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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 03:17 pm (UTC)
A different viewpoint
Let me be the devil's advocate here--in other words, the one everyone piles on to beat me up.

I write to be read. I have no illusions about making money with it. If I could just get my books out there, they might find their audience. (Their audience, say agents and editors, is too small to bother with.) But putting my books on the Kindle for a couple of dollars is still self-publishing and is tarred with the brush of "must not be good enough to see print," so most people don't bother to take a look. In fact my work is NOT for everyone. It's for the old-fashioned reader who enjoys a good digression, who likes to learn something even while reading fiction, who doesn't mind a character-driven story that may not be slash-bang-boom. However, I do believe there IS an audience.

If I were to discover that my books were being downloaded by anyone at ALL, it would be cause for rejoicing. I would love to get some reviews from just about any reader who enjoyed the books or who thought the prose was fun to read. I don't care that I'm not making any money on it. If my books outlived me because they were being downloaded . . . well, then I would know that I had fulfilled my purpose in life. I couldn't carp about it.

I also do not believe that thieves (and, yes, the people who d/l music and video and books on those sites are stealing! No question about it) would actually buy the books anyway. If they steal them to trade . . . well, it could still mean that some 14-year-old girl would run across my dark YA urban fantasy and might be entranced by it. (I have fond memories of reading bad books during adolescence, so this COULD happen!) It might mean that some mystery buff who likes a cozy similar to Anne George's or Donna Andrews' series would run across my mysteries and like them. This is the point in my writing them. So I can't really say that I think anyone's losing money when those bittorrents take place. (Again, they'll steal whatever . . . they wouldn't BUY the stuff, but just get a thrill out of stealing it. Or they don't have any concept of intellectual property, which is fairly likely.)

People will say, "I can't afford to write if the work doesn't sell." But . . . writing doesn't cost much money. You don't need fancy equipment--just a pen or pencil and the backs of envelopes (the great Gettysburg Address was written that way, they say). It costs nothing but time, and you have free time when you would otherwise be watching the tube or whatever. So I can't see how someone can't afford to write a series of books that they love. I write books that are the type I would like to read if I could find them. You (the royal "you," not YOU personally) should be writing books that you love. Then it will be a labor of love, even if you don't make any money.

The short version is that I envy those whose work is so popular that it is thought worthwhile to have out on those sites. Unpopular stuff doesn't last long on those sites. So . . . if your work is loved, can you not take some pleasure in that? Don't worry so much about the pennies. It is my impression that most midlist authors make more money doing speaking engagements and teaching classes (where they also hand-sell copies of their printed books) than they do in royalties, anyway. I could, of course, be wrong. (It happened once before, in 1981.)

*bracing for the pile-on of angry everybodies*
Jan. 18th, 2011 03:26 pm (UTC)
Re: A different viewpoint
How can you pile on to someone who uses Hobbes for an LJ icon? Hobbes is pretty much pile-on proof.

I actually just replied to something similar over on DW. I'm not completely convinced that torrent downloads do much to build an audience, and even if it does, it's building an audience among people who don't want to pay for my work.

I understand what you mean about wanting to be read, and that's important, no question. But getting paid is important too. Partly it's that whole "wanting to pay my mortgage" thing, but also the money that comes in to me *and to my publisher* is what we use to produce and publicize the books. Especially in my publisher's case, this is how they get the money to advertise and promote and get me read by more people.

Writing doesn't cost a lot of money, necessarily. (I spent about two grand on writing-related expenses last year, but a lot of that could be cut down if I had to.) It does cost time, though.

"So . . . if your work is loved, can you not take some pleasure in that? Don't worry so much about the pennies."

I do take pleasure in knowing my work is loved. I also take pleasure in being able to keep my house. The writing is the reason for the latter. A lot of us do this as a job. It's a significant part -- if not the sole part -- of our income. See here for more info on my own writing budget.
Jan. 18th, 2011 03:45 pm (UTC)
Re: A different viewpoint
There's also the big picture money-wise, long term. Publishing as an industry is already struggling. (See Borders...)If people don't buy books, no one in publishing --including authors, publishers, and stores--will continue to make or carry them. Then where would we be. I support my local Indy bookstore--even though it is a few dollars more expensive than getting the books through Amazon--because I want that store to be there in the years to come. I also support the authors whose work I love, because I want them to write that next book.
Jan. 18th, 2011 03:40 pm (UTC)
Re: A different viewpoint

People will say, "I can't afford to write if the work doesn't sell." But . . . writing doesn't cost much money.

