Let me begin with a confession. I pirate books regularly. Here’s why: I use a Kobo Aura One reader, which is advertised as compatible with EPUB and MOBI files. It isn’t. But Kindle and Google Play that I use for buying books come with DRM (Digital Rights Management). I use software to remove DRM, then convert the books to KEPUB (Kobo format), then read them. This is how I ended up buying Marian Keyes’ “The Break”, and THEN downloading it from a pirate site because my DRM removal tool didn’t work and I couldn’t read the e-book I paid for! I call this “Sales Prevention Team”. And yes, Kobo has its own book store, which has maybe half of the selection of Amazon and Google Play, much higher prices, and also some books bought from Kobo do not work with Kobo reader. And this is how I both pay for books AND commit illegal acts, since it is not actually allowed to remove DRM. From legal point of view stripping the DRM is just as illegal as me downloading the book from a pirate website…except the pirated book is much easier for me to read. Because I don’t need to remove DRM in order to put it on my reader. Does this picture look right to you?
While I love paper books, my back injuries mean that a thick book is never going to be read by me for a simple reason – it hurts. Physically. E-books are my saviour. The reader is the absolute best I have ever seen, but the software – regularly updated – isn’t. Epubs don’t render correctly. Mobis just don’t appear at all (or didn’t last time I checked). While Google Play and Adobe Digital Editions allow me to upload the epub files, they don’t render correctly. But this is not the sort of piracy that is harmful.
Here is a very useful and informative article by Maggie Stiefwater:
It’s the story of a novel called The Raven King, the fourth installment in a planned four book series. All three of its predecessors hit the bestseller list. Book three, however, faltered in strange ways. The print copies sold just as well as before, landing it on the list, but the e-copies dropped precipitously. […]
I expected to see a sales drop in book three, Blue Lily, Lily Blue, but as my readers are historically evenly split across the formats, I expected it to see the cut balanced across both formats. This was absolutely not true. Where were all the e-readers going? Articles online had headlines like PEOPLE NO LONGER ENJOY READING EBOOKS IT SEEMS. […]
I asked my publisher to make sure there were no e-ARCs available of book four, the Raven King, explaining that I felt piracy was a real issue with this series in a way it hadn’t been for any of my others. They replied with the old adage that piracy didn’t really do anything, but yes, they’d make sure there was no e-ARCs if that made me happy.
Then they told me that they were cutting the print run of The Raven King to less than half of the print run for Blue Lily, Lily Blue. No hard feelings, understand, they told me, it’s just that the sales for Blue Lily didn’t justify printing any more copies. The series was in decline, they were so proud of me, it had 19 starred reviews from pro journals and was the most starred YA series ever written, but that just didn’t equal sales. They still loved me.
This, my friends, is a real world consequence. […]
The Ronan trilogy nearly didn’t exist because of piracy. And already I can see in the tags how Tumblr users are talking about how they intend to pirate book one of the new trilogy for any number of reasons, because I am terrible or because they would ‘rather die than pay for a book’. As an author, I can’t stop that. But pirating book one means that publishing cancels book two. This ain’t 2004 anymore. A pirated copy isn’t ‘good advertising’ or ‘great word of mouth’ or ‘not really a lost sale.’
Pirating books is easy and tempting. When you google a title, more often than not first hits are pirated copies. Not even Amazon or author’s website. When I type a song title into Google, I get, again more often than not, “mp3” as autofill. This is not so that Google can redirect me to a legit store.
I originally decided to stop making music when I sold less copies of my album Deviations than there were pirate sites I found offering it for free. There were tens of those sites on the first page of Google results. After diminishing returns I only make music nowadays if I really feel pressing need to do so. Some of this music never even sees Spotify. I’ve recorded a 19-minute triphop cover of Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You”. I was aided by a wonderful bass player, and my brother who is a great guitarist. I love that song so much I play it for my own pleasure. So does the bassist, and the guitarist. Other than them the only person to have a full copy is the keyboard player I hope to get to add solo parts to the second song for this two-track album which will in all probability never be released. Because in order to publish a cover version I have to pay for that. Last month I earned $3.65 from my back catalogue of music. Publishing a cover version costs $10.
The picture above is the cover art for ‘I Want You’. Oh, hang on, there is no picture. That’s because ‘I Want You’ exists mainly on my hard drive. It might be awful or amazing. I don’t know whether anybody but the four of us who worked on it is ever going to find out.
