Monday, October 5, 2009

Arrr Ya Worried?: E-Piracy Returns

I've mentioned this before (indeed, more than once... or twice), and though I missed International Talk Like A Pirate Day by a fair margin, it nonetheless seems that the topic of e-piracy remains timely. The New York Times reports that the incidence of stolen e-books is on the rise, with sites like RapidShare serving as cyberspace versions of the Somali coast. The article ends:
Ms. Scheid, of RapidShare, has advice for [authors and publishers] if they are unhappy that her company’s users are distributing e-books without paying the copyright holders: Learn from the band Nine Inch Nails. It marketed itself “by giving away most of their content for free.”

I will forward the suggestion along, as soon as authors can pack arenas full and pirated e-books can serve as concert fliers.
I find this interesting. On the one hand, it's true that authors don't always have the same rabid fans as musicians, so every lost sale is a higher percentage of total sales. Then again, if the audience isn't that big, the pirate audience won't be either, right? Or has the age of mega-bestsellerdom (e.g. Stephenie Meyer, J.K. Rowling, Dan Brown) ensured that some authors are that popular and will suffer that badly in terms of lost sales?

Prithee, inform me, dear readers: are you worried about e-piracy, especially now that it looks like it's at our front door? What do you think we can do to stop it, if anything?


  1. Doesn't bother me.

    The government actually has this program in every single town in the country, where they lend my books for free to anyone who asks. In the UK, authors get money for that. In the US, there's already no reason for anyone to buy my book. Yeah, the library market is pretty big--but far, far smaller than the number of people who are already reading my book without paying me a single cent.

    So I'm used to people reading my stuff for free. Maybe if they fall in love, they'll buy a copy at a used book store.

  2. Unfortunately, there are very few options available for stopping piracy of digital media except for aggressive prosecution, a tactic that has had mixed results in the music industry. For books, it's nearly impossible to protect content through digital rights management. A kid with a scanner and OCR software can generate an unencrypted file in a matter of an hour.

    The cost of piracy must be weighed against the vastly reduced costs of production for e-books. If there's any upside, it's the fact that the most popular authors will be victims of the most piracy. They will still rake in generous profits. Thankfully, more obscure authors will escape the worst of it, since piracy requires effort. E-books on the other hand, should be a windfall for niche authors.

    It's a new world.

  3. Piracy is a small concern. As anonymous points out, most people via their libraries have access to free copies of books anyway (though, the library DOES have to purchase the book.) The other competition for new books is something called used books, and thanks to the internet, the used book market is big time business. Authors make nothing on each sale of a used copy of their book. Unlike pirated e-books selling used books is perfectly legal. In any of these cases, while the author may not make any money on the transaction, they might win over a few fans, who will more than willing to shell out money to buy a nice shiny new copy of their next book. Rather than worrying about e-piracy authors should do what they have always done: write books and try to sell as many new books as they can.

  4. But hasn't this issue been around for years? It's not a new problem, it's just in the media more thanks to the Kindle and other e-readers.

    Yes, the whole thing sucks, the creators of the original work gets screwed, the companies get screwed and the industry gets screwed.

    It's not going to go away. We can think about ways to solve the problem or ways to adapt to it. But complaining and getting all worried about it won't fix.

    As an industry shouldn't we've seen this one coming?

  5. Kent - "Mixed results" in the music industry? If you count "being awarded damages from your customers" as a good result, I guess you could call them mixed . . .

    The most important thing to look at with Nine Inch Nails is not the free content, although that is important. It's the way they treat their fans. I've been a big fan for years, and I recently went to my first show (One of their last, unfortunately). I pre-ordered tickets long before they went on sale, which required registering for an account at

    When I got to the show, I was directed past the long entrance line to the special pre-order line. I showed my ID, which they checked against the name on my tickets, and was let in. Quick and easy, and impossible to scalp the preorder tickets. My seats were fantastic - right where the mosh pit would have been if most of NIN fans weren't in our 30's now.

    You can't just give away content and wait for money to roll in. You have to treat your fans like fans, and show them that you know and appreciate that it's their support that makes what you do possible.

