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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 03:33 pm (UTC)
I was reading a little while back that students aren't as thrilled with electronic textbooks as people had expected. They just weren't as effective for studying and notetaking and the rest. Again, that might change as the technology evolves and people get more used to electronic reading, though.

I'm not sure how you'd get accurate numbers as to how many downloads really represent lost sales. All I ever see are either the made-up numbers people fling out to support their beliefs and opinions, or things like the study done a while back by a company selling anti-piracy solutions.
Jan. 18th, 2011 03:45 pm (UTC)
I read that too, but I believe that survey/study was before the iPad. I have a feeling that color readers with more bells and whistles (like easier highlighting and notes) and bigger screens will change things. Plus, textbook prices are insane.

The only way to figure this out is to find out what people were spending per year on books before piracy and what they're spending now while factoring in a bunch of other variables.

Here's a tangent for you. What do you think of publishers offering an ebook version with the purchase of a hardcover? It's like the DVDs that give you a free digital copy. Do you think this would help battle piracy?
Jan. 18th, 2011 03:51 pm (UTC)
"What do you think of publishers offering an ebook version with the purchase of a hardcover?"

I would love that. Heck, I'd be happy if it was included with paperbacks, if they could figure out a way to do it.

Would it help with piracy? No clue. I think it would eliminate those people who download because they want the e-book edition to go with the paperback, and aren't willing to pay for both, but how large a group that is ... your guess is as good as mine.
Jan. 18th, 2011 04:34 pm (UTC)
I would most likely buy more hardbacks/physical books.

The majority of my purchases over the past year are kindle and audible formats.

However there are a few in those formats that I wish I had a physical copy of, but cannot really justify buying it twice (or three times in a few cases)....
Jan. 18th, 2011 04:33 pm (UTC)
I think that electronic textbooks might become more popular in the undergrad crowd, but I think it will be harder to make inroads with graduate students. I got a Kindle for Christmas and I love it, I've already read a few books on it, have another dozen waiting for me, and play a word game on it in free moments. But as a second-year law student I cannot imagine not having a hard copy of my texts. And I say this as someone who has been provided one of my textbooks this semester in pdf form - and is going to print it. Granted, printing is almost free for me at my school ($.01 per print job!), but I need to be able to highlight and make notes in the margins and tab the thing all to hell and flip back and forth between sections rapidly. And since I am not a very visual-spatial person, I rely a lot on the tangible properties of my books (and excessive amounts of color-coding) to remember things.

But then I'm someone who buys all my books new or barely used because I can't stand trying to ignore other people's highlighting in my books, so as much as I complain about textbook prices, I'm probably not the target market for cheaper electronic textbooks. (I also don't think electronic versions will be much - or any - cheaper, but that's a separate point.)
Jan. 18th, 2011 08:23 pm (UTC)
See, I'm someone who likes to be able to find things within a book, and find searching electronically much easier (particularly when I've read the section already, because I tend to remember phrases that are relevant).

On the other hand, I ended up buying an electronic version of my Physics textbook last year (mostly because I needed it last minute because the professor hadn't listed it on the syllabus until he assigned homework from it), but the interface on the book was simply terrible. (Among other things it was nearly impossible to flip between pages, to search within the book, no bookmarking of pages at all.) So I would choose the physical book in that circumstance, particularly as buying it electronically wasn't significantly cheaper than buying it used and selling it back at the end of the semester would have been.

But then, I'm now in the position where some of my textbooks are close to $200, and for some of my courses we just have lecture notes, with the option to have them printed and bound by the copy center for something like $20. I've only had them printed where I needed to be able to have them in class not on my laptop.
Jan. 18th, 2011 10:03 pm (UTC)
I don't think it will be easy to get publishers(and many authors) to go for that idea. They see the e-book as another "format" like audio books for them to squeeze money out of.

I have tried putting forward the idea that many young and tech savvy people see items as not a purchase, but more like a licence to use the content. This is especially true with electronic formatted works where you lose some of your free and fair use rights.
Jan. 19th, 2011 03:38 am (UTC)
I have tried putting forward the idea that many young and tech savvy people see items as not a purchase, but more like a licence to use the content.

Jan. 19th, 2011 04:37 am (UTC)
With digital media I think the idea of ownership is being blurred. What does someone actually own? There is nothing physical to possess and the ability to load then read or play material across a range of devices throws into question the traditional notion of copyright.

Then there is "Cloud" storage, a service being offered by more and more providers(here I am talking more about music, video and computer games), where what you purchased is streamed to you at your request. You lose many of the free and fair use rights that go with a traditional purchase(There is no re-sale available for instance and limited ability to gift an item) and so I think it is fair to ask what is it we are buying? Is it an item in the traditional meaning of the word, or or have you just purchased a licence to use them on demand?

So we have a situation where you can own no copies of an item(streamed), one, or many(downloaded and placed on various devices you own). How do we reconcile this with current copyright law? I don't believe we can and we need to be looking at new law or new ways of looking at what we purchase electronically.


Jim C. Hines


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