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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.

Comments

thesfreader
Jan. 18th, 2011 03:54 pm (UTC)
I don't agree on your vocabulary
While I don't condone in the least downloading a non-free (as in beer) ebook without paying, I object (do with it what you wish ;-) ) to naming it "stealing" (even if it's better than the "pirate" one).
When someone steals something, it's NOT available to it's original owner anymore, which is not the case when someone wrongfully "downloads" it. In French law its considered a distinct "act" : its conterfeiting (making an unauthorized copy).
I'm otherwise quite on line with the rest of your comment ...
barbarienne
Jan. 18th, 2011 04:00 pm (UTC)
Re: I don't agree on your vocabulary
Do you consider plagiarism stealing?

If not, then you don't get to participate in this discussion anymore until you have an ethics chip installed.
jimhines
Jan. 18th, 2011 04:03 pm (UTC)
Re: I don't agree on your vocabulary
No stealing my moderator hammer. I'm the only one who gets to boot people out of the conversation here.
barbarienne
Jan. 18th, 2011 04:22 pm (UTC)
Re: I don't agree on your vocabulary
Sorry!
thesfreader
Jan. 18th, 2011 04:31 pm (UTC)
Re: I don't agree on your vocabulary
(crap it stole my previous version)

Thanks, I had it checked all right yesterday.
Just the way pears and apples are not the same (but still fruits and delicious), stealing and counterfeiting are not the same (but still "crimes" and unethical).
If Saundra's books had been stolen instead of counterfeited, she (and her publisher) would NOT be able to keep on selling them (unless she had them re-printed), and she would have been justified in her post !
thesfreader
Jan. 18th, 2011 04:35 pm (UTC)
Re: I don't agree on your vocabulary
Regarding plagiarism, I would put it on the same boat as counterfeiting : unethical, unlawful, but still not "stealing"
shalanna
Jan. 18th, 2011 09:42 pm (UTC)
Re: I don't agree on your vocabulary
OMG!! Plagiarism may be the sincerest form of flattery/laziness, but it is also THEFT. Theft of intellectual property! Yes!

Counterfeiting . . . the Secret Service would probably say that it IS stealing because you are pretending to have legal tender from the Treasury and you really don't. You printed up money, but you stole it in a virtual sense because people believed it was real money and accepted it in good faith. Hmm, a fine distinction being made.
thesfreader
Jan. 18th, 2011 04:47 pm (UTC)
Re: I don't agree on your vocabulary
Last point : Citation from the Wikipedia article on "Copyright Infringement"

Courts have distinguished between copyright infringement and theft, holding, for instance, in the United States Supreme Court case Dowling v. United States (1985) that bootleg phonorecords did not constitute stolen property and that "...interference with copyright does not easily equate with theft, conversion, or fraud.

The Copyright Act even employs a separate term of art to define one who misappropriates a copyright... 'an infringer of the copyright.'"

I guess you could sell the "Supreme Court" some of your ethics chip ? They seem quite in need of one !
barbarienne
Jan. 19th, 2011 04:14 pm (UTC)
Re: I don't agree on your vocabulary
Ah, yes, technical definitions in an ethical discussion...

Sorry, this conversation is pointless. You are demonstrating you lack the requisite awareness of right and wrong without some authority telling you which is which.

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