In the Chronicle of Higher Education, an editor (who uses a pseudonym) describes his experience when finding his published essays had gotten onto a free download site… and whether he, in hindsight, had made a mistake in taking action.

The article does provide a good accounting of what is really at stake here:

I confess that those relatively small financial perks have not been negligible to me, as my university hasn’t given raises for several years. My income alone supports my wife and three young children, so we have been experiencing some lean living in recent years. The checks from my publishers have paid for a car repair and quite a few boxes of diapers.

Many of those who blithely download ebooks tend to be consciously dismissive of the issue of compensation to artists, ignoring the fact that not all authors make a lot of money from their work… and many of them really could use the extra income.

The article also outlines the usual pros and cons cited in the pirate ebook world, including a response from his publisher’s lawyer when he inquired about issuing a takedown notice to the filesharing site.  Most notable here is that, on both the pro and con side, neither have facts, figures or proof to go on—no one knows whether the pirated copies are helping or harming sales—so the author does not manage to say whether pirated ebooks are a good or bad thing.

The author notes that the publisher had decided not to take action against known filesharing instances, unless someone (like the author) contacted them and asked them to take action.  And finally, he reveals that as soon as the book was removed from the one site, he googled it again, and found it on countless others… at which point, “in my conflict with e-pirates, I’ve decided to withdraw from battle, at least for a while.”

The article literally draws no conclusions, and gives us little that hasn’t been said elsewhere… I myself wonder why the article was written at all, other than to suggest the complete bafflement of the publishing industry—and authors—over e-piracy.


  1. In a world where creating copies and new distribution channels costs nothing, the failure here is a failure of the publishing industry itself. A large percentage of downloaders of the pirated copies probably have no opportunity to find it easier elsewhere (and possibly, also, it’s priced higher than what the market can bear for it).

    An author is better off in this situation in retaining the rights to self-distribute the work for free: my prediction would be that creating a definitive source for a free, authoritative copy would cause pirated versions to quickly evaporate, and drive most people to the author’s source.

  2. Aaron, your reasoning doesn’t hold: Pirated copies are never as “easy” to find as legitimate copies; and high price is not a valid reason for piracy… it’s a reason to pass on the book, complain to the publisher and hope for a more reasonable price.

    Also, your suggestion that the author provide a free ebook isn’t likely to encourage anyone to actually buy the ebook, is it?

    As the article (and I) pointed out, you’re ignoring the fact that the author and publisher have a right to make a living off of their hard work.

  3. Cory Doctorow does very well giving away copies of his books while selling copies as well. He’s created a good model that other authors would do well to follow. By building an audience first, he could command better sales later on.

    As you know as well as I do, very few authors today make a living off their work. Unfortunately, that’s not going to change. Publishers need to stop letting pirates create better distribution channels, and authors need to stop fearing free exposure of their work.

  4. Cory already had a professional publisher and print versions of his books to make his profit. He can afford to use ebooks as free samples of his print books. Those authors who independently sell ebooks without a major print distributor can hardly expect that to work for them. In their case, ebooks are not free samples; they are the product, and they should be paid for.

    Dismissing authors’ needs is no way to encourage a market. Just as you claim authors need to stop fearing free exposure, consumers need to stop ducking the requirement to pay for an ebook.

  5. Cory Doctorow was clever enough to get into the eBook business early… so early, in fact, that few readers had actual reading devices which meant that his “free” offer really turned out to be a free sample, with most people who got hooked wanting to buy paper versions. Today, the situation is different in two ways: (a) electronic reading is now roughly equivalent to paper reading from a quality and comfort perspective; and (b) nobody can make a name for themselves by offering free eBook versions as this marketing ploy is fully exploited. Cory, Eric Flint and a few others own this brand.

