When music industry revenues collapsed after the introduction of MP3s, many writers became worried. While musicians have been able to find alternative income streams – including touring and merchandise – writers generally have one: their stories. Not even Stephen King or J.K. Rowling would fill a stadium for a reading, and most mid-list authors and new writers are lucky if there is a decent turn-out for a free bookstore appearance.
In my last post on piracy, I covered how the measures the publishing industry has undertaken to combat piracy have only served to alienate their paying customers, but today I want to look at piracy from a different perspective: its benefits. While I don’t condone piracy, I think it’s an issue where authors need to challenge their assumptions.
Piracy: A Tax on Success
First off, piracy can be viewed as a tax on success. Writers who only selling a handful of copies a month don’t tend to be pirated. Why would the hackers bother? It’s the writers of popular books, the ones appearing in the bestseller lists, who are targeted.
Mark Coker, the founder of Smashwords, insists that all work sold on his site is DRM-free. (If you don’t know what DRM is, please see my previous article on piracy.) He says that the greatest threat a writer faces is not piracy, it’s obscurity, and anything that makes work less accessible and less enjoyable makes it more obscure.
He identifies two kinds of pirates. First are the “scoundrels and cheapskates who will never pay for anything…they don’t represent a lost sale”. Second are those that feel they are justified in pirating your work because it is only available in certain formats, it’s priced too high, or not for sale in their territory. This second group do represent some lost sales.
Nothing can be done about the first group, but writers need to think about how to tackle the rest. Mark Coker points out that “piracy is an indication that your work is in demand”, and that this demand is only being filled by pirates because you have failed to make purchasing preferable to pirating.
Convenience & Price
The only way to combat piracy is with convenience and price. Your work should be available in all formats so it can be read on any e-reader, on sale at as many retailers as possible, DRM-free, without territory restrictions, and you must price your work fairly so your customers have less incentive to steal it.
Can Piracy Be Good For You?
Internationally bestselling author Neil Gaiman used to be dead against piracy, but his views have evolved since he noticed two things. First, in countries where he was being pirated, his sales went up. He managed to convince his publisher to let him put a copy of his novel American Gods, which was still selling quite well, up on his website for anyone to download and share. Sales of all his books went up 300%.
He also argues that you are not losing sales through piracy. At the end of each of his readings, he asks the audience how they discovered their favourite writers. He estimates that only 5 to 10% of them actually purchased the book, and the rest were given it, or were lent it. He now concludes that piracy is “people lending books”, and that it is free advertising.
Joe Konrath has similar views, but understands why many writers fear piracy. To test his theories, he decided to conduct an experiment where he gave a free book away on his website, one that was already on sale on Amazon for $1.99. He encouraged pirates to download it in a blog post entitled “Steal This Ebook“, and asked them to push it out to all the file sharing sites. And, not only did his sales increase overall, his sales increased for that book too – even though he raised the price by one dollar.
The Publishing Industry
The publishing industry seems blind to all of this. Most larger houses insist on putting DRM on e-books, restricting territories, and holding back the release of e-books to protect print sales. But in addition to this, they have been pushing for legislative changes to allow them to sue their customers.
Why is the publishing industry so insistent on making the same mistakes as the music industry?
I understand that the views I have expressed here might be a little controversial, and I invite you to contribute in the comments below. As always, whether you agree or disagree, I welcome a discussion. I read all the comments and try and respond to them all. If you are a first-time poster, your comment is automatically withheld for moderation but, once you are approved, all subsequent posts will appear immediately. If your post doesn’t appear for some other reason, please feel free to re-post.
Tomorrow we will continue our step-by-step guide to getting your stories into (digital) print, INDIE PUBLISHING FOR INTERNATIONAL WRITERS with STEP FOUR: FORMAT YOUR STORY.