Monday, June 2, 2014

Thoughts on Illegal Downloading

The Art of Lainey, the first book I wrote where I hold the copyright, made its way into the wild last month. I am asking people to think before they steal it.

I have been warned that posting these thoughts might make me seem greedy or uncool or not kid-friendly, but so be it. I've always believed in giving people the benefit of the doubt, and it's possible that part of the problem comes from lack of awareness. And although all forms of illegal downloading are stealing, it can be particularly damaging to authors, who usually start out being lower-paid than musicians and movie people and can't recoup losses via live tours or DVD sales.

The above graphic is from Digital Book World 2013. This article has more information. The article comments are worth a read as they discuss which of the experiments have been validated.

Who does illegal downloading actually hurt? What's the big deal?

Illegally downloading stuff is stealing. I don't care if you happen to live in a country where your government has more important things to worry about than copyright infringement against Western authors and so they don't prosecute--it's still stealing. Most American authors make a small royalty credit (maybe $0.50 to $2.00--somewhere around a dollar on average) per book sold. In order to make any money beyond their advance, the author must first sell enough copies to "pay back" the advance, or "earn out." I'm not going to get into foreign rights here because it makes things needlessly complicated and many titles don't sell them. 

When you download, you don't just steal that royalty credit from the author, you also steal money from their agent, their publisher, and the bookstore/website where you would have bought the book legally. Assuming that editors and publicists get promoted based on how their titles do, you're potentially harming them too. And when the author tries to sell a new book, publishers look at sales figures on current titles when deciding whether to buy it or how much to pay. 

But aren't all authors rich anyway?

I put this section in because I used to teach English abroad and it was very common for my foreign students to think that all Americans were as wealthy as what they saw on Gossip Girl or The OC. "Why do you want to live by the ocean?" a Korean boy once asked me. "Don't all Americans have their own pool?" Er, no. I mean, I share a tiny pool with the 300 other people who live in my apartment complex, but I'm not sure that counts ;-)

It's true, some authors are very wealthy, especially with respect to standards of living in other countries. But, for every one of them, there are hundreds of traditionally published authors who are not rich, who are struggling. Here are some figures for the Apocalypsies 2012 debut group showing that almost half of the first contract advances were 20K or less. [Note: this is not broken down into single or multi-book contracts, so some of those advances were payment for multiple books. Also note: some authors make no advance.] An American author keeps about 60% of the advance money after paying agent fees, income tax, and self-employment tax. If a book earns a 20K advance, that means the author probably banks about 12K for their work, sometimes paid out over a 2-year period.

So how do we live? Some of us are supported by significant others. Some of us write 2 or 3 books a year, if we're lucky enough to sell that many. Others work second--often full-time--jobs. I've been working multiple part-time jobs to supplement my writing income. I don't tell you this so you'll feel bad for me. I could go back to full-time nursing and make over three times as much as I made from my writing last year. But nursing is exhausting and emotionally draining, so that would mean writing a LOT less...or maybe not at all. And that would make me unhappy. But I realize I'm lucky to have nursing to fall back on. Not everyone is as lucky as I am.

Even with respect to the authors who land big advances, sometimes it's still just enough to live off. Here's my agent's breakdown of how a six-figure deal (which 95% of us do not get) is really not more money than working at the Gap. And even for the authors who do get rich off their work, is it really okay to steal from people just because they have more than you? You have no idea how hard those writers might have worked to make it big. They don't owe you free stuff, do they?

But illegal downloading is great publicity, isn't it?

Some authors feel like this, and to a point, it does make sense to give stuff away for free. Giving away first chapters or even entire first books/novellas are tactics that have been used with mixed success. But the key there is that the author or publisher should get to decide who gets the product for free. The second key is moderation. The reason ARCs exist is to promote new releases. The reason ARCs are regulated is not to give away so many free copies that it noticeably reduces demand for the book. Author Melissa Marr was quoted on as saying the service removed 300 different online copies of one of her books in less than a month. Imagine if just 10 people downloaded from each of those websites--that would be 3000 potential sales lost in a month. Many books don't even sell 3000 copies in a year.

