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