Wednesday, November 2, 2011

the kindle swindlers; thoughts on ebook piracy

When INTERN and Techie Boyfriend were trekking in Nepal, the heaviest thing in INTERN’s pack was a copy of Vikram Seth’s 1500-page A Suitable Boy, recommended by several clever and tasteful readers of this blog. That book was the size of a dorm room mini-fridge—INTERN could have survived in the Himalayas for weeks just by licking the ink. Attempts to sneak it into Techie Boyfriend’s pack resulted in immediate discovery and expulsion.

So when INTERN spied a fellow trekker reading a Kindle at the tea house that night, she accosted him immediately.

“How d’you like that thing?” INTERN said, helping herself to a chair at the table.

He looked up, smiling. He was a blond-haired sales and marketing type from somewhere in the southeast. His face spoke of leadership seminars and rugy.

“It’s great!” he said. “Ever since I bought it, I haven’t paid for a single book.”

“Oh, like you’re reading classics on Project Gutenburg?” said INTERN. She had met a butcher, once, in small-town Oregon, who read Dickens on his Kindle when business was slow.

Sales and Marketing beamed.

“No, there’s these websites where you can download new books the same way you download movies.”

INTERN’s expression shifted from friendly curiosity to suspicion. Her formidable eyebrows knit, and she leaned forward on her elbows.

“You mean you pirate them.”

He nodded, unaware of INTERN’s growing wrath*. “Yup. I figure the Kindle’s paid for itself about three times over already, just from all the money I’ve been saving on books.”

He took a sip of his Everest, giving out a yelp of surprise as the bottle shattered in his hands, the beer spilling all over his Kindle, which began to hiss and smoke and then melt into a puddle of black plastic and metal on the wooden table.

“What? WHYYYYY?” Sales and Marketing shouted. “Why did you do this, INTERN? Why me?”

But INTERN was already stalking away, her laser gun clinking softly at her side.


E-book pirating makes INTERN mad for obvious reasons: INTERN is a writer and has many writer-friends. But it’s a sheepish, ambivalent kind of mad: after all, INTERN downloaded music in college (though she has since sworn off it) and still enjoys the occasional ill-gotten movie (but does using your friend’s Netflix account now and then really hurt anyone?). Come to think of it, there’s probably a program or two on her computer that wasn’t strictly paid for (but it’s OK if it’s from a giant corporation, right?)

Laser gun fantasies aside, the truth is that INTERN can’t summon up as much righteous ire for people who download pirated ebooks as she would like to. Because she understands only too well their justifications. In a culture where “everybody’s doing it,” you feel like a sucker for paying for something everyone else is getting for free. Eventually, you get so used to getting that something for free that you feel downright outraged when someone asks you to pay for it.

“I’m not paying seventeen ninety-nine for a friggin’ album,” you sputter, as if someone told you they were going to start charging you three dollars a night to sleep in your own bed.

Somehow, it’s started feel like you’re the one in the right, and the music business is the greedy interloper trying to snatch back something that “should” be free.

INTERN and Techie Boyfriend have a younger friend, a real scrappy kid who isn’t above stealing a bottle of wine or a bike part here and there. One day, Techie Boyfriend asked him how he psyched himself up to steal something. Didn’t he feel guilty?

“No, man,” said the kid. “You just need to believe you deserve to get it, and it’s easy.”


How do people who wouldn’t steal a book off the shelf at Elliot Bay justify downloading pirated ebooks?


Digital products (like ebooks or mp3s) are like a big outdoor concert. You and your friends want to see the bands, but you don’t want to buy a $35 wristband, so you sneak in. Who does it hurt? It’s not like there’s a finite amount of music. The paying customers don’t get any less because you snuck in. As for the band? Well, if you hadn’t been able to sneak in, you wouldn’t have bought tickets anyway, so it really doesn’t make a difference either way.

Whereas stealing a physical book reduces a finite amount of books on the shelf by one, ebooks and other digital forms seem infinite. Stealing one doesn’t appear to reduce the stock—so how is it stealing? Besides, you wouldn’t have bought the book anyway…(or is that bullshit? Maybe you would have bought the book in 1980, but now you feel entitled to it for free. Better not think about that…)


How big an impact will ebook pirating have on writers and publishers over the next few years? And is there any way to preserve a mindset of book-buying in a culture that sees digital theft as harmless?

