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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

angelabenedetti
Jan. 18th, 2011 04:27 pm (UTC)
And as a footnote, I realize no one cares what I think about this, but I object strongly to the use of the word "sharing" for what the pirates do. Sharing is taught as a good thing, a virtue. Little kids are badgered into sharing their cookies or their toys, and told that it's a nice thing to do for a friend. You're a Good Person if you share.

But what makes sharing a virtue is that you're depriving yourself of something for someone else's benefit. If you let your friend work your train set, you can't play with it yourself while they're doing it. If you share half your cookies with your friend, you can't eat those cookies yourself. It's a nice thing to do, a virtue, because you're giving up something you'd like to have to make someone else happy.

Making someone a copy of an electronic file is not sharing. You can make ten thousand copies of that file without depriving yourself of a single thing. There's nothing virtuous about sharing when you're not giving anything up. It's no particular favor, and isn't at all admirable.

By calling it "sharing" the pirates make what they're doing sound good and right and friendly. Sharing is admirable, it's virtuous, it's something good friends do. Sharing is covered in sparkles and rainbows -- Sesame Street and Barney told us so! Something Big Bird and Barney approve of can't possibly be wrong or bad, right?

Passing out stolen copies of something you're still keeping for yourself isn't sharing, isn't virtuous, and isn't admirable. It's just a compounded theft, and Big Bird would not approve. :/

Angie

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