Ebook Piracy – A Writers’ Perspective

Last year, flying domestic on Virgin, I sat next to a middle aged man in fluoro work gear. We exchanged the normal pleasantries before I buried myself in the pages of a novel. After take off my neighbour produced a neat Sony e-reader and started to read also.

To a writer, sitting next to an obvious reader is a green light. A challenge. I licked my lips, and set myself a goal; I would sell my book to that man by the end of the flight. My opening gambit was, “What are you reading?”

He was reading JK Rowling’s crime novel, Cuckoo’s Calling. He had, apparently, downloaded this title when it was, so far as the reading public knew, written by Robert Galbraith. We talked about that book, then some of the dozen or more we had read between us in the last couple of months.

I was intrigued about the mechanics of the Sony e-reader and asked him where he buys his books, Amazon, Google or iBooks.

“Buy?” he laughed. “I don’t buy them. I get them for free.”

My hopes of a sale crumbled. “Oh,” I said, “where from?”

“Websites. Different ones. I just search.”

My gut churned. “What format do they come in?”

“Doesn’t matter. I downloaded a program that changes them to whatever format you want. It’s easy.”

Ebook piracy had been an abstract concept to me in the past. Now it jolted me like unexpected turbulence. I was surprised at how annoyed I felt, and pretended to read while I analysed my feelings.

Reading a novel is a very personal activity. To my mind, there’s a compact between writer and reader along the lines of; you buy my book, and I’ll bust my gut to write the best story I can for you. I’ll entertain and enthral you, but I need to eat, and live somewhere. I therefore must charge you for the privilege of reading my work.

By not paying for the book, the reader is breaking that compact. They are cheating. Stealing. I’m not going to make the obvious parallel with non-consensual sexual acts. But the illegal downloader is taking my work by force, and thus the pleasure is all his.

After stewing for a few days after the flight, I decided to do a straw poll of author friends; gathering their thoughts on the matter of piracy. The range of viewpoints was interesting. Some haven’t given much thought to the problem. Others can live with it. Others are furious.

International bestselling author Michael Robotham sees it as the “biggest threat faced by the publishing industry,” over and above the problems of cheap print imports and the plethora of entertainment options available in modern life. “If even a small percentage of readers,” he goes on the say, “decide to download their books illegally, it will squeeze margins, cost jobs, curtail advances and further diminish the earning power of writers, who already get precious little reward for their efforts.”

Sophie Masson, with a backlist of forty or more titles, offered the most brutal assessment. “It shouldn’t be called piracy; much too swashbuckling a term, these guys are just sneak thieves of the lowest kind, aided and abetted by ‘fences’ who are parasites living on other people’s hard work.” Karly Lane, who writes across romance, rural fiction and suspense genres for Australian publisher Allen and Unwin, agrees. “Ebook piracy to an author feels the same as someone hacking into your bank account and stealing your hard earned income; you feel violated.”

Most other writers feel the same. Felicity Young, acclaimed author of period murder mysteries says simply; “It’s a criminal offence that deprives authors of their income.” Chris Allen, author of the Intrepid series of thrillers, believes that; “Whatever success we enjoy as a result of all the time and effort that goes into writing our stories is hard won. The fact that others feel it’s appropriate to profit from the fruits of our labour is appalling.”

After an interlude spent staring out at the clouds and listening to the tuboprops clattering outside the cabin, I gathered my thoughts and interrupted my neighbour again. “When you download something for free, don’t you feel sorry for the author?”

“Why would I? They all get grants from the government.”

That’s not true. I surveyed fourteen established writers across several genres including literary fiction and only three had ever obtained grant money. Precious few writers of popular fiction ever do.

I changed tack. “Don’t you feel sorry for publishers?”

“Nah, they get more money from real books in bookshops. And ebooks don’t cost anything to make.”

This is the most damaging fallacy of all; that because the content of ebooks is provided digitally they cost their creators nothing. In reality, however, the breakdown of book production costs goes something like this: out of a book that retails for $29.99 the bookseller’s cut is around $10, the author $3, pre-production including editing around $7, marketing around $2 and printing/warehousing around $5, leaving a publisher’s profit of approximately $3. The problem, of course, is that publishers and booksellers are often forced to discount heavily, squeezing everyone’s profits.

