April 23, 2013

Will Russian ebook piracy slow the Amazon juggernaut?


What could go wrong?

Amazon is hiring for their first official office in Russia, which will focus on growing the Kindle market there. Russia, however, remains famous for their widespread book piracy, particularly in digital formats. While expansion into Russia seems inevitable for a institution predicated on gluttony like Amazon, the piracy problem may make it a fruitless move, at least in the short term.

Ingrid Lunden of Techcrunch reported the news Friday, drawing it from the Russian site of Forbes, which itself cites unnamed sources, and Amazon job listings on LinkedIn.

Reading over those listings, two things are immediately apparent. First, job listings for middle management at tech companies are surely written with the express goal of making me gouge out my own eyeballs with whatever is close to hand. What do I have here in my pocket. Keys? Perfect. Second, Amazon seems to be hiring Russian natives to develop Kindle content in Russian, but these particular jobs are listed as based in Luxembourg. It may be irrelevant whether they are actually based in Luxembourg such that these employees will be living and working there, or based in Luxembourg in the way that Amazon UK is “based” there, despite now owning a massive office space in London itself.

Whatever the case, expansion into Russia is surely a priority, and is in keeping with Amazon’s announcement earlier last week that it will be expanding its Android Appstore platform to a broad swath of new nations, with a heavy focus on Latin America and other markets with growing buying power. With the battle over new adoptees of ebook-specific devices in the States and in Europe and Japan becoming more entrenched, and with Amazon’s move toward general purpose devices in recent years, the company will necessarily want to have extensive content available in order to dominate in markets like Brazil, and now perhaps Russia, that already have native ebook vendors and devices on the field.

In Russia, however, ebook piracy is rampant enough to give even the most megalomaniacal of Seattlites pause. As we’ve discussed before on MobyLives, Russians have access to nearly twice as many pirated ebooks as legal. The problem is so rife, Rospechat, the Russian publishing agency, is spearheading a movement to urge consumers to Read Legally. (You really have to visit this site for Read Legally, by the way—their promotional video is a heady, complex mix of intentional and unintentional hilarity.)

Says Mikhail Osin, head of Russia’s largest native Amazon competitor Ozon.ru:

“In 2010, OZON.ru became the first company to introduce an e-reader for the Russian market that allowed its users to buy books online and sync their purchases. Unfortunately, the project was a failure.”

“In practice, Russians usually only use such devices to store their collections of pirated books, and this tendency can be observed even today”.

It’s tempting to hope ebook piracy proves something of a Waterloo for Jeff Bezos and his bookstore-flattening artillery, but book piracy this widespread is—and yes it shocks me to type this—perhaps even worse. The best possible scenario here would be that fighting piracy in Russia proves a grueling landscape-shifting struggle for Amazon, one broad enough that both it and the culture of piracy are weakened, leaving room for those that care about books, booksellers, and authors to rise up in the fields tilled by their monstrous struggle.

Dustin Kurtz is former marketing manager of Melville House.