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!
Michele Micheal Rakes says
I quickly came to the conclusion that people who are going to buy my books will and those that will steal them, frankly, will. It is more of a hassle of time and energy, better put to writing, to demand my novels be taken down from torrid sites. Like swimming upstream, only I don’t get to spawn, I just die fighting pirates who win anyway. So, I don’t concern myself with it.
Eric Flint addressed the issues of visibility and DRM in Salvos Against Big Brother: http://www.ericflint.net/index.php/2011/09/26/salvos-against-big-brother/
The piece is marked September 2011, but in fact it is a collection of essays that span several years. They were collected together on that date. Most of his sales of Mother of Demons came after he made the book available online for free. He provides a table that is difficult to read but worth the effort. The chart is in the middle of the long, long post. I recommend you search on “need sub-title”. That will take you to the beginning of the essay on the effects of ‘free’ on sales. I found the other essays worth reading, too.
Eric Flint’s experience kick-started the Baen Free Library.
Robert Kroese says
Thanks for the tip!
Brilliant use of quotations. Just had to say that.
Robert Kroese says
When you’ve got 20 versions of one audiobook up on YouTube, you can tell me not to worry about it. Until then… (I’m rolling my eyes. ) The first time someone steals your book and starts SELLING it on every distributor (while you’re on the New York times list that week) you’ll feel different. The first lesson you learn as a bestselling author is that you need lawyers. There are a lot of scum out there who want to steal from you in very serious ways.
Robert Kroese says
Hi Julie – What I hear you saying is that piracy didn’t prevent you from becoming a NYT bestseller. Congratulations! 🙂
Looking for a lawyer. Do you know of one you can recommend?
John Van Stry says
Yeah, this is BS. I’m heavily pirated. I haven’t just had thousands of copies pirated, I’ve had well over ten thousand copies pirated. And that was just on the sites that tracked which people downloaded the book. Most don’t.
I figure lose at least five to ten thousand dollars a year on pirates. I write series and they read all of my books. And then even brag about pirating them on some of the sites.
And yes, they can all afford to buy my book. If you can afford a computer, you can afford three dollars on a book. To date I have only had ONE person come and buy my books and tell me afterwards he felt bad about pirating all of them.
I used to go to the pirate sites and log in and track the statistics. I had some lame idea of trying to write it all off as a loss on my taxes if I could prove how much I was getting ripped off. But in the end I just gave up on it and I only go after the more blatant people sharing my works (and some are pretty damn blatant). Because the numbers of people who were ripping me off just got too discouraging. I even dropped one series I was writing because while hundreds of people were pirating it, sales sucked and I was losing money on it. Then they had the nerve to bitch because I stopped writing the series.
So please don’t say it helps you, because it doesn’t. Pirates never buy unless they can’t get the book any other way. And these days, that’s pretty damn rare. They’re not poor, they’re just cheap SOB’s who have no morals or ethics.
Robert Kroese says
“I figure lose at least five to ten thousand dollars a year on pirates.”
You haven’t “lost” those sales unless those people would buy your book if it weren’t available to pirate. And you’re discounting the value of these pirates telling their friends about your books. Again, there’s strong evidence the publicity outweighs the loss.
Actually, I’d he’s on KDU, he can lose a lot of money. iTunes, for instance, is a common culprit. Just about anybody can pirate an author’s story and post it on iTunes for any price. Say you’re selling a book on amazon for 4.99 and someone pirated your story and put it on iTunes for 1.99. If you’re on KDU (amazon), Amazon will automatically put your book at 1.99 and tell you to take your book down at iTunes, or they’ll remove it from Amazon. You have no recourse. You have to contact iTunes to have them remove the pirated story. iTunes takes their time, doesn’t email when it’s done, and keeps all royalties made off of your pirated work. Meanwhile, your book has been put at 1.99 instead of 4.99 on amazon, so you’re losing money that way. iTunes doesn’t do any due diligence as any Tom, Dick, or Harry can pirate your book there.
