Shut up and take my money – a conversation about book piracy

Last week, a popular YA author Maggie Stiefvater posted this story on her blog. She essentially did a test to see exactly how much damage piracy was doing to her book sales. Her story has erupted into debate across the authorsphere, because her results are hard to argue with. But they’re also extremely interesting. Here is the short version:


I’ve decided to tell you guys a story about piracy.

I didn’t think I had much to add to the piracy commentary I made yesterday, but after seeing some of the replies to it, I decided it’s time for this story.

Here are a few things we should get clear before I go on:

1) This is a U.S. centered discussion. Not because I value my non U.S. readers any less, but because I am published with a U.S. publisher first, who then sells my rights elsewhere. This means that the fate of my books, good or bad, is largely decided on U.S. turf, through U.S. sales to readers and libraries.

2) This is not a conversation about whether or not artists deserve to get money for art, or whether or not you think I in particular, as a flawed human, deserve money. It is only about how piracy affects a book’s fate at the publishing house.

3) It is also not a conversation about book prices, or publishing costs, or what is a fair price for art, though it is worthwhile to remember that every copy of a blockbuster sold means that the publishing house can publish new and niche voices. Publishing can’t afford to publish the new and midlist voices without the James Pattersons selling well.

It is only about two statements that I saw go by:

1) piracy doesn’t hurt publishing.

2) someone who pirates the book was never going to buy it anyway, so it’s not a lost sale.

Now, with those statements in mind, here’s the story.

. . . .

It’s the story of a novel called The Raven King, the fourth installment in a planned four book series. All three of its predecessors hit the bestseller list. Book three, however, faltered in strange ways. The print copies sold just as well as before, landing it on the list, but the e-copies dropped precipitously.

. . . .

I expected to see a sales drop in book three, Blue Lily, Lily Blue, but as my readers are historically evenly split across the formats, I expected it to see the cut balanced across both formats. This was absolutely not true. Where were all the e-readers going? Articles online had headlines like PEOPLE NO LONGER ENJOY READING EBOOKS IT SEEMS.

Really?

There was another new phenomenon with Blue Lily, Lily Blue, too — one that started before it was published. Like many novels, it was available to early reviewers and booksellers in advanced form (ARCs: advanced reader copies). Traditionally these have been cheaply printed paperback versions of the book. Recently, e-ARCs have become common, available on locked sites from publishers.

BLLB’s e-arc escaped the site, made it to the internet, and began circulating busily among fans long before the book had even hit shelves. Piracy is a thing authors have been told to live with, it’s not hurting you, it’s like the mites in your pillow, and so I didn’t think too hard about it until I got that royalty statement with BLLB’s e-sales cut in half.

. . . .

Floating about in the forums and on Tumblr as a creator, it was not difficult to see fans sharing the pdfs of the books back and forth. For awhile, I paid for a service that went through piracy sites and took down illegal pdfs, but it was pointless. There were too many. And as long as even one was left up, that was all that was needed for sharing.

I asked my publisher to make sure there were no e-ARCs available of book four, the Raven King, explaining that I felt piracy was a real issue with this series in a way it hadn’t been for any of my others. They replied with the old adage that piracy didn’t really do anything, but yes, they’d make sure there was no e-ARCs if that made me happy.

Then they told me that they were cutting the print run of The Raven King to less than half of the print run for Blue Lily, Lily Blue. No hard feelings, understand, they told me, it’s just that the sales for Blue Lily didn’t justify printing any more copies.

. . . .

I was intent on proving that piracy had affected the Raven Cycle, and so I began to work with one of my brothers on a plan. It was impossible to take down every illegal pdf; I’d already seen that. So we were going to do the opposite. We created a pdf of the Raven King. It was the same length as the real book, but it was just the first four chapters over and over again. At the end, my brother wrote a small note about the ways piracy hurt your favorite books. I knew we wouldn’t be able to hold the fort for long — real versions would slowly get passed around by hand through forum messaging — but I told my brother: I want to hold the fort for one week. Enough to prove that a point. Enough to show everyone that this is no longer 2004. This is the smart phone generation, and a pirated book sometimes is a lost sale.

Then, on midnight of my book release, my brother put it up everywhere on every pirate site. He uploaded dozens and dozens and dozens of these pdfs of The Raven King. You couldn’t throw a rock without hitting one of his pdfs. We sailed those epub seas with our own flag shredding the sky.