Jay Lake has a nice post on how much it costs in paid time from a publishing house to create one of his books. Writing costs nothing but time, for which I get paid at a day job.

If you don't value your time, that's personal, but professional entertainers have always had valuable time. Why should Jay Lake's time be less valued in proportion to he people who enjoy his work than Mark Wahlberg's?

Edited at 2011-01-18 03:40 pm (UTC)
Jan. 18th, 2011 04:28 pm (UTC)
Re: A different viewpoint
Now, wait a minute. Who said I didn't value my time? What I actually *said* is that I believe that I was made to write books, and that it is part of my purpose here on Earth. Therefore, that's what I do. I've pretty much given up on ever being published by New York (and it looks as if the shift to e-books may mean a different delivery method for books anyway), although that has always been my lifelong goal. It would be great to be paid for a book. But that's not why I write them. The time I invest in writing a book is time that I have used to try to fulfill what I believe is my destiny. Musicians rehearse. It takes me a couple of months to polish a piano piece for performance (amateur--classical; it's Beethoven, Mozart, and Schubert, the shorter pieces or one mvt of a sonata), and that time is not "paid for" or less valued. Professional entertainers spend a lot of time trying out routines and doing "takes" that get discarded. It's all part of doing the work. Do they know for sure that a song is going to sell when they're cutting the demo? Do comedians know if a routine will play in Peoria when they're trying it out? They don't. So this isn't the issue.

The issue is--are you writing because it is your calling, and would you go on doing it if you couldn't do it as a career for money? You might never grab the brass ring. Are you going to stop reaching for it?

I think it sort of reeks of hubris for people to price out their time for doing creative work, because creative work probably pays less than a penny a day when you take into account all the polishing, thinking, planning, typing, and so forth that has to take place. If you are doing it because you think the work itself has artistic value beyond whatever you make in money (even if it's not Great Art, it has the power to entertain and make people think), then that's not the same as "not valuing your time."

Re: A different viewpoint - jimhines - Jan. 18th, 2011 04:36 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: A different viewpoint - shalanna - Jan. 18th, 2011 09:38 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: A different viewpoint - finnyb - Jan. 19th, 2011 03:16 am (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 18th, 2011 03:58 pm (UTC)
Re: A different viewpoint
Some people write as a hobby, some people write to make money, whether it's a substantial part of their income or not. Are you really saying that only one of these is an acceptable reason to write?

As for the "writing is free" argument, regardless of material costs, writing can be very high in opportunity cost, because you have to spend time on it that could be spent on other things. And if you need to spend money in order to gain free time--hiring a babysitter, for example--it's not free in the strictly monetary sense either.
Jan. 18th, 2011 04:31 pm (UTC)
Re: A different viewpoint
I don't write as a hobby. I still mail out queries and partials and so forth, but I hold out little hope that I'll hit that big win and actually publish a book with a New York house. Even if I did, though, I would be doing it not for money, but for the validation that would give the work. If my work came out from a "real" house, then people would not dismiss it out of hand. It would have a chance.

If people write to make money, then I wish them luck, because only a small percentage of authors ever make very much money.

Anything worth doing is going to take up some of your free time. You're saying that some people have no free time unless they hire a baby-sitter, but that's not strictly true. There are stolen moments. There's the time after the kids go to bed when most people collapse in front of the teevee. It's all got to do with your motivation. If you expect to have large blocks of time to devote to writing, that may not be realistic.
Jan. 18th, 2011 04:06 pm (UTC)
Re: A different viewpoint
I think you have a very good point. A lot of the discussion about ebooks, piracy, etc. is dominated by writers who are or want to be full time professional novelists. While I agree it is NOT okay to download pirated books, I have to say that sometimes there creeps into these threads a streak of entitlement. I've not seen this in Jim, but I have seen it in other novelists who stomp their feet because of the imagined $$ they are losing that is denying them the god-given right to make a living as a full time novelist.

The truth is that a great deal of our world literature is created by hobbyists. Being a full time novelist is a nice idea, but there are other ways to have a career in writing, and connecting with an audience is always the goal. It always should be. In fact, I often find the works of self-described "full time novelists" to be less enchanting than the works of part-time tinkerers.

