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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 11:53 pm (UTC)
Sorry! I have come to rely too heavily on spellcheck to tell me when I'm messing up. Words that are correct but in the wrong place get through a lot.

Not.. exactly. As I said in my big comment, I intend to pay for everything in my collection (except possibly the horde of Baen books I acquired legally from their CDs which still takes up half my library) when possible; as I generally buy books in pairs of one I know I need and one I've never heard of when I do buy, it will take a while.

So not 'intend to' but 'wouldn't otherwise at that time'. What, exactly, is the issue if someone gets a book that they would not have payed for at that time, if it is not removing a copy from anyone else, and does not cost anyone else anything to make? Besides "it's illegal".

I know and agree that creators of entertainment deserve recompense for entertaining me. However, I spend as much as I can afford to on that already. How is it hurting them for me to *also, not instead of*, at no cost to them or anybody, suck down more entertainment?
Jan. 19th, 2011 12:00 am (UTC)
I've been working on that question myself, because it's a valid question, even if I don't necessarily like it :-)

A few things I've been thinking about:

-You said in another comment that torrents work in part through the status you get by uploading files. If -- and this is a big if -- you're also uploading my books or other people's books, then you're contributing to other people being able to get that file, regardless of whether or not they would have otherwise paid for it.

-Similarly, by participating, you're taking part in and supporting a system designed to steal content.

Still thinking about this one. But I have a question for you, as well. What makes you feel that you have the right to take something you haven't paid for, just because you want it? Not in terms of whether or not the author is directly hurt, but ethically speaking, why do you feel you should be able to take whatever you want and not have to compensate the people who worked to create it?

I understand you intend to pay for things later, and I'll give you the benefit of the doubt that you'll try to do so. But within my own ethical framework these days, if I can't afford something, I don't get it. I wait until I can pay for it instead of looking for a way to steal it. (I say these days because I did spend some time with Napster when I was a kid; I changed my stance on that and stopped years ago, but it did require a reevaluation of all this stuff for me.)
Jan. 19th, 2011 12:27 am (UTC)
My personal ratio is not very high, although that is a bandwidth issue as much as anything else. Yes, I do not know the values or reasons of the people I might be seeding to. However, I do seed as much as i can afford to anyway, because, aside from the greater issues of participating in a 'system designed to steal content', I AM participating in that system and it would be terribly rude and disrespectful for me to not do my part in return. In understand that might seem strange or hypocritical, but my values such as they are require me to do so.

What makes me feel I have the right? I don't, really. I'm not hurting anyone, but neither am I giving them what they deserve. The fact that I cannot should mean I don't get what they have to give, according to how our society works. I'm not about to stop, however. Maybe I am just a thieving asshole after all. /sigh
Jan. 19th, 2011 12:31 am (UTC)
I'm fascinated by the fact that you feel a moral/ethical obligation to support the torrent site, but that there's no matching obligation to support the content creators.

I'm not trying to condemn you here. (Not saying it's okay, either.) But I'm a former psych major, and I'm genuinely fascinated by this. I wonder if it's an immediacy thing -- you're participating in the torrent site, which makes it more "real" than the authors?
Jan. 19th, 2011 12:39 am (UTC)
But I do feel that obligation! I mean, I support to the best of my ability. I do not support to the extent I take. I am conflicted. I feel iffy about downloading things all the time (except TV. TV airs free-to-air, I'm never at home when the shows I want come on even if they come on in my country. I would not be supporting TV personally anyway. TV is fair game.) But, it has not stopped me yet, that's all. I am not quite that conflicted.
Jan. 19th, 2011 12:43 am (UTC)
Bad phrasing on my part, I'm sorry. You're right, and you've said that you do feel that obligation. I guess my sense -- and I could be wrong -- is that the obligation felt toward the torrent sites is stronger and/or more immediate than the other.
Jan. 19th, 2011 12:45 am (UTC)
That is true, and I agree it is interesting. I think both the immediacy and the fact that this is something I *am* able to contribute to make it a stronger connection.


Jim C. Hines


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