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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 03:36 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.)
Jan. 18th, 2011 03:43 pm (UTC)
Re: My .02
well you did say they did not earn royalties on library check outs. I took that to mean after the book was bought by the library. Hmm I used to wonder how libraries got all those books, and who decided what to buy.
Jan. 18th, 2011 03:52 pm (UTC)
Re: My .02
Oh yes, libraries buy 95-99% of their books from the same retailers you or I do; the remainder coming from donations by patrons that meet acceptance criteria for the library system -- a warning to anyone planning on donating their books to a library: talk to the library manager, or better yet, someone in cataloging or collections development for the system, to make sure that your donated books will actually enter the collection and not be handed over to the Friends of the Library booksale (unless you're cool with your books going to the FotL booksale).

One thing to note about library book-buying budgets: a) they're pretty tiny; b) they're a fixed amount for all purchasing, so if someone decides to walk off with a book or three, purchasing replacement copies for those translates into fewer NEW books bought....

(and no, the overdue and replacement fines you pay to the library typically do NOT feed into the library's operations, those are handed over to the managing body -- the county, the city, the university -- as part of ITS funds, which may or may not be redistributed back to the library later.)
Jan. 18th, 2011 07:02 pm (UTC)
Re: My .02
FWIW, our library has a separate budget allocation for replacement copies.

That doesn't mean every lost/missing/damaged copy gets replaced, of course. Demand drops off once it stops being new, content gets dated, etc.

It is one argument for writing series though. A library is more inclined to buy a replacement if it's missing book 3 of a 5 book series.
Jan. 19th, 2011 03:06 am (UTC)
Re: My .02
Oh yes, libraries buy 95-99% of their books from the same retailers you or I do

Or through book wholesalers like the one I work for (in Canada); I don't know if book wholesalers count as retailers, though the one I'm with might, as we have a small "showroom" for teachers and librarians to come pick stuff in person rather than ordering online or over the phone (as most of them, especially in different provinces, do).
Jan. 19th, 2011 04:09 am (UTC)
Re: My .02
true. I'm pretty sure my mother's library (a branch in one of the metro Atlanta county public systems) dropped their wholesale purchase channel and simply bought through public retail outlets. While working at in the cataloging office of my grad school's library, I never learned what channels the books were acquired through.
Jan. 20th, 2011 12:17 am (UTC)
Re: My .02
I don't know how the university library I shelved for as a student got their books, either, come to think of it. (I miss that library, though--they had a whole bunch of library-bound M*A*S*H scripts I liked to check out and read over and over again.)
Jan. 18th, 2011 03:55 pm (UTC)
Re: My .02
as far as what gets bought, that varies some from system to system, but basically, the managing librarians of the branches (or departments) will make selections and either buy them directly or pass them up to a central purchasing office in the system.
Jan. 18th, 2011 03:56 pm (UTC)
Re: My .02
I've never heard of a magazine contract that paid royalties. Magazine publication is pretty much always a first rights or copyright transfer arrangement, if the author gets paid. For scientific journals, the authors do not get paid at all. Typically, they pay the journal a fee to publish the article.
Jan. 18th, 2011 03:58 pm (UTC)
Re: My .02
Good point. The fees paid by the library are simply to the copyright clearinghouse agency for rights to reprint the article.


Jim C. Hines


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