A Radical Response to Piracy

Since ebooks went mainstream (thank you, Kindle), book authors are now finding themselves in the same awkward spot that musicians have been in for over a decade. Readers can bypass bookstores, Kindle, and everything else, and own your book without paying a dime to you or anyone else. You’re being ripped off! What do you do? How are you supposed to react when that huge project you labored over and poured your soul into and sacrificed other parts of your life for, is made available to the whole world for free?

The standard reaction of most writers is outrage and frustration. Even litigation if they can afford it (most of us can’t).

I was pretty surprised the first time one of my books started appearing on illegal “file sharing” websites. It happened very suddenly, a few months ago. I got a Google Alert (an invaluable tool — you can register so that any time a search term of your choice is indexed by Google from a new webpage, you get sent an email with a link to that page; I have an alert set for my name) in my inbox pointing to one of the many, many file sharing websites where my last novel, Nightmare, was available as a free ebook download.

It wasn’t hard to figure out how this happened. Somebody bought the ebook from Barnes & Noble or Amazon or some other ebook seller, and decided to “share” it with the world. And in the following days, I watched as Nightmare quickly made its way to virtually every file sharing website there is. It wasn’t long before some of my other books followed suit.

At first, there was that sense of having been stolen from. What gave somebody the right to take something I made and just give it away to anyone who wanted it? But then another thought occurred to me: suddenly, my work was listed alongside others’ books on some of the most highly-trafficked websites in the world.

I saw some comments from celebrated scifi/fantasy author Neil Gaiman about this very issue the other day. He says that he was just as outraged as the next guy when his stuff first started being pirated. But then he noticed an unexpected phenomenon. In countries where his stuff wasn’t readily available, like Russia, suddenly sales of his books had spiked. He watched this happen again and again in ways he never could have predicted, as his books benefited from this new, very broad mode of distribution, and was forced to make the only logical conclusion:

Instead of hurting his sales or keeping income out of his pocket, piracy was actually helping him sell more books.

Gaiman argues that when you consider the person that most of us count as our favorite author, nine times out of ten, we were introduced to that writer’s work via lending. A friend lent you a book and told you to read it, they said you’ll love it, guaranteed! And what do you know — you did.

Electronic piracy is a relatively new phenomenon in the literary world. But historically speaking, the idea of reading a book you don’t own has been with us since the beginning. Libraries are an obvious example of this. What is a library, if not a place where you go to get your hands on books you never have to pay for? Authors have always embraced libraries because they’re fantastic tools for introducing new readers to your work. But aside from the few copies of your book purchased as stock for library shelves, authors see no immediate monetary turnover from libraries. Yet the return-on-investment can be huge, because libraries are one of the best ways in the world for people to be introduced to your work.

Do you see the disconnect? Yes, piracy is illegal. And in a perfect world, it wouldn’t exist. But it’s here and it’s here to stay, so why not let it work for you?

Now I’m not going so far as to say that “illegal ebook downloads are the new library.” But I will say that the majority of people out there discovering your work through file sharing have far less malicious intent than the news headlines would have you believe.

Turns out, most of them are just looking for something good to read.





5 responses
  1. Tanya Avatar

    To be honest, I don’t think I will Ever buy a kindle or any other Ebook for that matter. I just don’t think I would get that same relaxation that I get from reading an ACTUAL book. I don ‘t want to go to the beach and be reading an electronic device. Its just weird to me.

    1. Steve Avatar

      I agree. There’s something special about the feel of soft, warm paper that a plastic and metal device just can’t capture. And then there’s the appeal of filling your bookshelves; the same reason I keep buying CDs!

  2. Dabe Avatar

    Good article. Some people will always pirate your work (whether that’s books, films, comics, video games or music) regardless of its cost or worth. These shouldn’t be the focus however — as you say — it’s the people who treat a pirated download as a test subject and have a modicum of purchasing intent if they enjoy what they get.

    The problems of not liking a download and discarding it are still prevelant, but the internet is a phenomenal beast and it furthers the notion for a “true” free market.

    Lastly, knowing people are reading your work or that it is out in the wild (whatever the form) should be the principal reason for all writers to begin with. In other words, you should only write for either yourself or to get a word/message across to others, irrespective of the monetary attachment.

  3. Jessica Avatar

    What about the issue of used bookstores? Authors never see money from what is essentially the selling of an already bought book. A book could be resold dozens of times, yet the author only see the royalties once. Is that also considered piracy? It’s really fascinating that whole realms of digital copyright laws have to be weighed out and exacted as new technologies arrive.

  4. Derek Thompson Avatar

    Surely one of the issues here is that the writer signs up with a publisher (print or electronic) with the understanding that the publisher controls and administers distribution. While piracy may benefit some readers, I find it hard to believe it will benefit unknown writers at the start of their careers.

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