Piracy and privilege

One of the topics-of-the-moment for the genre blogosphere over the last few weeks (at least among the people who weren’t panicking over the potential demise of Fringe) has been… yup, ebook piracy. It’s been a bit depressing to watch, really, because it’s consisted predominantly of publishers and authors either wringing their hands over piracy or trying to blast it out of the water with Words Of Righteous Ire. Understandable reactions, certainly, but – as I’ve said many times before – counterproductive in the extreme. When one has such a high profile text-book example of how not to react to a technology-driven seismic shake-up of one’s business model as the that provided by the music industry in recent years, well, you’d think that folk would pay attention to it. To be fair, some have.

No one likes an inconvenient truth, but that doesn’t make it any less true. My own tirades on the matter of piracy in publishing – which regular readers will be aware boils down to “face the facts and stop tilting at windmills” – are easily ignored by industry professionals: I don’t have a horse in the race (not yet, anyway), and I’m speaking from a position of relative privilege. It is the latter, I suspect, that makes Cory Doctorow’s stance so unpalatable to so many: he does have horses in the race (which are consistently placing well at the finish line, too), but he’s still saying that fighting piracy is a waste of time! It all seems abundantly unfair, especially to writers and small publishers trying to get their titles out and make a living at the same time.

The trouble is that the counter-piracy debate also stands in a position of comparative privilege, as this essay from Charles Tan at the World SF Blog neatly points out:

The problem with discussions of eBook piracy, or simply giving away your work for free, is that it doesn’t affect everyone equally. If you’re popular like J.K. Rowling or Stephen King, then it’s mostly a loss to you, since you’re not really after fame but income (to say nothing of the futility of stamping out each and every pirate). To obscure writers, like say a genre writer in the Philippines, it’s probably more of a gain, since we’re not popular enough in the first place to acquire a sufficient following to earn a significant amount from our writing. My friend Lavie Tidhar laments that his books aren’t being pirated and to a certain extent, piracy is a popularity metric; if no one is pirating you, then there’s little demand for your writing.


I can understand authors hating piraters (the people who distribute their books online). If someone interfered with my income, I’d be angry too. There’s a gray area though when it comes to people who simply download eBooks. If they buy your book after illegally downloading it, will you hate them as well? If they donate to your site, or review your book, etc.? There’s no universal–or correct–answer here. Some authors will rage–and perhaps rightfully so–that their book got downloaded, irregardless of whether the downloader eventually bought the book. Others will take context into consideration. I just want to warn that just because your book got illegally downloaded 1,000 times does not mean you would have gotten paid 1,000 times for that work (although yes, it is theft). Some readers, when forced with the alternative, will buy your book. Others won’t. There is no definite statistic (i.e. 10% of readers, 50% of readers, etc.). The only thing you can be certain is that that number is anywhere between one and 1,000.

With the exception of the assertion that ebook piracy is theft (which is open to debate, even if only on semantic and ideological grounds, due to the status of ebooks as what economists call infinite goods), and one numerical error (the number of lost sales is anywhere between zero and one thousand), Charles is pretty much on the money there: he’s taking an honest appraisal of the playing field rather than calling it out for not conforming to a best case scenario. But if you prefer the blunt and caustic approach, then who better to ask but Nick Mamatas?

I found it amusing because of how passive-aggressive some of its writer-participants were. Apparently, e-piracy is to blame for their failure to make the bestseller lists and thus become wealthy enough to write more books. And now, *snif snif* they might have to stop. (How wealthy were these poor things when they wrote their first publishable books? They should try doing whatever they were doing then, again!) There was one particular delusion I can no longer find a link to sadly, but it was something along the lines of a guess on a writer’s part that thousands of people were downloading her work and that if only “ten percent” actually bought the book her advance would have earned out and her publisher would like her.


When it comes to piracy or even legitimate free-to-paid customers, conversion rates are more generally a fraction of one percent. A banner ad might be seen by tens of millions of people, and clicked by tens of thousands. A few thousand may interact with whatever is on the other side of that ad—say downloading a free app on one’s smartphone or tablet. Then perhaps a few hundred will actually use that app to buy something—say a comic book or ebook after reading the free samples bundled with the app. Our Ten Percent Pal, starting with thousands, shared her upset with the whole Internet over what was probably a total of fewer than half-a-dozen lost sales. She would have been better off spending her time patrolling local bookstores to stop shoplifters or those people who can read a whole book while nursing a cup of coffee at the big box chains. Then she might have stopped TEN people from reading her stuff without arranging with a publisher to send her maybe $2.50 eighteen months from now.

This is a point that I and many others have made repeatedly, but it still isn’t sinking in: a pirated ebook does not represent a lost sale. It probably doesn’t even represent an appreciable fraction of a lost sale, especially to authors who aren’t currently shifting units on the Brown/Rowling/King scale. And as Charles points out, it may actually be spreading your work further than it would have gotten otherwise.

