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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.


Jan. 18th, 2011 02:53 pm (UTC)
I agree with all of the above. Mind you, I don't have an e-reader, and probably won't for some time. But if you wouldn't go into a bookstore or a library and steal a book off the shelf (and by golly, I hope you wouldn't!), you shouldn't steal one online either. It is the same thing.

What most people don't seem to realize is that there are very few rich authors out there. (Not that it would be acceptable to steal from the ones who are. Still Wrong.) But most of the authors I know (and most of the publishers, and most of the bookstores, for that matter) are BARELY MAKING ANY MONEY as it is. Certainly not a lot when you look at the person-hours that are put into each book.

I don't buy every book I read new. I wish I could, but I can't. (I also don't have the shelf space...) I try to buy books by the authors I like personally, and any book I think I will read multiple times. Sometimes I buy used books...but at least someone paid for them at some point. I also lend books to friends (which means they aren't buying the book either), but if I'm lucky, they get hooked on the author and then go out and get the next one.

Stealing is bad karma. Stealing from authors is REALLY bad karma. Don't do it, dudes.
Jan. 18th, 2011 03:03 pm (UTC)
"I agree with all of the above."

Oh, come on. How am I supposed to argue with people if they just agree with me? Where's the fun in that? :-)

FWIW, I have absolutely no problem with people buying my books used. But there's a huge difference -- ethically, practically, and legally -- between buying a used book and downloading an illegal electronic copy. Used books are finite in number, and as you said, have been paid for at some point in the process.

Likewise with lending books. And I'm actually happy to see e-readers starting to build in some lending functionality.
Jan. 18th, 2011 03:37 pm (UTC)
So sorry. I'll try to find something to argue about next time.
Jan. 19th, 2011 12:36 am (UTC)
Oh, good; I hate feeling apologetic for buying used, but I'm on fixed (disability) income. (When I was working for decent wages as a tech writer/editor, the local bookstore people knew me so well they sent me Christmas cards, signed by all the staff...)

I've now got three friends who're ecstatic about their Kindles, to the point that I'd like one. Maybe in a couple of years, when people upgrade to the latest model and have older ones on sale for cheap, or on FreeCycle... And yay! that they're starting to allow for lending.
Jan. 19th, 2011 12:41 am (UTC)
I'm starting to feel the temptation of the e-readers myself, and I never thought that was something I'd want. But dang it would be nice, if nothing else, to have all of those public domain works at my fingertips!

I've got plenty of used books myself, and while I can't speak for other authors, I have absolutely no problem with 'em.
Jan. 18th, 2011 06:50 pm (UTC)
Hey, if you are going to steal a book, better to steal one from the library. At least from the AUTHOR'S point of view. If it's a new and/or popular book, they'll buy a replacement copy.

Bad for the library, of course, especially as budgets keep getting slashed year after year. Eventually those replacements are not going to get bought.
Jan. 18th, 2011 07:07 pm (UTC)
From a purely author-finance perspective, maybe, but I believe there's a special circle of hell for those who deliberately steal from libraries...
Jan. 18th, 2011 07:17 pm (UTC)
Hey, were you reading Pearls Before Swine on Sunday?

Sunday's Pearls Before Swine

(Courtesy of comics.com.)
Jan. 18th, 2011 07:26 pm (UTC)
(For the record, that's a link to the actual comic's location, not the website the comic is featured at.)
Jan. 19th, 2011 12:33 am (UTC)
Actually, in this economy, they won't be replacing the book. Since ours is a regional library system, if the book's popular, it would mean fewer copies in circulation; if not popular, it's just going to be gone. (There have been things I've been on top of the hold queue for, for months, and when I finally talk to a librarian about it, if it doesn't show as checked out they'll start the paper (or computer) work to remove it from the catalog.)

Our library had cut hours two years ago; cut them more last year; next month they won't be open Sundays, not even for the four hours they are now. *huge sigh*
Jan. 19th, 2011 01:18 am (UTC)
Yeah, this. Library funding is getting cut pretty well everywhere in the US. They don't have the funds to constantly replace books because someone stole them. :-\


Jim C. Hines


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