It seems that without exception, any time someone notices e-book piracy, it’s suddenly a huge problem, instead of having built over nearly twenty years during which most publishers and authors who were not Harlan Ellison did not find it worth their time to bother doing anything about. An article in the Guardian today is no exception.

UK writers think that a new publicity campaign is needed to educate people on why “stealing” books is wrong. (Clearly they’ve observed the success that those obnoxious, patronizing PSAs Hollywood has tacked onto theatrical movies have had—because naturally the people who pay to see movies are actually all thieves, who will stop their stealing if only asked in the most insulting way possible.)

And then there’s this little gem:

Novelist Chris Cleave, author of The Other Hand and Little Bee, agreed. “I don’t blame anyone. They don’t do it [download books illegally] because they are evil but because they don’t understand,” he said. “In the music industry, when the price of music went down to zero – as it arguably now is because of filesharing – artists didn’t mind that much. My music friends love it because they can make money through gigs and merchandising, they can put their faces on T-shirts. But I’m not a rock star and I don’t have that as an option. If readers lose the habit of paying me for my work, I can’t work. Writing is how I make my living.”

The price of music is now “zero”? That must come as news to iTunes, whose 99-cents-per-track music sales have made it the biggest seller of music in the US (or even the world?). Indeed, since music became available at a 99-cent-per-track price, one study has shown that the rate of music piracy has actually plummeted by comparison to other media piracy, making up only 10% of overall BitTorrent traffic (by number of files, not bandwidth). That’s not likely due to any publicity campaign, or even necessarily the RIAA’s habit of filing thousands of file-sharing lawsuits, but because people can now buy what they want in high quality at a reasonable price. (Hey, publishers, are you listening?)

Of course, the same study shows that books make up only 1% of content on BitTorrent.

And piracy is okay as long as it happens to music but not books? I don’t think it’s exactly fair to say that “artists didn’t mind that much” either. Remember the Metallica “Napster BAD” backlash?

To be fair, writers have been seeing fees decrease over the last few years, what with the decline in advances, agency pricing reducing their take-per-book of e-books, and budgetary crises chipping away at the Public Lending Right (which doesn’t cover e-books and audiobooks as it is). But not every, or even necessarily most people who download a book would have bought it (or will even necessarily ever read it).

And some publishers and authors tar second-hand book stores with the same brush. Any time one of their already-sold books changes hands perfectly legally, they’d like to be paid. I would like to see authors get paid for their writing (I have some good friends who are writers!), but I just don’t feel this sort of thing helps the publishing industry’s image. Lest we forget, the depiction of record labels as a bunch of money-grubbing bastards contributed immeasurably to peer-to-peer users’ feelings of entitlement to pirate.


  1. I don’t much like Harlan Ellison’s writing or his person, but at least he’s not guilty of putting up barriers – his ebooks are available decently priced and without DRM from E-Reads via Webscriptions, Fictionwise and other retailers.

  2. I’m not Harlan but I’ve given this issue plenty of pen time. Teleread kindly put up last year’s article on the subject, which generated quite a flurry among my 600+ LinkedIn contacts–90% of which are either publishing professionals, or writers–along with a whole host of new writing acquaintances on Facebook, who had been blogging on this issue for years.

    It is true that until one is actually faced with losing money via piracy that one does not usually jump into the fray of raising awareness, but so many self-published writers have been that it is rather short-sighted to claim that “no one but Harlan” cares to stir up the muck.

    My book piracy article in case you missed it: (it includes a takedown notice link and some legal ways to get webtraffic off the pirates)

  3. That’s great, Meredith. Have you and your “linkedin” buddies given any thought about WHY piracy may be increasing? What about HC changes to the library ebooks? What about other publishers that refuse to allow ebooks for the libraries at all? What about geo restrictions, that don’t allow ebooks to be sold? What about the agency cartel pricing schemes?

    I believe piracy will always be there, but the actions by the industry are going to make it a lot worse. When you are ready to discuss ALL the issues, people will listen.

  4. Bitterness and “buddies” aside, I understand why you ask such rhetorical questions; publishers have their hands. Self-publishers, like myself and many of the writers on my list (professionals all) however allow lending and keep our book prices reasonable, between $1.99 and $4.99.