As I always feel obliged to do, I should reiterate here that there is nothing triumphalist about my advocacy of pragmatism in the face of piracy (despite what some of the charming people who’ve emailed me about it may choose to believe). Many of my friends and clients are published authors; I hold some slim hope that I might become one myself some day. The last thing I want to see is a world where authors don’t get paid for their work.

And that’s precisely why I take a stand for pragmatism, for dealing with things as they actually are rather than how we’d like them to be. As Doctorow frequently reminds us, the internet is a machine that facilitates the duplication of digital content, and that particular genie will not go back in the bottle, no matter how hard we wish or how fervently we point out that it isn’t fair.

And as tempting as it may be, the worst thing you can do is get all ranty and angry at the actual pirates themselves, who often proudly boast of their fightin’-the-man ethics. The usual justification for pillorying the pirates is that they need to be shamed out of their Robin Hood complex… but if you get all Sheriff of Nottingham on someone with that mindset, you’re just entrenching them deeper into their own ideology while framing yourself as the [corrupt/broken/overpriced] system that they believe they’re fighting against. Let me say it clearly and simply:

The pirates are a lost cause.

They are the people who were least likely to ever pay for the product they’re copying, and the most likely to be further polarised by rhetoric that blusters about their immoral or illegal behaviour. In a way, you are encouraging them by trying to shame them in public. I repeat: trying to stem the flow of uploads is a lost cause.

Stemming the flow of downloads, however, is not so futile. The people most worth reaching out to are those who either would pay if they could afford to (and as Charles points out, a large percentage of them genuinely can’t afford to buy at current prices), or who can’t get the titles they want any other way. Don’t pillory them, woo them: ask them to be patient; keep them aware of your efforts to embrace new formats in a way that serves both them and the authors; show that you want them to be customers.

Keep the door open… because if you close it on them now, they’ll just go elsewhere. Sure, that’s loads more work, and times are hard, and and and and. But that’s just the way it is. In a ideal world, none of this would be an issue. But this isn’t an ideal world. They only exist in books.

And to return to the example of the music industry, it’s the publishers who need to lead in this matter. The demand for fiction isn’t going to dry up; nor is the mass of people producng the stuff. Unless you want to go the way of EMI, you need to make your position as middlemen between author and reader into one that benefits both sides of the equation, or the authors and readers will eventually find ways to connect directly and cut you out of the loop, just as bands and their fans are doing. I strongly believe that the editorial and curational process of publishing adds value to the finished product, and have no wish to see publishing houses wither away. But like nature, economics – particularly the economics of infinite goods – is cruel, and uncaring of human ethics. Getting angry isn’t working; find something that does.

Evolve or die. That’s not a threat, it’s a plea.

2 thoughts on “Piracy and privilege”

  1. I find a puerile and illicit thrill in picking out an author who screams the most shrilly about digital piracy — say, Harlan Ellison — and checking out his books from the public library.

    Meanwhile, I’ve downloaded, checked out, and actually purchased Cory Doctorow’s CC-released titles in about equal numbers.

    And, of course, there’s the case of Phil and Kaja Foglio, whose sales on their Girl Genius graphic novel collections went up by a couple of orders of magnitude when they stopped trying to distribute the individual chapters through comic book shops and started giving the whole story away for free as a web comic.

  2. There is one point that I’d like to disagree with. Both Tan and you pointed to Rowling as someone who is probably losing significant sales due to piracy. Oh, sure, she is probably losing some sales due to piracy but I’m willing to bet that she is losing way more sales due to her refusal to release her books in e-formats. In my experience, most of the people I have seen talking about downloading her books also own her pbooks – sometimes in multiple editions.

    I can’t speculate on others’ motives for downloading her work but I’m guessing more than a few had a similar experience as I did. I bought an ereader. I wanted to reread the Harry Potter books but can no longer read the books in paper due to their massive size and how my disability effects my hands. I searched and searched and searched and got confused and hit the google-machine and discovered that she was refusing to release them in eformat due to fear of piracy. Although I hadn’t been thinking of torrents as a way to acquire ebooks at all, her refusal to allow me to read her books by refusing me a format that works for me left me in a situation where I could either never read her again or become a pirate.

    During that searching, I discovered many other people saying the same thing. “I like rereading the HP books and would like to read them on my vacation next week but I can’t carry all those books with me on a plane.” She missed the boat. Sure, if she ever releases her books in eformat, some people will buy them, getting them in eformat for the first time, and some people who pirated will buy them to reimburse for the pirate copies they downloaded. But people like me, who aren’t super-fans and just wanted to curl up in bed with a good read and have since moved on to other books, are going to be less likely to care that there are finally legal copies to purchase. Although Tolkein’s books were just recently released as legit ebooks and have done well even though they’ve been bouncing around the Net for over a decade. So, I could be wrong.

    Don’t think I don’t see the irony of Rowling’s fear of piracy being what turned me into a pirate. That irony is compounded by her massive financial support for M.S. charities and me not being able to read her books because of M.S. It just leaves me oh-so-amused. But saying that she is losing sales due to pirates is just not that simple. In fact, I have to wonder how many readers of other authors she turned into pirates when they discovered that the only way to acquire her books in eformat was through alternative means.

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