Historical and Contemporary Romance Author

Thursday Throwdown: Why Piracy <> Lost Sales

This article in today’s Publisher’s Weekly, Attributor Study Finds Pervasive Book Piracy is garnering lots of attention in the Twittersphere author community, receiving lots of retweets from many different sources, most of them citing the story’s claim that ebook piracy is “costing” the publishing industry “as much as $3 billion.” Setting aside the fact that the “study” upon which this astronomical figure is based isn’t even methodologically sound (see Courtney Milan’s post for details), I have a big issue with the underlying assumption. Namely, that a pirated copy of an ebook is a book the publisher/author otherwise would have/could have sold.

To say that a theft represents a loss of income to the seller of the product assumes two facts not in evidence in this case:

1) The thief, deprived of the opportunity to steal the product, would have purchased it instead.

2) The object, having been stolen, cannot be sold to another customer who would have purchased it.

Assumption #1 drives me crazy because I would be willing to bet a very large sum of money (assuming I had it) that the vast majority of ebook pirates either never pay for books or do so only under extreme circumstances. They consider it beneath them and their mad skilz to actually pay for books. That’s why they’re out trolling torrent sites in the first place. People who don’t have any intention of pirating books don’t go looking for them on known pirate sites.1

In other words, these people are thieves, plain and simple. And just like a thief won’t buy the diamond bracelet because he can’t knock over the jewelry store, the ebook pirate won’t go and buy a legitimate copy if she can’t get it for free. (Special thanks to Courtney Milan for the analogy.)

That said, I saw a few folks on Twitter comment that they hate DRM and because they want DRM-free books, they think piracy is justifiable. I’ve also seen some people claim that it’s okay to download a pirate copy because the publisher hasn’t made the ebook available yet or that because they’re “trying out new authors” without financial risk, it makes them more likely to buy another book from that author down the road.

These are all, in my never-to-be-humble opinion, lame rationalizations for doing something you know is wrong–e.g., stealing. If you’ve ever knowingly downloaded a pirated ebook, I don’t care what your reason for doing so is: you’re still a thief. (The DRM rationalization is extra lame, by the way, because of my books that have turned up on torrent sites, the vast majority have been DRM-free from the publisher. In fact, I don’t believe I’ve yet seen my NY-published book–the ebook version of which presumably has DRM–turn up on a torrent site yet, although that may say more about the popularity of my book than it does about piracy and DRM, but the point is, no one has to resort to pirating to get the vast majority of my catalog without DRM.)

So, I think whatever that actual dollar value that can be assigned to pirated ebooks may be, it doesn’t tell us anything about how much money the publishing industry is losing from it because there’s no way of knowing what percentage of those downloads might have been sales if the opportunity to get pirated copies didn’t exist. I’m sure that the amount lost to piracy is far from zero. But it’s also far, far from 100% of the retail value of the pirated copies.

But Assumption #2 above is also interesting to me, because it points to one of the inherent problems with treating digital files as “inventory” in the first place. If the retail value of a pair of socks is $6 and someone steals that pair of socks from the store, it’s quite clear that the retailer is out those $6. The store can’t recoup that sale because the ITEM is gone.

But a digital file (whether it’s a book, music, software, etc.) isn’t a THING in the way a pair of socks is. The retail value of my digital book may be $6, but the fact that someone downloads the file for free from a torrent site does not in any way impair my publisher from selling an infinite number of copies of my book for that $6. The publisher didn’t make $6 on the copy of my book that was pirated (and yes, I’m simplifying, cutting out wholesale vs retail, etc.), but the pirated copy doesn’t somehow reduce the available stock of my book. There will still be just as many of my ebooks available for honest people to buy as before.

For these reasons, I have to admit that I don’t get all that bent out of shape when one of my books shows up on a pirate site. That’s not to say I like it or think it’s okay for people to steal my work, but I don’t see those illegally downloaded copies as lost sales or money out of my pocket because I don’t think those people would have bought my book in the first place.

I do, however, see the people who make pirated copies of book available as the worst sort of slime, because they absolutely KNOW they are doing something immoral and illegal. Book piracy is largely a crime of opportunity, and the people who provide the opportunity are the prime offenders.

Now, tell me what you think.

1In a very limited number of cases, I think people stumble across books on a torrent site without realizing it’s a pirated copy. The reason I believe people do occasionally download pirated books in all innocence is that a CP of mine got a fan letter from someone who could only have gotten the book in question from a pirate site since it was no longer available for sale from the original publisher. I doubt the reader would have written a gushing email to the author begging to know when the next book in the series would be available if she’d realized she’d stolen it.


