The Myth of Amazon’s “Exclusive” E-books

In Growth Markets by Emily Williams

By Emily Williams made a big splash earlier this month with its announcement that international megastar Paulo Coelho would make 17 of his books in the original Portuguese available exclusively on Amazon for six months.  The press release, parroted on a number of news sites, proclaimed this “the first time any of these editions have been available as electronic books,” and since the exclusive deal was struck directly with the author and his agent it seemed to echo an earlier announcement of exclusive Kindle distribution for business author Stephen Covey’s books.

The Pirate Coelho

The Pirate Coelho

But the “exclusivity” of the deal with Covey only covers two of the author’s books: His perennial bestseller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and at a point in the future, Principle-Centered Leadership. What’s more, 7 Habits has been available in multiple formats for some time, making it seem less than exclusive.  And the situation surrounding the “exclusivity” of Amazon’s Coelho e-books is equally questionable.

Coelho, the author who holds the Guinness world record for translation into 67 languages in over 150 countries, whose book The Alchemist was a #1 bestseller in 74 countries (again according to Amazon’s press release), has also taught himself a great deal about how to use the internet to reach the greatest number of readers possible around the world — even when that means bypassing traditional book distribution channels.  Coelho has for years been an advocate of direct engagement with his readers using all the online tools at his disposal, and — most controversially — has defended free distribution and online piracy as a way of reaching the widest possible audience.

The Pirate Coelho

In his keynote speech opening the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2008, Coelho laid out his philosophy quite clearly, describing his decision to create a site, The Pirate Coelho, where he links to free pirated downloads of his books in any language he can find them online:

“Why not share the whole digital content of books for free?  Contrary to what common sense tells us — and common sense is not always a good guide, otherwise publishers, booksellers and writers would probably be doing something more profitable — the more you give, the more you gain.  I was lucky enough to see this happening to my books in Russia, back in 1999, where I had a very difficult beginning.  Given the great distances, my books were very poorly distributed and the sales were very low.  Yet, with the appearance of a pirated digital copy of The Alchemist sales took off in an amazing way.  In the first year, the sales had jumped from 1,000 copies to 10,000 copies.  In the second year they soared to 100,000 copies and the year after I sold a million books. To this day, I have reached the mark of over 10 million books in this territory.  The Russian experience stimulated me to create a site: “The Pirate Coelho”.

“The Pirate Coelho” was there for three years, being fed by readers worldwide, and nobody in the industry noticed — because my sales were steadily growing.  However, from the moment that I mentioned it at a Technology Conference at the beginning of this year, I started hearing some complaints.  However, in the end, my US publishing house, HarperCollins, for example, fully understood the possibilities.  So once a month during 2008, I have uploaded one of my titles, unabridged, to be read online.  Instead of seeing a drop in sales, I am pleased to say that The Alchemist, one of the first titles to be made available online, by September has completed a full year on the New York Times bestselling list.  This is living proof of our industry’s momentum: use the web to promote and you will see the results in the physical world.”

So while it is technically true that Amazon has the first published e-books for sale, digital editions of all of Coelho’s titles in Portuguese have been available on his site for free for years.  These are not unreadable scans either.  The link to the Portuguese version of The Alchemist downloads a formatted PDF with a note on the cover page reading “special edition from, sale prohibited”.  Coelho makes it very clear on his Pirate site that legal responsibility for the download rests entirely with the reader, and encourages them to go buy a legal copy instead, or to provide the free copies to libraries in small towns, hospitals, and prisons.  His main intention, he says, is to share his ideas with people who cannot afford to buy the books.

As of this week, The Pirate Coelho is still up and running, as Coelho himself mentioned in an interview with Brazilian newspaper O Estadão, published after the Amazon announcement. “I post the translations I find online on my site, making it easier for readers to pirate my books,” he says.  “I’m not afraid of any kind of piracy.  I have my site The Pirate Coelho and, just in the time it took me to answer these questions, I see 155 files were downloaded in different countries around the world.”

Harvard Business Review Press

Yesterday brought another announcement, this time an Amazon exclusive launch of Harvard Business Review Press’s Short Cuts series — digital editions of chapters from some of their popular business titles, sold in the shorter format to appeal to busy business readers.  Harvard Business has both a strong consumer brand and an active and carefully tended direct relationship with their readers. And, it should come as no surprise, that the company has been selling chapters off its own website for years in PDF format, often quite successfully.  There are still chapters available for sale on the Press’s website (one example here), though the Short Cuts branding they’re using for the products sold on Amazon appears to be new.  We’re hoping for more background from Harvard Business on their reasons for partnering with Amazon, but again this appears to be a case of partnering with Amazon to extend the reach of an existing digital strategy rather than a hot new publishing exclusive.

BROWSE: The “Pirate Coelho” site.

READ: The full Text of Coelho’s Frankfurt speech.

VIEW: Amazon’s press release about its “exclusive” e-books.

DISCUSS: Is Amazon’s 70% Royalty on E-books Worth the Restrictions?

About the Author

Emily Williams

Emily Williams as Manager of International Digital Content at Barnes & Before that, she worked as digital content producer for Publishers Marketplace, contributor to Digital Book World and Publishing Perspectives, and also held a senior scout position with Maria B. Campbell & Associates.