So earlier this week, over on that other fiction site I frequent and write for, there was a bit of a shock to the community. A large number of users logged on to find a public announcement that their work, their fanfiction, had been stolen an put up on the internet elsewhere. Not only that, but the site that was hosting it was selling it. Loosely. But they were. Because it was a pirate book site.
Naturally, quite a few people were incensed. Their work had been taken without their permission and was being redistributed by someone else. Worse still, the site redistributing it was taking money in return for it, for something that was supposed to be free. A public notice went up on how to contact the site with a DMCA takedown order, and everyone went back and forth on how ridiculous it was, how upset they were, etc.
They’d been given their first exposure to being on the receiving end of book piracy, and they didn’t like it.
Now, for me the happening wasn’t exactly a surprise. I’ve found my fanfiction being distributed by no less than five different pirate book sites, and while I was surprised and shocked at first, I eventually just rolled with it. After all, I’m more concerned with my published stuff being pirated—which it was almost immediately after being released—and the pirating of material I’m already writing and sticking out on the internet for free isn’t as much a concern to me since well … it’s already a freebie. Besides, I can almost take a bit of humorous pride in saying that my writing is good enough people pirate my fanfiction.
But the thing is, piracy in the world of books is a real problem, one that the internet—and particularly ebooks—has made a lot easier. Anyone can hop online now, and with a few quick button presses and a halfway adequate knowledge of how Google works, find themselves a free copy of just about most books out there. And that … well, that makes the already hard job of being a writer even harder.
I’m going to run two stories past you. The first is something I read once in a magazine—a story that happened, but that I don’t remember nearly enough details about to offer concrete details. But the core of the story is this: An author was browsing one of Reddit’s book subreddits when they came across—to their great surprise—a translation thread that was busily working at translating his book into Russian. The author was impressed, poked around in the thread, and watched for days (and maybe even weeks) as this group of translators crowdsourced some of the more difficult phrases and colloquialisms. The threads creators were very excited to be releasing the book, and once the translation was done, talked about how well the book was doing in Russia. Glad that he’d acquired a new audience and thinking of the numbers they’d mentioned, the next time the author met with his agent he asked about his cut of the profits from the Russian market.
“What Russian market?” was his agent’s reply.
Oh, I’m sure you can see the problem here. And some of you might say “Well, this is the agent/publisher’s fault for not getting his book out in Russia quickly enough,” and while that might be true, that doesn’t justify the theft of this author’s work. Also, whether or not a book is being sold in a given country has little to do with pirates offering it. For example, my book is available almost worldwide, and yet still I’ve had people in the US proudly tell me that they pirated it (jerks).
Another story, this one from my Google-fu this morning. Apparently, in May of 2014 an author of a popular YA series awoke to a real surprise: fans of her newest book eagerly talking about it on twitter. Now, any author would enjoy this, except there was just one problem (well, at the core): The book that they were discussing wasn’t out for another two months. The fans who had “purchased” it had done so from a pirate site. Money was flowing for this book … only it wasn’t flowing towards the author. Worse, it was likely making use of the author’s advertising campaign for the real release of the book to siphon money away from fans and—ultimately—away from the author and publisher who were counting on the influx to continue working.
The stories should be making this clear, but piracy is a real problem for authors. Publishing is already an industry in which you hear numbers as high as 40-60% being thrown around as the percentile of authors who have second jobs. Writing for many is more a labor of love than of riches (I can testify of that one myself, my bank account hovers low). Even selling two thousand copies of a book is considered a success … two thousand. That’s scarily low. And let’s do the math here, just for kicks. If that author is getting a good percentage—let’s say 5%—from their publisher and sells two-thousand paperbacks at $8 apiece … that’s $800. Maybe a month or two’s rent payments, depending on where you live.
And that’s a successful book.
Now add piracy into the equation and you can see where this can get a little dicey. Even discounting digital piracy, book theft is still a problem. Between 2011 and 2013, authorities in Chile confiscated over $1.5 million dollars worth of pirated, bootleg books from stores. Pirated copies of books can be found just about everywhere, physical or digital. And each time one of these books is sold, the author—the actual creator of that work—isn’t seeing a dime. Rather, his share is going right to the thief running the pirate operation.
All right, all right, I probably don’t need to say much more on that. You’ve seen the numbers, etc, etc. “So what?” you might ask. “Why don’t you do something about it?”