As someone who has seen her own work available for download on a torrent site, INTERN will be watching the ebook revolution with some wistfulness. But as a person whose own hands have been far from clean, INTERN can’t deny her own culpability in creating the culture that put it there.


How concerned are you about ebook pirating? Have you seen your books on pirate sites? Can authors do anything to reverse the tide? Will the benefits of ebook sales outweigh the losses of ebook pirating? INTERN wants to know!

*At this point, you may be wondering if INTERN invented this anecdote simply to serve the purposes of this blog post, but INTERN can assure you that so far everything she has related is 100% true. The culprit’s favorite book in the entire universe? “The Four Hour Work Week” by Timothy Ferris. Which should tell you something about his aspirations. *sniffs snootily.*


  1. This is a fascinating topic and I think the industry will have to evolve.

    You can now skip TV commercials through DVR and online. So how do they get their ad revenue? Product placement DIRECTLY into the show.

    Record companies stopped paying the cost of physical recordings and now can sell the music for much cheaper on websites like itunes and spotify.

    Something similar will have to happen in the literary world as well. Great post.

  2. Over on YouTube Neil Gaiman had a different point of view.

    "Gaiman on Copyright Piracy and the Web"

    Hope I got the link address right.

  3. To Hell with people who think they deserve to pirate material. They can't use, I don't know, their library? (Yeah, e-versions are available now.)

    It's okay- their devices will be riddled with viruses soon enough.

  4. I think we already live in a society where people think they "deserve" everything for free. Well, if that were actually TRUE, maybe it would work. But since most people DESERVE to be paid for their efforts, writers (and musicians, artists, etc.)need the support of paying customers, not THIEVES.

    I have caught my children burning CD's from the library onto our home computer. It took awhile to get them to understand how that was stealing. Is it a perception problem? I am doing my best not to sound like an old fuddy-duddy.

    I have heard tales of people who steal toilet paper from their company's restroom. Of course, it has gotten crazy. I noticed the other day a bank that had a pen on a metal chain but a computer terminal completely open in an area of a hospital that was not monitored. Evidently, they weren't worried about the computer, just that 20 cent pen.

  5. I spoke with a young lady who suggested we (people in general) should not have to pay for food or water because we need it to live. She went as far as comparing it to charging for air. I asked who got the air for her. A blank stare was her reply. No, she doesn't need to pay for food or water if she can learn to get it for herself. Otherwise, she owes for what she consumes.

  6. We always had a rule for downloading songs (back in college when every dollar was sacred) that if we wanted two or more songs from an album we would buy it. That was also back when they sold them in CD form and you got all or none -- or just the one that the radios liked best in Single form. Now money is not quite so tight -- and songs are available one at a time -- and we pay for all of our digital content. But Husband and I come from dishonest families and knew we wanted to live different lives from them the whole time.

    The thing is... those people who think they deserve those things will never be happy because they'll never get everything they "deserve." If you want to meet my mother I'll hand out the address and you'll be happy to pay for everything you want just to keep from becoming one of those poor miserable creatures that life has trodden upon so greatly.

  7. Excellent, excellent post. I've been wanting to write a post about piracy for a while, but I think you just said exactly what I was thinking.

  8. Your post made me think about how I used to work at a bookstore; people would come every day and spend hours reading books without paying for them. It wasn't technically stealing, since they weren't walking out of the store with those books. Yet I still think that it was wrong (especially since some people did it on a regular basis), because the store was losing money as a result; it also affected the booksellers. The less books the store sold, the fewer hours the booksellers worked. Yet we still were stuck cleaning up after the people who left the books scattered all over the place or put them back on the wrong shelves.
    So I think that any kind of stealing is wrong, because it can affect a lot of people.

  9. Setting the ethical issue aside (which is not to say it has no merit), I think the reality is probably that both attitudes about piracy are true: you will lose some sales from it, but you'll also gain sales, as our friend Neil describes in the video mentioned above. There are people who might otherwise have risked money on your book who won't do so if they can read it for free. But there are other people who will read it for free, like your work, and from then on think of you as an author they'll pay for. That of course assumes your book is any good, which is pretty much the only aspect of the publishing process authors can completely control. So if you write well, your sales lost and gained from piracy probably cancel each other out.

    This is at least a more comforting way to think about it, if nothing else.

