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 Amazon.com 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%.’https://www.fastcompany.com/1737151/self-destructing-ebooks-a-twisted-proposal-to-libraries
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: https://torrentfreak.com/alchemist-author-pirates-own-books-080124/ He also convinced HarperCollins to release free promotional versions of his books, as detailed in this interview: https://torrentfreak.com/best-selling-author-turns-piracy-into-profit-080512/
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: https://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/11/st_essay_nofreebird/ (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. https://www.tuaw.com/2011/05/08/publishers-choice-will-the-ipad-be-the-hero-or-villain-of-the/ (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. (https://jeff-vogel.blogspot.com/2011/05/final-answer-for-what-to-do-to-prevent.html) 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. https://www.tomshardware.com/news/bioware-dragon-age-securom-drm,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? https://www.mediabistro.com/ebooknewser/ten-websites-to-download-free-ebooks_b10776
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: https://bloggasm.com/did-tors-free-ebooks-affect-sales
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: https://mckitterick.livejournal.com/653743.html
P.P.S. The photo above of the pirate’s book is not pirated. I purchased the right to use the image from iStockPhoto.com. 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! https://www.digitalbookworld.com/2011/how-i-learned-to-stop-worrying-and-love-ebook-piracy/
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)
Is Ebook Piracy Good or Bad for Authors?