Book piracy

Last week, I saw this foreboding blog entry from Saundra Mitchell, a client of Jim McCarthy here at DGLM,  about her books Shadowed Summer and The Vespertine being illegally downloaded on torrent sites. She writes that “According to one download site’s stats, people are downloading Shadowed Summer at a rate of 800 copies a week. When the book first came out, it topped out at 3000+ downloads a week.” And she mentions that the primary search on her website for The Vespertine, which doesn’t even come out until March, is “download vespertine + saundra”.

Now, even if we concede that torrent download statistics are suspect—by nature, sites that host illegal torrents aren’t exactly reliable—and that illegal free downloads don’t necessarily replace actual sales one for one, these figures are still pretty shocking, both for the author and the publisher. As Saundra writes, 800 copies represents about $1,200 in royalties for her, so the potential for lost revenue is significant. And on the macro scale, the regularity and frequency of the downloading suggest that just as downloading music illegally has become de rigueur, so now torrent downloading is a viable way to get free books.

Will illegal downloads harm publishing the way they’ve decimated the music biz? Like everything in publishing, it’s hard to predict—in the past, pop music fans tended to be way more tech and web savvy than readers, but maybe that’s changing? The irony of this is that there’s always been a free option for reading books, i.e., the local library. But could a library-controlled ebook lending program deter the torrents?

Since there’s so little concrete evidence out there about illegal ebooks, I’d love to know if anyone has torrent anecdotes, good or bad. Anyone been directly affected by illegal downloads? Any thoughts on how to fight them off?

19 Responses to Book piracy

  1. Yikes, that is a frightening number. However, I have some hope. Yes, a lot of people still download music illegaly, but the availability of programs like iTunes has made it a lot easier to download musical legally and a lot of people have made the switch. I’m hoping that once e-readers become more prominent, something similar will happen. Of course, a book costs more than a song, so we will see.

    I work in a library, and we’d all love to be able to loan e-books easily. (My library has many you can read online, but no options yet for loaning to a Kindle/Nook/Sony Reader. You can read on smart phones, though.) I would hope it would deter piracy, but believe it would take a lot of advertising. We’d have to convince those downloaders that it’s better to borrow from the library than to just surf the internet at home and find a torrent. OF course, then we’d have to have the book available to lend–and a big reason many people don’t go to libraries, besides laziness, is that they don’t want to wait for a popular title that is already checked out.

    I definitely agree that libraries and ebook vendors should work together to find ways to loan ebooks more easily and then promote this capability to patrons.

  2. Dara says:

    Unfortunately in the digital age, I don’t think there will ever be a solution that stops it entirely. I do think more people would be inclined to use the library, but many libraries don’t have a lot of the newer books available for eBook loan. Our library does have it where you can use a Nook/Sony Reader for the eBooks (the company I used to work for actually provides that service to them) and I am hoping that when eReaders become more popular, more books will be available.

    As Kristin said though, I think the main reason torrents are so popular for books is because people don’t want to wait the 10-21 days for it to be returned.

  3. Maybe the problem is that it is so easy to get free content everywhere that it’s assumed that all content is free.

    I’m reading a book right now from Writer’s Digest. (I won’t put another site in this entry, but Google for “The Complete Handbook Of Novel Writing,” Aug 2010 ed., on their site.) There’s an interview with Cory Doctorow on how he chooses to release some of his books as free downloads and as paid copies. He sees it as a way to increase market share, I guess.

    But I think he’s depending upon the integrity of those who think it’s proper to pay for someone’s work. It’s awfully tempting not to.

    I’m almost afraid to think what it will be like as the newer generations become users without the matching action of being purchasers. Maybe the idea of writers getting paid for their work will go away and we will need to depend upon advertising and tie-ins and enhanced content.

    I think on another post someone mentioned YouTube, which has released millions to post their videos without the gate of editors. And most of it is slush-pile video. You have to wade through miles of footage to get to the one or two videos which are good. And it’s all free, and you never have to pay anything just for watching. You’re consuming guilt-free because YouTube is free. (You have to wonder why people put up good stuff that doesn’t pay their bills. I don’t have an answer to that.)

    Maybe it will be that way with books soon. We will write, and it will be posted, and we will have the satisfaction of being “out there” but without a matching royalty check.

  4. Ciara says:

    I do think that illegal book downloading is terrible and what’s more is it is much worse than music downloading for one simple reason. money for music artists is made primarily on ticket sales to gig and you could argue that if someone illegally downloads an album they might at least buy a legitimate ticket to a concert (not condoning it of course)but most authors don’t have other forms of income from their book unless they are lucky enough to sell their movie rights.

    I think that bigger online e-libraries should be up and running already. Ones that are international so that authors from all over the world can reach new audiences.