  10. I've heard both sides of the argument--that piracy actually helps sales because it gets your name out there.

    But as an author, it really bothers me to see how many people have downloaded my books without paying for them. There's this sense that all authors are rich. People ask me all the time what I do with my money. That's just not the reality for 95% of authors out there. The average American author makes less than 9k a year.

    That's not enough to live on by any stretch of the imagination. Especially when you consider that most authors have the equivalent of a masters degree.

  11. At a convention this summer, an attendee joked that he would pirate my book and send it to all his friends (and then he very quickly stated that he was joking). I said heck, I encourage him to do that. Needless to say, he was a bit confused by my reaction.

    I told him it's because I'm a self-publishing author writing weird niche stuff. If someone pirates my work, it's probably not because they think I don't deserve the money. They'll probably pirate because they've never heard of me and they're not sure if they'll enjoy my book enough to spend their hard-earned money on it. Hey, I don't blame them for that. I feel ripped off when I buy a book sight unseen and it turns out that I don't like it. But someone who pirates my book might read it and decide that they really like my writing, and if that happens, they're more likely to pay for what I do. Or at least tell their friends about me.

    I essentially see piracy of my writing as free publicity -- and after people find out about me, I just need to be awesome enough to make them want to give me money. Self-publishing means I have nowhere to go but up, so I have nothing to lose. But I can definitely see how piracy can hurt business models that depend on sales figures. I sometimes pirate things to test-drive them, but I make sure to pay if I like the product and/or want to support its cause.

  12. Perhaps my ethics are a bit too complicated for a pithy blog comment, but whereas I won't pirate anything myself, the dear friend who lives in my house and has been supporting himself since he was 15 and has nothing but clothes that he actually did get out of dumpsters pirates all the time.

    I'm okay with it. He hands me his Nook and asks me to choose his to-be-read list because I'm a college professor and he was forced to drop out of school when his parents turned him out for being queer. He can also read all the physical books I've purchased over the years, which he didn't pay for, either.

    So there's that scenario.

    Then there are people who can afford to live in New York and go on trekking vacations to Nepal, who doubtlessly had an excellent college--and perhaps higher--education or they wouldn't have landed their competitive, if non-paying jobs. I'm not sure they ought to be pirating anything at all.

    Likewise myself, of course, as I mentioned above.

  13. So I've talked myself to an idea:

    Have you seen those restaurants where you pay what you think the meal was worth/what you can afford? Some people overpay, some underpay, some pay nothing and volunteer to help in the kitchen for an hour. The restaurants tend to break even from what I've read.

    What if e-books came with three prices: one free, one under cost, one over cost, and the site selling them had an income-based list suggesting which price you should pay?

    That might really work.

    1. This is an interesting idea, however - as bizarre as this sounds, I have friends and business colleagues that run large free e-book sites; not illegal, but legitimate online publishing for free. One of which had their entire library downloaded (it's free) and then uploaded to a different site, that looks the same, but they charged! The same happened with another guy who was giving his book away for free, legally, and someone downloaded it and then started selling it on Amazon - that's just not fair.

      A lot of piracy is about price, but there are many more factors to it: DRM, Geography, it's so easy to do now. The only way to stop it is to attack it directly and I really think that it will start to happen sooner rather than later.

  14. You raise an interesting point, LilySea, and one that is likewise too complicated for INTERN to adequately respond to in a blog comment response! In a world with so much waste, INTERN is hugely in favor of sharing/recycling/hitchhiking/regifting/dumpster diving instead of paying for new things unnecessarily. And INTERN gets your point about not everyone being able to pay for their books and music all the time.

    Just remember that some of the authors your friend might be pirating from may THEMSELVES be living on next to nothing. If one can't pay money for a book, how about at a thank you note to the author?

  15. As a writer and an English teacher, the importance of respecting writers and their work as labor that deserves monetary reward is certainly not lost on me. But as a socialist, I would be more than willing to have my own work offered for free to people like my friend, and subsidized by those who can afford to pay.

    This is, of course, not how the market works with regard to books, but in the Brave New World around the corner, it could be.

  16. LilySea: There's a way for your friend to get all his books for free and it's perfectly legal: a library.

  17. He uses the library too. But it's a trickier matter with e-readers.

  18. Well, I'm all for kindle piracy.
    Why? Because real books have a significant physical cost in manufacture, shipping, packaging, and inventory control.
    Within that, there's the cost to the publisher, of fees to the author and his/her literary agents.