Ebooks, theoretically, can be sold with a slightly smaller bookseller margin (Amazon takes 35%) and without printing/warehousing costs, but the publisher’s pre-production and marketing costs (largely salaries in this country) remain the same. An ebook therefore needs to sell for at least $13 just for the publisher to maintain their profit margin of around 9% and for the author to get fair recompense for their work. This is more than many digital-age readers wish to pay.

Yet people still expect that digital content should be free or almost free. A recent blockbuster release by Michael Robotham was inundated with one star reviews on Amazon with the comments. “Won’t read this.” ”Overpriced.” Why does Amazon let people post reviews unrelated to the content of the books? Possibly because they have a vested interest in low ebook prices controlled by them.

I turned to the man next to me. “Downloading is illegal,” I said.

The cheesy grin was gone by now. His manner was guarded, defensive. “So’s speeding, and everyone does it.”

“Illegally downloading stuff is morally wrong.”

“Are you trying to tell me you’ve never copied anything?”

Well no, I explained. When I was a kid I taped records onto cassette and handed them around. But I have not done so since digital content became an income stream for creators. I don’t download illegal copies of movies. I don’t steal songs. iTunes and other sites make it easy to do the right thing, just like the major ebook purveyors make it easy to buy. Like most people, I’m basically honest.

There is another side, however, to this problem. Some authors believe that illegal downloads offer free publicity, and get the book in the hands of people who might not have otherwise read it at all.

Bestselling action writer Helene Young holds this view, “If (illegal downloading) ultimately grows readership then pirate sites are doing free promotion for you.” Or, in the words of Australian thriller writer, Steve Worland, “My opinion on piracy is based on the fact that you can’t do anything about it. So knowing it will always be there, it is such a small percentage of actual books read, and so not a part of the mainstream, I prefer to think of it as advertising.”

Tony Park, with nine of his popular African based thrillers in print, takes the view that, “If you’re popular enough to be pirated widely then you’re probably doing pretty well as an author already.” He does, at the same time, see it as morally wrong: “I wouldn’t steal a handbag and I wouldn’t read a pirated book.”

The “pirate books as advertising,” view is easy to accept when the relative numbers are small. Mainstream writers in the early stages of their careers, or the work of so-called midlist writers don’t offer much incentive for pirate sites to hack the DRM (Digital Rights Management Software) that attempts to protect their ebooks.

Following this logic, my own publisher, HarperCollins, offered my first book, Rotten Gods, as a free download on Amazon, iTunes and Google for two weeks last June, just before the release of my second title, Savage Tide. The reasoning was simple; people would seek out the second book after having enjoyed the first. Did it work? I’m not sure if anyone has crossmatched downloaders of the first title with buyers of the second, but it would be an interesting exercise.

Another argument for a laissez faire attitude to piracy is that illegal downloads can’t be counted as “lost income” because the cheaters would never have paid for the book, but would simply have lived without it. There is some truth here also. The laws of supply and demand tell us that no matter how low the price point there will always be people unwilling to pay that amount. Many of the “pirates” are thus people who are too poor or mean to pay real money for the book, at any price. As Helene Young says, “I suspect that readers who download pirate copies wouldn’t ordinarily hand over cold hard cash for my books.”

What happens, however, when things get out of hand? Some of the downloaders are surely in the “wouldn’t buy at any price” category, but what percentage are just opportunists, who want the book badly enough that they would have paid if they had to? Fifty per cent? Seventy?

Dan Brown’s last blockbuster The Lost Symbol was reported by CNN as having been downloaded illegally by more than 100 000 readers. Photoshop CS5 For Dummies was illegally shared 74 000 times by the users of just one specialist social media site, forcing publisher John Wiley and sons into legal action to try to salvage the battered income stream of both themselves and the author.

A search for “Fifty Shades of Grey Free Download” yields thousands of hits. New York Times and even Australian bestsellers, must surely bleed substantial income away from the publishers and writers. The other big losers from piracy appear to be higher priced, more successful, self published authors on Amazon. As stated earlier, many Amazonians resent high prices, and justify their piracy because they are being “ripped off.”

Others make the case that piracy is okay because DRM and territorial controls make access to certain books difficult or impossible for some consumers. Crime writer Luke Preston is sympathetic: “Who wants to wait months for a network to air a television show or a publisher to release a novel and then charge a premium price for the late delivery? Give people what they want, when they want it and content creators shouldn’t have to worry about piracy.”