    Of course it’s just so easy to get free stuff online that I think most people just don’t consider the right or wrong of the issue. I don’t think that it’s malicious or even ignorant, just a symptom of society and I don’t really have a solution. Cheaper books doesn’t work; there are tons of used book shops online where you can find any book for a fraction of the price but it doesn’t stop illegal downloading either.

    It’s just too easy to download an illegal book, how can we expect people to go out of their way to get the same product for more money and more hassle? I guess I just hope that publishing will survive this, music is still going after all, but of course they have other forms of income. I suppose for now we just have to hope that there are enough people out there who care about paying for what they buy to keep books going. At least until they figure out a way to stop illegal downloads.

  5. Nathan says:

    I think illegal downloading will only increase so long as there isn’t a standardized price or even format for e-readers.
    Here’s an example. I own an Amazon Kindle and love the thing to death, and also love the fact I can buy a book and have it magically show up on my kindle for me to read instantly. TECHNOLOGY!
    The problem is that publishers tend to be the ones to set the prices for Kindle versions of books, and (from my consumer point of view) the prices are just INSANE. For example, a hardcover book that comes out is ~$15 on amazon. The Kindle version of said book is something like $14.
    This doesn’t make sense to me. I always figured the $15 hardcover (vs a $6 paperback) was because you were buying something nice: a hardcover book that will last longer and costs more to produce. E-books aren’t as expensive to produce (as you’ve seen, it’s easy for pirates to either steal them or convert them to whatever file format they want), but they are still being charged an outrageous premium. For me, this is a huge turn off. Why would I spend $14 on a digital copy (that’s essentially a pdf), when I could have the actual book for a buck more? This is where the slightly less moral version of myself would probably resort to pirating.
    If we see how the music industry has battled piracy, you can see how successful iTunes was. By making prices standardized and within the “impulse-buy” level of pricing ($1 a song, $10 an album), they were able to combat piracy by offering a legal and still reasonably priced alternative. Do people still pirate music? Of course. But it isn’t going to ever stop, so Apple managed the next best thing.
    A similar example in video games could be the Steam platform. Pretty much “iTunes for games,” Steam allows people to buy games at a heavily discounted price vs. the physical version, in an attempt to cut off piracy. If they sell a game even for $0.01, that’s a penny more than they would have got if the person had resorted to pirating.
    Something to note is that in both these instances, the platforms set the prices, NOT the publishers. iTunes determines the price for music (and it doesn’t say, “The Beatles are better than these other songs, lets charge more!”) and Steam charges the same for games. Since digital distribution is essentially free after the initial investment of conversion is paid off, Steam can have ridiculous sales, make massive amounts of profit, and edge out piracy. Books are still set by the publishers who, frankly, aren’t the ones who are good at selling things. Amazon is good at selling things. So you have a paperback version of Android’s Dream that costs less than the digital Kindle version. Wha..?
    Sorry for the rambling, I just think that to best combat piracy the publishing business needs to follow the examples of Steam and iTunes. Make them cheap, allow the people good at selling things to determine the prices, and take a chunk of the market currently dominated by pirates. It’s horrible that pirates are stealing these books, but considering we still charge outrageous amounts for digital versions (and people can justify pirating by saying “I would have gotten it from the library anyway”), it’s easy to see how they justify it.
    Again, let me say: PIRACY ISNT GOING TO STOP. Rather than focus on squelching it completely (won’t ever happen), people need to focus on luring that market back to legal purchases.
    Lastly, I’d like to point out that Baan publishers has this totally in the bag. If I remember correctly, the first month after a book is released the eBook is $15, and then it drops to $6. For every book they publish. $6 is a great price point for a digital version (heck, when I heard about this I impulse bought like 20 books from their site just because they were $6). They made bank because they priced the books competitively. Now here’s hoping other publishers can do the same.

    Sorry if that was a ramble, but it’s been a very interesting topic for me since purchasing a Kindle (and seeing friends pirating books for theirs because, quote, “The prices are outrageous.”)

    • Hillsy says:

      Compared to the music, film & computer game industry, books have one Massive thing in their favour: Their medium isn’t implicitly digital.

      The other three all produce things which are used electronically. Books are not. Therefore the publishing industry has the ability to throttle anything being digitally shared for free by not producing it in the first place (OK some people might use an OCR to scan 400 pages but hell, they’ve already bought the book once).

      Wanna stop e-book piracy? Release it 18 months after book launch for half the price of the paperback. People who want to wait that long for a new read, then fine they get it at an 18 month old price (a lot of people do this already with Hardbacks and paperbacks)

      Better yet, use e-books as a marketting tool and after 2 years release it for free and ENCOURAGE file sharing. Writers can use this as a marketting tool – “Hey, the last Joe Bloggs novel has just come out for free….If it’s good I might read the new one.”