  6. The problem with both the library and the used book argument is that there was an actual legal sale of an actual book at some point in the chain. Profit is reduced as a percentage of the money that individual book generated, but there was still profit. Furthermore, it is only one copy and therefore limited in distribution. Put the content up for free download and as many people as can find it and are felonious enough to steal it will have it.

    Piracy has always been and will always be. I doubt it will hit publishing as hard as music, but it is stealing and people are harmed. With the publishing industry struggling, it warrants consideration that the cumulative effect of several major sellers for one house being pirated could seriously harm the house. Authors would be affected adversely by one title at the time but a publisher could see their entire stable of money makers available for free with only the conscience of the consumer to stop the hemorrhage.

    And let's not forget that less money for publishers=less books being published.

  7. According to Alissa "Rather than worrying about e-piracy authors should do what they have always done: write books and try to sell as many new books as they can."

    I wish it were that simple, Alissa. If your book falls victim to e-theft, your overall sales may be reported low enough so that you can't get your contract renewed with your publisher and maybe can't publish anywhere else because you're an author with a "low" sales track record due to e-theft.

    I've heard of authors having their books illegally uploaded to sites where they are downloaded by 70,000 people. That's a lot potentially lost dollars.

  8. Anyone who thinks a pirated copy of anything is a 'lost sale' is dreaming. Pirates are not customers. I.e. if there were no pirated copy available of whatever the pirated-copy consumer happen to download, there's *no way* they'd be running out to buy copies. They're virtual dumpster-divers and scavengers. They don't go into stores.

    I would never download a pirated copy of anything. I don't like paying publishers; but I do want to pay authors, editors, and eventually, typographers. And right now, buying legitimate copies of e-books is the only means I have of paying those whom I wish to pay for content. Paying publishers too is just a part of the deal that I have to accept.

    Another reason why I wouldn't download a pirated copy of anything, is: Why would I trust it to be the actual text? Remember those Chinese Harry Potters that had Harry getting together with Hermione? No way.

    But w/r/t free content: I'm with Cory Doctorow. The greatest challenge of any non-Stephen King or non-J.K. Rowling author is: *Getting Read At All*. Even among published material there's a lot of impossible-to-get-through stuff. My imagination and experience come together to tell me that, especially for series authors, offering #1 for free may be a viable means of getting readers hooked. Offering free copies of print titles would be prohibitively expensive; and libraries generally only buy a single copy of anything by an unknown writer, so only one patron at a time can become addicted to the adventures of a new favorite detective/intergalactic mercenary/vampire. But there are no shipping charges involved with electronic copies of books. I'll be interested to see some data after this model has been around for awhile.

    The music industry has that thing called radio, paid for by sponsors, to introduce the public to new music. They understand that listening to the unfamiliar is work for the listener. Reading an unfamiliar author is *even more* work, during which multitasking is fairly impossible; and people are asked to pay up front for something they might not like. I have no expectation that any content I may read will be free, but once in awhile, when I'm between books/authors, it's nice to give something new a spin. I use the library that way, too.

    And I've read some books for free that have had me saying, "I'd have gladly paid for that." After which I do watch for new work by those authors.

  9. I'm not really worried. Especially with books. Long before ebooks, people passed around books between friends constantly, until the book was losing pages. Long before ebooks, people were using scanners to create ebooks and pirating them.

    I don't think pirated books will account for too many lost sales. And if the major publishers engage more in the ebook revolution, they'll learn how to keep a lot of pirating at bay. (For example, don't waste time and money on DRM, which only leads to customer frustration and increased piracy by people who don't want to have to deal.)

  10. Am I the only one who finds it a little problematic to compare people violating the copyright on a $10 book to armed thugs who take hostages, murder unarmed civilians, and inflict millions in losses, property damage, and security costs?

    I'm not saying it's awesome to not pay writers for their work, but seriously? Piracy is a felony committed at sea. File-sharing is not a felony, and doesn't usually happen at sea.

