One of the common questions from new writers is, “How do I stop people pirating my work?”
But authors should be more concerned about obscurity than about piracy, as Robert Kroese discusses today.
About two years ago, I was on a panel at a writing conference with another author who had self-published a cookbook. I listened while this author declared that she refused to make a digital version of her book available until “they do something about piracy.”
When it was my turn to speak, I pointed out that bestselling author Cory Doctorow was a few rooms over, on another panel. Doctorow has sold millions of books, despite making all his books available free on his website. Getting one of his books is as simple as going to his website and clicking a download button, and yet tens of thousands of people still pay up to $9.99 for digital copies of his book. Clearly, the availability of free copies is not hurting Doctorow’s sales.
“This is either madness or brilliance.” – Will Turner
“It’s remarkable how often those two traits coincide.” – Jack Sparrow
They Already Did Something About Piracy
The publishing industry has attempted to discourage piracy by implementing DRM on ebook files.
DRM, which stands for Digital Rights Management, is an umbrella term for various digital copy protection technologies. DRM is supposed to prevent unauthorized copying and sharing of a file, which sounds like a swell idea, except for two things: First, any form of DRM can be cracked, usually very easily. That’s because there’s a fundamental flaw in any copy protection scheme: publishers can encrypt files all they want, but if buyers are going to read the book, the publisher has to allow them the ability to unencrypt the file.
DRM is a thorny, complicated subject, but the key point here is that there is no magical technological solution to this problem. If you’re waiting for “them” to “do something about piracy,” you’re going to be waiting a long time. If somebody really wants to get your book for free, you really can’t stop them, no matter what kind of protections you put on the file.
So what now, Jack Sparrow? Are we to be two immortals locked in an epic battle until Judgment Day and trumpets sound? – Hector Barbossa
The second problem is that DRM makes it difficult for paying customers to transfer your book from one device to another. Still, that’s a small price to pay if you can cut down on piracy, right?
Well, maybe not.
Steal My Book, Please!
Studies have indicated that piracy actually increases sales, both of ebooks and other media. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that making content cheap and easy to download increases profits. Take, for example, the case of Monty Python increasing sales by 23,000% by releasing free videos on YouTube, or the case of comedian Louis C.K. releasing a DRM-free recording of his performance for $5.
“The problem is not the problem. The problem is your attitude about the problem. Do you understand?” – Jack Sparrow
The idea that piracy costs authors money is based on a mistaken premise.
The simplest way to calculate lost profits would be to multiply the number of pirate copies downloaded by the profits you stand to make per legal purchase. By this measure, if a thousand people download pirated copies of your book and you are making $2 per book, then you have lost $2,000. But this is a vastly misleading number. To see why, consider some common scenarios in which someone pirates your book:
Scenario 1: Joe Freeloader is browsing through a pirate website when he comes across an interesting book he has never heard of before. Rather than looking for a legal way to buy the book, Joe illegally downloads the book free from the pirate site.
Scenario 2: Jane Nomoney doesn’t have a dime to her name. One day she is browsing through Amazon when she runs across an interesting book. She wishes she could buy it, but because she has no money, she ends up going to a pirate site and downloading the book illegally.
Scenario 3: Jim Jerkwad has plenty of money, but he’s a jerk who doesn’t mind screwing authors out of royalties. He finds an interesting book on Amazon, decides he wants it, and then downloads it from a pirate site.
“A Dishonest man you can trust to be dishonest.” – Captain Jack Sparrow
Note that only in Scenario 3 are you actually losing money. Joe never would have heard of your book if it weren’t for the pirate site, so you can’t include his lack of purchase in your total potential sales. Jane was never going to be able to buy the book, so you’re not losing any money there either. Only Jim, who deliberately uses Amazon to find books and then goes out of his way to get them illegally, is really hurting you in any real way.
And it’s my belief that people like this (1) are relatively rare and (2) will find a way around any piracy restrictions. Additionally, there is the possibility that the downloader will like the book enough that someday they will buy a legal copy, or recommend the book to their friends. Scoff at this if you want, but it’s word of mouth that sells most books.
So it’s not clear that DRM stops a significant amount of piracy, nor is it clear that it’s in the author’s interest to stop piracy. It is clear, however, that it can be a hassle for paying customers. Personally, I don’t think implementing DRM is worth the trouble.
The biggest challenge facing a new author isn’t piracy; it’s obscurity.
As a relatively unknown author, the worst thing that can come from someone sharing your book illegally is that you might reach a few more potential readers, some of whom might actually pay you for a book someday.
“You are without a doubt the worst pirate I’ve ever heard of.” – James Norrington
“But you have heard of me.” – Jack Sparrow
If you’re a self-published author, I recommend not protecting your book with DRM (most ebook marketplaces, like Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing platform, will allow you to specify whether or not you want DRM). If you’re not your own publisher, you can ask your publisher not to include DRM, but most publishers have a corporate policy that overrides an individual author’s preferences.
[Note from Joanna: I do not use DRM on my books. I always make sure to opt out.]
The Genie Test
Think of it this way: imagine a genie appears and tells you that he can magically make your book appear on a million e-readers tomorrow morning—but that you won’t make a dime on any of them. Would you do it?
If you’re smart, you would, because if even if one tenth of those people read the book, and one-tenth of the people who read it become regular readers of your books, you’ve just picked up ten thousand new readers. Having your books distributed widely is a good thing, whether or not you make any money immediately. This is why Amazon offers free book promotions on KDP and why publishers literally pay to give their books away through services like BookBub and BookGorilla.
A Parting Shot
Please note that I am not saying piracy is okay. I don’t steal books and I don’t approve of the practice. But piracy is the least of an author’s worries—and the cure is often worse than the disease.
“Not all treasure’s silver and gold, mate.” – Jack Sparrow
Have you been concerned about the piracy of your books? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
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