Could Piracy Be Good For You?

When music industry revenues collapsed after the introduction of MP3s, many writers became worried. While musicians have been able to find alternative income streams – including touring and merchandise – writers generally have one: their stories. Not even Stephen King or J.K. Rowling would fill a stadium for a reading, and most mid-list authors and new writers are lucky if there is a decent turn-out for a free bookstore appearance.

In my last post on piracy, I covered how the measures the publishing industry has undertaken to combat piracy have only served to alienate their paying customers, but today I want to look at piracy from a different perspective: its benefits. While I don’t condone piracy, I think it’s an issue where authors need to challenge their assumptions.

Piracy: A Tax on Success

First off, piracy can be viewed as a tax on success. Writers who only selling a handful of copies a month don’t tend to be pirated. Why would the hackers bother? It’s the writers of popular books, the ones appearing in the bestseller lists, who are targeted.

Mark Coker, the founder of Smashwords, insists that all work sold on his site is DRM-free. (If you don’t know what DRM is, please see my previous article on piracy.) He says that the greatest threat a writer faces is not piracy, it’s obscurity, and anything that makes work less accessible and less enjoyable makes it more obscure.

He identifies two kinds of pirates. First are the “scoundrels and cheapskates who will never pay for anything…they don’t represent a lost sale”. Second are those that feel they are justified in pirating your work because it is only available in certain formats, it’s priced too high, or not for sale in their territory. This second group do represent some lost sales.

Nothing can be done about the first group, but writers need to think about how to tackle the rest. Mark Coker points out that “piracy is an indication that your work is in demand”, and that this demand is only being filled by pirates because you have failed to make purchasing preferable to pirating.

Convenience & Price

The only way to combat piracy is with convenience and price. Your work should be available in all formats so it can be read on any e-reader, on sale at as many retailers as possible, DRM-free, without territory restrictions, and you must price your work fairly so your customers have less incentive to steal it.

Can Piracy Be Good For You?

Internationally bestselling author Neil Gaiman used to be dead against piracy, but his views have evolved since he noticed two things. First, in countries where he was being pirated, his sales went up. He managed to convince his publisher to let him put a copy of his novel American Gods, which was still selling quite well, up on his website for anyone to download and share. Sales of all his books went up 300%.

He also argues that you are not losing sales through piracy. At the end of each of his readings, he asks the audience how they discovered their favourite writers. He estimates that only 5 to 10% of them actually purchased the book, and the rest were given it, or were lent it. He now concludes that piracy is “people lending books”, and that it is free advertising.

Joe Konrath has similar views, but understands why many writers fear piracy.  To test his theories, he decided to conduct an experiment where he gave a free book away on his website, one that was already on sale on Amazon for $1.99. He encouraged pirates to download it in a blog post entitled “Steal This Ebook“, and asked them to push it out to all the file sharing sites. And, not only did his sales increase overall, his sales increased for that book too – even though he raised the price by one dollar.

The Publishing Industry

The publishing industry seems blind to all of this. Most larger houses insist on putting DRM on e-books, restricting territories, and holding back the release of e-books to protect print sales. But in addition to this, they have been pushing for legislative changes to allow them to sue their customers.

Why is the publishing industry so insistent on making the same mistakes as the music industry?

I understand that the views I have expressed here might be a little controversial, and I invite you to contribute in the comments below. As always, whether you agree or disagree, I welcome a discussion. I read all the comments and try and respond to them all. If you are a first-time poster, your comment is automatically withheld for moderation but, once you are approved, all subsequent posts will appear immediately. If your post doesn’t appear for some other reason, please feel free to re-post.

Tomorrow we will continue our step-by-step guide to getting your stories into (digital) print, INDIE PUBLISHING FOR INTERNATIONAL WRITERS with STEP FOUR: FORMAT YOUR STORY.

David Gaughran

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

21 Replies to “Could Piracy Be Good For You?”

  1. Your views might be a little controversial, but I think they’re also 100% correct!

    I was just dealing with an agent on an eBook deal and she wanted all kinds of protections in the contract against piracy — including a clause that the publisher would be legally responsible for hunting down and prosecuting anyone who shares the eBook illegally!

    This is a case where the big New York publishers just don’t understand what is happening around them.

    1. They have it backwards, for sure.

      In the UK, it’s as bad, if not worse. The Publishers Association essentially wrote The Digital Economy Act, which is going to try and cut off people’s internet connections and jail them for piracy. That worked out well for the music industry didn’t it? Seriously, why is anyone taking advice from those guys! Metallica, anyone?

      1. sigh… if you make it EASY for people to legally buy eBooks, and you price them fairly, most readers are just going to go for the convenience of clicking “purchase” and boom, it’s on their reader… Most readers don’t want to mess around with pirate websites… but if you don’t make the book available to them, or you put an insane price on it, what do you think will happen?

  2. I’m afraid you’ll get no arguments from me. I’ve always thought territorial rights were utter nonsense (I’m thinking of a stronger word, but am attempting to keep this PG.). Why should it be so doggone difficult for me to buy a book I want to read simply because of the country I happen to be living in at the moment? And DRM? Might as well slap a big sticker saying “Steal Me” on your ebook.

    1. There’s no doubt that some hackers see cracking protections as a challenge. And there is also no doubt that no-one has come up with a way of stopping pirates. All they do is annoy the people who actually pay for the product. This then turns them into pirates. It’s such an obviously self-defeating strategy, and yet they don’t get it.