      Think of it as the ultimate, complete online library, just where every book is older than 18 months.

      • Ciara says:

        “Wanna stop e-book piracy? Release it 18 months after book launch for half the price of the paperback. People who want to wait that long for a new read, then fine they get it at an 18 month old price (a lot of people do this already with Hardbacks and paperbacks).”

        I think this is a really interesting idea. Not only would it help squash illegal downloads but it gives books a sort of second release. I like it. Especially as I’m all for keeping paper books. Actually now that you’ve pointed it out it makes me laugh that books are fairly immune to piracy in paper form and the industry is forcing themselves into an easily pirated medium instead. It makes very little sense.

        • Nathan says:

          “Wanna stop e-book piracy? Release it 18 months after book launch for half the price of the paperback. People who want to wait that long for a new read, then fine they get it at an 18 month old price (a lot of people do this already with Hardbacks and paperbacks).”

          I’m assuming you aren’t saying that they SHOULDN’T release an ebook before the prescribed 18 months, right? Because that would result in a LOT of furious ebook owners who can’t get their latest fix.

          Also, I’d like to point out that even before the “Ebook Craze,” it was very easy to get pirated PDF versions of books for those who tried. So while yes, the book industry is certainly entering an industry rampant with stealing, it is incorrect in thinking that if they backed out completely the pirating would stop. If people want stuff for free, they will get it for free. And it only takes ONE person to scan (or type in Word) the words of a book and it can be copied an infinite number of times, and then you are done. (this is all coming from a reformed pirate who has since deleted all pirated materials and purchased everything he pirated as recompense).

          I still feel the main issue is the fact that there is still a huge barrier when it comes to buying eBooks. iTunes (with iBooks) is trying, but the prices are just insane. Publishers are setting the prices, and they aren’t pricing them competitively. If you want to bait the pirates over, you have to make it seem like a deal. I mean, just browsing a well known torrent site, I found a 3 gb file with thousands of people “seeding” (distributing it) with over 11,000 eBooks of best-selling authors on it. 11,000 books. With a thousand people just CURRENTLY stealing it. That is completely insane.

          Anyway you’ve heard enough of me, but all points on these comments are very valid. I hope publishers find some way to adapt soon. The faster they figure it out, the more money they make. Delaying only costs them in the long haul.

  6. John says:

    Wow, lots to chew on here. In particular, Nathan’s point on pricing is an interesting question on the perceived value of ebooks. From my publishing days, I was always surprised that the physical cost of making books was actually fairly cheap–maybe $1.50 per book depending on the specs. Yet, of course a consumer expects that a book (or any product, for that matter) should be cheaper in non-physical form–it’s common sense. And while publishers have correctly tried to argue the price of an ebook reflects a wide range of costs–conversion, editorial, marketing, etc.–that doesn’t hold much water with buyers.

    Incidentally, did anyone see this New York Times editorial (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/26/opinion/26wed4.html?ref=todayspaper)
    this morning jumping into the fray?

  7. Thomas Pluck says:

    Music piracy is diminishing now that iTunes and Amazon have taken the place of Napster.
    I commiserate with the author- 800 copies certainly stings- but compare it to someone picking up your book at a store, flipping through it, and dropping it off in the wrong section.
    I think the majority of pirates are people who wouldn’t buy the book, see the movie in theaters, or purchase the CD anyway, but want to sample it.

    Piracy will certainly hurt publishing as e-book popularity grows, but I think the danger is overstated. Make getting the e-books simpler: let libraries purchase licenses, so they can lend 5 at time.

    Amazon and B&N need to advertise their Nook and Kindle apps for computers and phones more avidly, at publishers’ insistence, so people know they can read an e-book without having to plunk down $120-250 for a device.
    Publishers should also get in on this. I’ve read that Baen books sells e-copies on their website, with no copy protection, and their titles are some of the least pirated. Why? Because access is simple.

  8. Eric Christopherson says:

    DGLM’s Joe Konrath has blogged about piracy a lot and he says the best way to fight ebook piracy is with low cost and convenience of purchasing. I agree.

    There’s also reason to believe that interest in ebook piracy has stalled with the spread of ereaders: http://tinyurl.com/2aaour2

  9. It’s hard to know where to start, but I guess I’ll just jump right in and say that there has been to date exactly one rigorous study that analyzed the effect of piracy on book sales. The study was done by Brian O’Leary. He was kind enough to send me a copy of his analysis, which he admits requires confirmation and better data. The other data analyses have all been done by a company selling its anti-piracy product and is based on blatantly bad data and math.