Marcel Popescu says
Huh. I bought all your books and liked them; I’m following your page on Amazon so I get notified of new books. I’m not a huge fan or anything (I have no idea if you have a blog, or which series you dropped) but still, Amazon tells me I bought 13 of your books between 2014 to 2017.
That stops now.
I am sorry to hear this…I have found sites that have given my books over 2500 ratings when I haven’t had any sales either. I think we need to find a solution to this problem. Right now I am at a lose. I noticed the sites have epub and PDF versions. May I ask where you were selling your books? I am highly suspicious of a particular site, but I don’t want to name in case I am wrong.
Autumn Rose says
DRM is a nightmare. I have an old Kindle I love to read on, but I prefer buying books on Google. It doesn’t seem right that after I buy a book, I can’t do what I want with it. I know there are many ways to remove the DRM, but that’s not really right. I also think it would be really neat if there was a system where once I bought a book in print, I could get the digital as well. It would be much nicer than having to choose which format I would prefer for that book. Books and music have systems like that, it would be nice for books to catch up.
Robert Kroese says
Hi Autumn Rose – Amazon does have a “matchbook” program that allows you to get a sizable discount on the ebook or audiobook if you’ve bought the paperback. It’s up to the publisher whether they want to participate (most of mine are available this way).
And yes, DRM is a pain. 🙂
I can see both sides of the argument. I still send a DMCA notice to pirating sites, but that’s just a Band-Aid, often one that doesn’t stick for very long. Piracy is wrong–I think we can all agree on that, but I’m not sure if the consequences of getting caught will ever be severe enough for people to stop.
Robert Kroese says
Florence – I agree. It’s important not to normalize the behavior, because it IS wrong. That said, the point remains that it doesn’t really hurt authors that much. Of course, if everybody starts doing it, the harm could begin to outweigh the benefits.
Paulo Coelho has been pirating his own ebooks for about ten years. He uploads them to pirate sites and encourages his readers to download them for free if they wish.
It seems to be working as he has also sold 330 million books worldwide!
Catherine M. Wilson says
There is a culture of “free” that tries to justify not paying artists for their work. I have found fans (FANS!!!!!) giving my books away or searching for them on torrent sites. These are people who tell their friends how great my books are. I wonder if they understand that what they are really telling me is that my work is worthless. I felt so disappointed and discouraged and DISRESPECTED that I have stopped writing. So the true victim of piracy here is anyone who wanted to read my next book, because there isn’t going to be one.
So you are against people giving their books to other people once they have read them., wow.
So you must really hate libraries. Or when a fan says to a friend “oh my goodness, I LOVED this book, you simply must read it!” And lends them their copy.
Come on, how invested could you really be in writing if a few fans sharing your books (with, no doubt, glowing reviews and therefore free, invaluable organic marketing) was enough to make you stop? You’re acting as if you’ve lost thousands and thousands of dollars due to piracy.
Do you get paid for your time at your job? Writers spend years writing books and then when there are no sales, make no money. A simple fact. We all need money to eat, live etc…A writer makes .50 to $2,00 on each book sold. How many book sales does it take to provide an annual income? How much money do you think a writer needs to make a year, to be able to continue writing?
Marcus Blakeston says
ebook DRM was never about piracy, it is about control. It was created to lock average users of a device to one specific ebook store, and make it difficult for them to shop elsewhere. Pirates don’t have that inconvenience forced on them.
Jay Mountney says
There’s all the difference in the world between the pirate who steals content and then re-sells it (with or without attribution) and the reader who, having paid for an e-book that is almost as expensive as the hardback, shares it with a close friend or family member who might very well turn into a reader/buyer. The big publishing firms don’t want us to understand the difference because that eats into their control/profits, not those of the author. So they lump all so-called pirates together and try to persuade us that sharing a book with a friend should be a crime.
Steven Davis says
There is a difference between piracy by end readers and thieves who try to sell your books.
The thieves need to be addressed (in the US we have DMCA as the cheapest tool via a takedown notice).
However, simply ignoring the first type of piracy is not wise.