  • Will Entrekin January 14, 2010 at 6:34 pm

    I agree with you, for the most part, about your thievery stance, but I can’t agree that anything in this case is actually “plain and simple.” I can’t say you’re wrong that downloading a book or a song or a movie is stealing, but then again there is a serious case to be made for creative commons and the like as it applies to word of mouth and vast readership. You’re right that a downloaded book does not equal a lost sale, because one just can’t equate the two, but on the other hand, locking up information to be less accessible doesn’t seem to be an easy solution.

    Me, I can’t find the righteous indignation against people sharing books. My collection is a free download because it’s arguable whether 99 cents or so for every copy sold is more or less valuable than the book being freely available to increase exposure. “Avatar” is already the second highest-grossing movie in Hollywood history, and it’s in addition one of the most widely pirated; “Wolverine” was widely available before its release and performed relatively solidly at the box office.

    Stealing is morally wrong. But then again, should art belong to the culture or to the artist? I’d argue better to belong to the former so long as the latter is adequately compensated.

    Yeah, people who downloaded Avatar stole it, I guess, but does James Cameron or his studio actually need more money?

  • Jackie Barbosa January 14, 2010 at 7:01 pm

    Hi Will!

    So much to discuss, so little time :).

    I don’t have any particular righteous indignation about sharing books, either. But I see a vast difference between sharing books with people one knows (e.g., friends, family, etc.) and putting them up for download on a huge online network of people you’ve never met. Piracy isn’t, generally, an “I loved this book and I want you–personally–to read it because it’s so wonderful” kind of thing. It’s more of a “I’m putting this up here so no one has to pay for it, neener neener neener” kind of thing, at least IMO.

    I think comparing a pirated ebook to a pirated copy of a movie is shaky because even the LEGAL copy of the movie on DVD is a different experience from seeing that same movie in the theater. People who will pirate the copy of the movie might not see it in the theater, but people who want the theater experience will pay for it regardless of the existence of “free” version.

    The same thing really can’t be said of a book, though, at least not at the moment. The experience of reading the book isn’t going to be different if you paid for the copy versus downloading a pirated version (except to the extent that if you have any principles, it should make you a little sick to your stomach).

    I’m not sure what to say about the question of whether art belongs to the artist or the culture. I think art belongs to the artist until the artist sells it. In the case of books, the artist sells the work to a publisher (at least in the “traditional model”) and the publisher in turn sells that work to a broader audience. If books belong to the culture and should be freely available and shared, how on earth WILL authors be adequately compensated for their work. The answer, I think, is they won’t.

    (Ask yourself what would happen to movies if movies belonged “to the culture.” If they just let people into the theater for free? If all copies of the movie could be downloaded for free? How could anyone continue to afford to make movies like that?)
    And, as well you know, whether or not the victim of a theft needs the money is irrelevant to the rightness/wrongness of stealing. Just because Bill Gates can afford for me to pick his pocket doesn’t make it okay for me to do it.

  • Zoe Winters January 14, 2010 at 7:52 pm

    Agree with a lot of what you’re saying, though I still find it annoying that file sharing is called “piracy.” Piracy is when someone tries to sell your work to others. File sharing no one is making a profit, they just really love it and are sharing it with others in hopes those others will share it as well.

    Yes, technically it’s stealing but… it generally doesn’t represent true lost sales. And also we all made mix tapes from the radio. Was that not the EXACT same thing as downloading an illegal file? Listening to a song whenever we wanted to without paying for it?

    I think so.

    Anyway I actually did have someone try to pirate KEPT. They were selling their own copy of my ebook right alongside mine on Amazon. I had to send copyright infringement notification to Amazon to get it taken down.

    It’s one thing to share my fiction with others for free it’s another to literally try to take money out of my pocket, which in the case of the actual piracy, was what was going on.


  • Zoe Winters January 14, 2010 at 7:56 pm

    Hey Will,

    You and I are of similar minds about the whole thing. I agree that artists should be paid and have the right to be paid for all their hard work. I do not believe artists should suffer financially just because they are artists, but there DOES seem to be a strong correlation between piracy and success. The more something is pirated, the more successful it is. IMO this is because of greater exposure.

    Not everybody is going to file share. And most people understand at least on a gut level that if EVERYBODY stole it, the artist wouldn’t be able to continue making the great stuff they like. Most people aren’t pirating that much stuff, they just take something here or there?

    Morally wrong? Perhaps, but it’s not “usually” a big epic thing. And when someone really loves something, they tell others about it, and those others may buy it.

