How a lack of piracy killed the Sony Reader

Sony set out to be the iTunes of book-publishing with its Sony Reader. And Sony built a pretty good technical and marketing replica of that iPod model — with an initial online offering that was comparable to Apple’s initial limited selection, with a desktop piece of software clearly modeled on the iTunes client, with redistribution deals with a number of publishers, and at the center a top notch piece of hardware.

And this week, as Amazon released the Kindle, the Sony Reader became a paperweight. The Kindle sports about 100,000 titles compared to Sony’s 10,000. And that makes all the difference — it’s the difference between thinking of books you want to read and finding electronic versions available and having to browse what’s available to find out what you can read.

Nobody wants to buy an ebook device with less titles than their local bookstore. That’s just insane.

All the same, I can’t help thinking of a major flaw in Sony’s “iPod for books” formulation of their strategy.

Here’s what they missed. When the iPod first came out, people were not primarily loading it up with stuff from iTunes. The majority of people’s collections came from either rips of their own CDs or from so-called piracy (I prefer filesharing, but whatev).

An iPod made sense because if iTunes didn’t have what you wanted you could get it by hook or crook.

It occurred to me yesterday that if there had been a vibrant book piracy market, the Sony Reader would have been an easy sell. There would be a huge base. If one could grab a copy of I, Robot or Confederacy of Dunces for free off of a BitTorrent site, you wouldn’t hesitate to get a Reader — and the market penetration of the device would then (as with the iPod) start to drive legal sales.

But every month I would look to see if the book my book club was reading was available on the Sony Reader, and every month it was not. Not once.

And with no filesharing market to turn to for unofficial copies, I had to go to physical alternatives.

Well, you might say, at least the author got something out of that. At least the author got paid.

Nope, sorry. Didn’t happen. Like most people I know nowadays I use Amazon to order secondhand copies from people around the country. The author didn’t get a dime, and neither did the publisher — I ordered these books secondhand.

I think the Kindle is going to be a big hit, because of a number of design choices they made, but even more because only Amazon has the real force to make the industry wake up. Oh, and 100,000 titles on launch doesn’t hurt either.

But as they move forward, it might be good for both Amazon and the publishers to realize it often takes a little unauthorized use to jumpstart an industry — at least until the gaps are filled in. That’s the real lesson of the iPod, and one that Sony apparently missed.

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