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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 09:28 pm (UTC)
Re: A different viewpoint
They tell you to never give up. What I mean is that I used to BELIEVE (like little kids believing in Tinker Bell and bringing her back in Peter Pan) that if only I would keep trying, I would succeed. That belief has just about been kicked and beaten out of me after thirty-plus years of trying as a grown-up. (I tried as a kid, but of course that was juvenilia I was attempting to market, so I got lots of encouraging rejections.) It's tough to give up. There must be some vestige of the "yes it can happen yes it CAN" left in me. I keep thinking there will be one editor/agent out there who'll believe. Because it only takes ONE to pick you and give you a chance.

If you just post your work, then it's as if you really didn't try at all. Everyone thinks your stuff must be like all the other dreck that's been rejected over and over (and who's to say that it isn't?) It's like giving up. My late father would be very angry at me for giving up.

So we beat on, boats against the current. There's really no explanation as to why artists continue to try even when they are scorned and stomped. Why did Van Gogh continue to paint when his canvases were going into his brother's attic? He sold one painting in his lifetime. Yet today "Starry Night" (my favorite painting) hangs in its own gallery in NYC. I am not saying that I am a superhero like Van Gogh. What I am saying is that I have that same drive and wish to believe. If I just posted it all for free, it would probably just get lost and go down the tubes like all the rest of the stuff that goes up on the 'net. I would never hear from anyone who had read it. There'd be no way of knowing that anyone HAD read it. That's the beauty of being published by a major house--you do know that people have read it, and you get some feedback.

I hope this has helped to explain what I mean when I say I have lost hope, but I still plug on anyway. Creative types are like this. . . .
(Deleted comment)
Jan. 19th, 2011 12:37 am (UTC)
Re: A different viewpoint
"you do not care whether the people are paid"

I said I didn't care if **I** got paid or not. I said I would be happy if my work were read. I didn't say that it was morally more right, wrong, or neutral that THEY want to be paid, but that I hoped they could at least take some comfort in knowing that their work is loved.

Not disdainful. You are reading that into it, possibly because there ARE people who say "all art should be free." I am not one of them.

The people who are giving their stuff away online have made a choice. Some of the stuff that is out there for free (in fact, much of it, as far as free Kindle d/ls are concerned, IMHO) is not good and IS drecky, and that means we're all tarred with the same brush. That's the problem--that EVERY free book is seen as being "probably crap" because there's so much floating around that needs a lot more editing and/or proofreading. Pretty soon, without a filter, the market gets glutted and no one can cope with the volume. This is why people rely on the "published by New York" filter to choose reading material, in part, I think--because they know that they won't find as many problems with plots and prose. They do still find more typos and plot holes than they should, I suspect, because not everything seems to be copy edited nowadays.

It seems that if I even mention any more lofty ambitions for my work or anyone else's work, I get called an elitist or speshulsnowflake or whatever. It's very triggering. If others are doing it solely for the money (and that's tough to buy, because it's way too much work for the money that you get), that's fine. But *I* *personally* think that the book is an end in itself, whether or not the artist gets paid. Or craftsperson, if you prefer. I try to come at this with the attitude that some people want to entertain and do not want to be thought of as artists, and that's fine. This doesn't mean they aren't artists despite themselves.

Lots of people get upset if I say that I don't care if I get paid as long as I get read, but I don't know any other way to say it. I can only answer for myself--that's why I don't say "ALL creative types do this or that." You are just as much an artist. You have the wellspring within you. Storytelling (or singing, or painting, or doctoring) is what you were put on the planet to do. This is what we should celebrate, rather than worrying about extracting every penny from what we produce.

My Princess Points total for increasing Hines' traffic=25.


Jim C. Hines


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