How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Ebook Piracy

Is Ebook Piracy Good or Bad for Authors?
I get asked this question a lot. It tells me something that I used to get asked (breathlessly) “OMG, what are you going to do about piracy!?!?!” and nowadays the conversation is a little less fraught with hysteria. This is a good thing, for several reasons. One is that hysteria rarely solves problems. Two is that it may mean that people are taking a more rational approach to the realities of the digital world.
The realities of the digital world include:
1. It’s easy to share files.
2. It’s easy to find like-minded people out there, coalescing in communities.
3. It’s easier than ever for people to spread word of mouth.
All three of these things make life easier for pirates and illegal file-sharing activity. But all three of those also make life easier for authors and creators. I’ve written before about how discoverablity, or lack thereof, is the biggest problem most authors or books have. (tl; dr — pirate sites are havens for dedicated book addicts and so what better place to get your name or title in front of a rabid audience?)
Since my last article on the subject, I’ve been collecting links and anecdotes, trying to build a better picture of just how free, word-of-mouth-driven filesharing helps books sell. That’s some people’s definition of piracy, but I also include intentional free giveaways of books, as well as inadvertent “releases into the wild.”
The latest big splash in the news is one of those inadvertent ones, the viral spread of the PDF “galleys” of “Go the F**k to Sleep,” the children’s book parody for adults by Adam Mansbach. This article in PC Magazine tells the story: How the Success of ‘Go the F— to Sleep’ Discredits Copy Protection. In short, the PDF review copy has been forwarded all over the Internet (completely illegally) because people are so jazzed about the book that they cannot wait for the actual book to come out before telling all their friends. The result? The book is #1 on and has over 100,000 copies pre-ordered. As the article states, “To conclude that piracy is good from this story would be dangerously oversimplifying things. But if the publisher had sealed advance electronic copies of the book with deadlocked digital rights management (DRM), it would never have had a chance to go viral.” For more on Go the F**k To Sleep, check out this roundup of links from Digital Book World. A review copy is supposed to help generate buzz. That’s exactly what this did. Yes, you’ve read the whole book now, but that has only increased the hunger for the physical product.
Best-selling authors Cory Doctorow and Neil Gaiman have spoken out often on the value of giving away their work via the Internet to spur print book sales. Just Google them and you’ll find plenty on the subject. Here’s a video of Neil Gaiman embedded in a Fast Company article which says “…after observing that the most pirate-heavy countries, such as Russia, actually had the best sales, [Gaiman] decided to experiment with putting his book for free online. ‘Sales of my book, through independent book stores, because that’s all that we were measuring it through, went up, the following month, 300%.’
How about author Paul Coehlo, whose book The Alchemist was selling a mere 1,000 copies a year in Russian. Then in 2001, it sold 10,000. Why? And sales continued to grow, to 100,000. And now over 1,000,000. How? People were pirating the book, and that spurred exponential growth in the sales. That spurred Coehlo to start his own free download site, The Pirate Coelho. Here’s a news item about it: He also convinced HarperCollins to release free promotional versions of his books, as detailed in this interview:
In the ultimate way of profiting from piracy, O’Reilly sells for $99.99 the results of their study of book piracy on their sales. (The Impact of P2P and Free Distribution on Book Sales) Talk about tl;dr! The gist of it, though, is in this interview with Brian O’Leary of O’Reilly, in which he says, “Data that we collected for the titles O’Reilly put out showed a net lift in sales for books that had been pirated. So, it actually spurred, not hurt, sales.” He also says “I’m pretty adamant on DRM: It has no impact whatsoever on piracy. Any good pirate can strip DRM in a matter of seconds to minutes. A pirate can scan a print copy easily as well. DRM is really only useful for keeping people who otherwise might have shared a copy of a book from doing so.”
O’Leary makes the point that what drives piracy the most is people’s desire to read material in the format they want and the difficulty they have getting what they want. If the publishing industry meets that desire, then we can build ourselves strong commerce, instead of getting caught flat-footed like the music industry, who wasted billions of dollars trying to “fight” piracy, only to find that the only effective way to reduce the amount of piracy going on was to give the people what they want: cheap and easy (DRM-free) music. Now that MP3 download stores are well-established (even Wal-Mart has one!), money is flowing in and piracy is down. Here’s an op ed piece in Wired saying the heyday of music piracy is over: (I’d like to see more actual numbers, but the record companies really don’t want us, or their artists, to know how much they’re really making.)
And here’s a call to arms for the comic book industry to respond similarly, by making legal, digital versions of many titles available. (You’d think comics would be a no-brainer with the huge popularity of independent webcomics already well established, and so many of the graphic novels coming out having been culled from the webcomics ranks!)
Here’s the thing. You could still argue that all these examples of authors “pirating” their own books leading to higher sales are all about physical books. (See more links below re: Tor Books, Tobias Buckell, John Scalzi, Paul Carr, and others.) But what if you’re a digital-only publisher? I see the fear. Your product is 100% digital. If someone pirates it, they have the entire product. What incentive do they have to pay for it? Piracy of digital files might help print sales, but they’ll hurt digital sales, right? RIGHT??
Not so fast. Let’s look at the software industry for a possible answer.
Folks in the software business have been fighting piracy a lot longer than book publishers have. In particular, let’s look at games, which are more like books in that they’re an entertainment choice. Game developers have every incentive to get you to pay for what they do. Developing a new major-release game is a huge financial investment in salaries, marketing costs, etc. Way more than a book.
