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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)
My .02
I just recently had this discussion with a person I know. I can not understand the idea of downloading illegal copies. (but then I have no e-reader and do not go to sites on the computer where these are available)

I can understand exerpts or sample chapters. This gives me an idea of whether I would enjoy the author. To me, this is no worse than going to the bookstore and reading the back cover and maybe a few pages into it. (ok that is another rant there about people who sit in book stores reading the whole book, breaking the spine, or other annoyances)

There are tons of options for low cost, or free, books. The library, friends, thrift stores, and yard sales, all have free or discounted books.

I HATED the day the book people came to the store. Seeing all those books tossed in the recycler... Just a waste (oops tangent).

I know this person I was talking to was downloading books I owned and I know for a fact were in the library. We had started out discussing a new release that was only in hardback at that moment. I told her I was waiting for the paperback release. She was talking about how she would have to see where it was for free. I was taken aback. New release??? For free??? That seems wrong to me. How is the author supposed to make anything.

I am seeing where so many authors are working 2 full time jobs (writing and another one) since writing does not tend to pay enough to live off of. And here is this ... person... who cannot shell out $5 for a book when she is wasting cash on nothings? Just cause her priorities are off... grrr.

I actually budget for books. I have to. Both I and my husband are voracious readers. Our tastes do match in a few areas (fantasy), but he likes his alternative history books where I like mysteries. So we budget for our books.

I am not sure how discount bins, sales, etc would effect the author.
Jan. 18th, 2011 03:00 pm (UTC)
Re: My .02
discounted books still generate royalties, typically. Bargain bin copies -- the hardbacks for $5 and such -- do not.

That said, authors don't earn royalties on used book sales, either, nor library check-outs.

All three of these, however, do put the author's work in the hands of more readers who are then more likely to go out and buy copies of the book -- and future books -- generating royalties for the author in the long run.
Jan. 18th, 2011 03:20 pm (UTC)
Re: My .02
Libraries do buy books, so if a title is popularly demanded, library purchases generate royalties too.

Also, small correction -- U.S. authors don't earn royalties on library check outs. There are countries, including Canada and Australia, where libraries keep track of what is being loaned out, and authors (citizens) can get an annual check from the government. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_Lending_Right for more info.)
Jan. 18th, 2011 03:28 pm (UTC)
Re: My .02
Yep. And personally, I'd love to see the U.S. get on board with that, but I don't see it happening any time soon.
Re: My .02 - serialbabbler - Jan. 18th, 2011 03:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: My .02 - mtlawson - Jan. 18th, 2011 07:34 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: My .02 - georgmi - Jan. 18th, 2011 08:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: My .02 - mtlawson - Jan. 18th, 2011 08:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: My .02 - georgmi - Jan. 18th, 2011 09:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 18th, 2011 03:36 pm (UTC)
Re: My .02
You're right, and I'm at fault for over-condensing what I meant to say.

Libraries do buy copies of the books they lend, which generates royalties to the author. American libraries, unlike the Canadian and Australian examples you cite, do not pay further royalties on the number of times the book circulates.

(Libraries do have to pay copyright fees on journal and magazine articles under several circumstances, though I never learned if any of that goes to the article authors or just the publisher when we covered that in library school.)
Re: My .02 - cainle_bean - Jan. 18th, 2011 03:43 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: My .02 - rosencrantz23 - Jan. 18th, 2011 03:52 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: My .02 - julieandrews - Jan. 18th, 2011 07:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: My .02 - finnyb - Jan. 19th, 2011 03:06 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: My .02 - rosencrantz23 - Jan. 19th, 2011 04:09 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: My .02 - finnyb - Jan. 20th, 2011 12:17 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: My .02 - rosencrantz23 - Jan. 18th, 2011 03:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: My .02 - cathshaffer - Jan. 18th, 2011 03:56 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: My .02 - rosencrantz23 - Jan. 18th, 2011 03:58 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 18th, 2011 06:56 pm (UTC)
Re: My .02
Dang. One more reason to move to Canada.
Jan. 18th, 2011 03:38 pm (UTC)
Re: My .02
Authors have *already* received their royalties on a book that is in a used bookstore when it was initially purchased. The difference between that and pirated e-books is that they *never* receive royalties for the pirated books.
Jan. 18th, 2011 04:34 pm (UTC)
Re: My .02
Er... someone had to buy either a hardcopy to scan, or an ebook to crack the DRM of, before a file can be spread, no?

