On Piracy and Freebooks

This post about my novel potentially being pirated made me look into book piracy and freebooks and just how this will affect the future of self-publishing and publishing on the whole.  Check out this endlessly fascinating interview with a bittorrent book pirate. He justifies it this way:

1) With digital copies, what is “stolen” is not as clear as with physical copies. With physical copies, you can assign a cost to the physical product, and each unit costs x dollars to create. Therefore, if the product is stolen, it is easy to say that an object was stolen that was worth x dollars. With digital copies, it is more difficult to assign cost. The initial file costs x dollars to create, but you can make a million copies of that file for no cost. Therefore, it is hard to assign a specific value to a digital copy of a work except as it relates to lost sales.

2) Just because someone downloads a file, it does not mean they would have bought the product I think this is the key fact that many people in the music industry ignore – a download does not translate to a lost sale. I own hundreds of paper copies of books I have e-copies of, many of which were bought after downloading the e-copy. In other cases I have downloaded books I would never have purchased, simply because they were recommended or sounded interesting.

3) Just because someone downloads a file, it doesn’t mean they will read it. I realize that buying a book doesn’t mean someone is going to read it either, but clicking a link and paying $10-$30 is very different – many more people will download a book and not read it than buy a book and not read it.

Trouble is, very often a free download does mean a lost sale. This will especially be true once ereaders are a major share of the market. The Cory Doctorow model (free ebook, print for sale) just won’t work. Ereaders will get better and be more “book-like” so there will be no reason to buy an additional print copy.  This method will be even less viable for print-on-demand self-publishers whose work is entirely online – both the ebook and access to the print book.  Cory Doctorow is published by Tor so you can find his print books at most brick and mortar bookstores.

Zoe Winters makes the point that piracy isn’t that big of a threat because it’s a pain:

As a thought experiment I picked a fairly well known book and went hunting for it. Here is what I came up with: Files that came in file formats I’ve never heard of. Torrents, which are a big ball of obnoxious for anyone who isn’t a complete tech head to figure out and mess with. All direct download options where you just download the PDF required a paid subscription to an ebook download site.

Most people don’t understand bittorrent, or they’re at the very least afraid of the legal ramifications. The interview with the pirate seems to back this up because he seems to be a real tech-head.  My argument in the comments was that at some point bittorrent will stop being such a mystery and these pirated books will be more-easily accessible.

But that’s not the only problem.

The publishing industry isn’t just scared of precious print books being pirated, it’s free books in general – including those free books that are 100% legal. As it stands now, there are enough public domain books available for free that you would never need to buy a book again if you read them all. The fear of self-publishing is not that it floods the web with sub-par books – it’s that it’s yet another avenue to take away people’s money from a very slim market. New books create abundance, which devalues books overall. They have a point – especially given that many self-published books are free (including my own).

The fact is that there are more free books available than could ever be read by one person. Once everyone’s got an ereader, this is going to be a crushing problem. Nevermind the piracy. As much as self-publishing is a great device, it’s a devastating blow to the publishing industry’s shaky hold on profits. It’s important for publishers and writers to make money. Don’t really count on that happening in the Brave New World.

Mike Cane makes the same point.

[During E-book Week] I downloaded one hundred and fifteen eBooks that previously had price tags on them, for free.

I didn’t even count the books that were offered for free, period.

How many years of reading would that represent for the average American? Perhaps a lifetime’s worth. All for free.

So you can make the argument that free in general is a bad development for publishing. Personally, I think it’s great for people to have free access to information: just don’t quit your day job. Am I arguing that books shouldn’t be free? Not at all – but I do get the ramifications. You could make the argument that freebooks are far more of a threat to publishing than piracy. Many people will be scared off by the moral and legal questions of downloading a stolen book. Given the number of free books available at other sources, they won’t really have to face this ethical quandary.

  • You said it. Free is a threat to publishing. As far as I can see that’s one of the great reasons why it’s so liberating for authors – it hastens the end of a cultyure of protectionism and dependence. And yes, the paperback may be on the way out as a result, but hard copy will survive, morphed into a premium high value product.

  • steeleweed

    As a reader, I seldom by hardcovers any more, partly because of cost but also because of limited storage – paperbacks take up less room. eBooks, of course take no space, but I haven’t been impressed with the hardware, tho I expect that to get much better in a year or two.

