I know I shouldn't say this, but I'm actually delighted to see that my book has been pirated and is available on Bittorrent. (Presumably this is the audio book version, even though it claims to be an "ebook", which I wasn't aware existed. UPDATE. One file is the pirated audiobook, the "ebook" is actually this ChangeThis pdf of the original Wired article, which was already freely available).
My publishers want to make money, and I like them so I usually do what it takes to keep them happy, but in truth I just want to be read/listened to by the largest number of people. Leave it to me to figure out how to convert that reputational currency into cash--just get me in front of the biggest audience and I'll do the rest. My agent doesn't want to hear this, but I'd rather take a smaller up-front advance or lower royalties in exchange for more liberty in distributing free versions, because I think I'll actually be better off in the end.
As Tim O'Reilly puts it, "Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy".
Of the nearly 200,000 books published last year, only about 2,000 (1%) made any money for anyone. The rest of them were published for other reasons, which range from marketing consulting services to simple expression. Outside of a relative handful of celebrity authors and self-help peddlers, almost nobody writes books for a living. (I discussed all this and more in my presentation at Google's Unbound conference last month.)
As for my own book, I imagine that approximately zero (give or take a few dozen) people who would have otherwise bought the proper audio book version will put up with the incredibly slow download required to pirate it (currently five days, according to my Bittorrent client). Even if it were faster, I still think it wouldn't cannibalize the audiobook sales in the slightest. These two worlds --Bittorrent users and audiobook buyers--don't intersect. That's why I can blithely rejoice that I'm interesting enough to pirate, without having to really worry about an serious financial pain to my publisher.
But forget about the pirated version. What if I put a free version of the audiobook on my own site and actively encouraged people to download it?
In principle, I'm in favor of free. Free digital products can be great marketing for a superior (or at least complimentary) analog version. In music, free digital songs can create demand for concerts. In my case, a free ebook can created demand for the actual print book or my speeches. Cory Doctrow gives away his books and says that it's a clear net positive, and even business authors such as Seth Godin have tried it for the promotional phase of a book release with success.
But an audiobook is not as clear a case for free as an ebook. On one hand, I think that zero-marginal costs ought to result in zero price. On the other, this is not an inferior version serving as marketing for a a superior experience--for people who like audiobooks, it is the experience. As such it really does appear to be a replacement for the CD/Audible.com version. Hyperion put a lot of money into producing that audiobook and they deserve a return. I'm confident that a free ebook would sell more of the print versions, but I'm less sure that people would buy a digital audiobook if there was a free version circulating widely online.
Perhaps the best compromise would to be to have a code printed in each hard-copy version of the book that would allow the buyers to download a free audiobook, so they could choose whether to read the book in print or just listen to it in the car, saving the hard copy for reference. This would cost practically nothing and presumably there'd be very little overlap with the dedicated audiobook buyer, who usually don't buy the hard-copy version.
Any forward-thinking book industry folks out there who want to explore the economics of this a bit further with me?