      1. What really baffles me is that we’ve already gone through this with the music and tv/movie industries and yet the publishing industry insists on going down the same path they did.

        Definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

        1. Exactly. The music industry are the last people I would ask for advice on how to deal with piracy. And they are not the only people, some in the software industry have handled it well.

  3. I think a lot of the increase in sales from the pirated books comes from people’s inherent sense of honesty. When people obtain one of these pirated e-books, many will feel compelled to compensate the author for quality work and buy another of that author’s books.

    The honor system works very well where I live in New Hampshire. I buy organic milk, free-range eggs, raw honey and even grass-fed meats on the honor system. You retrieve what you need and leave money in a collection box and go. The farmers know that on rare occasions someone will take a product and not leave any money for it, but those are the few exceptions.

    The only problem with this theory it only seems to work with farm produce and e-books, but not MP3 music files 😉

    1. That would be a sense of guilt not honesty. If they were honest they wouldn’t have downloaded the book. And I have seen this, but this guilt doesn’t always last. Many people get hooked on free books and free audio books, and they start buying extra hard drives just to keep up with their habit. They couldn’t possibly afford to compensate every writer they take from.

      Maybe writers should put a donation box on the web site or blog. “Hey, if you’ve downloaded any of my books without paying for them, I probably make less than you do, so be kind and donate a buck.”

      1. A couple of authors have done this, in different ways.

        Cory Doctorow puts free copies of his e-book up on his site and asks people to donate if they want to.

        Joe Konrath, during the experiment I mentioned, had a ‘donate’ button beside the free file. He made $350 that month. It sold 350 copies on Amazon (up slightly on the previous month), so that’s not bad as donations go, considering the book was on sale for $1.99 for most of that month.

  4. I’ve never questioned the benefits of piracy. As you mentioned, there is tangible proof that any loss in sales due to piracy results in a later surge due to new interest among the pirate’s friends. It’s a ripple effect, and can be a profitable one.

    1. The only caution I would urge is on drawing hard and fast conclusions, as the examples above are hardly scientific. It does tally with what I instinctively feel to be the case though so, until proven otherwise, I will operate on the assumption that the above examples hold true.

      The beauty of self-publishing, of course, is that you can make all these decisions for yourself rather than being strait-jacketed by a one-size-fits-all corporate policy.

      1. I agree with the spirit of these responses, but think Dave’s cautioning deserves extra weight. (“the examples above are hardly scientific.”)

        When a prominent author loudly announces an “experiment,” he’s not exploring piracy but publicity. A public announcement may appear to be providing transparency, but it’s also hugely biasing any subsequent results. (And there are anecdotes on the other side: Tor editor Lou Anders, for example.)

        I lean in the optimistic direction, but don’t yet see strong evidence in either direction. (I expanded on these thoughts a bit in a blog post, but the above captures my basic view (

        1. Hi Hektor, I think we are on the same page here. The way I look at it is this. I’m going to make my work available for every format, in every retailer I can, DRM-free, with no territory restrictions, and a low price. Doing those things combats piracy. But it also great for the readers. It’s win-win for me. Whether piracy actually increases sales or not is more of an academic question, but one that is sure to push buttons. I’m interested in it, and there may be some basis in it, but I wouldn’t to upload clean copies of my e-books to file-sharing sites to find out.

  5. As always, correlation does not equal causation. I agree that not every (or even most) pirated books represent a lost sale, and it might even be true that piracy increases increases sales. Might. *Might*.

    Just like the flawed 99 cent experiments, how can we separate out the piracy effect from the promotional effect?

    Joe puts up a free book and tells everybody to pass it around, tweet about it, tell their friends about it. Sales skyrocket. Was it because of piracy, or the push? In some cases, the increased sales will be coincidental.

    I get a cold, someone tells me to try echinacea. They swear it works. I take it, and a week later, I feel better. Did it work, or did my cold just run its natural course?

    Did piracy increase Neil’s sales, or did some other promotion, DVD release, tweet, interview, or other viral meme contribute just as much?

    His sales tripled, yes, but some e-books increase sales 1000% or more in a week, and this can’t be attributed to piracy anymore than John Locke’s sales leap to 300,000+ units a months can be solely attributed to his 99 cent price tag.

    1. Hi David,

      Good points by you and Hektor.

      It would be hard to run a scientific test on this theory without the interfering factors you mention. Maybe Joe Konrath’s sales would have gone up that much anyway. Maybe they would have gone up by more without the piracy. The only way you could, maybe, test it is to get 100 backlist titles of equal commercial worth by a variety of authors, digitise them for the first time and put them for sale on Amazon for the same price, upload half to file sharing sites, and compare the sales of the two groups. Even then there would be variables, but at least might be able to spot a trend.

      1. Getting good data is hard, but major players like Amazon, Big 6 publishers, B&N, Apple, etc., could provide it.

        If they were willing to share the data, they could probably get academic researchers to do the statistical analysis for free (Steven Levitt of Freakonomics, for example, has offered this type of consultancy).

        Both sides would do better to focus on pragmatic solutions rather than relying on ideological claims (as we saw with music). They’re not going to prevent piracy by bullying customers. But I also worry that a “piracy is social sharing” attitude could produce generations that assume all content is free.

        I think it’s smart to emphasize “You vote with your money.” And “Each purchase makes a difference.”

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