Pirates as Market Researchers?

David Rothman makes a point that I once got shouted down for making. When I dared suggest to a group of writer/publisher types that they had two irreconcilable ideas as their opposition to ebooks, that:

  1. There is no demand for etext
  2. Illegal downloading is rampant, so if we offer it electronically then people will just steal it left and right

I suggested that savvy publishers could look at the books that were traded illegally as an indicator for titles for which there already existed a market demand. I mean, people care enough to trade it, right? It’s not perfect, but as a first approximation I’d make the assumption that this would correspond to a willingness of people to download it for pay.

It’s also worth noting that the files that I’ve seen most often in newsgroups and the like are almost always books for which no legitimate etext exists – Harry Potters and the like. It seems simple enough to me – if people are willing to trade things, that implies an energized fanbase. Even if the people trading wouldn’t be potential customers, I would treat them as the tip of the iceberg that points to a potential paying market lurking under the surface. The only reason you see the one activity is that it is physically possible – people do have the ability to illegally trade the files. The legitimate market will never be visible until you give the people something to buy. Really, when the files are already being traded, what to publishers have to lose? All typesetting is electronic nowadays, so the cost of getting into the etext is low, the cost of selling it is low, the file is already out there illegally so the risk is low. Go for it and try to make extra cash down the higher margin pathway, for pete’s sake! These are the kinds of experiments that change industries.