And yet the prevailing winds seem to be blowing in the direction of getting rid of DRM and relying on the players of the game who legitimately pay for it. According to this blog post “Game Developers Speaking Out Against DRM“, some games like Prince of Persia are now released without any DRM at all. A game called World of Goo is knowingly pirated by 90% of the players out there, but the developers feel those 90% would never have paid for it anyway. Putting strict DRM on would have just cut down even more that 10% who did pay!
Here’s a link to a blog post by veteran game developer Jeff Vogel. ( He opens the post by saying “This article is my decisive statement on how developers should deal with pirates. It includes humorous anecdotes about how dumb I have been in the past. And, believe me, I’ve been pretty dumb.”
For 15 years on his games, they had a complicated registration system that was supposed to reduce piracy, but all it did was reduce legitimate buyers. As he writes, “We stuck by this system for fifteen years. Might as well have just made a big pile of money and set it on fire.” Don’t make it hard for people to enjoy your product and don’t make it hard for them to be legitimate users. Life should not be easier for pirates than for paying customers. If you make life harder for your paying customers than for pirates, you’ll make less money. Simple.
Googling around now, I find many more articles about games getting rid of their DRM, including the wildly popular Dragon Age.,7722.html.
So, if the game publishers are dropping DRM to reduce the incentive to pirate and increase the ease of buying, and the result is rising popularity of games because people get to try them out first… that seems like a loud and clear cue that digital book publishers should follow. Kindle ebooks are now outselling printed books at Amazon. People want digital books. Give the people what they want and make it easy to get them in their hands.
While I have your attention, I ought to point out that authors who see 100,000 downloads of their book as equivalent to 100,000 lost sales are deluding themselves. Please trust me when I say that 100,000 downloads is not the equivalent of 100,000 copies shoplifted. It’s actually the equivalent of 100,000 people thumbing through the book while standing in the bookstore or library, deciding whether to invest the time in reading it.
There was an author (Anne B. Ragde) recently who spoke out against piracy in just that manner, though, calculating to the dollar what her “lost sales” were worth. During the interview, her son let slip to the reporter that his mother, despite her anti-piracy stance, had almost 2000 illegally downloaded songs on her MP3 player. Her defense was that she didn’t really listen to them anyway (that player was in a summer cottage somewhere); she pays for the music she “really” listens to. Well, guess what folks. Of those 100,000 who downloaded your book, most of them aren’t reading it anyway. 90,000 probably never open the file. Of the 10,000 who do, you just got the equivalent of them opening a copy of the book on the shelf at a bookstore to see if they like it. Most traditional authors would have KILLED to have such great placement in the bookstores as to attract 10,000 browsers to pick up the book and look in it. Out of those 10K, say 3 out of 4 decide the book is not their cup of tea. So now we’re down to 2500 who are genuinely interested. In the brick and mortar world, retail rule of thumb says 500 of them would have a good chance of buying it. Another 500 probably go to the library and borrow it. The other 3/5ths never close the deal and put the book back on the shelf and forget about it.
So your book needs to be downloaded 100,000 times before you gain a measly 500 buyers. The percentages go up when the downloads are legal, free copies marketed to your target audience, as with the Tor Books free giveaways (see below). O’Leary in the interview linked above also mentions Baen Books, another science fiction publisher, who has been spreading around free digital copies of their books for over ten years (including by handing out CD-Roms at sci-fi conventions — I have one from 2002). He mentions that they have among the lowest incidence of piracy in the book biz. This is not a coincidence.
So, you may not be convinced, but I am. Giving stuff away helps. Having it for easy sale also helps. In fact, despite all our “new media” chatter about publicity in the digital age, about blog tours and Twitter contests and Facebook pages, these two things seem to be the only two things that actually make a measurable impact on sales. Give stuff away to increase your customer base, and then have it for easy sale to sift money out of those who are eager to pay. That’s it.
P.S. More links, for those of you still hungry:
Speaking of free, legal ebooks, have you seen eBookNewser’s list of top ten sites for legal downloads of free books?
More on authors and publishers giving away books:
Tor Books (science fiction publisher) saw jumps in sales for Tobias Buckell and John Scalzi, among others, as a result of their free giveaway. Many articles about it, but here’s Bloggasm:
Paul Carr’s article on TechCrunch Free as in “my publisher will disown me after I pirate my book on TechCrunch” from December 2009.
When author Chris McKitterick discovered his novel was already on pirate sites, he entered a “race” with the pirates not to stop them but to give more copies of his book away. He talks about the experience at the Lawrence (KS) Journal site. Also, his blog post on the subject:
P.P.S. The photo above of the pirate’s book is not pirated. I purchased the right to use the image from The image is by a photographer named Feng Yu. Sites like iStockPhoto and Dreamstime have embraced this principle of make it cheap and easy and money will flow. Nothing stops bloggers from just lifting copyrighted images from around the web to sprinkle on their sites like pepper. But why steal when so many easily searchable images are so good and so cheap? I paid about $3. That’s less than a soy green tea latte, and totally worth it.
P.P.P.S. Digital Book World has re-posted this blog entry on their site, so feel free to head over there to see more comments and conversation on the topic!
P.P.P.P.S. Another data point. From tweets coming through on June 18, 2011 from the conference on Security and Human Behavior at CMU. “Rahul Telang: Piracy increased by double the rate of previous legal sales after NBC pulled out of iTunes in ’07.” (thanks @mattblaze/@doctorow)


