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Arguing Book Piracy

Last week, I saw a lot of authors linking to “Free” Books Aren’t Free, a blog post by author Saundra Mitchell talking about the costs of book piracy.

Let me state up front that illegally downloading books is stealing.  If you’re doing it, at least have the guts to admit you’re committing theft instead of spouting off excuses.

That said, I disagree with some of Mitchell’s reasoning.  She argues:

If even HALF of those people who downloaded my book that week had bought it, I would have hit the New York Times Bestseller list. If the 800+ downloads a week of my book were only HALF converted into sales, I would earn out in one more month.

Yes, and if my dogs pooped gold, I could quit my day job.  But it ain’t going to happen.  Author Scott Nicholson guesses that 10,000 illegal downloads equates to maybe 5 lost sales.  I suspect he’s underestimating, and the true numbers are somewhere between his and Mitchell’s, but I don’t think there’s any way to say for certain.  I’m just not buying the argument that half of those downloaders would have actually bought Mitchell’s book (particularly since we’re talking about a hardcover.)

She goes on to say:

[M]y book is never going to be available in your $region, not for lack of trying. My foreign rights agent is a genius at what she does, and has actively tried to sell it everywhere- UK, AU, China, France, you name it, she tried to sell it there.  SHADOWED SUMMER will only be coming out in Italy, because that’s the only place there’s a market for it.

The implication being that piracy killed her chances at foreign sales?  I’m confused on this one.  Does the availability of a pirated English book really reduce demand for a Chinese edition of said book?  I suppose it’s possible … most countries are more multilingual than the U.S.  But it’s a stretch, and I’m not convinced.

[T]he sales figures on SHADOWED SUMMER had a seriously detrimental effect on my career. It took me almost two years to sell another book. I very nearly had to change my name and start over. And my second advance? Was exactly the same as the first because sales figures didn’t justify anything more.

The thing that makes me hesitate here is that piracy is an across-the-board problem.  Every commercially published author’s books end up on torrent sites.  Some authors are still doing quite well.  Others, not so much.  So does it make sense for struggling authors to blame book pirates for low sales when other authors are selling well despite said pirates?

Mitchell says a lot I agree with, too.  If you can’t afford books, go to the library.  Try to get review copies.  Or maybe if you can’t afford the books, you just don’t get them.  Wanting a book doesn’t give you the right to steal it.

I agree with her that, “People who illegally download books are more interested in their convenience than in supporting the authors they want to read.”

I’m NOT saying book piracy is harmless.  (To authors or to readers either, for that matter.  Laura Anne Gilman recently pointed out another example of a torrent site installing malware with downloads.)  Bottom line, it’s a dickish thing to do.

And it does hurt authors.  How much, I don’t know.  I suspect it will hurt us more in coming years, as electronic reading becomes more widespread and book scanning technology improves.  Lost productivity alone is a serious cost for authors who try to keep up with DMCA notifications to various sites.

It pisses me off when I find people illegally sharing my books online.  And I think it’s important to educate readers.  But I don’t think it helps our cause to distort or exaggerate the problem.

Discussion welcome and appreciated.  I expect some disagreement on this one, and as always, I reserve the right to change my mind.

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.


( 224 comments — Leave a comment )
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Jan. 19th, 2011 06:43 am (UTC)
I haven't read all the comments (I will later) but I'm gonna say that I download illegal ebooks. I could be way off base with this, but to me it feels ethically okay, the same as taking a car for a test drive, and not buying it if it isn't what I want. If I drive it and love it, I don't get to keep it without paying for it. I do the same basic thing with music too, and can proudly say that my MP3 player does not have any songs that were obtained illegally.

I don't know what others think, but I'm okay with it. Here are my 'rules':
-Only one ebook per author, to read it and see if I like it. (That's my test drive.)
-If I hate the book, I delete it, make a note in my spreadsheet, and don't read any more from them. (If I drive a car that I just cannot be comfortable in, here's the equivalent to taking it back to the dealer and telling them I'd never buy this car and walking away. It's kinda rare for me, since I don't tend to look for books I know I won't like.)
-If I like the book, but don't really care to pay to read more from the author, I delete it, make a note, and only download legal copies at a discount, or free offers. (This would be a case of maybe asking the dealer if I can have a longer test drive or a REALLY good deal - I've had dealers allow a car to go for a weekend for a longer testing period.)
-If I like the book/series/author, and would like to read more, I go buy a copy (usually on Amazon, since I have a Kindle). Then if I see that author offering up free or really cheap books, I grab them. (If I can get a really good price from the dealer, I'll grab the car.)
-If I love the book/series/author, I immediately buy a copy (again, generally for my Kindle) and put everything else by that author on my wishlist and buy them as soon as I can. I'll often buy the audio book as well if I can find it. (I'll pay whatever I gotta pay for this car, I love it. That's pretty much how we got our little pickup, and it's not going anywhere for a while.)