Design your books as of they are going to be pirated. That means including marketing materials, mail list signups, affiliate links, and other tools to help turn “free readers” into revenue sources.
Codex Regius says
I have actually seen people downloading one or another of my ebooks for free, then they ruefully came and bought the printed edition because they wanted to have the included images in large scale on paper. Hoist the colours, mateys!
Scenario 4. Most users of book pirating sites are from 3rd world countries… I’m not afrsid to say I am one of them. For me to read your book here in Zimbabwe I would have to import it and it would end up costing me about 50,00 for a paperback with duty etc.
Our country or not have an integrated banking system d I don’t use credit cards etc. In the long run we were never targeted readers but you have gained a reader who when able to gets friends travelling or living on the diaspora to bring me books when they come home. It is really difficult for us as the selection on bookshelf stores is null and we continually swap second hand books, reading from our library books from 1946, falling apart and can’t be replaced. Author’s need to think of making their own sharing forums for 3rd world countries as that’s where most of the downloads are happening.
I greatly appreciate the work and self put into the work. I
Joanna Penn says
I do have readers from Africa on Kobo because the ebooks are DRM free – have you tried that?
Jimmy Hollis i Dickson says
Great article! Brilliant “pirating” of quotes from the “Pirates Of The Caribbean” series!
a) As an author, I would rather have a thousand people read my books than 100 pay for them. Multiply those figures by whatever. I don’t write for money (though gettiong paid for it WOULDN’T be that bad), I write because I have something to say and I want it shared. I already have a web-site where my stories can be read, downloaded, printed, whatever, for free: http://jimmsfairytales.com/ (using my publishing web-site for the “signature”)
b) As a tiny publisher of other (unknown) authors, I’d rather lose money (not, admittedly, a hell of a lot) bringing out a book that I really believe in, than make a fortune selling utter crap (or boring twaddle). I make sure that my authors understand this (THEY don’t lose money, anyway) and most would agree with me on point a). (Those that don’t try elsewhere.)
c) I have been reluctant about publishing e-books for the very reasons cited in this article. So thanks for helping to give me a push onto the plank.
“Batten down the hatches, mates, it’s gonna get ugly! Relatively speaking.”
Elizabeth Lister says
Thank you so much. I’ve been wondering if I’m being an idiot by not spending my precious time going after the pirate sites that list my books.
I also see the benefit of people who would not otherwise purchase my books, reading them and perhaps recommending them to friends. I mean, I wish piracy didn’t exist, but the very fact that pirate sites are listing my books has got to mean that people want to read them. Which is something valuable in itself.
It seems like sending out takedown requests would be a serious waste of time and cause me stress that I don’t need.
Thanks for enlisting the help of Jack Sparrow to convince me my theory makes sense.
Then there’s this point of view.
Found via Twitter:
Sounds to me that the electronic versions being out before fans could legitimately buy a copy was the problem. Rather than the fact that the free electronic versions were available on release.
Lim Kok Hole says
Actually you’re missing 1 scenario (which was me): I unlikely buy any book even though I affordable to buy a few number of books, until I search the book title from amazon and can’t found the book from Google, then I have no choice to buy it due to my curiosity. Of course now I changed, since I will buy the book even though Google has the book already, but still you can’t ignore such scenario.
Stephen Sossaman says
College textbook writers are really in a bind, even though in theory they have more motivated readers than do unknown genre fiction writers. A professor assigning a book motivates perhaps 15-30 people to want access to a copy of the book. Not to *buy* the book, but to get access. Traditional publishers’ inflated textbook prices have looted this captive audience for years, and encouraged work-arounds. Small press or self-publishing at a reasonable price are no solutions, since those professors need to preview an “examination copy” before assigning it: sending unsolicited physical copies is too costly, and those can be photocopied for the whole class before being dumped into the used book market. Offering digital copies obviously empowers even easier piracy. A genre novelist can perhaps afford to make a novel or two free in order to build readership for other titles, but textbooks tend to be one-offs.