But I know what you're going to say--not all of those people would have actually paid for her book. True, but even a fraction--maybe a few hundred illegal downloads by people who would have otherwise bought the book--can make a difference. $500 toward paying back an advance is a fair chunk of money to most writers I know. And who knows how many of those hypothetical 3000 people might have gone to the library. Five hundred less library checkouts can hurt too.

But isn't illegal downloading the same as checking a book out of the library?

No. It's true, either way you are not opening your wallet and shelling out cash for a book. But here's the difference between pirating and the library. First of all, the library purchased at least one copy. But more importantly, if 10,000 readers pirate a book, no one gets paid and no one knows the book was popular. If 10,000 readers check that book out of the library, librarians notice and they order more copies, or they order the author's next book, or the nominate the book for awards, or they invite the author to come speak, or they tell other librarians about the book, or they recommend the book to teens, who then maybe buy the author's next book or recommend it to more teens. See where I'm going with this? Librarians can be incredibly powerful allies for authors, if you let them. [Edited to add: I've just been informed that in several countries, including Canada, authors are paid a small fee each time their book is checked out of the library. Also, a librarian informed me that in some countries, after a book has been checked out a certain number of times, the library automatically purchases a new copy of it. So libraries can generate direct revenue for authors.]

One of my devil's advocate friends was quick to point out "Well, what if 10,000 readers illegally download and love your book--that's good PR, isn't it?" Um...maybe? But aren't those readers going to tack "And you can get it FREE from [sharefile site]" onto their word-of-mouth raving? And then download my next book from the same site? I see no reason why someone who had no problem stealing a book would turn around and willingly pay for the next book. So, doesn't piracy just lead to more piracy? You tell me.

In conclusion:

Times are tough and I don't know your particular situation. But please take a minute and realize that if you're illegally downloading a book that you want instead of buying it, you are potentially hurting that author's career. Have you ever wondered why an author who wrote a book back in 2009 that you really loved hasn't published anything new? Authors with middling or low sales often get released from publishers in order to make space on editor lists for debut authors who might turn out to be the Next Big Thing. Maybe it sounds cold, but writing is a business and there's no job security until your books have theme parks. Please don't make it even harder for authors by illegally downloading books.

Instead of downloading, consider visiting your local library. If the book isn't there, ask a librarian if it can be ordered from another branch or bought for their collection. And if you're in a country where you can't get a book from your library, think about ordering a copy from The Book Depository or Wordery. They don't charge for shipping and they'll ship books all over the world.

If all else fails, try emailing the author. I've directed loads of people to contests where they could enter to win free copies of my books. I've also pointed out places where you can get the books used or for sale prices. Authors want you to have legal access to their books. Most of us will help you, if we can.

Thank you for reading. Thank you for thinking before you download illegally.


  1. Great post Paula! It disgusts me when I see people so blatantly stealing books. :( I've seen a few blogs/sites where they basically brag about it. Not cool!

    1. I suspect that for many it feels like a victimless crime, which is a lot of why I posted. I'm not an innocent party--I can't deny scoring a few songs back in the Napster days. But once I realized I was hurting the very musicians I loved, the people I credited with pulling me back from some pretty scary ledges, I quit and rebought the music legally.

      So many posts about downloading devolve into screaming about stealing. I just wanted to be sure people understood WHY it hurts. Thanks for your comment.

  2. This is a great post.

    Thank you for sharing!!


  3. I struggle a lot in this matter with my friends. I ask them time and time again to consider buying the books instead of dowloading illegaly but they just brush it off and say they don't have the money for this when other important things to buy like movie tickets, trips and such. People here don't think twice about how much a book cost to an author, and I'm not even talking about money here. And I hate so much how they come to me knowing full well how I feel about the wrongness of epiracy and talk about how much they loved the books and the site they get them for free. It sucks and I have to swallow my rage, because what else can I do? It helps a little when I imagine them tripping or drinking bad milk, but not that much.