Yet the problem is not confined to difficult to get items, or famous writers. Some targets of pirate sites are well known in a specific genre or narrative form. You would not expect children’s authors to be targets, yet veteran Australian author Sophie Masson has a constant problem with illegal copies of her books being available free on the internet, some of which have been physically scanned by the pirates. “My e-books are reasonably priced (from $5 to around $9) and very easy and convenient to purchase. I found several of my books on pirate sites that were in PDF—not hacked e-books but laboriously scanned-in print copies.”

Part of the problem is the legitimising of piracy. Pirate dens are moving from fly-by-night websites to much more accessible areas such as Facebook pages. This has the effect of making ordinary people think it’s okay. Karly Lane, who has reported finding up to twenty new illegal download sites for her books in a day, sees this development as a serious threat, “Piracy has even found its way into social media with numerous Facebook pages being created which are dedicated to offering pirated ebooks. It’s a daily fight to get these sites taken down, and authors are sacrificing precious writing time to removing their books from pirate sites all over the net.”

Social media users openly discuss ways of obtaining free copies of bestselling books, and happening upon such a conversation can be unsettling for a writer. Well known author Fiona McIntosh, whose most recent books The Lavender Keeper and the French Promise both hit bestseller lists, has loyal readers who keep an eye out for such activity and report it to her. “Whenever I’m shown a site where readers are discussing stealing my books – my income – I go into a state of dull shock. Anyone who pirates my books should understand they’re also breaking into my house to take everything we’ve acquired through hard work, steal my car, pilfer funds from our bank account, run up bills on my credit card, knock me down and steal my purse – I loathe thieves.”

Books are often organised into collections so that one BitTorrent download might contain from 10 to 1000 illegal titles.  In a well known case in 2012 a cheap e-reader was brazenly sold in Australian stores packaged with a repertoire of illegal books. Rearguard legal action was promptly taken by the publishers whose books were being given away.

After a while I gave up talking to the man with the Sony eReader. I realised that he wasn’t just one man, but the embodiment of a community attitude. Free advertising or not, I’m a writer, and I don’t like people getting copies of a book I took two years to write, for nothing. Others disagree, but that’s how I feel about it.

If you’re too poor to buy a book go to the library, most will now lend ebook titles as well. A little known fact is that authors get paid for library borrowings. They don’t for piracy.

I waited until we landed, and after I’d stood up to get my luggage out of the overhead locker I dropped a business card on my neighbour’s lap. Greg Barron – AUTHOR, it says, beside colour images of my book covers. I still wonder if guilt drove him to buy legit versions when he got home. I doubt it though. I guess he downloaded them both for free.

Go ahead. Steal my work, but don’t expect me to like you.

Greg Barron is the author of Rotten Gods (2012), Savage Tide (2013), all published by HarperCollins Australia. His latest work, an e-only novelette, Voodoo Dawn, is available from Amazon for .99c http://amzn.to/1ldWEWk

24 thoughts on “Ebook Piracy – A Writers’ Perspective”

  1. Well said, Greg.
    I’ve never downloaded anything – music or movie or books – for free, though like you in the cassette years I’ve taped something from the radio. So I guess I can’t say I’ve never pirated.
    I was at a BBQ last summer with people who don’t know that I write & sell e-books online, and while the discussion started with talk of downloading a popular movie… it moved to books & music.
    I hadn’t entered the conversation, but someone then asked me directly if I downloaded anything and when my response was: “I wouldn’t pirate anything. I think of it like stealing.” There was much twitching of feet and I felt like I’d said something taboo. Strange that I then felt almost guilty for discomforting the party(ies).
    One thing I think we can all do is post more about piracy – letting our friends know/spreading the word – and I also think it’s worth a mention of near ‘scaremongering’ about computer viruses etc. When you think of scams and how many times you’re told not to ‘clink that link’… it amazes me that people would click links from/to these pirate sites that are so unaccountable on the web.
    Anyway – very interesting post. On FB yesterday there was a lady who found about 20 pirate sites for her book. She suggested everyone google their author name & the word ‘torrent’ and see what happened. So I did – and I didn’t like what I found!
    Previously I’d been of the mind a bit like Helene Young in your article. I figured it was out of my control and not worth my time/effort to send take down messages etc etc. I’m still not one driven to the whole take-down thing, I’m way too slack. I’ll pass on mentions for my published title (Harlequin) as they at least have a legal team somewhere to handle that, but self-pubbing is another thing.
    Long comment – sorry!
    Lily M

    1. Absolutely, Lily. I very much doubt too many authors pirate books – they know how many hours go into them. I like the scaremongering point too – because viruses go with the pirate territory. Anyway, thanks for reading. Greg

    1. Thanks Fleur. I could not believe that the man on the plane tried to justify his actions as if they’re OK. It’s time pirates learned that writing is work, and authors need to be paid.