I’ve never been a pop star, despite having had a proper radio and TV hit 15 years ago (I am ancient and just began to decompose). That radio hit earned me about €2000 within 15 years, largely because it was used in an ad three years in a row, and every year I earned €500. The follow-up didn’t become a hit. The label who was supposed to release the album stalled so long that the record finally came out digitally a few years ago, more or less ten years after we recorded that first song. I spent tons of time promoting it, designing the cover art (it was supposed to be a digipak with a thick booklet). I would estimate my earnings from music, including production and remixing, to be around €5000. Within 15 years. Rappers put up photos on Instagram bragging about how much money they have. My photo would be extremely unimpressive, unless I exchanged the money to kronur first, asking for 100 kronur (less than one euro) notes.
Writers in general do not get rich, with exception of book stuffers (who publish 2000 page “books” with “additional novels added”, then get rewarded by Amazon since Kindle Unlimited pays per page) and those who manage to release a book every month (yes, they exist). I can’t possibly imagine a good book being written in a month. Not one. Much less 12 a year. I’ve read some of them. My eyes still hurt. John Grisham, JK Rowling, George R.R. Martin, Dannielle Steel, Stephen King are the only living authors I can think of that are actually properly rich. Very few writers get to make comfortable living from their work. I’ve now been working on “Storyteller” (the first work in progress) for 19 months and counting.
Sales of #1 novels in 2018 are counted in thousands. Not in tens, or hundreds of thousands. The publisher has to market those books. Editor has to, er, edit them. Cover designer. Person responsible for layout. Agent. All those people work on the book. It’s not just the author who essentially loses money. Just supporting the author directly, as some people suggest, doesn’t help the books to actually get published. What’s the point in having €50 monthly from Patreon if I am going to get dropped by the publisher because of low sales? This is what piracy causes, and this is why quality level of self-published books is either very high…or very low. The music industry caught up with this a few years ago, and now streaming can earn you money. Or not, if you aren’t Drake or Justin Bieber. I am awaiting Spotify for books, and I’d be happy to pay €30 per month for it. (Scribd does not work on my reader in any way at all.) I, too, would like to not have to pay €18 for a Kindle version of a book I really want to read – or €250 for a second-hand copy of a book that’s been printed in 2000 copies in 2014, doesn’t exist in e-book form, and is now impossible to buy legally. This book wasn’t printed in more copies than 2000, because it failed to earn its advance.
Speaking of an advance. I believe the average advance for a first-time author is somewhere in the region of $6000. This is for two or three years of work, research, querying, waiting, waiting, waiting, writing more, hoping someone will want to publish us at all. This advance includes tax we have to pay, is split into two or three parts (€2000 when signed, €2000 on delivery of manuscript, €2000 on publication). Tax here in the Netherlands is between 32 and 41 per cent. Let’s go for the lower 32%. That €6000 turns out to be less than €4200. Split into three parts that are paid within two-three years after the book has been completed. And the first book generally makes or breaks the author. If it doesn’t sell, it’s probably going to be the only one to be published. Once you get through the “gatekeepers” – i.e. agents, editors, etc. (See Maggie’s article above.) The “gatekeepers” goal is not to stop me from ever releasing my book. Their job is to figure out whether there is a chance for the publisher not to make a loss.
Writing books hoping to become rich is really a stupid idea (unless you publish a book a month, again, and add “10 additional novels” to it to get more pages). Amazon is now trying to remove some of those stuffed books. The results are mixed. My second work in progress, tentatively called ‘God of Fire’, is supposed to become a trilogy. Trilogies sometimes sell. Sometimes the first book sells 10 thousand, second – five thousand, and then the third never gets published because the author is dropped because of low sales. This is the actual effect of book piracy. For someone who sells millions it’s not a huge problem. For a new author struggling to earn out the advance (which is the moment publisher finally stops bleeding money on advertising etc., and the moment when the author has a small possibility of getting published again) 1000 lost sales can equal the end of writing career. This is why almost all writers need to have day jobs. This is why you have to wait for the third part of the trilogy for four years, because the author has one hour per day to write between work, chores, and simply dying of exhaustion – and that’s assuming this third part will ever be released at all.
If you are the person who says “I would rather die than pay for a book’” you contribute to those books not actually existing. Sure. You saved €4.99 (average Amazon price). The author, in the meantime, found a really good job as a barista in Starbucks, and stopped writing altogether. Was it worth it? Do you feel proud now?
2 thoughts on “On book piracy”
This is an excellent post on an important topic. And, to be honest, the structure of the industry is one of the many reasons I’m pursuing self-publishing for all my works. (Especially the Adelaide series.)
Thanks Nicole. I am still trying to decide what to do once “Storyteller” is ready to go and visit agents. There are good and bad sides for both trad publishing and self-publishing. The piracy – or, let’s be frank, theft – hits us in both cases. That’s the world we live in and those are choices that are available to us, and those are our readers and “readers”. I have to accept that, but it doesn’t mean that I’m happy about it.