One of the common questions from new writers is, “How do I stop people pirating my work?”
Many of them are even concerned about sending a manuscript to an editor, just in case it ends up on Amazon as a bestselling book under another name.
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.
Robert Kroese has written 14 novels, half of which were self-published. His latest novel, a sci-fi mystery, is The Big Sheep. Robert's website is BadNovelist.com.
The completely revised and updated version of Robert's how-to book, Self-Publish Your Novel, will be available in February. This book contains everything you need to know about self-publishing a novel, from file formatting to marketing. If you'd like to be notified when the book is out, please sign up for the interest list!
Leos Hennessey says
Free publicity never hurts! Someone posted this at a reply to my twitter, and it really makes sense.
Its like Amazon, you search for Gummy Bears.
You see a huge list of Gummies for sale.
You will probably buy the one with the highest rating. And ignore all the ones, with no stars.
You are one of those new guys, with an awesome gummy bear. But no stars, and no reviews.
How would you convince to people, who are unwilling to put money on a unknown product, to put faith in you?
Give them a sample!
But those who steal your shipment, then sell your stuff on their store? Yeah, give them all the shit you want.
Joseph Riden says
This post set me off. Thanks, Joanna.
Some books might need to be published in paper only, perhaps. I haven’t sorted that out. But with Joanna’s insights, I realize even that approach does not create safety. Why? Because it’s entirely possible to cut the spine off your hardback, run the separated pages through an OCR scanner or even a photo process, and print all the copies desired and publish the result on Kindle. And ePub, and all the other formats. It’s probably happening right now, in Chenai. Done by schoolboys. Book piracy is the #1 cottage industry in Chennai. Book formatting is big there, too.
If you’re really hung up on piracy, it’s pretty easy to become a book pirate. So you could turn. But I’m too fascinated to read what comes out of my head each day and none too eager to fuss about a boatload of great content marketing for free. Dang, these pirates are like content marketing agencies for authors. Free ones. Now I can get off Blasty and stop paying for protection that stops distribution of my best sales message. AND forget about this ridiculous issue and get back to work.
When I started doing pirate takedowns, the first thing that happened was the best selling book I self-published stopped selling on Amazon. So then I was wondering how to market it, like maybe pay the Zon for ads on other people’s book listing pages. Volunteering to be pirated is a way better thing.
But the takedowns incited the Pirates. They stepped up the raids and now they are picking up my other books. Maybe sales will pick up, soon.
Your book is its own best marketing. Stick to the writing, it’s what you do. With the right distribution, like a Niagra of free copies, you may sell. See my free ebook on content marketing available via my website. It’s my idea of a public service in kind.
For you paranoid authors, I’m working on a two-key encryption algorithm for ebooks to get them to pass standardized military secrecy encryption testing. The keys will be delivered separately. Let’s see how Chennai schoolboys deal with that.
I want to write a book about book piracy. It’s a great, inflammatory subject. The marketing is free especially if we don’t use DRM. This would be fun with the right collaborator. Joanna? You game?
And you book pirates that see this? Thank You for Your Service!
Maria Vale says
Piracy is a topic that comes up in writers’ groups with some frequency but we are constantly told, don’t worry about it. There’s nothing you can do and it’s free publicity. The people who pirate your book wouldn’t buy it. It’s democratic: it allows people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford it to read it.
But then I read a presentation (really a series of slides) that Digimarc/Nielsen did last year that maybe you’ve seen, but in case you haven’t, it says that 65% of those who download pirated material make $60k or more per year. 58% do it because it’s easy. 38% just prefer to get it that way (which sounds like the same thing.) And then here was the rub: When asked if they COULDN’T get ebooks through illegal downloads, 33% said they would have bought ebook, 19% said they’d have bought print book, 15% said they would’ve gotten book from library and a measly 8% said they wouldn’t have bought it at all. Cory Doctorow and Neil Gaiman may be like the Dutch East India Co and don’t have to worry about the privateers robbing the occasional sloops. The rest of us, not so much.
Joanna Penn says
There is nothing you can do about it, so it’s best to focus on the things you can control. Like nurturing the readers who happily buy from you. I’m not Neil Gaiman or Cory Doctorow, but that’s the way I live as well.
Lee Wind says
Great piece, and loved the Jack Sparrow quotes mixed in. A good counter-balance to the “billions of dollars annually” according to the International Publishers Association – as in the Guardian’s recent article: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/mar/06/i-can-get-any-novel-i-want-in-30-seconds-can-book-piracy-be-stopped
Linda O'Dea says
My book has been pirated and the pirated copy is on Amazon. It’s my book, my title, my author name, my blurb but a new cover and the account that is selling it isn’t mine. It has a new ASIN number.
I contacted Amazon through their report piracy form but have not heard back from them.
I know I’m not losing any money because I actually give that ebook away for free. This person – the pirate – is charging $3.00 for it. And they have no Amazon ranking so they haven’t sold any.
Someone, a lawyer, but not a copyright lawyer, told me that if I don’t do anything then I could be forfeiting my copyright because I know about this person and I’ve chosen to do nothing. Is that true?
I’d like the book taken down from Amazon but like I said, I’m not losing any money.
Joanna Penn says
Sorry, but I can’t answer any legal questions. You will need to ask an IP lawyer for a professional opinion or contact a professional author organization in your country.
For technical questions and take-down, contact Amazon directly.
While personally, I don’t chase pirates on other sites, I would issue a take down notice for my books on Amazon.
Brendan Kelso says
This is great, totally agree… is there a way to remove DRM from all my past kindles that I have enabled DRM on? I couldn’t find an article around that.
Ray McCarthy says
To remove DRM, just go to the Amazon Bookshelf and select edit content/settings for the book.
No need to upload a new copy.
DRM doesn’t work, it won’t ever work. HD movies and paper books are trivial to copy.
You can stop public commercial pirates, impossible to stop individuals
Byron TD Smith says
After reading argument after argument online about the pros and cons of KDP DRM, I kicked myself. Why don’t I just google “Joanna Penn KDP DRM”? Lo and behold, up comes the perfect article. And, as always, Joanna, your reasoning is sound. Piracy isn’t going to be the problem with my first novel (coming in January 2021!)… obscurity is. I’m able now to confidently leave this box unchecked as I move toward publication date.
Please add my book to the long list of those you have directly/indirectly helped come to fruition.
Byron TD Smith
Joanna Penn says
Glad to help, Byron! I have pretty much covered everything here over the years!