  1. “OMG, what are you going to do about piracy!?!?!”
    Kinda seems almost as ridiculous to me as, maybe, an author as early as 10 or 15 years ago saying, “OMG, what are you going to do about public libraries!?!?!”
    If you’re a writer, you should know you’ll never be rich (unless you’re a freak of nature like Nora Roberts), and you’re not likely to be one of the minority who can support him/herself with writing, so why not just bask in the adoration of the few adoring fans who took the time and energy to actually read that book of yours they ripped off and…
    Sorry. None of that’s directed towards you, Ms Tan. And you make a lot of valid points I’ve never quite been able to articulate, with numbers to back them up. I got off track and I should probably shut up now 🙂

    1. The ironic/hilarious thing is that there are some publishers who feel as if librarians are one step away from being pirates themselves. They don’t seem to realize how much money libraries spend on books and how many sales they spur. There were some interesting comments by the head of Baker & Taylor, the main wholesaler to libraries, at a conference recently where he said something like “well, no wonder publishers don’t value libraries… we’ve been hiding the data from them all this time just how much of the money was coming from them.”
      Hopefully sanity will rule when it comes to publisher/library relations in the future…

      1. I knew I’d heard this argument before, years ago… Baen’s website, the link to their free library. Eric Flint, author and “e-librarian.” Just as eloquent as your argument, but quite a bit longer.

        1. Ah wait, I found it, there’s just so much more Eric has done since then that I didn’t find it right away. His intro to the Baen Free Library from 2000 is still live at:

          A quote from Eric: “The only time that mass scale petty thievery becomes a problem is when the perception spreads, among broad layers of the population, that a given product is priced artificially high due to monopolistic practices and/or draconian legislation designed to protect those practices. But so long as the “gap” between the price of a legal product and a stolen one remains both small and, in the eyes of most people, a legitimate cost rather than gouging, 99% of them will prefer the legal product.”
          And that was what he was saying in October 2000.

  2. When discussing ebooks, I always say that the biggest impediment to me purchasing an ebook is DRM. If I’m just looking for something to read, I go to Baen’s website or AO3 since anything I get from either place will be DRM-free. If, however, I am looking for something specific, I’m screwed. I know how to suss out if something has DRM on Amazon but a) they’re evil and b) they don’t sell the file format I need. So, I head over to B&N but can’t tell if a book has DRM or not. BUT! Since I cared enough to look up the specific book, I can buy the book and remove the DRM. I am that tech-saavy. Then, I notice that the ebook is more expensive than the paperback version and the same price as the hardcover. Really? I can’t sell it to a used bookstore if I don’t like it. I can’t donate it to my library. I can’t loan it to a friend if I think she’d like it. Plus, I’ve had really bad experiences with unedited, poorly formatted ebooks from official publishers via my library. I’m not a dupe. This is the point where I close out the tab and go see if Baen has anything new on their website.
    And some people wonder why other people pirate.

