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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 04:09 pm (UTC)
“People who illegally download books are more interested in their convenience than in supporting the authors they want to read.”

Hm, yes... but... Speaking as someone who spent hours trying to find a website* that sold Mermaid's Madness in epub format, the process of which included signing up to two shops to be told only AFTER giving them my credit card information that they wouldn't sell it to me: Some people would LIKE to pay for legal ebooks to support the author, but find that it's made rather difficult by the market that's fractured by geographic restrictions as well as different formats/platforms.

Mind, people should just buy the paperback instead, but, going by the experience of the music industry, if downloads are simple, priced fairly, and with not too many strings on the lines of DRM and proprietary software attached, most people pay rather than pirate.

On another note, not only "how many downloads equal a lost sale?" is something that's impossible to know for certain. So is "how many sales resulted from people reading an illegal download, liking the book, and deciding to buy either that book, or other books by the same author?"

*I might have found one now. Kobobooks is based in Canada. They'd apparently let me buy The Stepsister Scheme and Red Hood's Revenge, but their site for Mermaid's Madness shows only a "we don't sell this title in Germany" note. Mind, I do appreciate such a clear note, after the problems mentioned above. I went and asked if the one book or the two had their regional info set incorrectly...
Jan. 18th, 2011 04:12 pm (UTC)
That's a fair point, and the regional restrictions on e-books frustrate the hell out of me. I can kind of understand why they're in place, but at the same time, I want readers to be able to find and buy my stuff, you know? And that does get much more complicated once you get beyond U.S./North American borders.

And getting to a single universal e-book format would be a dream come true.

All that aside, thank you. I appreciate the work you did to track the books down, and I'm very sorry you had to jump through so many hoops to get there.
Jan. 18th, 2011 04:29 pm (UTC)
I'm starting to think that maybe selling "worldwide English rights" to ebooks is not such a bad idea. Maybe it won't make as much money as chopping up the rights, but it might make up for it in increased sales.

Or...if a writer's English ebook rights in, frex, Germany are still held by the writer, is there a reason the writer can't upload for the Kindle version to sell on Amazon.de?

These seem like the sort of thing one could discuss with one's publisher when hammering out the contract.
Jan. 18th, 2011 04:53 pm (UTC)
Would be nice... Like with paper books. From what I can tell, if there is no UK/Europe publisher, amazon.co.uk and amazon.de do stock US paper editions.

Eh, I guess it's all more complicated from the inside than the outside, but I do hope it can get sorted out as a win-win situation for authors and readers.

(Amazon.de isn't selling ebooks - I read on a German ebook blog they started this month looking for someone who might get that organised, so a current guess is they'll start in time for Christmas next year. ;))
Jan. 19th, 2011 04:19 pm (UTC)
Ah, they were just an example.

Does Amazon's (and Apple's and whoever else sells ebooks) systems have regionality that can be disabled? That is, if a person self-published electronically on the major suppliers and platforms, could they arrange for their works to be downloadable worldwide from US-based servers?

I don't have much programming knowledge, but this seems like it should be possible. And if an individual self-publisher could do it, certainly a regular corporate-owned publisher could do it (if they had the rights).
Jan. 18th, 2011 05:40 pm (UTC)
Does the publisher's offering not work for you:


That seems to be an epub copy of MM for $6.99. I don't know if it's downloadable in Germany, though.
Jan. 18th, 2011 07:32 pm (UTC)
Mh, I guess at the point I found that page, I had those two registering-for-naught episodes behind me already, and between their helf/FAQ/TOS sites not mentioning anything, and how often it says "USA" on that page, I assume probably not.

Might be worth a try if Kobobooks doesn't sell, but if Penguin UK doesn't sell it, they might not sell it at all in Europe?

Ergh. Might have to go for the paperback, after all. My poor bookshelves. XD
Jan. 18th, 2011 07:38 pm (UTC)
How frustrating. What device are you reading on? If you can't download it from the publisher's page, it would be worth writing them a letter complaining about how a paying customer would like to buy the product but can't.


Jim C. Hines


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