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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 03:24 pm (UTC)
On a parallel note, I've talked to a couple of manga and anime distributors in the U.S., and they have cited a few titles which they feel no longer has any commercial potential due to fansubs or fan-translations. I don't know if they're right -- that the market for a given title is completely killed by that -- but there is a lot of noise on both sides of this issue. I do think the process for licensing a title in another territory needs to be streamlined, but from what I understand about such things that's a little like wishing for ponies. The number of people involved and the thicket of permissions and rights that have to be negotiated is daunting, so it's no surprise it takes a long time and sometimes never goes through at all.
Jan. 18th, 2011 03:31 pm (UTC)
I'm reading a novel right now that deals with anime fandom and fansubbing and such, and actually defends the fansubbing process, but explains that there's an honor system to stop doing so once licensed copies come out. Which is interesting, because in another part of the book, the characters go off on how other forms of piracy are so bad.

I agree with you that the territorial issues are incredibly frustrating, and I would love to see that simplified and sped up, for books and anime and the rest. I understand why some of these hurdles are there, but still.
Jan. 18th, 2011 03:37 pm (UTC)
I suspect that's my book :D I tried to look at the whole picture, but at the same time I know people gotta eat. I'm also in an interesting position because I now review anime professionally, so I get sent a lot of stuff free. But at the same time, there's plenty of titles out there I'd just as soon buy (like "Sword of the Stranger", which I did pick up over the Christmas break). So I try to put as much of my money where my mouth is on this score, as it were.
Jan. 18th, 2011 03:42 pm (UTC)
::Blink:: So it is. Sorry -- disconnect on author name vs. LJ handle.

I'm about 3/4 through, and am enjoying it. Thanks!
Jan. 19th, 2011 03:17 am (UTC)
What book, if you don't mind my asking? (As an anime/manga fan, I'm curious.)
Jan. 19th, 2011 03:27 am (UTC)
Mm, a fair amount of people I know view it as a different sort of piracy if there's legitimately no way to get the book/show/kumquats. Like, if you cannot find any place that will sell it to you, then it's acceptable to pirate but you should still go buy it if/when it does become available.
Jan. 18th, 2011 04:05 pm (UTC)
I'm frustrated by a lot of the shows I like being either deemed to be too niche to sell worth a damn (bless you, RightStuf) or tied up in licensing hell (I see you there, Harmony Gold), as well as bloody expensive. I'd love to buy all of, say, G Gundam, but it's 52? episodes on 10 DVDs, and, aside from the shelf space issue, that's $300. If Bandai released it as a thinpack complete collection for, like $100 (or 2 sets at $50 each), I'd go for it.

I have no hopes of ever seeing Macross 7 or Frontier released here. I'll just look at the AnimEigo original Macross 3-box-set on my shelf and shake my fist.
Jan. 18th, 2011 07:13 pm (UTC)
Ditto. It's really hard to justify thirty or forty dollars for four episodes of something, not to mention the shelf space that a really long manga run can consume.

I cannot wait for manga to be available on e-readers. I will be poor, but happy that day.
Jan. 18th, 2011 08:18 pm (UTC)
I was really frustrated with the color nook - why is it in color if there are no comic books on it???
Jan. 18th, 2011 09:34 pm (UTC)
Well, it's for textbooks and that sort of thing, too. But from what I hear the colors are kind of wonky anyways (kind of a big deal when it's an anatomy textbook you're looking at), so they may be waiting until that issue is ironed out.

For most manga it wouldn't even matter if you had an e-reader capable of color or not anyways, though! I know I'm not the only person who holds off on buying series specifically because of the space issues. It's not about money or laziness. I literally do not have the room for a lot of the 20+ volume series I love.
Jan. 18th, 2011 06:38 pm (UTC)
I found an interesting article about manga/anime sites vs publishers (I put the link below) - they specifically mention some sites providing scans of the licensed, English-language editions which would most definitely fall under this topic of book piracy. I used to be heavily involved in the scanlating world but dropped it years ago when manga became so readily available in bookstores so I'm behind the times and surprised as most scanlation groups that I remember were pretty ethical about dropping a series once it was licensed. But I don't know how much of that they can really attribute to declining sales - for one, I'm betting part of it is just due to the novelty wearing off. It was a fad and don't those always have their haydays and then they decline into a normal niche? Also, I'm sure the economy is affecting things (I know I buy a lot less manga than I used to mainly due to the prices - & don't even get me started on the price of anime).