    1. Fortunately Amazon now gives publishers a choice to leave the DRM off. When they first opened the Kindle store you didn’t have an option, but now you do. Circlet always turns it off. And we don’t put it on what we sell on either, of course. is one other place to look for DRM-free ebooks, but they don’t have all publishers, unfortunately. has more major publishers, but I’m not sure what their DRM situation is… I know we don’t request any be added to our titles there but I can’t remember if they add it.

  3. Great post. I’m just starting to buy electronic books, having been pushed into investing in an e-reader by the number of books which I think I want to read which are only available as e-books, and a desire to be able to whip something out of my purse and show off my own publications.
    I recently had an experience where I found myself weighing the decision to buy an ebook version of something new vs. the paper version. It was SF, from a major publisher. A google seach for a combination of the title and the format I wanted produced hundreds of hits, all from pirate sites. I only located it by going to the Borders site and searching there. When I did, I found that it was $9.99, and had DRM. I’m not seeing any effective marketing here.
    In the end I waited – I don’t want that $9.99 to be money down the drain if I buy a different e-reader next year and need a different format, but can’t convert because of the DRM. So I’ll probably just pick up the paperback eventually.

    1. I’m always shocked when I see an ebook at the same price as the hardcover, or sometimes even HIGHER! I know things are still in flux, and I know some publishers are scared of ebooks “cannibalizing” their print sales. But seriously.
      In my mind, I prefer trade paperback to hardcover anyway for the lower prices. I f a trade paperback is half the price of a hardcover, then the ebook version should be half again. So if the trade paperback is $12-14, then the ebook should be in the $5.99 – $6.99 range. That’s what I’m comfortable with paying as a consumer. I’m also OK with paying more for longer books, since with an ebook it’s easy to get a long manuscript into a single book since there’s no limit to the page count.

    1. The library is a fantastic option if you can get to one, but unfortunately not everyone has access to a library.

      1. And not all libraries have every book. I live in a city with a great library system, but there are still a ton of books they don’t have.

        1. All the more reason for publishers to make more ebooks available to libraries, increasing the collections without taking up more space in the buildings. 🙂

  4. Interesting entry — thank you for putting this all together!
    One thing this entry has made me realize: O’Reilly and Baen get most of my money when I buy ebooks because they make it so easy. I don’t need to worry about anything (except perhaps where I put my grumblemumble credit card).
    On principle I’d prefer not to have any DRM’d books; in practice, I end up avoiding things with DRM because they’re just that bit more work. Will they work with my device? can I convert them to work with my device? what happens if something crashes? etc.
    I’m tech savvy enough deal with it if needed, but eh, I can’t be bothered when there’s also a lot of other DRM-free books that I can read, and all without any of the lingering issues surrounding DRM.

    1. And the thing is many music consumers who paid for legal music in recent years have been burned when their music store of choice folded up and went poof, and their DRM-ed songs became unplayable. So customers are right to be wary.

  5. Great post and (for me) a confirmation of what I suspected: that piracy is a false issue, mostly created by publishers who have wrongly priced their product…
    Because (in economic terms) piracy means buying at zero price. So if you price your book at 99 cents on Kindle, the likelihood that it will be pirated goes down to…well, nearly zero!
    Do you think that’s right? Is it a correct interpretation?

    1. That’s definitely one of the main issues. There are publishers out there who are pricing their ebooks HIGHER than the printed book, which makes no sense at all. All they are doing is alienating their actual customers by doing so.

  6. Another data point for you, if you needed it: Posthuman Studios publishes a tabletop roleplaying game called Eclipse Phase, which is the first major RPG to be published under a Creative Commons license, and the creators regularly seed new releases to pirate sites (along with a message about where to acquire paid copies of the game).
    Anecdotally, a lot of fans have said that the free copies were directly responsible for inspiring their purchases, and further, that they appreciate that Posthuman treats them as customers rather than criminals. Sales numbers suggest that Posthuman’s strategy is working.
    (If references will help you back up your argument: this 2010 year-end review from Posthuman Studios, and this blog post from Adam Jury, one of Posthuman’s founders (and, disclaimer, also my best friend. :))

