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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 06:38 pm (UTC)
I found an interesting article about manga/anime sites vs publishers (I put the link below) - they specifically mention some sites providing scans of the licensed, English-language editions which would most definitely fall under this topic of book piracy. I used to be heavily involved in the scanlating world but dropped it years ago when manga became so readily available in bookstores so I'm behind the times and surprised as most scanlation groups that I remember were pretty ethical about dropping a series once it was licensed. But I don't know how much of that they can really attribute to declining sales - for one, I'm betting part of it is just due to the novelty wearing off. It was a fad and don't those always have their haydays and then they decline into a normal niche? Also, I'm sure the economy is affecting things (I know I buy a lot less manga than I used to mainly due to the prices - & don't even get me started on the price of anime).

I'd argue that if it weren't for scanlations & fansubs, manga distributors may never have realized there even was a market for manga and anime in the first place. But I also think such sites have pretty much had their day, served their purpose & so on. Except for the obscure, lesser-known titles that won't see the light of day in the US. (WJuliet II for one...) I have several lj friends who are rabid collectors of manga and you should hear their outcry over several series that have been canceled mid-series by the publishers over the past year. Maybe the lack of sales was due to scanlations, I don't know - but my friends aren't happy & I'd bet more than a few turn to scanlations as the only alternative so they can at least finish the stories.


Fansubbing Asian dramas runs along the same vein. But aside from some Korean dramas, there's not much licensing going on in the US. I've actually purchased my favorite 5 different series to support the Japanese & Taiwanese drama industries - but I watch my fansubs, not the imported "legal" copies. Only one of them even attempted to include English subtitles and the subtitles are so atrocious all you can do is laugh.
Jan. 18th, 2011 07:28 pm (UTC)
Publishers stopping midseries hurts them on more fronts than they realize. Probably they think they're saving money by dropping an unpopular series? Or something? But that means anyone who was waiting for the series to finish, will NEVER buy any books in the series.

And the more times it happens, the fewer and fewer people who will take a chance on any new series from that publisher, or any other publisher. They won't buy any books in a series unless it's short or complete. Or the publisher has a really good track record about FINISHING.

Manga so often is a continuing story. A story with a destination in mind. You can't just cut people off midway. It's not like a series of mystery novels where each novel is selfcontained. Or a comic book series where there are plot arcs that start and end and then the next writer comes on with their own story to tell.
Jan. 18th, 2011 07:45 pm (UTC)
That's very true. I know when it comes to television, I won't watch/buy a series if I know it got canceled midway. My husband tried to sell me on several series - The Pretender being one - but I refuse to waste my money on something that has no ending.

I know one of the series only had one volume left. My friend was disappointed but understood the ones that had 5, 10, 20 volumes remaining. But one? I doubt she'll ever buy from that particular publisher again.

Now I'll only buy short series, or ones that are so popular there's no worry of them getting canceled. And I'm nervous about my favorite series as it's still running in Japan and the published volumes have caught up with the series - what if the publisher decided the last volume didn't sell enough & dropped it - I'd have 15 volumes and be missing the last 2 or 3. (I'm pretty sure they won't, I trust this publisher - but if they did, I would never buy another manga from them ever again.)
Jan. 18th, 2011 07:48 pm (UTC)
The Pretender *should* have ended long before it stopped. That show is one of the reasons I believe it's better to stop writing a series, even when the fans want more, than it is to risk going on and on and on until you've beaten all the life and spark out of the idea. I loved the show, but by the end, it was time to let it die.
Jan. 18th, 2011 07:59 pm (UTC)
That's actually one of the reasons I pick Asian dramas over US ones 9 times out of 10. They usually have a particular story to tell, and they tell it. And the really good ones have careful character development and a fitting ending - sequels, movies, second seasons are rare creatures. And the ones that tend to fail at a good story are the Korean ones where they either extend the series or chop it short due to ratings - either of which can ruin it.


Jim C. Hines


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