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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 03:54 pm (UTC)
Yeah, this. I'll download stuff that I already own and don't have with me right then, because I am Instant Gratification Girl. (And most of the time, I'd still pay $5 for a copy if it was online somewhere, just like I'd probably pick it up if I was at a used bookstore.) My not-so-legal downloads have also been stuff where I'd absolutely buy an electronic version, but...it's not online, and I'm not going to get out to the store and--in the case of certain RPG supplements--tote fifty-seven hardcovers to every game and so on.

Which is not a shining moral example of anything, but probably a pretty good indication of how a lot of not-so-shiny people think.
Jan. 18th, 2011 04:00 pm (UTC)
It would be awesome if publishers started offering a free digital copy with purchase like a lot of DVDs include now.
Jan. 18th, 2011 04:07 pm (UTC)
I'm all for this.

Honestly, I've actually bought more video games since Steam and similar sites made the pay-and-then-download process easy: before then, I'd generally either play abandonware or download something, and only bought if I actually found myself in a GameStop.

From what I see on Amazon and elsewhere, publishing is going the same way, and that's awesome; these days, I'll usually wait for the e-copy to become available if it's not already.
Jan. 18th, 2011 04:14 pm (UTC)
It's another thing that entices me towards Baen's model, since with my purchased copy of the CryoBurn hardcover, they threw in not only an e-copy of the book, but most of the previous books in the series, with instructions of 'you can share these to get your friends into the series, but be polite and don't put them onto torrent sites or anything'.
Jan. 18th, 2011 04:17 pm (UTC)
Baen has been very much ahead of the pack with a lot of this stuff.
Jan. 18th, 2011 04:22 pm (UTC)
It's working in getting me to buy their ebooks preferentially over other publishers (sorry, Jim). Which means we both win -- they get my money and I get books.
Jan. 18th, 2011 04:23 pm (UTC)
Nothing to apologize for. They took some risks and tried new things, and they deserve the payoff for that.
Jan. 18th, 2011 08:06 pm (UTC)
Ah. It's one of those things because books aren't like toasters. Toasters have the advantage that not only can I choose what store to buy them in, but my choice of brands really comes down to relatively few features. With books, I can choose stores (or library, or used bookstore), and formats (occasionally), but a Jim Hines book isn't interchangeable for a Lois Bujold book.

So, it's annoying when I have to choose between authors to spend 'extra' money on* for reasons that nothing to do with them in particular, but mostly come down to 'I can buy more books with less hassle this way'.

Though I suppose it's incentive to the publishers to change things if I'm spending more money on Baen's authors than their authors.

* I mostly use my eReader on trips, so I end up with a paper copy of a book anyway, and then an extra electronic file. Searchable is also a nice bonus feature.


Jim C. Hines


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