Gravity's Rainbow

botany, shoes, books, and justice

Ebook piracy

| 7 Comments

I read a lot of books – especially short novels – on my ipod or my computer. It’s easier to carry around my ipod than a book, and downloading a book is faster and easier than going to a bookstore or waiting on the mail. You’d think the internet and ebooks would be great for authors – publishing an ebook is cheap, you’ve got a huge potential audience, and there are so many ways to get people interested in your work that are essentially free advertising.

Unfortunately, many authors are still tying themselves to book publishers that try to treat digital books like paper and ink books.  Many authors blame illegal downloads for poor sales and try to convince readers that they should be willing to jump thru hoops to get a particular book.  Saundra Mitchell disapprovingly says that “people who illegally download books are more interested in their convenience than in supporting the authors they want to read.” Well, duh. Of course I’m more interested in getting and reading a book than I am in the author’s finances. This doesn’t mean readers don’t want to support authors.  It means that publishers are making it too hard for readers to support authors.

Right now the best way to get ebooks isn’t legal. There are a million and one sites selling ebooks. It’s very annoying having to look on multiple sites for a book or author, but illegal download sites usually have the better selection and often better search tools. Sometimes they even have better organization. They also come with reader comments, suggestions, and conversation much of the time – there’s a bit of a community instead of reviews.

Books that are downloaded illegally don’t come with DRM – so you can read it in whatever reader you want on whatever device you want and move it or copy it to as many hard drives as you want – pain free.

Idiotically, DRMed ebooks are often more expensive than their paperback versions, despite having far less value. Once I’ve read a book, I lend it out, give it away, swap it, or resell it.  With a DRMed ebook, I’m the only one that can read it – and I can’t even read it all the ways I want without hackage. Which is illegal. Plus, I don’t want to spend $9.99+ on an ebook I read once in just a few hours.

Publishers also do stupid, stupid things like make books available in some regions, but not in others (What is the fucking point of this strategy? How does this make sense in a world with the internet?) There’s a series I like that’s available only in Australia – even the ebooks. I’m not going to track down a random Australian and pay them for the book plus $15 postage like Mitchell suggests. I ended up with a copy of the series and liked it so much that I wanted to donate to the author since it wasn’t possible for me to buy the books.  But guess what? Publishers make it so that readers can’t support authors without buying DRMed or physical copies of their books.

And that I think is the root of the problem. Publishers are using a model that is decades behind the times, preventing authors from making money in new ways – like through donations and micropayments. If every book on an illegal download site had a Flattr button for the author, I guarantee things like this wouldn’t happen:

[SHADOWED SUMMER is] going out of print in hardcover because demand for it has dwindled to 10 or so copies a month. This means I will never get a royalty check for this book. By all appearances, nobody wants it anymore.

But those appearances are deceiving. According to one download site’s stats, people are downloading SHADOWED SUMMER at a rate of 800 copies a week. When the book first came out, it topped out at 3000+ downloads a week.

If even HALF of those people who downloaded my book that week had bought it, I would have hit the New York Times Bestseller list.

The article I’ve linked to throughout this post is by a disgruntled author, and it has a lot of other disgruntled authors weighing in about THE EVIL PEOPLE WHO DOWNLOAD their books. I feel a little sorry for them, but mostly I want to whack them over the head. The people downloading their books do it because they like the books. They are the customers, the fans. Authors aren’t making money from those readers because we aren’t being given good ways to give authors money. The problem isn’t the people illegally downloading; the problem is the way ebooks are being sold.

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7 Comments

  1. You are so right! Publishers are trying to pretend that nothing has changed with the advent of e-reading. What idiots! Their silly games with convoluted copyright restrictions and idiotic attempts to charge hardcover prices for e-books will end up costing them dearly. As well they should. It’s sad to see that the publishing industry is so incapable of moving with the times.

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  3. The content industries (a name which I hate, but will use here for the sake of convenience) seem perpetually stuck 75 years in the past. I have no idea why this is the case.

    If there were any site that sold movies or ebooks or TV shows with no DRM and I could put those bits of media on any device that I please, I would be spending hundreds of dollars a month there. I am sure there are millions like me.

    But as it is now, it is much more convenient and easier to go to a shady site that provides what I want with no restrictions and no hassle — and, as you point out, such sites are usually better-organized and easier to search, too.

    I will never use or buy anything with DRM, if I can at all help it.

    I estimate in the last five years, the content industries have missed out on about $8,000 to $10,000 I would have gladly given them if their products weren’t so stuck in 1950 or locked up in a digital jail.

  4. My mind is blown every time I see an academic text “discounted from $90 to $80” in its Kindle edition. I always hesitate to pretend like I know business better than the people whose job it is, but that never makes sense to me.

    What are the sites that are better for finding pirated ebooks than legal retailers? I ask out of curiousity of course…

    Seriously, I have often used gigapedia for books, but I find it a lot less convenient than buying Kindle books. Are there better sources?

    Another small point: I don’t think you can infer much about how many paid downloads would happen from the number of free downloads. I just listened to a podcast interview with a software developer whose project had less than 1,000 paid customers, but over a hundred thousand downloads after he made the software open-source. I’m not saying that it’ll always work that way–whether people are willing to pay depends on factors specific to the individual project.

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  6. As an author I spend about a year writing and editing each book. My publisher pays the artist, the art director, a line editor, a copy editor, an assistant and a great lot in building overhead. These costs are fixed. The relatively small number of bestsellers cover production costs of the huge number of books that don’t catch on.  To make e-books cost the small bit illegal downloaders are willing to pay, the people who work 50 hours a week writing and polishing a book would have to take the equivalent cut in salary– about 95 percent. (And publishing salaries are already notoriously low). For  every James Patterson, Jodi Picolt and JK Rowling, there are hundreds of authors– many who have written several critically acclaimed books and won national honors– who don’t make enough to live on.  I know more than 200 people who write books. Only one makes enough to work full-time at his craft. The rest work at other jobs and write at night an on off days. Most of us also spend a substantial amount of money on research, travel and computers. So, when you take a book from a “free” site it is no different than if I stole a couple of bucks from you– which you might dismiss as not much. But if every writer whose work you downloaded without paying accessed your bank account and removed two bucks , you would be understandably furious. When 10,000 people download with out paying that is stealing about $20,000 from me. Let’s say $15,000 since people are choosier when they are paying. For me that is two years worth of groceries. At the same time you are stealing from the publisher, who you look at as a greedy corporation. Look closer. They are people, working hard in a business with a relatively small profit margin. We all agree that Bernie Madoff is an immoral thief and that banks and mortgage companies  who cheat their customers and take advantage of loopholes and tricky accounting should be fined and the masterminds arrested. But people, stealing books and other media is the same thing. Just on a smaller scale. 

    • You’re a bit off on your calculations. You suggest that if 10,000 people illegally download your book, 7,500 of those people would have purchased your book legally if the illegal download hadn’t been available. Even assuming people would have known that your book even existed if they hadn’t seen it on a download site, your number is grossly inflated. 20% is the number the music industry uses (and that’s probably still way too high).

      You’re also ignoring the fact that people downloading your book are probably more likely to buy your book (or other books you write), based on what we’ve learned from music piracy.

      I wonder how much more you’d make if you had a paypal and/or Flattr button linked from those ‘illegal’ downloads? I’ve certainly tried to find ways to support authors I like that don’t involve paying $10 for a book I’ll read in 2 hours and can’t share.

      I get that it’s hard to make money as an author, but the traditional publishing business is way behind the times. Their old-fashioned ways hurt you far more than illegal downloads.

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