    When a publisher offers an ebook, the cost in reproduction for each customer is minimal. There's no printer, no paper, no ink, no warehouse, no truck fleet, no cardboard cartons, no parcel tape. And no unsold product costing money as it gathers dust on the warehouse shelves, awaiting its eventual sale to a remainders store, or a pulp recycling mill.

    There's still an author's fee, but why, tell me, why is the ebook price as high or higher than the physical book's?

    I like real books. I have thousands of them. I could probably build a house out of them. There are notes scribbled, telephone numbers and addresses of long lost acquaintances, chance strangers met at 30000 feet over greenland. My real books are old friends. They're worn, stained, torn, and read and re-read.
    They're real.
    Ebooks? a few meg of code.
    Can't hold it in your hand, drop it in the bath, prop up a table.
    A largely imaginary product. Retail at maybe 20% real book price might be fair. No DRM.
    But of course, a big undercut in price would outrage sellers of real books.

    So they're overpriced. Unfairly overpriced.

    Pirate on, Mateys.

    1. Oh my God. This just made me go O.o Srsly?

      If you had any idea of the amount of time that goes into writing and editing a book, you would hopefully be thinking differently. It takes me two months to write a full-length book and another two months to edit the hell out of it. That's four months of my time that I'd like to be paid for.

      Then there's content editing, once your signed, proofreading, formatting and promotion/advertising and agent if you have one (all these are preformed by different people). These people need to be paid and they won't be if everything gets pirated. Then the publisher needs to stay in business and get their share (which isn't large after everyone else has been paid, by the way). But that's not all. The books go to retailers who take the biggest cut. So why are the ebooks "expensive"? Because people need to get paid for their jobs! It's not greed, it's everyone getting a little bit of the cake so everyone gets paid. The problem is that people want those books NOW instead of wait for them to reach discount sites, like Fictionwise who regularly has 45-65% discounts of all titles (that hurts my wallet too, but not as much as not getting anything at all).

      It's not just "a few meg of code" - come on. It takes hard work on all sides to produce a good book. You might as well say that politicians, teachers or lawyers shouldn't be paid because they don't produce anything physical.

      Please consider this the next time you're downloading illegal megs of code: Most authors are barely scraping by. Not all of us are Neil Gaiman who is well established and made his bucks before the age of ebooks. Pirating may very well help his sales, but for the rest of us who aren't rich and famous? Pirating prevents us from getting money we need to to buy food! Those who hurt the most by pirates are authors who aren't signed by the big houses and don't get advances. They rely upon each sale to make money for their work.

      As for free stuff? Most authors have free-reads on their websites so people can get a taste of their writing. Maybe not the big names, but those who really take a beating when people start pirating them. You can also visit sales pages like Amazon and read the first three chapters in most books if you're afraid to buy before you try. There's no need to steal.

      If you claim that you're doing the author a favor promo-vise by pirating, you really aren't unless you leave them a good review. That's the *least* you can do for the struggling author if you don't intend to pay him/her for their work.

      Attitude like yours just pisses me off. Yes, I'm in a bad mood. I just discovered that the number of illegally downloaded copies of my books is bigger than the number of sold books. It sucks. And my books are even overpriced, they're $6.99 and $7.99 - that's not an arm and a leg for most people. The paperbacks are more expensive, because I'm writing for a niche market and they're printed in less quantities - $12.99 and $14.99. I agree that the big houses can afford to cut their ebook prices, and they should, but people don't just pirate from the big houses, they pirate from *everyone* because of this way of thinking.

  19. this is a really great read - and I think you're right, in most cases.

    I don't think that the publishing marketplace should evolve just because piracy told it to though. Music, it's in a world of trouble thanks to piracy, a MASSIVE world of sh*t that a lot of people just don't see.

    Publishing just simply cannot go the same way. Piracy needs to be attacked head-on. No lowering costs, changing release dates, or giving the product away for free is going to help with piracy... stopping the pirate bay from being accessed through ISP's is a start, Japan fining huge amounts of money or jail sentences to pirates, the US doing a similar thing - it's all a bit too slow.

    For publishing, and self-publishing authors, you should try looking at companies like - they take down over a million illegal files a week now, and have been working with music and film for a while, now taking that experience to try and fight publishing piracy head on - it's pretty cheap as well.