Thursday, October 22, 2009

Pirates on the Literary Seas

When JK Rowling visited India a few years back, she had pirated copies of the Harry Potter books thrust at her by eager hawkers. Last year, Jeffery Archer said that the most reliable indicator of a best-seller list in India was the number of traffic lights at which the book was hawked.

Book piracy is a very visible, very well organised industry in India. Few people even think there could be something wrong about depriving an author of her royalty, and I know people who rather proudly state that they have bought only pirated copies of books. There was a reason for it. A paperback which costs a mere $ 5.99 in the United States, when converted into local currency costs more than a pair of unbranded jeans, or a first class rail pass for three months. There was a reason for people to go in for pirated books. Books by Indian authors were similarly priced, and therefore either unread, or read in pirated copies.

Chetan Bhagat tried to change the rules of the game. His first book was priced at less than half the then accepted price of books by Indian authors. Though it was not as cheap as pirated books, the price point, as much as the merit of the book, ensured that it was a runaway bestseller. That he became the biggest selling English language novelist in India’s history was as much attributable to the pricing strategy as it was to the fact that he correctly read the pulse of the youth and gave them exactly the kind of stories they wanted to read.

His latest book was out ten days back, and pirated copies are already available on the footpath outside my office. The rack rate of the book is Rs. 90, unless you are good at bargaining, the pirated copy costs Rs. 65. An hour before I saw the pirated copy, I ordered the book online for Rs. 63!

And yet, piracy continues!


Anonymous said...

I guess that selling pirated copies of books is how many people make a living, so that could be why it is so hard to stop?

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I wonder if that will stop when we all make the move to digital books (which is definitely coming soon)?

Mystery Writing is Murder

Lisa said...

Where do the pirated copies come from?

Galen Kindley--Author said...

To follow up on Elizabeth’s point, what is the state of electronic books in India? Do you see price problems with those as well? Or, perhaps more to the point, piracy problems.

Best Regards, Galen

Imagineering Fiction Blog

Watery Tart said...

It seems to me there is a cultural 'entrepreneureal' thing about this... people see an opportunity to make money and jump on it... sort of like the expected bribes in some places... that it is sort of part of the underpinnings of how things have always been done.

I don't have any idea what to do about it... sounds like Bhagat has made a START, but it may never entirely go away. Why has the cost been so high for books if Bhagat can make money for cheaper and there is the piracy to compete with?

Elspeth Antonelli said...

Piracy fulfills two big human desires; the feat of getting away with something and the thrill of 'getting a deal'. Unfortunate, but true. I had no idea it was so wide-spread in India. I wonder what Ms. Rowling's thoughts were when she was presented with those pirated copies?


Anonymous said...

I want to comment on all your posts, Nutty!
Have you read Bhagat's new book yet? His writing is not really my thing...

Rayna M. Iyer said...

Niru - I did read it, and just did not like it. Just a masala Bollywood potboiler - even if it is close to real life, it was too chiched to be fun. And pandering to steriotypes - the way the WIMWI girls are described is just not funny, specially since that particular batch was, in Purva's words, loaded with patakas.

Rayna M. Iyer said...

I was sure I had commented, but I guess blogger ate up my comment.

@ Fiona - specially at the end of the distribution chain. The book sellers exist on this side of poverty only because of the money they make. But the reason it survives is the most basic one - corruption down the line.

@ Elizabeth - I would hope so at least.

@ Lisa - it is a rather well organised industry. As soon as a book it out, it is photocopied, plates are made, and copies run off in urban garages. But when books are prohibitively expensive to start with, it is hard to avoid.

@ Galen - the only reason I am not sanguine about the future of e-books is because Indian love to borrow and lend books. Every one of those pirated copies would be read by half a dozen people before they are sold off as second hand books. In that scenario, I wonder how e-books would work even if they are competitively priced. Unless e-books become a status symbol....

@ Tami - absolutely. It is a lucrative business - not too much initial investment, and good returns provided the right palms are greased. The strange thing is that even with the price of books coming down due to the leap of faith Chetan Bhagat took, piracy hasn't gone down.

@ Elspeth - in India, you don't 'get away' with piracy - it is almost the done thing! And apparently, JKR took a photograph of that sight - not much more she could have done.


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