Piracy vs Obscurity: Which Is Worse For Authors?

I am an evangelist for digital publishing and getting your work out there on the internet. But I keep getting the same question over and over again when I talk to people about it.

pirate flag“What if my work gets pirated?”

Kirk Biglione and I talked about this in the last podcast as well, so here are some important points to remember:

Yes, piracy happens.

People may steal your work and try to sell it, especially if you are not releasing your books in a format people want. iTunes and the music industry did not collapse when music went digital but those who didn’t make their work available were pirated anyway. JK Rowling didn’t release Harry Potter in ebook format so it was scanned and put online very quickly. If she had released an ebook version, there would have been less to pirate!

Most people prefer to buy ebooks rather than take stolen copies.

Your reading public are book lovers and voracious readers. Most people are law-abiding citizens. Some people will abuse the privilege but most are honest and want to compensate you. Trust your public. I have a personal example of this. I saw from my stats that one lady had bought 2 copies of the same ebook from my site. I emailed her assuming she must have clicked the button twice by mistake, and tried to refund her. She explained that she had bought a copy for herself and one for a friend. I was thrilled by this honesty!

Some authors are allowing piracy deliberately in order to promote book sales.

Paulo Coelho, author of many books including the worldwide hit “The Alchemist”, leaked his ebooks in Russia on piracy networks deliberately. His sales went from 1000 to over 1 million per year. He says Don’t be fooled by the publishers who say that piracy costs authors money“.

Piracy could be seen as marketing.

Many authors now give ebooks away for free and it is a recommended strategy to gain more readers for a print copy, or at least for a second book. In this podcast, Kirk Biglione and Brian O’Leary discuss the findings of a piracy investigation showing a correlation: “Sales grew after free content was distributed, whether it was pirated or deliberate

If you find your work has been pirated, address it immediately.

Soon after I launched some of my online courses, I found that my premium course material had been extracted and put online by someone, basically offering for free what I had created over months of work. I was upset and furious. I contacted the web hosting service for the site and requested that the site be shut down for breach of copyright. The site was gone within 24 hours. You can monitor your web presence through Google Alerts which will send you an email daily of any mentions of you on the web. Set up your name, your book names, your company name and anything else you want to monitor, and act decisively.

Obscurity is a greater threat to authors than piracy.

This quote is from Tim O’Reilly, from O’Reilly Media and is absolutely true. It is better to be pirated and out there in the public getting some eyeballs than it is to have your unpirated, unseen manuscript sitting in a drawer where no one can find it or you.

Here is the word from published author JA Konrath who also discusses piracy vs obscurity and answers common questions.

Update Feb 2011: Award winner and uber-novelist Neil Gaiman explains how piracy helps sell his books

2013 – Tim Ferriss used Bit Torrent file sharing site for the launch of the Four Hour Chef and generated hundreds of thousands of sales from free downloads of the book

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  1. says

    Nicely put. Obscurity is the number one danger for authors but its invisible. So how can it be clear and present? Piracy could well be part of the definition of “going public”, otherwise known as publishing.

  2. says

    I can see your point, but people are right to question and be cautious on this. The music industry pretty much has collapsed – it’s fine for the big stars, but new bands don’t get signed because profits are down. People don’t want to pay for music now because they expect to be able to get it for free. I’ve been a music journalist, and my hubby has worked in record stores for 20 years and plays in a band. Whatever you think of it, digital downloads and piracy have irrevocably changed the music scene. They have changed the value people place on music. Likewise the parallel importation of books debate at the moment. The JK Rowlings of the world will be fine, it’s the new authors who will be affected, who won’t be supported or nurtured, or signed to publishing deals, because of the effect it has on the industry. Likewise Paulo Coelho is my favourite author, but he can afford to give stuff away – he’s already sold hundreds of millions of books around the world, so giving gifts to his fans increases good will. New authors can’t compare their own careers/plans/marketing strategies with him. Giving away ebooks etc can be a good promotional strategy, but you still need to value your own work…

  3. says

    Excellent article, Joanna. Every author need to discuss more about this subject. I remember a great article from Kevin Kelly that can be complementary to yours: “Better than free” (Kevin links from his site the Portuguese version I published last year. I’d also like to publish your article for Brazilians, what do you think about it?) – http://ow.ly/oubn

    Best regards.

  4. says

    Thanks so much for a great article, Joanna, and also for your feedback, Serene.

    Being an aspiring author, I am most grateful for this insight. I have also been wondering how it might affect potential publishing contracts if content is available ahead of time. What is your advice on this in particular?

    Sincere thanks again,


  5. says

    Hi Joanna,

    Wanted to say your article gave me a clearer perspective on this topic, I was aware of a few of the issues but not all the benefits! It’s funny that having my photographs pirated has triggered me more than having an article republished with no credits, guess that comes from my time with daily and weekly newspapers on a small Caribbean island where copyright is virtually non existent or rather not respected. Today I have a new perspective on all that, thanks to you my friend! best Victoria

  6. says

    I definitely think obscurity is worse for authors. If one’s books are being pirated, it means they are out there being noticed and that there is a demand for them. There are things one can do to turn pirated books into an advantage.