    The big 5 (or 6 for some) clearly need to address the issue more than they do, but that is not something I can wave a magic wand and somehow accomplish. My post did not advocate on the behalf of publishers, but rather pointed out that there are many writers that care deeply about book piracy, enough to publicly (and repeatedly) raise awareness and call for action. The animosity present in your post was surprising, but clearly intended for others.

  5. Is the ratio of paying readers to non paying readers raising or dropping?

    This might sound strange given the industry pr barrage but there were never a time where every reader of a work paid full prize, the library system for instance always were biased towards the public interest and not the copyright holders market and the secondhand bookstores never generated any revenue for the authors.

    So do we have a real problem or do we face yet another debate over the morality of the interlectual property concept, who never were that settled in the public mind as the non interlectual property concept.

    The long tail is making havoc on the not quite best-seller segment, and were in a recession there is actually other culprits for the loss of revenue faced by the industry.

  6. That’s why the general ebook reader population (which I’m a part of) doesn’t get it. Your mentioned “bitterness” after reading my comments, but had absolutely nothing to say about the real ebook problems that face customers, and also said it was a “rhetorical question” when in reality, it is the face of publishing right now.
    The third point I want to make is that I don’t pirate ebooks, but you disagreed with my points about the arguement and tried to make me into one, I felt. What were you really trying to do? “The animosity present in your post was surprising, but clearly intended for others”

  7. My feelings are that if piracy was truly limited to those who are dealing with geographical restrictions as some here seem to think, piracy would not be considered a serious problem by publishers. Through their actions (simply not making the product available) the publishers have indicated they are “okay” with not selling that product in that region. However, I’m pretty sure (mostly anecdotal evidence, but I’ll admit I have no formal research report) most people who pirate content do it because it’s fairly easy, free, and there’s a low chance in getting caught. As long as the proponents of piracy keep saying “BUT WHAT ABOUT THE GEORESTRICTIONS!?” it will be hard to take them seriously. They seem to refuse to admit that there exist many, many people who are true potential customers who pirate simply because they are comfortable stealing from publishers.

    Additionally, piracy is a terrible response to DRM. If you don’t want the DRM, just buy the product and strip the DRM. Don’t tell me you’re making a political stand; you’re just being cheap.

    Lastly, I’m somewhat flabbergasted by the attacks on indie publishers and authors who price their books under 5$ with no DRM and are upset at their books being pirated. I’d think those who value content providers who treat their audience well would get support, rather than attacks. I think that shows the real agenda of many on this site.

  8. Good points. One thing though, I increasingly see titles available “only” in the UK or only in the US or “not in Canada. Every single day. Maybe it is a bigger deal to those of us who want to read.

  9. As usual a lot of utter nonsense written about piracy yet again here, based on a total lack of real evidence to back accusations up.

    Writers who are actually faced with losing money via piracy ? How on earth do they know ? Are they really expecting us to believe that because they are up on a download site somewhere and some pirate site says they have been downloaded xxxxx number of times ? .. this is evidence of people downloading their eBooks and of them losing money ? Pull the other one !

    Illegal downloading of eBooks does go on – but every single time claims are made about it’s scale, it is based on the flimsiest and weakest of ‘evidence’, usually derived from the most exaggerated ‘guesstimating’ of data traffic and then launching into another gargantuan flight of fancy to persuade us that it all represents loss of sales.

    What it all adds up to is mostly a fictitious campaign by the publishing industry to gain sympathy for high prices and legislation friendly to the industry. The truth is that the wider public wisely stopped believing this claptrap 10 years ago and could not give a damn what the publishing industry says any more because they have lied about piracy and pricing and costing for decades.

    What is going on with these campaigns is a dance between the Industry and the Government, the public is utterly indifferent, correctly so. Noting more and nothing less.

  10. Imagine you are sitting on a street corner selling apples. I point a computerized apple copier at your apples and it creates perfect duplicates of your apples for me

    First off, I did not steal your apples because you still have them. Secondly, my copying is a net benefit to the universe because now there is more of a good thing for everybody.

    But you don’t like it because you were making money by selling apples and now you have no customers because everybody is just duplicating existing apples and not buying them. So you go to the government and plead for apple copying to be made illegal.

    Copyright is nothing more than a legal monopoly that preserves the income of a privileged group at the expense of the public as a whole. We endure it in order to encourage creative types to create. But authors and publishers really need to climb down off their high horse. Copyright is just a legal construct that desperately needs radical revision for the digital age.

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