    • Jackie Barbosa January 14, 2010 at 8:09 pm

      I don’t have a sky is falling attitude about piracy (I know what you mean when you say it’s not quite the right term, Zoe, but I don’t have a better one) by any means, since I think most people who want books/music/whatever do prefer to get it in a legal way. That’s because I have faith in people’s general goodness, rightly or wrongly.

      That said, I don’t feel that people who put books up on pirate sites are doing so (by and large) out of “love” for a book and the desire to share it. If you love a book and an author, you recommend the book to your friends, on your blog, etc., but in a way that hopefully compensates the author. To put a book up for free, knowing it will be downloaded by potentially hundreds of people who will never pay the author a dime (as opposed to passing on a book to a few close friends), is, IMO, what you do to a book and an author you hate. Because what you are saying is that the work isn’t worth paying for.

      To me, it’s all about scale. If someone reads my book and loves it, and passes it on to a friend (whether digital or hardcopy), that’s okay by me (although my publishers would object to the digital sharing). But when you put it up on Scribd for any old passerby to download–that says to me you don’t love my work at all.

  • Zoe Winters January 14, 2010 at 8:33 pm

    Hey Jackie,

    I agree that most people will pay for it. Also, it’s a pain in the ass looking to download stuff illegally. Seriously if it’s available and not too expensive, most people are going to pay for it because it’s just more convenient to pay for it. Dealing with Torrents and crap like that is annoying as hell. And I think most readers just aren’t that techie.

    Hmmmm I’m not sure if I agree with the “work isn’t worth paying for.” The more popular an author is the more they are illegally downloaded. I think a lot of downloaders and uploaders are kids, like teenagers who aren’t necessarily being “evil” they just have very limited discretionary funds and they’re like “hey check this out.”

    I think if they thought it was crap, they wouldn’t waste other people’s time and bandwidth with uploads and downloads.

    I also think that a lot of people who share on file sharing sites have some kind of fundamental disconnect about how authors get paid and how much (or usually little) they get paid.

    And while right now KEPT is being torrented all over hell’s half acre (cause I get the google alerts daily), I’m not doing anything about that because hey, KEPT by itself is under a Creative Commons license and I’ve given permission for people to share it. My other work won’t be though, and yes, when i see it, I will go after the little Sh*ts who decide to share my work wholesale for free. I’m definitely not a literary hippie that thinks all writing should be free, lol.

    Though at the same time I try to be pragmatic about it and see the silver lining. I also have considered putting a page in the front of the work to the effect of, “If you obtained this copy through file sharing, the author didn’t get paid. If you enjoy this work, please consider donating to the author here: (insert link) to help the author continue to bring you stories.”

  • Ross Pruden January 15, 2010 at 12:52 am

    You know the greatest thing about having a debate between writers? The arguments are going to be eloquent and free of typos. 🙂

    Jackie, I really enjoyed reading this blog post and can relate to it more than you might suspect. In 1999, I took a very strong position on Napster as thievery, “plain and simple”. Now, ten years later, I’ve done a total about face from that position because file sharing appears to have actually helped the music industry more than hindered it. Yes, some sectors like CD sales may have gone down, but many other sectors have grown like concerts, merchandise, etc. So if piracy is so “wrong”, if pirates are a bunch of—what was the term you used?—the “worst sort of slime”, then we should be thanking them instead of calling them names.

    There are countless examples of CDs and DVDs selling better when their music or movies were posted for free online. The same is true for books. I’ve written extensively about this and I invite you to read both of my last two article series, The Filmmaker’s Roadmap to Free and The Filmmaker’s Roadmap to Value. Please read them all before casting judgement. You may find some interesting insights about how releasing content online without casting moral judgement on piracy is a much smarter business model as long as you have other relevant scarce goods which piracy can help build value for, e.g. free ebooks (a non-scarce good) help add value to pricey hardback books (a scarce good).

    If you’re pressed for time, just read this piece about David Pogue’s experiment with distributing a non-DRM ebook.

    • Jackie Barbosa January 15, 2010 at 12:01 pm

      I’ve sort of said most of this on Twitter, Ross, but I’ll be more eloquent and hopefully clearer with more than 140 characters to play with.

      First of all, the music industry compares poorly to the book industry because music is delivered/experienced in a much different way than books. Demand for a song is still created in large part through radio play, which is free to the listener (well, unless it’s satellite/cable radio) but for which the music publisher still receives payment. From there, it’s surely the case that SOME digital copies of that song will be downloaded for free, but music publishers have not given up on the notion that a) this is to be discouraged (as far as I know, it’s STILL illegal) or b) they should charge people for the privilege of owning a copy of that song. The music industry hasn’t simply thrown up its hands and said, “Oh, yes, all songs shall be free all the time!” And even if sales of the song are not as big a portion of total revenue as they once were, they are still SOME portion of it.