    The key comment in your post was “don’t quit your day job.” When all books are digital, making a living as a writer gets much harder. You could charge a subscription to a blog or website where the data is item by item, but complete books will end up being read for free, either distributed that way or pirated.

    Piracy of any IP is indefensible. I don’t hear the pirates suggesting they don’t want to be paid for whatever work they do. rk.

  • I’m not sure people are going to ever become more comfortable with torrents. I mean up until the VCR became just about obsolete there was still a good percentage of people who didn’t know how to program their own VCRs and didn’t want to try to figure it out.

    People always want someone else to do something for them, or find the easiest, quickest way.

    Torrents are SLOW.

    Kindle downloads in less than 60 seconds. And it’s attached to your credit card.

    Anyone who is even remotely honest and not completely poor, is going to just buy it if it’s convenient and affordable.

    Technology may change. But human nature won’t.

  • Also… there may be an abundance of books, but most of them are crap or unoriginal. There will always be demand for something great.

  • I don’t know if “people in general” will ever be comfortable with torrents, but my books are about, mostly, hackers, precisely the people who are comfortable with torrents — and my books, under Creative Commons — have been downloaded thousands of times (PDF).

    I don’t know if this has done me any good or not. Now that my books are for sale in kindle and other ebook formats, I have free ebooks directly competing with for-sale ebooks.

    In theory, all of the downloads have increased my “name recognition” which somehow magically has increased my sales. It’s kind of hard to test this hypothesis, however.

  • This comment is not meant for publication, but rather for the author. Recommend you replace “effect” with “affect” in the first paragraph. It’s a great article, and that little error might cause people to not take what you say as seriously as they should.

    Thanks for speaking out on this subject, btw.

    • Your right – its spelled wrong. j/k.

  • The only analog we have is the music industry. Despite a lot of public hand-wringing and crying, musicians and recording execs are as well paid as they ever were. The good ones make a ton of money, the rest fall into the same places that they ever fell into across a broad and wealthy continuum. Ditto writers in the new electronic age.

    If you’ve put out free digital books as a way to gain an eventual foothold in the paying market, what part of “the genie is out of the bottle” didn’t you get? How is that worse than the unpublished, unread first-and-only manuscript they pull out of your desk when it’s time to settle your estate?

    Okay, so you’ve compromised the book you offered for free. But if you gain name recognition for the next book and the next book and the next book, you’ve done what writers do on the way to fame and fortune: You’ve paid some dues. Get over it; get on with it.

  • sleepyjohn

    I do get a little tired of the hysterical misuse of ‘piracy’ when referring to copyright infringement. The only parties in all this who are behaving like pirates – trying to destroy ordinary folks’ lives – are the media industry bosses.

    As I see it, the simple, inescapable fact, as dear old King Canute demonstrated to his courtiers, is that the times they are a-changing and we all have to change too. I don’t pretend for a moment to know all the answers to a future, freely-available digital world, but I think Zoe is right when she says that people will happily pay for convenience. Given a choice between a book for $2 with 1-click to buy and rummaging all over the internet for a free, dubious torrent, it is not hard to see most folk buying. I have been seeing some extraordinary figures for self-publishing sales on Amazon at $1 or $2 a copy – beginners shifting tens of thousands. And as others have said, when you are not paying a publisher 90% of the profit you can afford to sell cheaply. And if you sell cheaply, with specimen chapters, full and easily-found details and good reader reviews, it seems to me you will gain many, many more impulse sales than $40 paper books in a shop will.

    More books available than anyone can ever read? I read the other day that the world population is increasing by about 75 million a year. I think the market is getting bigger as communications improve with the internet, not smaller. At $2 a pop people will read far more books than they used to.

    As Eric Hammel says, it is better out there for a couple of dollars than stuffed in a bag in the cupboard. I think the future is very rosy for independent authors – all artists in fact. My teenage son was told recently at school that most of the jobs that will be available to him when he leaves have not been invented yet! I believe the same applies to opportunities for authors to make money from their books, now that they have complete control over the whole process.

    There was some interesting discussion recently on the UK Register website about the notion that all films should be freely available on the internet, being financed by various clever, modern advertising techniques, particularly to do with product placement providing direct links to actually buy the product. The imaginative part of this was that the more the film was ‘pirated’, the more money the makers could charge the advertisers. I seem to recall books used to display adverts at one time. We do need to think outside the 19th Century merchandising box.