Physical books are a rare purchase now, because I already have SO MANY books that I have to store them in waterproof bins and can't display them. We're slowly adding shelves all over the house and converting a bedroom to a library, but even so, I doubt I'll be able to have all our books out. Wow, I'm wandering all over with tangents and babbling. Sorry about that.

I think the problem is that a lot of people don't realize that by not supporting the author, there is a chance they will have to stop writing, or perhaps stop allowing their books to be distributed as ebooks, thus making it harder to get them and read them. So, while I'm willing to cross the line for one book, if I like an author, I feel it's my duty to pay their 'wages', well, my share anyway.

I hope this was coherent, and feel free to flame me or whatever. I can take it.
Jan. 20th, 2011 02:59 pm (UTC)
My evil deed for the day.

shiv5468 made a mention of literary piracy today in a blog post (and yes, True Believers, it's LiveJournal). It seems the issue is being spoken of in several places, now, and not only among professional and semi-pro authors. And no, I didn't Google discussions. Shiv's been on my LJ friend's list for years. I like friending intelligent and educated people. XD
Jan. 20th, 2011 03:15 pm (UTC)
Yep, there's a lot of chatter going on right now. I've got at least a dozen other links I need to pore over before writing a follow-up to this thing... Some great discussion going on, though. (Also some not-so-great, but hey, welcome to the Internet, right?)
Jan. 20th, 2011 04:32 pm (UTC)
Oh, but of course: but this is a unique situation, where two of my friends, independent of each other, are sort of discussing the same problem, i.e., theft of intellectual property, which is what e-piracy, or the unauthorized distribution of the author's original, copyrighted material, amounts to.
Jan. 20th, 2011 03:51 pm (UTC)
My thoughts on piracy... I'm actually of two minds about this. (Warning: long post is long.)

My first thought is: I'm not bothered.

For one, I'm friends with a lot of people who pirate books/TV series/comics/movies/games, so I'm really not down with the various authors who say that pirates are automatically evil. (Some people do this.)

Many of these friends do buy legal copies of what they like. Some authors have claimed that this doesn't happen, ever. In fact, these friends of mine will not only buy the legal copy of that book/movie, they'll recommend that friends do the same, post about it on forums (sometimes with a link to the download, sometimes not), purchase any and all merchandise, and generally be giant fannish nerds about it. Some of them are librarians and will purchase copies for their library.

Many of those friends would not have bought those books/movies if piracy weren't available. I know several people who rarely bought books/movies until they started downloading -- then they suddenly found so much work they loved that their shelves exploded.

In those cases, pirating irrefutably leads to several legally purchased copies. Those sales would NOT HAVE HAPPENED if not for piracy. So I find it hard to argue that piracy has zero benefits.

I don't know many people who pirate but who would've bought the legal version otherwise. I think that's the only case that actually translates to a lost sale. I have absolutely no doubt that these people are out there, don't get me wrong... but I don't know them.

And I do know loads of people who belong to the former category. I'll freely admit that probably skews my opinion, but hey, that's why it's opinion and not fact. *g*

On that same note, like you, Jim, I'm annoyed when people make sweeping assumptions (on either side), because we don't know the numbers. And because of that, I can't say that piracy is harmful, harmless, or even beneficial. I can't say it's 'bad' or 'wrong' or 'awesome!' I can form my own opinion that I don't think of it as a big deal. (For the record, I don't think legality should have a lot of play in this discussion. If it was 100% about legal vs. illegal, all pirates should move to The Netherlands. Problem solved!)

The flip side of the coin is that if authors don't want their book pirated, I respect that opinion. I cannot say, "I'M not bothered by piracy, therefore NO ONE ELSE should be." This post isn't an argument on why I think people should be OK with it, just an explanation for why I am.

However, I CAN say:

1) If you complain about piracy, please don't state assumptions/speculation as fact. ("No one will buy the book if they have access to it for free"; "approximately this number of people would've bought it"; "you'll support the torrenters"; etc.)
2) Personal attacks probably won't endear you to people. Some of those people might have bought your book. (That's not to say you can't voice your opinions on piracy, obviously, just that HOW you do it makes a lot of difference. This is more about professionalism than anything else.)
3) It's not going away. I'm not sure how productive it is to report the websites or complain online. Most of the people following your blog/Twitter pay for your work, right? Who are you hoping to reach?

People should be able to vent on their own blogs, absolutely... just sometimes it seems like they're actually trying to accomplish something vs. letting off steam, and I'm not sure how likely that is. But that one's personal, I guess. I genuinely like some of these people and worry that they're wasting their time.

... okay, this post is way too long.
Jan. 20th, 2011 10:59 pm (UTC)
I have not read the comments yet but- I buy new. Sometimes in HB, sometimes in PB.