  11. I think one advantage books have in regards to piracy is sentimentality. Sure, I'll download ebooks left right and center, especially when they're free (Like TOR has their ebook libraries), and read when I happen to get in the mood for those on my Alphasmart, but there's nothing like curling up in bed or on the couch with a good paper book to me. And I will buy the physical book of any author I really want to support.
    Be that was it may, I think the publishing industry as a whole can learn a lot from the music industry. Most pirating is a result of a combination of a.Laziness, b. cheapness, and/or 3. apathy.

  12. I think we'll have to wait and see how it plays out. Right now I'm not worried, but right now I'm not published.

  13. Told this story repeatedly but I keep seeing the same arguments regurgitated, so I'll tell the story again. There isn't one type of pirate. There are the pirates of convenience, the pirates of situation, and pirates of determination. You'll never stop pirates of determination. They will always steal your product and will always beat any security measures your publisher puts in place. Conversely, pirates of convenience steal your property because it's so easy. The file is right there. They wouldn't normally,'s right there. Then there are the people that would have bought your book except the value they're getting isn't worth the cost being charged.

    I worked on a book that sold $1million in its first month on its previous edition. New edition got pirated hard and it made only $10,000 in the same time period. Most of those pirates were exploiting a mistake on the publisher that posted the ebook in an unrestricted environment. If they had secured the content properly, there wouldn't have been as large an issue and it would have continued being a million-dollar seller.

    What stopped the massive proliferation of pirated music was not massive lawsuits by the music industry, it was iTunes. The iPod presented a cool and effective means of listening to music and iTunes provided more affordable and convenient music. Neither the Kindle nor the Sony eReader (or any of the other readers) have achieved both a structural design and pricing structure to emulate this effect. When they do, authors concerns will be pirates of determination and not pirates of situation.

  14. Look, the truth is that there have never been very many authors who earned a living from writing books; the vast majority of published writers still have to have a day job to pay the bills. Always has been that way, probably always will be. So Randall Stross's implication that pirates will take away his livelihood is just absurd (note his day job--he's a b-school professor). For the vast majority of authors, there's simply not that much money at stake. For publishers...well, there's a great rebuttal to the NYTimes article by Felix Torres at His conclusion is that the vast majority of "pirate activity" is really not much to worry about.

    I agree with posts above that iTunes proved that people will pay for content even when that content is available for free if (1) you provide an easy mechanism to find and obtain the content and (2) you charge a reasonable price.

  15. I'm on the Neil Gaiman/Cory Doctorow side of this equation: both watched their sales rise dramatically after offering their work for free download. "The Graveyard Book" is available free from Gaiman himself and it's spent an ENTIRE YEAR on the children's bestseller list. Seriously. An entire year.

    I'm somehow not thinking he's losing sales.

    If someone wants to pirate one of my books, and they will likely buy it in print to have a physically copy, I'm cool with that.

  16. What can be done to prevent e-book piracy? There's a tough one ...

    Ummmmm ... not sell e-books?

    I don't know if I'm a premature curmudgeon or what, but I hate the whole concept of e-books anyway. Could there not be authors out there who just refused to sell e-book rights? And wouldn't that pretty much solve the whole problem, if certain authors were just adamant about selling their books on paper only? Or am I just nostalgic for a quickly fading past?

    But, you know---like Tom Waits didn't compromise to be on the radio, so people just had to buy his albums. So what if authors wouldn't compromise to be on those reader devices, and people just had to buck up and buy the book?

    Sure, you could still get bootlegged copies, I guess, but they'd be worse quality you might hope ...

  17. Why do you want to stop piracy? Why can't you turn it to your advantage, which would be the smarter way to do it?

    Give away stuff. I've seen authors give away extra chapters, short stories that continue an existing novel, and entire books outright. So long as it's part of the overall marketing plan, it doesn't seem to be hurting anyone.

