Book Piracy: What Should Authors Do?

Authors are entitled to take whatever approach they like to book piracy; it’s their work after all.

That said, I’d like to see if I can convince some of you to approach the issue a little differently, because I think taking a hardline approach can actually be counter-productive, especially when you are self-publishing and have enough to be dealing with as-is.

Book piracy and the threat of digital

Everyone saw what happened to the music industry. An MP3 is usually around 5MB; with a good connection, you can download it in sixty seconds or less. An ebook can be as small as 200kb, meaning pirates can download a year’s reading material in the same time it takes to grab one album. File-sharing sites are full of ebooks, sometimes in torrents containing over 10,000 ebook files, ready to download in one fell swoop, often including titles available prior to their official release date.

The publishing industry has responded in two ways, both of which are amazingly short-sighted, ineffective, and have served only to alienate the wrong people—you know, those who do pay for books.

Digital Rights Management (DRM)

DRM was implemented by the music industry to prevent users ripping tracks from CDs and sharing them online. However, this meant that people who had legally purchased music had to re-purchase to listen on their computers or iPods. The other problem: DRM was so easy to crack that it didn’t stop pirates anyway. You can verify this yourself by searching for how to crack DRM—you might be surprised how trivial it is.

Some of the security measures introduced around this time were truly awful. In 2005, Sony introduced new DRM technology across 102 different titles—22 million CDs in total—that installed a rootkit on users’ computers, causing a serious security breach that some were only able to remedy by wiping their systems. Sony forgot to tell any of their customers about this, and only came clean when rumbled. In an attempt to fix the problem, it released a patch that actually increased the vulnerabilities on users’ systems. The controversy led to an embarrassing product recall, a series of legal battles—including a class action that was ultimately settled—and then an FTC investigation.

In a final ironic twist, it was claimed that the code of Sony’s rootkit infringed on the copyright of another developer. The scandal led to Sony dropping DRM by 2007.

Despite examples like this, the publishing industry whole-heartedly embraced DRM, even in the face of opposition from the copyright holders (i.e. the writers). The level of protection is set by the publisher/distributor but, depending on what ebook you purchase and from whom, you may be prevented from reading it on another device. This may mean having to re-purchase your entire library if you switch e-readers. Some readers are so militant about this that they refuse to purchase books with DRM attached.

This hypothetical became real in 2014 when the Sony ebookstore shut down virtually overnight, leaving readers stranded, facing the prospect of having to repurchase their entire libraries—which surely would have pushed some of them into piracy, and with some justification too. Luckily, Kobo stepped up and cut a deal with Sony to transfer its customers to their platform.

A bigger problem could be brewing though. As Barnes & Noble continues to back away from its in-house Nook platform after successive high-profile failures, we could see a repeat of the same situation on a much larger scale, with no guarantee of a knight riding to the rescue this time.

Delayed ebook release

The other measure the publishing industry came up with to combat piracy was to hold back the release of ebook versions. This process is known as “windowing,” and it might be more familiar to you in the form of bringing the hardback out exclusively for six months or more before cheaper paperback edition is released. Publishers make a lot more from those expensive hardback sales, as you will see in the next chapter, and wanted to protect them as much as possible, while also acting as a brake on readers switching to ebooks. They also hoped this would allow them to make some sales before the book hit file-sharing sites.

There were several problems with this strategy. First, as mentioned above, some books were being pirated before their release dates anyway. Indeed, some were pirated before there was even an ebook version; all a pirate needed was a scanner, after all. A publisher sends a normal PDF file to its printer, nothing fancy. It passes through a lot of hands, so it’s easy to see how piracy can happen.

Second, many readers who had switched to ebooks stopped buying physical books altogether. They felt they were paying the price for others’ piracy by being forced to either buy an expensive print version they didn’t want, or wait for the ebook version. Or in some cases they had made the switch to digital reading because of sight issues and the ability to make fonts larger. Whatever the reason for their choice, a trip to any Kindle users’ forum at the time revealed how this policy turned happy paying customers into angry ones who were tempted to download an unauthorized version.

How to increase book piracy

A common misconception in publishing is that Amazon has an exclusive right to sell Kindle-compatible ebooks. That’s not true. Smashwords, Omnilit, All Romance Ebooks and DriveThruFiction are just four examples of retailers who sell or who have previously sold Kindle-compatible ebooks. Other companies like BookFunnel and Instafreebie regularly distribute Kindle-compatible books, as do some authors on their own websites. There’s no restriction on anybody else doing the same thing. Indeed, Amazon’s primary competitors—Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Google—could start selling Kindle-compatible ebooks tomorrow if they wished.

The bit that is proprietary to Amazon is the DRM. If publishers wish to place DRM on Kindle-compatible books, they can only sell those files in Amazon’s Kindle Store. In other words, publishers’ fear of piracy was so great they couldn’t countenance releasing books without DRM, and chose not to sell direct to Kindle owners or to sell Kindle-compatible books through a non-Amazon retailer. In other words, publishers built the high walls around Amazon’s garden through their misguided insistence on DRM, which is a choice when selling on Amazon, not a requirement. This DRM-centric approach prevents publishers from doing all sorts of other things too, such as bundling print and digital books. It also often leads to publishers placing ridiculous restrictions on authors who want (and need) to give free copies to reviewers.