    I just hope one day that people will stop and read these kind of posts, realize what they are doing is wrong and start doing what is right. :)

    1. Thanks for commenting, Melissa. I know you don't live in the US and I know there are additional difficulties in foreign countries where e-books aren't always available legally.

      Just setting a good example does more than you think, okay? Maybe you'll never change the minds of repeat offenders (though you might try telling them that many of those websites install malware and viruses on their computers), but you might inspire those younger than you to do the right thing.

  4. Great post! The sense of entitlement that some people have... I just don't get it. They (hopefully) wouldn't walk into a brick-and-mortar bookstore and walk out with a book tucked under their jacket... so why do they think stealing a digital book is okay?

    1. I suspect it feels like a victimless crime, or like instead of stealing they're just picking up free copies of books OTHER people have stolen and sprinkled about. It sucks to be part of the 99% of authors who can't really afford to write off a few thousand pirated copies as no big deal. I'm still trying to SELL a few thousand copies, you know? Thanks for your comment ;-)

  5. I've been on the anti-piracy front lines for over ten years. (Yes, ebooks are THAT old.)

    I have a series of articles on copyright and piracy issues, most of which can be posted on other authors' website if they wish.

    Of particular interest are

    “A Reader’s Guide to Copyright,” A simple explanation of what copyright is and what the reader needs to know.

    “The First Sale Doctrine and Ebooks,” Is it legal to resell or share an ebook?

    If you are interested in fighting piracy, I suggest this Goodreads group:

    I also belong to a Yahoogroups where authors and publishers share information on piracy, specific pirates, and methods of removing pirated books. They also band together to go after specific targets so they will be taken down.

    Feel free to use my name when you join.

    1. Thanks for all the great information! I will definitely check out these articles.

      It's one of those things that I think can suck up half of your writing time if you let it. Just the other day someone told me how people are burning PDFs of books onto CDs and selling them as "compilations" on EBay. The nerve of some people! Once I have multiple books out that are copyrighted I'll probably just end up going with a service like Yeah, it won't catch everything, but it'll catch a lot and I think that's going to have to be enough for me at the moment since my schedule is so full.

      Thanks again for your comment.

  6. Remember how libraries killed the book industry? It's like that fiasco all over again.

    1. I've actually never heard that about libraries, but then I wasn't around when libraries first became a thing ;-) I think I made it clear why I feel libraries are completely different from illegal downloading, but dissenting opinions are always respected and welcomed. Thanks for reading.

    2. I was being sarcastic about the libraries... The fact of the matter is libraries and file sharing both convince people to buy something they wouldn't have far more often than they do the opposite. It's like the ultimate in free advertising. There are many books I wouldn't have bought if I'd not read them at a library first, and many video games I never would have given a second thought if I didn't play them first. The truth is, file sharing is no different than when a friend loans a book, movie, game, or other form of media to their friend- if the friend likes what they tried, they're now more likely to buy it, not less likely. And the creator in question has essentially received a boost in sales that cost them nothing- no PR, no advertising, just being shared.

    3. I picked up on your sarcasm ;-) But we're just different and have different opinions about libraries and downloading. I know authors who feel like you do, but I also know people who can afford to buy books and DVDs who download them illegally because they're available, and who have told me they'd make the effort to buy them legally if they "had to." Some of these people are close family friends so I have reason to believe they're being honest.

      And I'd say upward of 40% of the authors I talk to regularly were released from their publishers after their first contract--their next projects not picked up due to low or middling sales on book #1. It's hard to see anyone talking about downloading your friends' books when you know they've essentially been "fired" from the job they love due to not selling enough copies. Occasionally authors can post low sales numbers and still get additional contracts if their first book wins awards or has high critical acclaim, something that usually comes via librarians.

      Maybe if I ever reach of level of success where I'm selling enough copies to make my publisher money (not talking about earning out--just talking about selling the 10K or so copies a book usually needs to sell to cover its production/distribution costs), I'll feel differently, but I doubt it. I spend money to give away a lot of books every year, but as the creator I like to be the one controls who gets them.


I love your comments like I love cupcakes! Thanks so much for stopping by :-)