Well, some places try. Some publishers run entire divisions dedicated to taking down pirate groups. But it’s like a hydra: For every head you cut off, another takes its place. Simply put, pirates have a much easier job than the legitimate authors. All they have to do is wait for the author to produce more content and then steal his or her work to resell it. Since the pirate is doing very little work themselves and they can steal from multiple content creators at once—effectively allowing them to have the output of a dozen people with less than a quarter of the effort—they can undercut costs and even go as low as to make money from ad-revenue alone. They don’t care. If an author stops writing, they’ll find another. It’s like if you—and I mean you personally—worked at a store where no matter what you did or how much work you did, another employee took and got all the credit. And with it, all the raises, all the bonuses, and you’re left with what you had at the start of each day.
Not a great picture, is it? And it’s one that won’t go away, at least not through laws and DMCA notices. Like I said, pirates are a hydra. You can’t stop them. If I were to issue DMCA notices to every site that was hosting bootleg copies of One Drink and Dead Silver today, tomorrow they’d be up someplace else. One author I found in doing some research for this post said she spent an hour or two every Saturday sending out notices. Another tried but found they just couldn’t keep up. The tools aren’t there.
Or rather, they’re in the wrong hands. The wrong minds. Because here’s the real thing with piracy: it’s all based on demand.
That means that the real force for combating piracy, the real core of things, is each and every one of us. The readers (yes, I’m a reader as well). Because at the end of the day, it’s the readers who are the ones purchasing and downloading stolen copies of books. And while many will claim that it’s a “victimless crime” or that there’s nothing wrong with it, the fact of the matter is that there is, and nothing will change that. Unless you get personal, direct permission from an author to not purchase their work, pirating it is wrong. It’s the equivalent of someone walking up to a worker in retail and literally taking money out of their paycheck for the work they did. Imagine if other jobs were as vulnerable to piracy as writing was. Imagine if while working at the office, your boss could cut your pay for each item that a co-worker “borrowed” from your desk? Or what it would be like if a burger joint had two options available: the customer pays or the employee pays for them? How would you like to work that job, where anyone could walk in and ask you to make them a burger … only to walk off with it and have your boss take the $5.95 out of your paycheck?
Sometimes I hear excuses. “Well, I could just go get it at the library. I might as well pirate it.” So go get it at the library then! At least then the author was compensated in some way, and the library keeps track of the demand, notes it, and purchases more from the author.
Look, the simple truth of it is, yes, you’re probably not hurting someone like Stephen King or Neil Gaiman when you steal their books. But these people are the rock stars of the written world. It’s like stealing money from Bill Gates or Scrooge McDuck. But when you pirate a book written by Bob McBoberine, who only expected to sell 3000 books this year, Bob notices. That 3000 becomes 2999, and Bob’s paycheck drops. Bob stops writing, and his bestselling, multi-million dollar book is never written.
“I’ll buy it if I like it.” Right. You know what I’ve found about people who tell me that? They never like anything enough. Maybe one or two, just to justify themselves, but they’re not going to buy. They’re just telling stories in addition to pirating them.
As readers, we need to be better. We need to realize that the words we enjoy reading don’t just flow from nowhere, that each book we buy is the product of hundreds of hours of dedicated effort and thousands of hours of practice. And if we don’t pay for them, they’ll stop flowing. There are free samples of books, libraries, lending … dozens of ways to find out if we’ll enjoy an author before ever cracking open our wallets. There’s no excuse for hiding behind a facade. As readers, we need to support the real creators of the works we enjoy, rather than the pirates who are making money in an author’s place.
Libraries. Lending. Used bookstores (yes, these count, as the original author got paid for the book at some point, rather than nothing). Audiobooks. Ebook samplers. Classic bookstores. Online bookstores (legitimate ones). Sales! There are dozens upon dozens of ways to get a book that ensure the author gets compensation.
Turning back to what happened with that fanfiction site that I spoke about at the beginning of this post, each one of those fanfic authors suddenly found out what it felt like to be on the receiving end of piracy. They were mad. They were upset. Some even argued that what had happened to them was worse than actual piracy because their work was supposed to be free in the first place. Which, as someone who has had both stolen, isn’t true, but I could see why they were saying it. They were angry. And for many of them, they suddenly understood what it felt like to be an author who saw their work pirated.
And they didn’t like that feeling. They felt cheated. Hurt. Betrayed. Odds are that at least a few of them had pirated books in the past and now felt the extra sting of karmic guilt.
Piracy stops and starts with us, the readers. If you enjoy an author, support them. Please. We really appreciate it, and we want to keep doing what we’re doing. I don’t know exactly how much I personally have lost to piracy (though direct confirmation from some readers confirms that it’s at least $12), but the fact is that even a small-time author like myself has lost money to it says a lot. And that’s money I won’t get back. Someone else got it, or a chunk of it, anyway.
Please don’t pirate. Be legit. Support the authors you love so that they can keep writing.
Don’t support the pirates.