    I’ve never understood what Cory’s decisions on how to handle HIS intellectual property has to do with anyone else’s decision on how to handle their intellectual property. Believing that I should make my books free because Cory makes his free is like believing that I should let strangers live in my house because Conrad Hilton made a good living letting strangers stay in his hotels–it may be a viable business model but it’s not the only model and it should be up to me to decide if I want to pursue it.

    Pirate sites, and those who patronize them, threaten the new wave of creativity that, I hope, will contribute greately to world wealth and intellectual development.

    Rob Preece

  6. Cory began his career by distributing his books for free, and helping to pioneer the CC movement. His sales came later.

    As far as consumers go, if they can pay a fair market price for a book, without jumping through excessive hoops, they will. If they can’t, they’ll download it for free.

    The lawyer mentioned in that article made good points, well worth considering. There is no hard data that correlates piracy with lost sales. What little data we’ve gained from actual publishers who decide to actually research this topic instead of fear-monger it, shows that indeed piracy either slightly helps sales, or has no effect whatsoever. See some of Brian O’Leary’s work, or the work of O’Reilly Media.

    I feel sorry for this author and his travails. I feel his pain, but I also think he’s waking up to a harsh reality. No one should ever become an author because they want to supplement their income, or less likely, make a living at it. Authors should write because they have something new to tell the world, and gaining an audience should be their main concern. The role of publishers in that is to know the market, and do their homework, not run around whining and fear-mongering without any solid research to back up their claims.

  7. So an author publishes some essays. Then he finds a copy on a pirate site. He has no idea whatsoever if anyone has ever downloaded a copy except by accepting the ‘word’ of the Pirates …
    Then he gets some excellent advice from his Publisher who, amazingly, seems to have some real grasp of reality, but a curiously inconsistent policy toward it’s different categories of publication.
    We are then subjected to a very long ‘article’ about it all on the Chronicle site……. where he claims victory….


  8. @Aaron Miller
    “No one should ever become an author because they want to supplement their income, or less likely, make a living at it. Authors should write because they have something new to tell the world, and gaining an audience should be their main concern.”

    This kind of idea would result in a glut of substandard books like amateur night at the pub for music can make you envy the deaf. Now maybe you like to hear the crooning of paralegal by day who likes to sing at night, or maybe you’d rather hear a classically trained violinist tackle a complicated concerto or sonata. If you’re in the first camp, then than maybe it’s OK not to pay for what you hear, but if you’re in the second, you’re going to have to pay the piper to hear the music you enjoy.

    The same goes for books. Professional authors should be paid and (if they’re good) they should be able to make a living off what they write.

    In a very cynical mode, I’d like to a see a law passed where people convicted of pirating aren’t arrested or fined, but permission is granted to their employers to optionally pay them or not. My guess is they’d P&M about working and not getting paid.

  9. “No one should ever become an author because they want to supplement their income, or less likely, make a living at it.”

    What ???? Lots of writers have written to earn a living and why not ?

    Lord preserve us from some kind of ‘thought police’ who would only allow the the ‘pure of heart and motive’ to publish . . .

  10. Most authors don’t make substantial amounts of money. Period. Stating that is not equivalent to saying no authors should be paid and/or there should be thought police guarding the purity of letters.

    The vast majority of authors don’t make enough to make a living at it, and that number has increased dramatically over the last 50 years. It’s foolish to perpetuate the myth that it’s somehow a pragmatic, exclusive career choice in today’s society.

    Furthermore, there is no conclusive evidence that piracy has any effect on what a writer can make. In fact, I would guess that the most pirated books are also the books of the writers who make the most money. It’s a silly waste of time for any writer to sit around worrying about piracy. And it’s foolish for anyone to try to stop piracy before they’ve thoroughly studied it.

  11. “Cory Doctorow does very well giving away copies of his books while selling copies as well.”

    Cory Doctorow can give his books away for free because they’re a loss-leader to get people to recognize his name and come read his columns on BoingBoing (and look at the Google Ads, which is how he makes his money.)

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