    O’Leary’s data shows that for midlist authors, such as your client, piracy appears to lead to increased sales. His data shows that for the best selling authors, piracy does appear to impact sales. He’s subsequently said that he has been unsuccessful in convincing any of the big 6 publishers to give him access to better/additional data.

    But the issue is even more complex than just this. Publishers are failing, miserably, in my opinion, in solving the barriers that currently exist to giving consumers a legitimate and fairly priced digital product that doesn’t break, vanish or become inaccessible when a device gets replaced or the technology or software gets upgraded.

    The situation right now is that no one actually knows the impact of piracy on book sales except that there is one study that suggests your client should not be all that upset. Yet.

    We should all, readers, authors and publishers, be asking for solid, rigorous data analysis. If we had that, we might have a clue about whether and when to devote resources to anti-piracy efforts and what eBook vendors should be doing to encourage readers to buy from legal sources and discourage all the things that lead readers to pirate instead (if, in fact, that’s happening) No one has actually answered the question about whether book piraters ever buy legally or whether, if were were able to eliminate all pirated book sources, those downloaders would then buy legitimately.

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  11. JGStewart says:

    A bit late to this conversation, but I think Tobias Buckell hits the nail on the head here:


    Short version: Book piracy appears to be a net neutral, and the idea that X number of illegal downloads = $X lost sales is misleading at best.



  12. Cora Zane says:

    I have personally lost thousands of dollars in royalties over piracy. At one time, you could Google search for my name and several torrent sites would be on the first page of results. It’s gotten better since Google has made it a point to try and cut back on torrent listings, but you can still find my books on hundreds of torrent sites.

    One of my books has been pirated so far and wide I have given up trying to take it down. It has all but killed my sales for that book, and for that reason, I will never revisit that story world again in any of my future efforts. There’s no point in it.

    Piracy used to drive me half crazy, but I figure those readers who are honest will go and buy my books. The rest never intended to buy my work in the first place. Then again, there are far worse things than being listed on a torrent site, I can honestly say that.

    The worst of my piracy woes was when someone bundled all my erotic werewolf romances and put them up for sale on eBay as a single .lit file purchase. That happened in either 2009 or 2010? Anyway, I had to fight eBay to get those books down. I was initially told eBay had an obligation to protect the privacy of the auction owner, who had over 600 positive feedbacks for selling illegally bundled books. I ended up having to file papers with eBay to get the listing for my books down, even though I informed them over the phone I was the copyright holder and the person was not a legal distributor of my work.

    Soon after the listing was removed, the seller was removed from eBay entirely, but he/she didn’t give up their game. They went to an under the table auction site that isn’t moderated. I had never heard of that particular site before my books appeared there. I learned through the site forums that the owner had abandoned his post, so fraud literally runs amok there.

    At any rate, the eBay seller I’d just gone toe-to-toe with joined and rebuilt their shop on the unmoderated site, and guess whose books appeared in their listings first? Yours truly. But I was not the only victim. Within days, this user had uploaded hundreds of authors, hundreds of listings with multiple .lit format books per listing.

    I went through all the normal channels to get my books down from that site, but could not get a response from the owner or anyone else listed as being part of the web staff. I ended up having to go through an IP search to find the owner of the auction site and file a grievance with their ISP, and my state attorney general’s office. The attorney general’s office sent a certified take down notice to the owner, but still, I ended up having to contact the seller and tell them I was pursuing legal action against them if they didn’t take my books down. Finally, they removed them. But I tell you what, the stress in all that…you can’t put a price tag on that.

    On another note, I have personally talked to authors who have been told by their publishers NOT to do anything about torrent or illegal auction listings. One mystery writer in particular told me you can’t get your books down from those kinds of sites. I was shocked. I sent her an email with instructions and a form letter for a standard take down procedure and told her if she had any further questions there is a page about it on the RWA website. She wrote me back, amazed. She honestly had no idea you could request to take your books down.

    The misinformation given to authors over this issue is staggering. And what’s worse, the government has a division that is meant to protect authors against copyright infringement and counterfeiting, but they are not targeting the sites that perpetuate the problem. Why should pirates stop pirating if there are next to no consequences for it?

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to start a crusade. In truth, I don’t think this is a “fixable” problem. There will always be underground file sharing. Bootlegging isn’t something new. But at the same time, the means to do the crime shouldn’t be as accessible as it is right now. With technology changing, and e-books coming into the forefront the way they are, the publishing industry seriously needs to be thinking about ways to protect their investment in both books and their authors.

  13. Genie says:

    Ebook piracy hits the large and small companies the same, until now protection was hard or hardly impossible without loosing the portability of files. Now http://www.productlicenser.com is released and you can simply protect your emails automatically…

  14. so much great info on here, : D.

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