      As an addendum to the above, what has helped the music industry enormously isn’t free sharing of songs through pirate sites, but the growth of digital retailers like iTunes/Amazon/et al. It is frankly much easier to find and purchase the song you want from one of these vendors than it is to spend time trolling torrent sites in hopes of finding a free copy. The cost-benefit analysis falls for most people in favor of the legal/paying route because it’s faster, safer, and cheaper (because time is money).

      We don’t have an iTunes for books yet (Amazon is TRYING to be the iTunes for books through Kindle, but I’m yet to be convinced it’s going to be the final solution…yes, I intended that pun). But when we do, the “answer” for the book industry is NOT going to be “give it all away for free,” anymore than that has been the answer for the music industry. The music industry still expects to get paid for its product, however that product is packaged/delivered, and so should the book industry. And it’s particularly important for the book industry, because short of including paid advertisements in books, I don’t see other viable revenue streams for authors/book publishers that wouldn’t effectively result in limiting one’s choices in books to either blockbuster bestsellers and books self-published by hobbyists who don’t expect to make money at it. And in both cases, I’m not betting on the outcome improving either the overall quality of books or reader choice.

      It’s definitely an interesting time to be an author. (And I mean that in the Chinese curse way.)

  • Zoe Winters January 15, 2010 at 6:18 pm

    That was very eloquent, Jackie! Totally agree with what you’re saying.

  • Zoe Winters January 15, 2010 at 6:18 pm

    (Sorry but I felt like being your cheerleader for a second, LOL)

  • Jackie Barbosa January 15, 2010 at 6:23 pm

    LOL, Zoe, you ARE allowed to agree with me from time to time ;).

  • Zoe Winters January 15, 2010 at 7:14 pm

    hahahaha. Oh I know that, and actually we agree about things more often than we disagree we’re just often coming at things from different angles. I just don’t want to look like a big suck up on your blog.

  • Jackie Barbosa January 15, 2010 at 7:23 pm

    Oh, don’t be afraid to suck up. I won’t object ;).

    This reminds me, though, that I wanted to say I don’t think the fact that bestsellers are uploaded to pirate sites more than non-bestsellers says anything about the uploader/sharer’s “love” for that book. I think it’s all about supply/demand. More copies of a book being sold means more copies are out there for people to strip the DRM from and share.

    That said, I’m sure many people who share files (be they books, music, movies, etc.) don’t truly appreciate the degree to which they are depriving their favorite artist of income. It’s a little like voting, I suppose. There are just an awful lot of people who think their one vote/one purchase doesn’t amount to much and won’t be missed/doesn’t matter.

    They are, of course, wrong.

  • Zoe Winters January 15, 2010 at 7:31 pm

    LOL yeah I don’t vote either. Mainly cause I don’t want to be called for jury duty.

  • Zoe Winters January 15, 2010 at 7:32 pm

    We are kind of “tweeting” at each other now, but in longer characters.

  • Jackie Barbosa January 15, 2010 at 7:34 pm

    In California, your name is in the jury system if you have a driver’s license. So whether you vote or not, if you want to legally drive a car, you’re on the list for jury service.

    I get called for jury service quite regularly (once every 2-3 years), but I’ve never been selected for a jury (and rarely even made it to voir dire). I strongly suspect the prosecutors peg me for a bleeding heart liberal the moment I step foot in the box.

  • Zoe Winters January 15, 2010 at 8:40 pm

    Oh wow, really? California really is like a whole other country isn’t it? Bunch of granola eating hippies. 😛

  • Jackie Barbosa January 15, 2010 at 9:01 pm

    It’s not just California. I know a lot of other states have dropped voter registration lists in favor of some combination of voter registration, driver licenses, and tax rolls. Among them are Nevada, New Jersey, Maryland, Indiana. I’m sure there are many more, but those are just the ones I’m aware of off the top of my head.

    Seems to me like the practice of using voter registrations to get lists of potential jurors is a hangover of the pre-Civil Rights South. Since for all intents and purposes, black people couldn’t register to vote, using voter registrations lists to compile juror lists all but ensured all-white juries.

    ETA: And can we make a topic drift or what?

  • Zoe Winters January 16, 2010 at 11:34 pm

    Man, if they all drop voter registration lists for Jury duty, I may as well start voting again. Dammit.


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