TL;DR: oh, just go read Cecilia Tan’s blog post instead.
This week, she discovered that the eBook version had been pirated:
If I think that a file on a "paid" download site is my work being illegally downloaded, how do I verify w/o joining site and paying fee?
— Katrina Archer (@katrinaarcher) September 8, 2014
And that started a long Facebook discussion (not shown here) of how much authors should worry about online piracy. I threw in my two cents, but we haven’t had computers and the Internet long enough to see how all this shakes out long-term, so everybody’s arguing from ideology more than evidence.
With that in mind, here’s my “mix tape” argument for not spending your time worrying about how to prevent or fight piracy. I’m focusing my own efforts on making cool stuff, finding an audience, and being nice to paying customers.
THURSDAY’S CHILDREN: Flash Fiction from 512 Words or Fewer,
is available as a free download (PDF or TXT)?
(And now back to our program.)
NOTA BENE: the excerpts below are totally cherry-picked, heavily edited, and completely biased. YMMV.
I’ll begin with Tim O’Reilly‘s seminal “Piracy is Progressive Taxation, and Other Thoughts on the Evolution of Online Distribution” (11 Dec 2002), from which I often quote:
Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy.
Cory Doctorow elaborates on this in “Liability vs. leverage: How writers lose when ‘piracy’ gets harder” (14 Jan 2013):
[A]lthough it’s hard to turn fame into money in the arts, it’s impossible to turn obscurity into money in the arts. It doesn’t matter how you plan on making your money — selling books or downloads, selling ads, getting sponsorship, getting crowdfunded, getting commissions, licensing to someone else who’s figured out how to make money — you won’t get the chance unless people have heard of your stuff.
But let’s talk about books specifically. Since books are made of text, and plain text is pretty much the easiest form of data to copy and share over the Internet (by design), online piracy is an obvious concern for professional writers. However, John Scalzi makes a very logical argument in “The Stupidity of Worrying About Piracy” (13 May 2005):
Let’s ask: Who are pirates? They are people who won’t pay for things (i.e., dickheads), or they’re people who can’t pay for things (i.e., cash-strapped college students and others). The dickheads have ever been with us; they wouldn’t pay even if they had the money. I don’t worry about them, I just hope they fall down an abandoned well…
I don’t know anyone who can pay for a book or a CD or a DVD or whatever who doesn’t… I don’t see the people who can’t pay as pirates. I see them as people who will pay, once they can. Until then, I think of it as I’m floating them a loan. Nor is it an entirely selfless act. I’m cultivating a reader — someone who thinks of books as a legitimate form of entertainment — and since I want to be a writer until I croak, that’s a good investment for me…
Yes, there’s an investment risk… [but] I believe that fundamentally, most people aren’t thieving dickheads; they’re people who if they like your writing will want to support your career… Treat readers like they can’t be trusted and there’s no reason for them not to live down to your expectations. Make it clear to them that they’re integral to your continued success, and they will help you succeed. Treat them like human beings, for God’s sake.
This is not a new sentiment. In fact, Eric Flint said pretty much the same thing in “Introducing the Baen Free Library” (11 Oct 2000):
[Publisher] Jim Baen is fond of pointing out: most people would rather be honest than dishonest.
He’s absolutely right about that. One of the things about the online debate over e-piracy that particularly galled me was the blithe assumption by some of my opponents that the human race is a pack of slavering would-be thieves held (barely) in check by the fear of prison sentences…
[T]he truth is that most people are no more tempted to steal a few dollars than they are to spend their lunch hour panhandling for money on the streets. Partly because they don’t need to, but mostly because it’s beneath their dignity and self-respect.
The only time that mass scale petty thievery becomes a problem is when the perception spreads, among broad layers of the population, that a given product is priced artificially high due to monopolistic practices and/or draconian legislation designed to protect those practices. But so long as the “gap” between the price of a legal product and a stolen one remains both small and, in the eyes of most people, a legitimate cost rather than gouging, 99% of them will prefer the legal product.
Of course, none of this philosophizing assuages the gut feeling of “OMG they’re stealing my stuff!” Cecilia Tan breaks it down for us in “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Ebook Piracy” (23 May 2011):
[A]uthors who see 100,000 downloads of their book as equivalent to 100,000 lost sales are deluding themselves. Please trust me when I say that 100,000 downloads is not the equivalent of 100,000 copies shoplifted. It’s actually the equivalent of 100,000 people thumbing through the book while standing in the bookstore or library, deciding whether to invest the time in reading it…
Of those 100,000 who downloaded your book, most of them aren’t reading it anyway. 90,000 probably never open the file. Of the 10,000 who do, you just got the equivalent of them opening a copy of the book on the shelf at a bookstore to see if they like it. Most traditional authors would have KILLED to have such great placement in the bookstores as to attract 10,000 browsers to pick up the book and look in it. Out of those 10K, say 3 out of 4 decide the book is not their cup of tea. So now we’re down to 2500 who are genuinely interested. In the brick and mortar world, retail rule of thumb says 500 of them would have a good chance of buying it…
Giving stuff away helps. Having it for easy sale also helps. In fact, despite all our “new media” chatter about publicity in the digital age, about blog tours and Twitter contests and Facebook pages, these two things seem to be the only two things that actually make a measurable impact on sales. Give stuff away to increase your customer base, and then have it for easy sale to sift money out of those who are eager to pay. That’s it.
There’s more great stuff in Tan’s post, including a link to Jeff Vogel’s highly entertaining “might as well have just made a big pile of money and set it on fire” cautionary tales. If any of these issues interest you, I encourage you to spend a few minutes reading through her full article.
Back to Untalented. Since the pirate site in question appears to be behind a paywall, and Kat’s already filed a successful DMCA takedown notice against them, I’m not too concerned for her—why would any reasonable person pay to access a shady download site instead of just buying the eBook from Amazon?
Last but not least, until September 30th, US readers have the chance to win a paperback copy of Untalented through this GoodReads giveaway! You have literally nothing to lose. Of course, if you can’t wait—or don’t want to take your chances—you can also buy the eBook right now. (Full disclosure: yes, that is an affiliate link.)