When I was in Barnes and Noble having my Nook serviced, the salesman eagerly said to me, "Do you know where to find the free stuff?" He then showed me how to do a search on the B/N store for $0.00, which brings up a list of hundreds of free ebooks. I was surprised and intrigued. All that's missing is a social network connection so that readers can review and recommend self-published ebooks to each other, and that can become a viable route to publication. I imagine most authors that build a following that way will eventually want to get some money for their efforts, but there's no reason that you couldn't publish that way if that's what you want.
Jan. 18th, 2011 04:43 pm (UTC)
Re: A different viewpoint
Oh, I'm definitely not a hobbyist. I am still sending out partials and so forth, but I have lost the True Belief that "someday I'll get an agent or sell a book." That doesn't mean I don't think my books are good enough, but that I have accepted reality. I'm simply saying that all this angst about "you thieves are taking the bread out of my kid's mouth" is a bit much. (grin) Most self-published ebooks ARE really, really terrible. This means that most people don't take you seriously unless you have sold to New York. That gives your work a certain cachet of pre-approval that mine doesn't have.

But that doesn't mean I don't want to sell a book--not for the money, but because that means the work has passed the ultimate test--"is it worthy to be published?" That's how most of the people out there see it.

Most writers have day jobs that pay for their shelter and food and such. Artists have always either had patrons (or sugar daddies. . . .) or have had to work at other jobs. Wallace Stevens was an insurance agent, etc, you've heard it before. So I don't see why it's such a strange idea to think that writers can use their time off to write . . . most of them have done it that way.

I think your idea of a social network for self-published authors is a good one. But it's such a turnoff to read blogs and posts that are just all about "buy my book" and stuff. It would be a tough thing to do right.

(But then, so is writing a novel.)
Re: A different viewpoint - cathshaffer - Jan. 18th, 2011 05:14 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: A different viewpoint - jimhines - Jan. 18th, 2011 04:47 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 18th, 2011 04:33 pm (UTC)
Re: A different viewpoint
I am not convinced that ALL free downloading is bad. I have friends who publish on their LJ so that they can get their stuff out there for people to read.

Heck I published in newsletters, school and church publishings, and SCA publications so I could write. I loved to write. Still do. Most of my stuff would NOT appeal to a large audience. I probably will never be published in large disbursement form. I do it cause I like to do it.

My problem is with those who ... revel? in stealing works. In my case its the person who could afford to buy them. She will not recommend the author to others, she will not share, she just takes. Heck I love to recommend authors, love to get recommendations, and share my hard copies willingly. Matter of fact I have loaned out my only (shudder) copies of both stepsisters and first jig, so I need to get backup copies of them. If I really enjoy a book or series, I get more than one copy just so I can loan them out to friends. Since most of my friends are umm cash poor at times, we tend to do this. Course I may be a bit mean and only loan out the first one so they HAVE to go buy the next one =p.

And I am usually the one who likes the odd, different, not mainstream looking stories and books, so I tend to try out many different books and authors.

*dreams of running a used book store just so I can read nonstop* =p
Re: A different viewpoint - jimhines - Jan. 18th, 2011 04:38 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: A different viewpoint - cainle_bean - Jan. 18th, 2011 04:58 pm (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
Re: A different viewpoint - shalanna - Jan. 18th, 2011 09:28 pm (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
Re: A different viewpoint - shalanna - Jan. 19th, 2011 12:37 am (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 18th, 2011 08:42 pm (UTC)
Re: A different viewpoint
I think there's a huge difference between an author deciding that s/he is going to make a work available for free, and somebody else deciding that they're going to scan/crack a book and share it with whoever doesn't want to pay for it.

The author has every right to make that decision. "Somebody else" has no right.
Re: A different viewpoint - shalanna - Jan. 18th, 2011 09:40 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 19th, 2011 01:32 am (UTC)
Re: A different viewpoint
"People will say, "I can't afford to write if the work doesn't sell.""

I think this doesn't just relate to the author, but the publisher too. If the books aren't selling well enough, the publisher may decide not to renew the contract. And it does happen; I just read this week that one of my favorite series is not going to be finished, because it wasn't selling well enough for the publisher to feel it worth the investment.
Re: A different viewpoint - beckyh2112 - Jan. 19th, 2011 03:23 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: A different viewpoint - elialshadowpine - Jan. 19th, 2011 03:28 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: A different viewpoint - beckyh2112 - Jan. 19th, 2011 03:30 am (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 19th, 2011 03:13 am (UTC)
Re: A different viewpoint
I like your descriptions of what you write. Sounds interesting to me.
Jan. 19th, 2011 04:56 am (UTC)
Re: A different viewpoint
I know exactly what you mean about wanting to be read. In fact, I don't want to be published, particularly. If there was another way to get read besides getting published (or self-publishing, which only puts a book in my hand, it doesn't give me distribution), I'd be ecstatic, frankly.


Jim C. Hines


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