I also frequently swap these books on sites like Paperback Swap, and thus get new-to-me books for the cost of shipping off a book I already have and read.

I regret that the authors are not benefiting from this swapping... though I've certainly discovered authors thus who I now buy new (and keep!). But- this is at least legal!

If you want to discourage artists- authors or whatever- from making more of the art you like- steal it. That means they will not be able to afford to make more, and may have to take up turnip-farming to pay for their own cost of living.

(I am currently mostly a metalsmith. I've done illustration and loved it- but given the way people steal, i couldn't make a living that way. So I moved to metals. If "information wants to be FREE!!!!" and they steal my illustration and use it themselves- it's expensive to do anything about it, and probably not worth it. If they say "Gold wants to be FREE!!!!" and steal it, I can get the cops after them. :P And it's not like it's a sacrifice- I like metals a LOT- but i do miss pure illustration.)
Jan. 21st, 2011 03:48 am (UTC)
THANK you. I've been shaking my head at that post, because really, books are pirated/downloaded for very different reasons than it assumes.

I asked a writer-friend (whose initials are T.B., I bet you can guess who I mean) about this because of all the illegal downloads of my books, and because a kid in India actually told me he was going to get my third book off a pirate site. T.B. set me straight. It's really not worth worrying about.
Jan. 21st, 2011 12:35 pm (UTC)
I should e-mail our mutual friend to pick his brain. I've gotten a lot of feedback on this, and have learned a fair amount about some of my own mistaken assumptions. There's definitely going to be a follow-up post, hopefully next week.

I think part of what I'm learning is that books are downloaded for a whole range of reasons. I think a fair amount of that does fall into what I'd describe as "The dickish continuum" ... but not all of it, and not all to the same extent.
Jan. 21st, 2011 12:54 pm (UTC)
Things become interesting when you start talking about third-world readers. Like that kid in India.

And yeah, there's the dickish quotient, and the collector thing, and even a community aspect--boards where people share files that they're probably never going to read.

The ONE that gets me is when somebody on a board says "I loved the first book, can somebody send me the second." Then that really is a missed sale. But I doubt there are many of those true readers out there.
Jan. 21st, 2011 04:18 am (UTC)
Whew. I have read the comments.

This is what I disagree with. Mitchell didn't say, "if only people couldn't pirate books, I would have lots and lots of sales." She said that 800 people a week thought it was okay to take something from her without paying and that if even half of those people paid for what they took, she'd be on the NYT Bestseller List. Maybe I am the only one who sees a difference in those two statements.

I think that saying "Yeah, but you didn't lose any *sales*" is framing the argument entirely wrong. People shouldn't take what they don't pay for. It doesn't matter if she "lost" something. If you say it does, you open yourself up to people who think that illegal downloads are all right because the author still *has* the story to sell, doesn't she?

What matters is that someone has taken her story without paying for it. She lost the $6 she should have gotten when someone took the story.

If you could wave a magic wand and stop all the pirating of Mitchell's books, she still wouldn't have the sales to guarantee a career. But she wouldn't be sitting there knowing that her books were good enough, lots of people have really enjoyed the hell out of them . . . and she got bupkiss.

What she and wants needs (just like the rest of us) is to convince the people who want to read books that they should pay for them.

Just think, if she that 50% success rate at getting people to pay for books, she STILL wouldn't be on the NYTBS because those people are probably the same people illegally downloading MY books and a lot of others as well.
Jan. 21st, 2011 01:18 pm (UTC)
I have around 150 books on my iPhone. I paid for two of them and read about fifteen so far.
(They're all legal - Gutenberg and giveaways, but that's irrelevant to my argument.)

The point is that only one of the books on my phone represents a lost sale - it's a book I would have bought anyway and I was ever so happy to get it for free from the publisher as a promotion. The rest are things I wanted to check out - they are, at best, a lost library lending fee, but mostly they represent things I'd pick up in a bookstore or on a friend's shelf or in a second-hand bookstore, glance at, and put down again.

If I had downloaded five thousand pirated books from a torrent site, I would still have read fifteen books. The chance that one of them would represent a lost sale is greater - but being someone who understands that authors need to be paid to keep writing, I would feel compelled to buy another of the author's books, if not that one.

The more books somebody grabs, the less likely they are to be a danger - it's the people who deliberately seek out books they want who are going to hurt writers, but it's not as if the person who wants to legally read a book without buying it new has no alternatives: they have many.

And I'll admit to having found, and accessed online an illegal copy of a book I own in hardcover: I needed a quote and did not have the time to read the whole thing so I googled for the quote. The page came up, so I clicked through and found that it was the complete text. A quick search later, I had my quote, and did not make a note of the URL; but if I'd downloaded the file (as opposed to having it temporarily downloaded as part of the websurfing process) things would not have been any different in regards to the effect on the authorial income stream.
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Jim C. Hines


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