The Future of Media: It’s Not Piracy, It’s Marketing

The book-publishing business has been in a bit of a tizzy recently over the explosive rise of a children’s book up the e-book bestsellers’ list at Amazon (s amzn). But this isn’t just any children’s book. For one thing, it has an unusual title — it’s called “Go The F**k To Sleep.” But even more interesting is that the book hit No. 1 on the Amazon list, and it hasn’t even been published yet. How it managed to do that reinforces a lesson for content publishers of all kinds, and that lesson is: Sometimes “piracy” can not only be your friend, it can be a crucial tool in building awareness of your content.

The book in question, written by Adam Mansbach, started as a joke — a humorous comment made by the author on Facebook when his young daughter wouldn’t go to sleep. But the response to the joke was so overwhelming that Mansbach, a poet and visiting professor at Rutgers University, decided to turn it into a real book with elegant illustrations by Ricardo Cortes. The book was promoted as a “pre-sale” by Amazon (s amzn), and was expected to be available in the fall (the publication date has since been moved up to June).

What happened next was fairly predictable. Some of those who had PDF copies of the e-book, whether advance proofs sent to the publisher or review copies, uploaded them to the Internet, just as review versions of movies often find their way onto file-sharing sites within days of a movie’s release. That the book began as a viral joke on Facebook no doubt helped build the buzz about it on social networks, and gradually, pirated copies started to emerge and circulate to fill that demand.

The publisher says it tried everything it could to stamp out these unauthorized copies, but it was unable to stop the flood — and it’s a good thing it couldn’t, since the book rocketed to the No. 1 slot. (It has since fallen to No. 2.) Although it remains to be seen how many books get sold when the official version is available, there’s no question that the publisher and the author have effectively gotten millions of dollars worth of free marketing for their title. (The publisher admits it has spent virtually nothing on marketing so far, but has already boosted the size of the print run.)

What some call “piracy” can actually be free marketing, as noted by some prominent authors. Neil Gaiman, for example, has said he was initially outraged by unauthorized sharing of his books, and tried to help his publisher stop it, but eventually he came to the conclusion that what piracy really amounts to is “people lending books.” As he put it in a video interview earlier this year:

[U]nderstanding that gave me a whole new idea of the shape of copyright and what the web was doing. Because the biggest thing the web was doing is allowing people to hear things, allowing people to read things, allowing people to see things they might never have otherwise seen. And I think, basically, that’s an incredibly good thing.

Another prominent example of this is Brazilian author Paulo Coelho. The well-known fantasy author doesn’t just take piracy in stride — he has actually assisted people in pirating his own books, by uploading copies of them to file-sharing networks (as has Gaiman). In the case of one book, doing this with a Russian translation helped build awareness of his other books in that country, where Coelho now sells millions of copies. He pirated his own works over the protests of his publisher, but the outcome was spectacularly successful.

Obviously, not everyone can benefit from having their works pirated in this way. Coelho and Gaiman could because the unauthorized copies helped to stoke the market for their other titles, whereas a new author might not be able to recoup the potential loss of revenue.

It’s not just books that can benefit from this kind of strategy, however. As Mike Masnick at Techdirt has noted, some of the most popular movies on file-sharing networks have gone on to sell record amounts in their traditional formats as well. In some cases, it seems, the availability of low-quality copies on pirate sites can actually help fuel demand for a better-quality experience in the theater. And video-game makers have also talked about how piracy has effectively helped them to market their work to new audiences.

Piracy isn’t going to work for every content company in every situation. But the experience of “Go The F**k To Sleep” shows it can be a positive thing rather than a negative, and that’s something more companies and content creators should think about, instead of trying to build paywalls and lock up their content. As Tim O’Reilly has said, obscurity is a far bigger problem for many content producers than piracy is.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Paul Sapiano and timetrax23