    What does hurt someone -- namely, the publishing industry -- is when people try to impose a format that makes it impossible to lend a book, or makes it technically difficult/nigh impossible to move a book from one reader platform to another. Of special irritation to me are "free download" ebooks that are so DRMed they don't work with my operating system (Linux). All you're doing is annoying a loyal book reader and make them more likely to find other ways to obtain books. Do this enough times (like the music industry did) and the consumer can only conclude that these so-called vendors don't actually want the consumer's money. iTunes got mentioned in a couple of comments, but the truth is it's not truly cross-platform either -- it only works on Mac & Windows. That's not true of all web-based applications.

    Accept free-floating e-copies as a fact and make us want to buy the physical book. Do you really think the physical book is so worthless we'd rather suffer through an OCRed PDF version?

  18. Meh. I'm just worried about getting a book published and starting my career. Worrying about piracy at this stage is like worrying about landing the lunar module when the Saturn V rocket is still sitting on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral.

  19. I'm not yet published, but I am seriously hoping I can give my ebook away for free alongside more tradtional distribution of physical copies. As someone above said, our biggest enemy is obscurity! The more people who read my stuff, the better. Why would I not love that?

    I am banking on the idea that if I aquire fans, via free ebooks or otherwise, that their sense of loyalty and appreciation will help my sales.

    I love the radio analogy. None of us would go and buy music we had never heard, by artists we don't know. I wouldn't even do that on the recommendation of a friend, I just don't have money to throw around like that. But if I hear the music and like it I will go out and buy a copy.

  20. The first comment has a point--almost all of the books I've ever read were from the library, and if you don't count fines, I've never had to pay a cent for them.

  21. It's okay to steal from people because they weren't making a living from it anyway? When I was young and had sticky fingers, I told myself it was okay to steal from large stores because they factored the loss into their yearly projections. Both rationalizations are equally stupid.

  22. I agree with the prevalent viewpoint among commenters: piracy exposes your work to more readers and may ultimately generate more hard-copy sales than it siphons off. Assuming you're published and your book is available in bookstores, at Amazon, etc.

    But what if you're not published yet? Does offering your novel online for $3 make sense? What if you only sell a few copies before it becomes widely distributed as a "free" eBook?

    I uploaded my novel to Scribd (which allows you to restrict downloads) last week but don't expect anyone to notice it amidst the clutter of manuals, technical books, etc. Am considering Smashwords, but that site offers downloads in any format with no DRM, which makes me queasy.

    Is anyone else considering offering their unpublished novel on Smashwords?

  23. I'm of several minds about this.

    First, the comparison with the recording industry doesn't work because writers get paid differently. Recording artists get paid for each CD pressed (not sold), for each time a song gets played on the radio, plus concerts and merchandise sales. Writers get paid for what actually sells.

    Second, DRM doesn't work. No technological solution can ever prevent the theft of a creative work. Someone will find a way to crack the protection. DRM harms honest consumers far more than it prevents theft.

    As for free content, I can agree - to a point. But if what's being given away is the same quality as what an author is having printed . . . that's a lot of time not spent doing something profitable. I want my favorite writers to be able to write and needing a full time job to support that mean fewer books from them.

    Now, there IS a medium out there that does give their content away for free: webcomics. Many of these artists ask for donations if you like their work or offer print copies through a variety of means. We may one day see writers serializing their works in a similar manner. Will they make a lot of money at it? No. You might have one or two major success stories (self-publishing, anyone?) but for the most part, everyone else will labor in obscurity subsidizing their writing with money earned elsewhere. The end result is still fewer quality books out there to read.

    The real war is in changing the "why pay when I can get it free" mindset. There's always an uncomfortable silence in my Sunday School class when I point out to my pre-teen students that downloading copyrighted material without paying for it is theft. Most of them have never made the connection and I know some of them have then gone out and bought copies of things they'd downloaded to show their support for the artist.

  24. I pretty much agree with Anon 3:18. Piracy still exists in both the movie and music industries. And it will always be an issue for publishing as well. It will never go completely away because there are always people who will want to steal.

    That's just life.

    With that said, I think the publishing industry as a whole is going through the same kind of growth pains the music industry did. Eventually, regulations and policies went in to place along with software and devices that made everything work out for everyone involved.

    I think piracy is a relatively small part of the e-book problem though. I think the bigger problem publishers face is how to make e-books profitable.

