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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 04:43 pm (UTC)
Re: A different viewpoint
Oh, I'm definitely not a hobbyist. I am still sending out partials and so forth, but I have lost the True Belief that "someday I'll get an agent or sell a book." That doesn't mean I don't think my books are good enough, but that I have accepted reality. I'm simply saying that all this angst about "you thieves are taking the bread out of my kid's mouth" is a bit much. (grin) Most self-published ebooks ARE really, really terrible. This means that most people don't take you seriously unless you have sold to New York. That gives your work a certain cachet of pre-approval that mine doesn't have.

But that doesn't mean I don't want to sell a book--not for the money, but because that means the work has passed the ultimate test--"is it worthy to be published?" That's how most of the people out there see it.

Most writers have day jobs that pay for their shelter and food and such. Artists have always either had patrons (or sugar daddies. . . .) or have had to work at other jobs. Wallace Stevens was an insurance agent, etc, you've heard it before. So I don't see why it's such a strange idea to think that writers can use their time off to write . . . most of them have done it that way.

I think your idea of a social network for self-published authors is a good one. But it's such a turnoff to read blogs and posts that are just all about "buy my book" and stuff. It would be a tough thing to do right.

(But then, so is writing a novel.)
Jan. 18th, 2011 05:14 pm (UTC)
Re: A different viewpoint
Totally agree. Keep trying for that agent or New York publisher. Persistence does pay off! And for now that is the stamp of quality that will draw a lot of readers. I don't have the patience to dive into the $0.00 offerings hoping to find gold, but if there were a ratings system where I could tap into what others are discovering and enjoying, it would make it less of a needle-in-a-haystack search. Authors promoting their own works is worthless. You need editors or reviewers to sift the wheat from the chaff.


Jim C. Hines


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