All of this might have made some convoluted sort of sense if DRM was in any way effective at combating piracy. But it’s not. Any hacker worth his salt can crack DRM in two seconds flat. And it only takes one pirate to set that book free on torrent sites, where it can be endlessly copied. So, what’s the solution? Can’t these billion-dollar companies come up with some kind of unbreakable DRM? Well, no. Millions of dollars have been spent in the attempt, but, to be frank, it’s a waste of time. Ebooks are very basic files, essentially a collection of HTML files (one per chapter) held together in a zip-like wrapper.

DRM is just another wrapper around that, supposedly locking the content to a specific device or set of devices, to prevent users from sharing. But for readers to open this “lock,” you have to give them the “key,” which makes it simple for anyone who knows what they’re doing to strip off the lock. It doesn’t matter how sophisticated you make this lock if you also have to supply the key for it!

The plain fact is that DRM will never work at combating piracy. Yet publishers’ insistence on DRM prevents them from competing with Amazon, selling direct, and bundling. Worst of all, DRM antagonizes legal, paying customers. If a reader switches devices, or the ebookstore they use closes, they could lose their entire library—books they paid for but can no longer access. Guess what readers do in such cases? They head to the torrent sites.

Congratulations, you’ve just created a new generation of pirates.

How to reduce book piracy

There’s no way to eliminate piracy completely. Once you make a digital product available to the public, it will be pirated by someone, somewhere. There’s no escaping that, but there are some methods to reduce piracy that actually work. Joe Konrath put it succinctly when he said that the only way to combat piracy is with convenience and price: making your books available everywhere, in all formats, and cheap enough that piracy is more hassle than it’s worth.

We’ve already seen how publishers took the opposite approach; not only did they bring in windowing, delaying the release of ebook editions, but they abhorred the idea of low prices so much they were willing to engage in an illegal conspiracy to fix the price of ebooks — a decision that ended up costing them hundreds of millions of dollars in legal fees and fines.

Now we have a clear picture of publishing’s collective insanity. A simple approach that would have reduced piracy, endeared them to readers, and staved off the threat posed by lower-priced self-published ebooks was rejected. Instead, by insisting on DRM, publishers adopted an approach that didn’t work, restricted their opportunity to sell books, hampered their authors’ ability to promote their books, played into the hands of their biggest perceived threat (Amazon), antagonized readers, and even taught some readers how to be pirates!

Luckily, as self-publishers, we don’t have to be press-ganged onto this ship of fools. We can choose not to let piracy drive us insane. We don’t have to make counter-productive business decisions based on an overblown fear of piracy. We can sell our books on Amazon without DRM (an option available to anyone selling in the Kindle Store). We can make our books available everywhere. We can price cheaply.

And we don’t have to waste time and money and mental energy hunting down pirates.

I’m also tempted to add: we have been pretty lucky. The publishing industry had something crucial in place that prevented piracy from getting out of hand. Think back to the music business. What drove much of the initial boom in illegally downloaded songs? Napster. Suddenly, there was a killer app, a piece of software that made it easy to access digital music. One of the things that made Napster so successful was that the music industry was slow to react. Simply put, there was no legal way for fans to get access to digital versions of much of the music they could access on Napster.

Where’s the parallel here? Amazon’s Kindle Store. The publishing industry had a delivery method in place to reach customers even before ebooks were popular with readers, so the chances of something like a Napster-for-books coming along were slim, and those fears proved to be unfounded.

As I said earlier, the only way to combat piracy is with convenience and price. The convenience is in place. We now have Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, Apple, and Google, as well as some individual publishers, all selling ebooks, covering every possible e-reader, phone, tablet, and computer. Big publishers are still fighting to keep prices high, but small publishers and self-publishers have happily filled that gap, and have the increased market share to show for it.

One publisher, Tor, was brave enough to break from the pack and stop applying DRM to its books in April 2012. Tor came under extreme pressure from other publishers, especially Hachette, to reverse this policy, but it stuck to its guns. A year later, Tor announced “we’ve seen no discernible increase in piracy on any of our titles.”

No major publisher followed suit. Indeed, they doubled down. Hachette pressured its authors not to sign any deals with Tor, and most large publishers still insist on putting DRM on ebooks, continuing a backward approach to piracy that previously saw them delay the release of ebooks to protect print sales, and push for legislation that would allow them to sue their customers.

Why are they so insistent on making the same mistakes as the music industry?

Recommendations for Authors

  • Don’t apply DRM to your books. It’s a choice on Amazon, not a requirement.
  • Don’t be afraid to share your book files (i.e. with reviewers, competition winners and the like).
  • Don’t waste time and money fighting book piracy.
  • Do price cheaply.
  • Do make your books available everywhere (or if you go exclusive with one retailer, accept that some piracy will happen as a result).

It’s your call, you can defend your work how you choose, but those are my recommendations to keep you happy and productive and sane, instead of chasing shadows around the internet.

David Gaughran

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time spent outside. He writes novels under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership with his books, blogs, workshops, and courses, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.