Are illegal downloads hurting or helping sales? This question has been debated for years - a decade, in fact - in regards to MP3s and movies. Some people have always argued that any download is a promotion in disguise, while others have lamented that each unlicensed copy equates a lost sale.

It looks like we're about to see a resurgence of this debate with the advent of new electronic book readers like the Kindle. Jason Kinkaid recently wrote on Techcrunch that the Kindle DX's ability to display pirated PDF books will make the $500 device a success, and the New York Times reported today that pirated books are "a new and frightening territory" for authors and publishers. Of course, no article on the subject would be complete without a quote from Cory Doctorow insisting that piracy is great.

So what is it? Will pirated books lead to the demise of the publishing industry, just as MP3s did with the music industry? Or are we gonna see more sales because of free copies? IT publisher O'Reilly Media and publishing giant Random House wanted to find out on their own, so they started to study lots and lots of data on the subject. The findings of this research were published this week in form of a report titled "Impact of P2P and Free Distribution on Book Sales." The results in a nutshell: P2P isn't nearly as dangerous to the publishing industry as many people think. Yet.

oreilly book piracy
Chart (C) Brian O'Leary / O'Reilly Media, used with permission.

The authors of the report tracked eight O'Reilly books about subjects like Ubuntu, Python and Ajax - stuff you'd think would be popular with the file sharing crowd. However, it took 20 weeks on average until a book showed up on either a Torrent tracker or a PDF hosting site like Scribd. And sales generally went up after a book showed up on these sites, if only for around six percent on average. The books also never stayed popular on torrent sites for a long time, suggesting that P2P at this point in time doesn't have any long term effect.

The report also looked at e-book give-aways as a way to increase the awareness and eventually the sales numbers of a book. The results of these findings suggest that free PDFs can significantly help to market a new book, and even give books that have been on the market for a while a second marketing push. In one case, a book saw sales increase by 155 percent because of a free download.

"Increasing the number of people who know about a book, it can be argued, also increases the number who will buy the title," the study concludes. However, things can change, and piracy could eventually hurt at least some publishers, like the ones depending on selling expensive text books. And of course, things could change if PDF piracy is really gonna get more popular.

Luckily, it looks like we're gonna have a little more time until then. Time that publishers could use to come up with new business models. Or they could just follow the music industry, trying to fight windmills.

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