(Mind, I see how copies and copies may make A LOT less bought "source"-books per X downloads, compared withbought library books per X checkouts. Just splitting hairs a bit.)
Re: My .02 - georgmi - Jan. 18th, 2011 08:35 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 18th, 2011 03:55 pm (UTC)
Re: My .02
Libraries often buy quite a lot of copies of popular new releases.
Jan. 18th, 2011 03:56 pm (UTC)
Re: My .02
yup, and then weed out most of them within 6 months to a year, once demand has died down for it.
Jan. 23rd, 2011 03:32 am (UTC)
Re: My .02
As a librarian and an aspiring writer, I have to make a slight correction here. Libraries are often among the biggest markets for mid-list authors; we do buy books, and in multiple formats. So there is a sale there, too. It's far better to take a book out from the library than it is to steal it!
Jan. 18th, 2011 03:08 pm (UTC)
Re: My .02
I sympathize with the tangent. I still carry emotional scars from the first time I learned that my unsold paperbacks wouldn't be returned, but would instead be stripped and discarded...

With discount bins, sales, and so on, it depends. My royalties are based on cover price, so if someone decides to discount my book, I still get the same royalty. On the other hand, I don't get paid for remaindered copies, so when my books go out of print and the remaining stock is sold off, I'm out of luck there. (The current plan is for me to buy as many copies as possible directly from the publisher when that happens, though.)

As for the person you were talking to ... yeah. I don't get it. I know there's a huge entitlement mindset going on, but really? "Gosh, my neighbor just got a sweet new car. I want one. Guess I'll head over to the dealership and steal one off the lot, 'cause I don't want to pay for it or anything, but I deserve it anyway!" Logicfail.
Jan. 18th, 2011 03:41 pm (UTC)
Re: My .02
Yeah, being a book lover, I hated seeing those HUGE bags of books going into the recycler every week. We are talking 2-3 60gal size bags (and this was a small Wal**rt). Even if they were mostly romances, still... its a waste to me.

Heh the person I was talking too does have a huge entitlement mindset. One of the reasons we are NOT friends. She is definately one of those who thinks EVERYTHING should be handed to her.

I actually rarely find books in discount bins that i am interested in. I am getting aggrivated with the in stock selection of our tiny book stores here. I still have to find stepsisters here to gift to friends(found 2 copies of Jig at Hastings) and am STILL looking for the first book by Harry Connolly, and C.E. Murphy's stuff. But this means hitting the store sites to me, once I get off my duff and go to the sites =p.
Re: My .02 - barbarienne - Jan. 18th, 2011 04:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: My .02 - cainle_bean - Jan. 18th, 2011 04:21 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: My .02 - finnyb - Jan. 19th, 2011 03:11 am (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 18th, 2011 04:06 pm (UTC)
Re: My .02
Hey, you don't have to steal a whole car. First you need an inside person to seed the car. Then a bunch of friends who can provide you pieces of the car. And in no time at all you'll have all of one. *grin*

Re: My .02 - jimhines - Jan. 18th, 2011 04:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: My .02 - textileowl - Jan. 18th, 2011 06:26 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: My .02 - georgmi - Jan. 18th, 2011 08:37 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 18th, 2011 04:29 pm (UTC)
Re: My .02
I have trouble with equating illegal downloads and theft exactly.

Stealing a car from a dealership takes away the car.
Downloading a book/CD/whatever does not remove anything from anywhere.

If I'd steal a paper book from a shop, the shop would lose whatever it paid the publisher or wholesaler for it, plus the profit from the lost sale (or maybe not - maybe it wouldn't have sold).
If I'd download an illegal copy of book, the worst case is that the profit from a lost sale is lost. But there is nothing that could have been sold to someone else if I had not taken it away.

One definitely takes money away, the other doesn't.
Re: My .02 - burger_eater - Jan. 18th, 2011 06:19 pm (UTC) - Expand


Jim C. Hines


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