I'd argue that if it weren't for scanlations & fansubs, manga distributors may never have realized there even was a market for manga and anime in the first place. But I also think such sites have pretty much had their day, served their purpose & so on. Except for the obscure, lesser-known titles that won't see the light of day in the US. (WJuliet II for one...) I have several lj friends who are rabid collectors of manga and you should hear their outcry over several series that have been canceled mid-series by the publishers over the past year. Maybe the lack of sales was due to scanlations, I don't know - but my friends aren't happy & I'd bet more than a few turn to scanlations as the only alternative so they can at least finish the stories.


Fansubbing Asian dramas runs along the same vein. But aside from some Korean dramas, there's not much licensing going on in the US. I've actually purchased my favorite 5 different series to support the Japanese & Taiwanese drama industries - but I watch my fansubs, not the imported "legal" copies. Only one of them even attempted to include English subtitles and the subtitles are so atrocious all you can do is laugh.
Jan. 18th, 2011 07:28 pm (UTC)
Publishers stopping midseries hurts them on more fronts than they realize. Probably they think they're saving money by dropping an unpopular series? Or something? But that means anyone who was waiting for the series to finish, will NEVER buy any books in the series.

And the more times it happens, the fewer and fewer people who will take a chance on any new series from that publisher, or any other publisher. They won't buy any books in a series unless it's short or complete. Or the publisher has a really good track record about FINISHING.

Manga so often is a continuing story. A story with a destination in mind. You can't just cut people off midway. It's not like a series of mystery novels where each novel is selfcontained. Or a comic book series where there are plot arcs that start and end and then the next writer comes on with their own story to tell.
Jan. 18th, 2011 07:45 pm (UTC)
That's very true. I know when it comes to television, I won't watch/buy a series if I know it got canceled midway. My husband tried to sell me on several series - The Pretender being one - but I refuse to waste my money on something that has no ending.

I know one of the series only had one volume left. My friend was disappointed but understood the ones that had 5, 10, 20 volumes remaining. But one? I doubt she'll ever buy from that particular publisher again.

Now I'll only buy short series, or ones that are so popular there's no worry of them getting canceled. And I'm nervous about my favorite series as it's still running in Japan and the published volumes have caught up with the series - what if the publisher decided the last volume didn't sell enough & dropped it - I'd have 15 volumes and be missing the last 2 or 3. (I'm pretty sure they won't, I trust this publisher - but if they did, I would never buy another manga from them ever again.)
Jan. 18th, 2011 07:48 pm (UTC)
The Pretender *should* have ended long before it stopped. That show is one of the reasons I believe it's better to stop writing a series, even when the fans want more, than it is to risk going on and on and on until you've beaten all the life and spark out of the idea. I loved the show, but by the end, it was time to let it die.
(no subject) - ladysaotome - Jan. 18th, 2011 07:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 18th, 2011 07:19 pm (UTC)
FWIW, I think that's actually BACKWARDS.

If fans have taken the time to do fansubs and translations, it's because they thought the series was really good and a lot of people out there wanted to watch/read it.

Those SAME people will likely want a nice, legal, professionally done copy. I know I could name half a dozen series I watched as fansubs that haven't come out in English that I'd love to own. Sigh.

And if you're talking scanlations, I have never read those. That's quite a different format from a professionally translated, printed book.

I have resorted to reading the French publication of manga though!

And like with stolen ebooks, there's a huge market of people out there without the time, knowledge, or desire to hunt down the fan and/or pirate versions of things. For them, it's more convenient to buy the legit copies.


Jim C. Hines


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