  2. Great article, Greg! Recently I saw that my book too was coming up in search engines as a free download, and in the same week, someone I know emailed me a copy of a big-name-book before it was published – pirated of course. I didn’t open the email, and told them that as a writer, I strongly disagreed with it – their response was that the author was so famous that they didn’t need the income. It’s like stealing the book from a shop.
    Such a great article – should be read more widely – have you thought about trying to get this into general media?

    1. Hi Dawn, and thanks. I originally wrote it with print media in mind. A friend of mine is a sub editor at the Age and he really liked it, but it’s too long for a general article, and not exciting enough for the weekend magazines. In the end I just thought I’d get it out there. Cheers Greg

  3. Great article – which really leaves me more confused as to how I feel about it. I am short story novellist with less than 30 $0.99c sales to my name so I have no real financial vested interest in my writing. However, I have the option to put the stories up for free – yet I don’t.

    The reason I am torn is that I know that I have downloaded or listened to MP3s of bands for years. In half dozen cases, I now own their back catalogue on DVD/CD – so without the pirated MP3 – I never would have gotten excited bought of them.

    Reading on an e-reader is much easier to me but I generally read paperbacks even though holding the damn things open will cramp my hand in bed.

    I have 50 Shades of Grey on my email – someone sent it to me unsolicitied. I said that I wouldn’t read it and would rather buy the trilogy in hard copy to support the author. The reply was that she couldn’t afford it and was too embarrassed to go and borrow it from the library.

    Perhaps the publishing industry need to stake firmer hardware laws on e-readers so that pirated books can not be loaded on there. And make a procedure to ‘brick’ the e-reader should a pirated copy make it’s way on there.

  4. I discovered by chance just recently that both my titles have turned up on a number of pirate websites. And when I made that discovery, I just threw my hands in the air bitterly and honestly felt sickened.

    Those novels cumulatively represent four years of my life. Blood, sweat and tears that I poured into them and to see them like this…why do I freaking bother?

      1. You know, there was a time when I myself took a cavalier approach to piracy. But I realized very quickly just how hurtful it is to artists – no matter what point in the spectrum they occupy.

        I simply don’t do it.

  5. Not a writer but a huge reader, at least a book a day and was pushed forward a few years in school. My daughter wasn’t into reading and I was having trouble dealing with that, until I downloaded a couple of free Amazon books designed for teens onto the kindle. Combined the love of technology with stuff that she was willing to read about. We have now spent probably the cost of our house on books for her, and I would not have it any other way. You and all the others that write and provide us with just a few hours of fantasy, information, action or whatever genre you choose, deserve every cent that you earn, and more. Downloading books is stealing, and it is stealing the education and imagination from our children because, if there is no money in writing, who will provide them with a place to find this and then discover there own ability to provide this?

  6. Great read. Thanks Greg. But seriously, you guys should be getting on with the business of writing so we (your readers) can continue to be entertained. I am astounded that your publishers and other publishers are not pooling their resources and taking some sort of legal action against these crims?!?!? leaving you free to write and not worry about your livelihood. it must be very soul destroying. I am about to publish a book on Amazon and – thanks to reading your article – will probably charge $14 for it (e-version) instead of the $4 price tag I had thought?!? All the very best!! Love your work!!!

    1. Hi Sue
      Thanks for the comment. Is your book fiction? If so, I would be charging $4 rather than $14, or maybe somewhere in between. Sales seem to get really tough above about $7. Scholarly works seem to be the exception to this. Just my opinion.
      cheers Greg

  7. Many thanks, Greg. All advice is sincerely appreciated. No, a work of non-fiction that will save people $$$$$’s. My strategy was to make the e-version a lot ‘cheaper’ but more so to encourage the reader to buy the handbook (printed version) to have onhand as a ready reference tool (at a more expensive price of course); and to have as an app as well. Your article above has really enlightened me. I’m sort of learning all this e-publishing stuff right now and totally welcome and embrace it after all the centuries the publishing HOUSES have had a total monopoly and stranglehold against fledgling (unknown) writers such as myself. Bring it on I say!!!!. My DREAM is to make money from writing (Stop it!! I can hear you laughing!!!) Best wishes to you and yours and thanks again. Sue

    1. I definitely wasn’t laughing. Making money from writing can be done. Making enough to live off is harder and I’m still a long way from that kind of commercial success. Cheers and all the best with it.

