Friday, January 21, 2011

Steal This Post

There was a bunch of hoopla a week or two ago about book piracy.  My initial gut reaction was, "Argh! Stealing is BAD."  I mean, I know a lot of these people that book pirates are stealing from.  That's money out of my friends' pockets.  Bad pirates!  BAD!!!!

And then I saw another post today and I realized that people are thinking with their guts and not their brains.  So I've decided to put in my two cents.

First off:  Make no mistake.  If you download a book you didn't pay for without the author's permission, you are stealing.  There's no getting around it.  However, it isn't the bookpocalypse people are making it out to be.

Let me give you a little history on me.  Back in the early part of the decade, when Napster and Audiogalaxy made stealing music easier than breathing, I allegedly downloaded a ton of music.  I mean, I used to line up hundreds of tracks in my queue every morning and then let them download all day.  This was back before it was strictly considered illegal.  I knew it was wrong then and I know it now.  But the thing to take from this is that being able to sample music made me much more likely to buy a band's music.

It seems counterintuitive, right?  But stealing made me a better consumer.  Let's say I walked into a music store and was looking through the CD rack.  Maybe I came across a CD that looked interesting.  But I had no way of knowing if the band was any good.  Money was tight, so I passed more often than not, tending to stick to the bands that I knew.  But downloading introduced me to indie bands that I might never have given a chance.  Bands that I still buy music from to this day.  Bands I went to see in concert.  In short, if I hadn't been able to download music, I would have never taken a chance on a lot of bands and they would have lost my money.

Ten years later, there's no real reason to steal music.  Bands stream tracks for free on-line, iTunes gives you 90 second samples, Myspace is still a decent place to find unsigned acts (though not much else), Pandora and indie Internet radio stations consistently play little-known bands right among the well known ones.  These days it's easy to learn about and sample new music without stealing it.

But how does this translate into book piracy.  Well, here's the thing.  If your book isn't selling well and someone pirates it, chances are that they're much like I was when I was pirating music.  I couldn't afford to take a chance on an unknown, so I downloaded it.  If I liked it, I supported it.  Now, you can definitely argue that libraries and e-galleys and wonderful sites like PulseIt which put my book on-line for free for a month, give people the chance to sample books.  And you're right.  But e-books are still in their infancy and it's still easier to torrent a book than find somewhere to read it legally.

One of my greatest joys is reading a book so amazing that I immediately have to share it with someone.  Before I purchased my Kindle, I would just pop that book in the mail and let them sample the goodness within.  If my friends loved it like I did, 9 times out of 10, they purchased the author's next book.  By sharing, I'd made consumers of my friends.  But you can't share e-books.  Yet.  I know that both the Nook and Kindle have a "sharing" feature, but out of the 70 books on my Kindle, only 16 are eligible.  That's 23%.  Which is miserable.  Now, you can allegedly strip the DRM from Kindle and Nook books and share them with your friends, which is fantastic.  You just have to trust that your friends will delete the book when they're done and not share it with the whole wide world.

What I'm saying here is that stealing is bad.  But instead of punishing book pirates or scolding them we need to make sure that we're giving them easy ways to be consumers.  Now before someone comes and tells me, I know that some people are ALWAYS going to pirate books.  There's just no getting around that.  But I'm not going to waste my time tracking them down.  Because quite frankly, my hope is that if someone does hypothetically download my book, that they'll like it and tell their friends, and that when my next book comes out, they'll support me.  If even 10% of the people who steal my first book buy my second, then I've won.

Because the thing I believe is that someone who pirates you book likely wouldn't have bought it anyway.  But there IS the chance that you've created a fan.  Cory Doctorow takes this stance and releases all his books under the Creative Commons license.  He put his books up for free download on his site and lets people convert them into every known format so long as they aren't DRM'd and you don't make money off of them.  I downloaded Little Brother from his site and then recommended it to others who bought the physical copy.  When For the Win came out, I bought the book. See how that works?

I'm not going to defend piracy.  It's simply an indefensible act.  However, I think it's a waste of time to rant about its evils and chase down every single person torrenting it or sue your customers into oblivion.  I think our energy as a whole would be better devoted to finding ways to give people what they want, the way they want it.

Stealing is wrong, mmmmKay, but being unknown is wronger.


  1. It's a sensitive issue. I feel helpless to do anything about pirates. I can't see a way to stop them and can't waste my time trying to hunt them down.

  2. First, I'm behind and wasn't even aware of the current controversy. I think you bring up interesting points, and it's good way of looking at things. However, I'd feel better with a compromise--like letting them download a full 50 pages or something like that. If they like that enough, they can buy the rest. I think this would make lots of people happy.

  3. I totally agree. I think that as more and more authors make samples available people will try before they buy and with luck piracy will be less of an issue.

  4. Susan - I understand the feeling of helplessness. The honest truth is simply that we will never be able to create a technology that will eliminate piracy. And the attempts that we DO make simply frustrate and annoy the people actually buying our books. I think fretting and suing people and adding layer upon layer of DRM does nothing to actually deter piracy. Look at the Apple iPhone hacking community. They look at Apple's every attempt to block their hacks as a challenge. Not only does it not stop them, but they actually enjoy subverting the system.

    Margie - I think it's less of a controversy and more that a couple of people did interesting posts. I agree. Or, for example, my publisher let the teens on their website PulseIt read my book for free for a month. They had to read it AT the website, but I think the initiative definitely brought me readers that I wouldn't have otherwise had. And it kept them from downloading it illegally.

    Fairyhedgehog - It's tough for people who don't have money or access to libraries. I mean, say you're on a really tight budget. For physical copies of books you can go to used bookstores or do online swaps or go to libraries or thrift stores. Ebooks are essentially turning books into a pay-only model. But not only that, once you pay for your book, that's it. You can't lend it, you can't sell it, you can't swap it, hell, you can't even donate it. You pay a premium for something that has absolutely no value above and beyond the one use you make of it. And I think that's where a lot of e-piracy is coming from.

  5. Simon, I'm sure you're right. I just wish more authors were more understanding about it.

    The publishers really haven't got the hang of ebooks yet. Do you know, I can't even buy a Kindle book for a friend as things stand now in the UK? How does that help authors?


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