The effects were instant. The forums and sites exploded with bewildered activity. Fans asked if anyone had managed to find a link to a legit pdf. Dozens of posts appeared saying that since they hadn’t been able to find a pdf, they’d been forced to hit up Amazon and buy the book.

And we sold out of the first printing in two days.

Naturally, the discussion on this got very interesting. Comments on the Passive Voice blog pointed out that Maggie’s ebooks are priced anywhere from six to twelve dollars. She doesn’t set the prices–the publisher does. Someone also pointed out that the time of her Lily Blue book launch coincided with the huge spike in ebook prices from publishers in 2014-2015. That was when publishers won a big contract battle against Amazon, keeping Amazon from discounting prices on ebooks.

the_ship_by_fantasyart0102-db4isxn
Aye, here there be pirates. “The Ship” by FantasyArt0102

This is why there’s so much talk in the news about “ebooks are over” and “people prefer print”. When the ebook is 15 bucks and the print copy is 12, people grudgingly buy the paper copy. Or they go read cheap indie books. According to the Author Earnings Reports, ebooks are booming–but not for the overpriced publishers. Imagine that.

But that’s only the most obvious problem. Blogger/author Joe Konrath commented,

Years ago, I was in touch with an author who had a decent debut novel that did well for him and his publisher. I don’t remember the details, but there was some sort of contract issue and he decided to self-pub the next book. After some great success self-pubbing, things were worked out with his publisher, or maybe it was a new publisher, and they bought the book. That meant he unpublished his version, and he asked fans who hadn’t read it yet to wait the 12 months for it to come out through regular channels.

You can guess how that went.

The problem isn’t piracy. As long as your book is available, and reasonably priced, piracy isn’t going to harm your sales.

But if your book isn’t available yet, such as the case with ARCs and galleys, your fans are going to do whatever they can to get ahold of it. There is a whole market for selling ARCs, and always has been. Many indie booksellers can only stay afloat by selling ARCs. I’ve visited hundreds of bookstores and have seen this firsthand.

With digital, it is much easier to get your hands on a copy of a yet-to-be-released title. Rather than buy it, you pirate it. And that will almost definitely result in a lost sale.

Piracy isn’t going away. You can’t fight it. The answer isn’t releasing fake versions on torrent sites. The answer is to stop releasing ARCs.

So, basically, the problem is impatient fans. We have an interesting generation of people right now who are used to instant gratification. In fact, they’ll pay extra money for it, like binge-watching entire series on Netflix (Stranger Things, anywone?). And if they can’t pay for it, they’ll steal it, with nary a twitch of the conscience.

But another problem is desperate authors. Another commenter on the Passive Voice said,

You can tell ’em, as I’ve been telling authors, do not upload ARCs to NetGalley other – its the main source for pirate books sites to obtain advance copies of upcoming new releases, but do authors listen? Anyone can sign up at Netgalley as a reviewer and gain access to thousands of books for free.

Also I’ve told authors never send PDFs to book review blogs, no matter how friendly or Kosher the site looks, aside from the fact Mobi other can be cracked with specific software by determined thieves. As for sharing of PDF ARCs on groups and forums (shareware) who didn’t think that would happen between friends in the same way friends will exchange paperbacks.

Authors are so desperate to be noticed (read) common sense escapes them, and it’s another reason so many are obsessed with paying for book reviews, for big splash Bookbub ad days, and gifting books in exchange for reviews. Fame comes with a “price tag” and it’s not always as authors would truly wish for.

It’s a thorny problem, and there’s no easy way around it. People are greedy. Authors are desperate. And books are a funny commodity–people have this idea that pirating a book is like borrowing one at the library. The difference is, the library bought the copy at some point, sending a little money the author’s way. The reader of a pirated book will never pay for that book.

What do you think? Is there another answer that you’ve thought of? Does this steam you as much as it does me?

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4 thoughts on “Shut up and take my money – a conversation about book piracy

  1. I knew piracy was a thing, but I had no idea it was such a problem. I’m too small of a fish, I think, for it to matter for me, but man, that poor author of the Raven King. Makes me think twice about sending out ARCs…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s not a problem for indies. See, trad pub only pays attention to the first 6 weeks of sales. If people are pirating your ARC, you miss that window and your publisher dumps you like last week’s garbage. Indies get to promote the book over a long period, and that six week window isn’t such a big deal.

      Like

  2. I know its bad but I think its a problem every where I know its that way in my world too. If its out there someone will find a way to steal it and I wish it wasn’t. I just had no idea it was as bad as this.

    Like

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