    Personally, I'm not worried about piracy. I'm one of those people that will be offering the first chapter of each of my novels free for download from my website. I also believe in offering free downloads of other things like deleted scenes. As a fan of some authors who do this, I know I'm one to keep going back to their website and checking for free stuff as well as the release date of the next book. It's simply good marketing.

    Of course, I'm still working on finishing my manuscript, so take my opinion with a grain of salt!

  25. Don't mean to be annonymous but I don't have a blog.

    cloudshaper2k has the most educated points so far.

    I come from the music industry, watched it fall apart, and now I can't help but wonder why publishing has chosen not to learn from the mistakes of others???

    Piracy has never been as big of an issue as it will soon become. Please don't be naive about this. I hear the "but it won't happen to us" behind all the talk. It will happen. Don't believe for a second that readers are any more ethical than music lovers.

    Someone held up Nine Inch Nails as an example of a band making it work in the digital age, but watch that recent documentary and Trent says outright that he was shocked to find that when the public was offered a "pay what you want" deal for their album, they were UNDERwhelmed by the response. Drastically fewer fans paid for the music than they expected. They were very disappointed. And that goes right to idea: "why pay for what I can get for free?"

    We are doing artists a fundamental wrong when we offer digital versions of their work, because rampant piracy will be the result. Artists deserve to be paid for their work. Technology and law suits won't stop theft. It hasn't fixed the music industry. Ask the artists themselves.

    If I loan a book, that's one sale lost. If I hack and forward a book, that thousands of sales lost.

    Please! Shout it to the top of the food chain in publishing! Learn from our mistakes in music. Or at least don't be naive about what's about to happen to your industry.

    The fact that amazing writers must have days jobs to make ends meet doesn't mean that's ok. Don't we want them focused on their writing? Or at least to have that option?

    Because as cloudshaper said, bands can sell tickets to concerts to make up their losses, to add to their pay check and make a living, but when was the last time you paid $80 to hear an author read for two hours?


  26. Been thinking about this since Nathan asked the same question, and the more it goes, the more I think there is very little in common with book consumption and music consumption, and thus the modes of piracy of the two can't be compared.

    See: listening to music is rarely something you do as a primary activity. It doesn't require your attention. Most of the time you'll be doing something else while the music is on.

    That makes each individual piece of music *replaceable*. It doesn't really matter whether this or that album is playing while you're writing that essay: it's just background.

    This is important because it makes the perceived value of music is very low: a given piece of music can be taken out of a playlist or replaced by something else with little loss of enjoyment. There is thus little added value to buying a CD as opposed to firing up for free.

    In fact, most of the remaining value of music is social in nature, I suspect. A feeling of connection with that band or singer; the opportunity to listen to that new album with your friends. That's about it. Take that away and, seriously, why bother buying music? We're saturated with music all day long regardless.

    This is why the music industry is doomed as such, IMHO. It's an industry.

    Just a thought, anyway. But I'm not surprised that initiatives which build a direct bond from artist to consumers (such as free downloads from the artists themselves) would be successful. It makes their music personal again.

    Now, books. The consumption of books is almost completely opposite to that. When you're reading a book you're not doing something else. Books require an investment in time.

    With the possible exception of run-of-the-mill collections (Harlequin...), books are personal *by nature*.

    Regardless, books will be pirated, of course. Just not to the extent music has. A PDF can't get dog-eared, can't be taken with you while soaking in the bathtub, can't get signed by the author. The actual impact of copyright infringement on sales... Well, we'll see. But I don't think it will reach the levels the music industry has seen.

    Just so long as the publishing world doesn't make the mistake of depersonalizing books. This is the number one concern to have about ebooks, if you ask me.

    But time will tell.

  27. I found an author I'd never heard of before through my library - Allan Folsom. BEST thriller/suspense novels I've ever read. So good I wanted them for my own personal library. So I went out and bought them! (even though I'd already read them). Yes, I've now become a fan of that writer, even though I'm a writer myself. Do I ever want my books to become e-books (should I ever be a published writer)? No. I'm a paper-print reader and that's the kind of reader I write for.
    Glenna Fairbanks

  28. The library analogy doesn't work. When's the last time a library let you check out a book and keep it forever? Same thing with selling used books; you can't sell a used copy and keep it at the same time.