  7. As an author who’s had my book pirated. I disagree with many of your assertions and will explain why. First, I’m fortunate that my book has become a technical best-seller. Trust me, I won’t get rich on this; tech books don’t sell like Harry Potter. If I’m lucky, I might get a few thousand, enough to pay some bills. Still, I’m irked because I spent 4+ years on research and technical reviews and would like to be compensated for my hard work.
    Anyway, my sales have not been helped by piracy. Instead, the publisher and series I selected and our collective marketing efforts have made all the difference. In fact, my book didn’t get pirated until after it became a best-seller on Amazon and elsewhere.
    >Give stuff away to increase your customer base, and then have it for easy sale to sift money out of those who are eager to pay.
    You are conflating two different things. It’s one thing for the author and editor to give stuff away. It’s another thing altogether for a 3rd party to buy a copy and redistribute free it to the world.
    In my situation, we already give stuff away for free. We provide the first chapter free to everyone. We also let all potential buyers view large portions of the book through a program called Safari Online. This lets them preview the book without having to buy it. Also, we don’t use DRM.
    >discoverablity, or lack thereof, is the biggest problem most authors or books have.
    Yes, discoverability is a problem for most authors. However, the statement that illegal file-sharing has a direct positive effect on sales is conjecture that is only backed up by cursory studies.
    >after observing that the most pirate-heavy countries, such as Russia, actually had the best sales, [Gaiman] decided to experiment with putting his book for free online. ‘Sales of my book, through independent book stores, because that’s all that we were measuring it through, went up, the following month
    That may be true, but it’s hard to say why this happened. I’ve noticed that roosters crow before the sun comes up. Does that mean there’s a causal relationship between the two? Did Gaiman find and interview an adequate number of people (sample population) who first got an illegal copy then bought the book?
    >what drives piracy the most is people’s desire to read material in the format they want and the difficulty they have getting what they want.
    See my comments above. We make it easy for readers to get content in a form they want and we give away a lot for free. Still, that’s not good enough for some. They want it all for free.
    >Please trust me when I say that 100,000 downloads is not the equivalent of 100,000 copies shoplifted. It’s actually the equivalent of 100,000 people thumbing through the book while standing in the bookstore or library, deciding whether to invest the time in reading it.
    This premise misses the mark. You can thumb through a book at a store, but you don’t get to take it home and decide whether or not to pay for it or copy it and forward it to others. I’ve found that most people who get a free book or mp3 never go back to pay for it.
    >She had almost 2000 illegally downloaded songs on her MP3 player.
    Ok, she was a hypocrite. Along with this goes the argument, “Well, everyone else is doing it”. Fwiw, I’m not doing this and never have.
    >Of those 100,000 who downloaded your book, most of them aren’t reading it anyway. 90,000 probably never open the file.
    Why does this matter? If I take a book out of a store but never read it, I’m still expected to pay for it.
    >Of the 10,000 who do, you just got the equivalent of them opening a copy of the book on the shelf at a bookstore to see if they like it.
    See my comments above.
    I’ve also seen commentary from people saying that publishers are too greedy and should bring the price of ebooks down because, after all, the cost of paper, printing, and distribution goes away. First, the cost of distribution never goes away. It takes a lot of time and money to distribute books through e-channels (btw: I’m an software engineer by trade, so I know). One could argue that the prices of ebooks could be brought down significantly and publishers (and authors) could accept lower margins. I’m not sure that, in my book category, we should ever get to the point where ebooks sell at $0.99. Heck, I’d never see anything back for my time investment.

    1. I don’t know about that last point re: 99 cents meaning no return on time investment. Plenty of software developers I know said they’d go broke if they sold their software for anything less than $25 a copy. Many of them went broke anyway for unsufficient copies sold. Many of the ones who jumped into the iPhone app market, selling each download for 99 cents, were laughed at by their colleagues who said they’d never make enough. Hundreds of thousands of downloads later, many of the app developers have put their kids through college and paid off their mortgages. The marketplace and the way consumers interact with it have changed.

  8. I learned of your books through a less than legal methods, and ended up legally purchasing a few.
    Without piracy I wouldn’t have known you existed, and that would have been a damn shame because I wouldn’t have discovered an awesome author’s works to curl up to every night after work.
    Just wanted to voice my support!
    PS. You should have a paypal donation button on your blog just in case some people want to contribute in other ways.

    1. Thanks for the vote of confidence! 🙂 And you’re right, I should have a Tip Jar on my main blog. I have “donate” buttons on my webserial and my baseball blog, but not this one. I should fix that!

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