Hot on the heels of the story in Publisher's Weekly that "publishers could be losing out on as much $3 billion to online book piracy" comes a sudden realization of a much larger threat to the viability of the book industry. Apparently, over 2 billion books were "loaned" last year by a cabal of organizations found in nearly every American city and town. Using the same advanced projective mathematics used in the study cited by Publishers Weekly, Go To Hellman has computed that publishers could be losing sales opportunities totaling over $100 Billion per year, losses which extend back to at least the year 2000. These lost sales dwarf the online piracy reported yesterday, and indeed, even the global book publishing business itself.
From what we've been able to piece together, the book "lending" takes place in "libraries". On entering one of these dens, patrons may view a dazzling array of books, periodicals, even CDs and DVDs, all available to anyone willing to disclose valuable personal information in exchange for a "card". But there is an ominous silence pervading these ersatz sanctuaries, enforced by the stern demeanor of staff and the glares of other patrons. Although there's no admission charge and it doesn't cost anything to borrow a book, there's always the threat of an onerous overdue bill for the hapless borrower who forgets to continue the cycle of not paying for copyrighted material.
To get to the bottom of this story, Go To Hellman has dispatched its Senior Piracy Analyst (me) to Boston, where a mass meeting of alleged book traffickers is to take place. Over 10,000 are expected at the "ALA Midwinter" event. Even at the Amtrak station in New York City this morning, at the very the heart of the US publishing industry, book trafficking culture was evident, with many travelers brazenly displaying the totebags used to transport printed contraband.
As soon as I got off the train, I was surrounded by even more of this crowd. Calling themselves "Librarians", they talk about promoting literacy, education, culture and economic development, which are, of course, code words for the use and dispersal of intellectual property. They readily admit to their activities, and rationalize them because they're perfectly legal in the US, at least for now.
Typical was Susanne from DC, who told me that she's been involved in lending operations for over 15 years. This confirms our estimate that "lending" has been going on for over ten years, beyond even Google's memory. Our trillion dollar estimate may thus be on the conservative side. Of course, it's impossible to tell how many of these lent books would have been purchased legally if "libraries" were not an option, but we're not even considering the huge potential losses to publishers when "used" books are resold for pennies on the black markets.
The communications backbone for this vast enterprise appears to be Twitter. Already, there is constant chatter on the #alamw10 hashtag. Most messages are clearly coded references to illicit transactions. For example a trafficker with the alias "@libacat" tweets "Have to be on the bus to the airport at 6:41 tomorrow morning to make it to the airport to get on my plane to #alamw10". At first glance, it seems like a mundane tweet about travel plans, but the breathtaking ordinariness and triple redundancy is more likely a secret code. How else to understand @scolford's (correction: retweet of @SonjaandLibrary replying to @BPLBoston) tweet; "curling my toes in joy at the thought of visiting your library"?
I've attended this meeting before. When I register for the book lending confab, I'll be presented with an encrypted document labeled the "program", which once decoded, will tell me where I can meet other book traffickers, discuss arcane trafficker lore, and drink trafficker beer. It's thick with secret code words like YALSA, LITA and NMRT, and no apparent rhyme or reason in its layout, evidently to frustrate outside investigators. I'll be lucky if I can find a bathroom.
Two places I'll be sure to find this weekend will be the OCLC Blog Salon on Sunday evening and the Chinatown Storefront Library on Saturday afternoon. Say hello if you see me.
A more serious post on Attributor is forthcoming.
Update: here's my post on "Deconstructing the Attributor Study".