  8. To be honest I am an avid reader and buy many books in my local book store. And I want to support publishing industry and author as much as I can. I don’t know about the piracy in the developed countries. But, in poor and developing countries, piracy is unavoidable simply because it was too expensive to buy the original.

    “If you’re too poor to buy a book go to the library, most will now lend ebook titles as well. A little known fact is that authors get paid for library borrowings. They don’t for piracy”

    Unfortunately in poor and developing countries, such library don’t exist.

    I am not justifying the piracy because it’s not morally right. But, I think until developed countries make their ebook, movies, software, games, song,etc price cheaper (relevant to purchasing power parity) in the poor and developing countries, I just cannot see how piracy could be end.

    Anyway just share my 2cents.

  9. I searched for a discussion about the difference between a book I get at the local library and downloading it from the web somewhere. In Germany, the library membership is 10€ per year and they have a wide range of books, even very new ones. A search in my little local library’s database revealed over 700 books from 2014 in the category “novels” alone. Many books are available as ebook, too, but the hassle, seriously… for details, see http://www.digitaltrends.com/mobile/e-book-library-lending-broken-difficult/ – it’s something along those lines. In short, it leads many people downloading it somewhere instead. The same mistakes the music and movie industries made all over again.

    As John wrote correctly, authors indeed *do* get paid for borrowed library books. So the question is rather, is there a moral difference between downloading a book and borrowing it later? From a financial perspective for authors and publishers, there seems to be none. I have to assume though nobody borrows a book from the library if they’ve downloaded and read it.

    In my area, around 8-10% of the book net price in book shops are royalties, but I have difficulties to interpret the data in regard to library borrowings on the exact portion per book or borrowing. In 2000, 200,000 authors and 5,500 publishers received 94 million Euros (http://www.vgwort.de/publikationen-dokumente/quoten-uebersicht.html) and here are current numbers (http://www.vgwort.de/fileadmin/pdf/quoten/uebersicht_Quoten_2014_fuer_2013.pdf), but I am unsure how to read it. On page 8 in this document (http://www.vgwort.de/fileadmin/pdf/verteilungsplan/Verteilungsplan_in_der_Fassung_vom_24._Mai_2014.pdf) it says that the number of borrowing occurences dictates the percentage from the payout and author and publisher receive 50% each (page 4). Unfortunately, no examples are given.

    Not completely unrelated to the topic, I don’t buy books at Amazon anymore, but instead at the local bookshop. I don’t want my kids to grow up without book shops. They’re lending books from the library since they can read though. As a kid, I have read up to 40 books per week I lent from the library, I still remember how my father filled up the trunk of our car with them. I still almost only lend books for myself. Nevertheless, I do still buy books: they’re my usual present to friends and family and I buy a bazillion for my children. My latest three presents were a very popular (paper, accidently not digital) book I happened to take a look at a friend’s house. Do I feel the need to buy it for myself should I decide to read it? Not really, as I can borrow it any time from my friend. Is there a financial difference from an author’s perspective? No. Morally, of course, there is.

    p.s.: David Batterbury’s suggestions are not feasible and treating people ex ante as criminals is not a solution.

    I disagree with Rae’s opinion that downloading is stealing as this strikes me as a gross simplification of a very complex issue.

  10. The problem is that piracy in one sense is also a good thing, it can expose fraudulent sales. I know of a case where an author sold their books on Google and then found them on Amazon for sale, when in fact it was someone who had pretended to be her that had listed them on Amazon and was reaping the rewards while the author got nothing until she was alerted to it and then had to prove she was the real author. After pirating the book, the persons modified the book itself – which helped the author prove she was who she claimed.
    Personally? If I cannot find the book in Australia, or if its public domain – I’ll download it. If I had to wait over a year just for a book to be published here when its been out for ages overseas, I would find a torrent. If its also a case where the publishers are screwing over the author, then I say screw the house (or in the case of 30 Seconds to Mars, the record company.)
    P.S, just picked up Rotten Gods from the library. Only heard of you through GR magazine – and I know this comment is months late, but better late than never.

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