    File sharing is really a mode of distribution. It's less like loaning a book to a friend and more like taking a book to Kinko's and copying the whole thing and then selling or giving away the copies.

    When you buy a book, you buy the physical object. You own the book, but the author still owns the content. You can sell the book or give it away, but you can't reproduce its contents. (Go to Kinko's and ask them to copy a whole book and see what they say.) With physical books, that's been a clear distinction. With ebooks, the lines are blurred because there is no physical book and it's easy to copy and distribute files.

    My husband and I are both full-time authors. You wouldn't have heard of us. He writes technical books and I write reference books. We've made an OK living at it, but ebook piracy has already cut into our income. I recently found one of my books on a site that said the book had been downloaded more than 700 times. And that's just one site. I agree that not everyone who downloaded a copy would have handed over money to buy the book, but ebook piracy has definitely hurt sales.

    We don't need exposure. No one's going to buy "Dog Grooming for Morons" because I wrote it. They're going to buy it because they want a book on that subject. And if they can get it for free, they're not going to buy it.

    Also, while ebook pirates deprive authors of income, they try to make money off of our books. Most sites that list free ebooks are loaded with ads. (Many of them are also loaded with spyware--I'd say caveat emptor but there's no actual "emptor" in this scenario.)

    I don't know what the answer is. Lately I've taken on more projects on a work-for-hire (rather than a royalty-paying) basis. But that's only a temporary fix from my point of view. If publishers lose money to e-pirates, the WFH rates will go down, and writers won't be able to write fast enough to make a living.

  29. Personally, if I get an ebook for free and really like it, I'm much more likely to surf over to Amazon and order the real copy. Free ebooks are a great marketing technique. Just ask Seth Godin.

  30. I want to tell you all something about piracy and why iTunes and other legitimate rights seller's have made progress in the US and Europe - It is solely because of the large lawsuits. When I was an undergrad illegal downloading was at its climax... there wasn't anything you couldn't get for free in terms of music/movies. But, you know what happened? Some kid at university ended up getting sued for $2 million dollars, and lost! They were on the hook for about $15k/month for the next 30 years... and it happened again and again. All of a sudden, the risk was too big, and universities started monitoring their networks to make sure that students weren't illegally downloading stuff. Outside of the US and Europe, illegal downloading is rampant (most users of, for example, are in developing countries). However, rights holders aren't losing many sales in these countries because most people can't afford legit copies anyway.

    Will it affect books nearly as much? What I predict is that it will affect the biggest authors: Brown, Meyer, King, etc. However, that will in turn really hurt the publishing houses because they have a much higher margin on big authors than they do on newly published authors! Less money in the coffers means less money to risk on new authors.

    Give it away like NIN did? Sorry, but the reason NIN gave it away was because most record labels gave musicians terrible contracts with the promise that they would make their millions from concerts. Authors don't have concerts... if they're lucky they draw maybe a 100 people to a book signing/reading... maybe. What they could do is give away teaser chapters to try and get people to buy, but giving it away won't work until authors can have their characters drink Coca-Cola and wear Gucci, and get paid for it.

    However, I do have one HUGE hope for eReaders/eBooks, which is the return of the short story/Novella. These are really just lost these days and I fell like a lot of the novels I read are really Novellas that have been fluffed up to make them "thick" enough that people will buy them. Give me the option to buy short stories from my favorite authors (as eBooks only) for $0.99 or Novellas for $3.99 and I'll jump all over it! Sometimes I want something that I an read in an hour!

    Anyhow, I've gone on for way too long, but I will say that I think Piracy will hurt the industry IF they don't stay on top of it early in the eBook game. Yeah, people could always scan books, but as a grad student that scanned 100's of academic articles, I can tell you that sucks. However, if you can download a PDF in about 15 seconds with minimal searching? Piracy could run rampant.