. I may be wrong is assuming that these are to students and teachers but since both individual copies and class sets are included in this number I somehow doubt it!

  6. Well, it’s a generalisation of course but maybe the fundamental problem with ELT books is prospective buyers don’t really want them? Coursebooks are sold to teachers and DOSes at private language schools and state schools. But it’s students who are to pay for them and they don’t really have a say which coursebook to choose, and so are more or less forced to shell out money for books they may not even like. These books are not very useful for them as self-study material, so they might see this expense as forced on them and therefore are looking to ‘minimise’ this expense by downloading a pdf and, possibly, printing it out, or making a xerox copy from a friend.

    Students may not be able to see what value exactly a coursebook offers or may fail to see the connection between the money spent on a book and the progress they make. I’d guess that most ‘piracy’ of this kind happens in state schools, it’s probably much less in PlS because students there tend to be better motivated and they will see the value in getting a coursebook? I would also guess that people are more likely to pay for an exam preparer than for a coursebook, even when not asked to get one by a teacher – because the value can be easily seen?


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