    For example, I’d try to give away as many back titles as possible to increase demand for my newer titles. And when a new title is release, I’d release it in as many different formats as possible.

  7. says

    If we find the formula to translate for-free readings (be they pirate stuff or other freebies) into some kind of sales (be they “proper” eBook or even hard copy revenues) – then it’s ok in my book (be it…well, you get the drift) . But if we’re choosing between giving stuff away and not selling any at all, then I find the argument a bit toughter.

  8. says

    Hi all, thanks for the comments – a few replies:

    * @BenDawe – glad I inspired a post for you!

    * Serene – Absolutely, you must value your own work, but giving it away for free is the only way a new author may get an audience these days. Give away a chapter, or first book for free and gain readers for your next ones. Case in point is JC Hutchins whose 7th Son podcast trilogy released for free eventually got him a deal with St Martins Press and his books are out this year. Also, on the music industry – many new musicians make there money without the record industry because they can make and sell it themselves – it collapsed but reinvented around digital. I only buy digital music now.

    * CS – thanks for your comment and for sending to Paulo Coelho. I am a fan of his and want to write “Like a Flowing River”! Of course, you are welcome to reprint this with a link back to the original. Thanks so much.

    * Victoria – I’m glad to help! I still think you need to patrol your work, but that perhaps having it out there is more important. I think most people are interested to find the original author/creator.

    *Brad – that’s definitely the strategy! I am currently writing my first novel and already aiming to podcast it for free next year. One has to build a market before a publisher is really interested! I intend to actually sell some books! (as I am sure you do!)

    *Hans-Olov – I still think giving stuff away is the key to selling! All the sales I make on this site are made to people who have downloaded my free information. There is room for both in a sales and marketing strategy!

    Thanks all – Joanna

  9. says

    Very well done. I catch plagiarists using Google Alerts all of the time, and usually the DMCA Take Down Notice form gets the site taken down. However, lately, I’m having trouble with Blogger and Google. It has now been three weeks and my work is still up under another person’s name. This particular thief took chapter eight from my book and put it on their blog. Outrageous!

    I’d like to know who to go to when the web host does not comply.

  10. says

    Hi Debra, if you can’t get the host site to take them down, then I would post the Take Down Notice on the blog with your information, and then ignore it. I see these things often as an attempt for traffic from you, i.e. auto posting to get attention.
    I hope you are successful!
    Thanks, Joanna


  1. […] On Piracy vs Obscurity. You need to make your own decision as to whether you want your ideas to be out there and used (and potentially pirated), or whether you want to keep them in a drawer where no one will discover them. If you want to be a successful author who sells books, you need to be known and the internet is the place to build your global presence. The risk of piracy is nothing compared to being unknown. Cory Doctorow addresses this in “Giving it away”, a Forbes.com article where he describes giving the ebook versions of his books away for free under a Creative Commons license. His sales increased but his books were also translated by fans and his ideas spun into new creativity. […]

  2. […] On piracy vs obscurity. Stop worrying about it and get your work out there! It’s a cost/benefit ratio. Example given is Cory Doctorow who gives his work away for free. Obscurity is the enemy of book sales, not piracy. It’s a way to get fans. You are competing with video games, TV, movies and millions of other books in the entertainment industry. You have to get people trying out your stuff somehow. […]

  3. […] Authors are beginning to explore new pricing schemes. For example several authors are trying to sell a larger volume of e-books at lower prices (around $2.99 – $3.99) instead of a small number of regular books at higher prices (say, $10). Other authors are trying “pay what you want” schemes. Our guest speaker Max Barry will be selling his next book as a real time electronic serial, distributing it directly from his website in small chunks and for an attractive price ($6.95). It is too early to know which of these will work well and for whom because the book industry has many different segments of customers with different needs. Furthermore, there are concerns with e-books around the issue of digital piracy. However, we were reminded by one of the speakers that for many authors, obscurity is worse than piracy. […]

  4. […] issue of digital piracy. However, we were reminded by one of the speakers that for many authors, obscurity is worse than piracy. Besides, piracy has long been a threat even with printed books: you will of course remember the […]

  5. […] Copyright belongs to the writer and is granted as a protection for writers. It remains with the producer of the work and it is in the expression, not the idea. You can’t copyright an idea or a book title. What we license is the right to get some money for this work for a particular term (how long), and for a particular amount of return (how much). Copyright is yours on creation of the work, and you don’t need to register the work or mail your manuscript to yourself. It is a passive right and the power lies in the fact it exists. It’s unlikely you will take people to court over piracy, and in fact, we talk about authors like Neil Gaiman, Cory Doctorow and Paulo Coelho who have used piracy as a marketing mechanism, as well as Tim Ferriss launching on BitTorrent. Piracy is not the issue, obscurity is. […]

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