How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Ebook Piracy

Cecilia TanBy Cecilia Tan, Founder/Publisher, Circlet Press

Is Ebook Piracy Good or Bad for Authors?

I get asked this question a lot. It tells me something that I used to get asked (breathlessly) “OMG, what are you going to do about piracy!?!?!” and nowadays the conversation is a little less fraught with hysteria. This is a good thing, for several reasons. One is that hysteria rarely solves problems. Two is that it may mean that people are taking a more rational approach to the realities of the digital world.

The realities of the digital world include:

1. It’s easy to share files.
2. It’s easy to find like-minded people out there, coalescing in communities.
3. It’s easier than ever for people to spread word of mouth.

All three of these things make life easier for pirates and illegal file-sharing activity. But all three of those also make life easier for authors and creators. I’ve written before about how discoverablity, or lack thereof, is the biggest problem most authors or books have. (tl; dr — pirate sites are havens for dedicated book addicts and so what better place to get your name or title in front of a rabid audience?)

Since my last article on the subject, I’ve been collecting links and anecdotes, trying to build a better picture of just how free, word-of-mouth-driven filesharing helps books sell. That’s some people’s definition of piracy, but I also include intentional free giveaways of books, as well as inadvertent “releases into the wild.”

The latest big splash in the news is one of those inadvertent ones, the viral spread of the PDF “galleys” of “Go the F**k to Sleep,” the children’s book parody for adults by Adam Mansbach. This article in PC Magazine tells the story: How the Success of ‘Go the F— to Sleep’ Discredits Copy Protection. In short, the PDF review copy has been forwarded all over the Internet (completely illegally) because people are so jazzed about the book that they cannot wait for the actual book to come out before telling all their friends. The result? The book is #1 on and has over 100,000 copies pre-ordered. As the article states, “To conclude that piracy is good from this story would be dangerously oversimplifying things. But if the publisher had sealed advance electronic copies of the book with deadlocked digital rights management (DRM), it would never have had a chance to go viral.” For more on Go the F**k To Sleep, check out this roundup of links from Digital Book World. A review copy is supposed to help generate buzz. That’s exactly what this did. Yes, you’ve read the whole book now, but that has only increased the hunger for the physical product.

Best-selling authors Cory Doctorow and Neil Gaiman have spoken out often on the value of giving away their work via the Internet to spur print book sales. Just Google them and you’ll find plenty on the subject. Here’s a video of Neil Gaiman embedded in a Fast Company article which says “…after observing that the most pirate-heavy countries, such as Russia, actually had the best sales, [Gaiman] decided to experiment with putting his book for free online. ‘Sales of my book, through independent book stores, because that’s all that we were measuring it through, went up, the following month, 300%.’

How about author Paul Coehlo, whose book The Alchemist was selling a mere 1,000 copies a year in Russian. Then in 2001, it sold 10,000. Why? And sales continued to grow, to 100,000. And now over 1,000,000. How? People were pirating the book, and that spurred exponential growth in the sales. That spurred Coehlo to start his own free download site, The Pirate Coelho. Here’s a news item about it. He also convinced HarperCollins to release free promotional versions of his books, as detailed in this interview.

In the ultimate way of profiting from piracy, O’Reilly sells for $99.99 the results of their study of book piracy on their sales. (The Impact of P2P and Free Distribution on Book Sales) Talk about tl;dr! The gist of it, though, is in this interview with Brian O’Leary of O’Reilly, in which he says, “Data that we collected for the titles O’Reilly put out showed a net lift in sales for books that had been pirated. So, it actually spurred, not hurt, sales.” He also says “I’m pretty adamant on DRM: It has no impact whatsoever on piracy. Any good pirate can strip DRM in a matter of seconds to minutes. A pirate can scan a print copy easily as well. DRM is really only useful for keeping people who otherwise might have shared a copy of a book from doing so.”

O’Leary makes the point that what drives piracy the most is people’s desire to read material in the format they want and the difficulty they have getting what they want. If the publishing industry meets that desire, then we can build ourselves strong commerce, instead of getting caught flat-footed like the music industry, who wasted billions of dollars trying to “fight” piracy, only to find that the only effective way to reduce the amount of piracy going on was to give the people what they want: cheap and easy (DRM-free) music. Now that MP3 download stores are well-established (even Wal-Mart has one!), money is flowing in and piracy is down. Here’s an op ed piece in Wired saying the heyday of music piracy is over.  (I’d like to see more actual numbers, but the record companies really don’t want us, or their artists, to know how much they’re really making.)

And here’s a call to arms for the comic book industry to respond similarly, by making legal, digital versions of many titles available.  (You’d think comics would be a no-brainer with the huge popularity of independent webcomics already well established, and so many of the graphic novels coming out having been culled from the webcomics ranks!)

Here’s the thing. You could still argue that all these examples of authors “pirating” their own books leading to higher sales are all about physical books. (See more links below re: Tor Books, Tobias Buckell, John Scalzi, Paul Carr, and others.) But what if you’re a digital-only publisher? I see the fear. Your product is 100% digital. If someone pirates it, they have the entire product. What incentive do they have to pay for it? Piracy of digital files might help print sales, but they’ll hurt digital sales, right? RIGHT??

Not so fast. Let’s look at the software industry for a possible answer.

Folks in the software business have been fighting piracy a lot longer than book publishers have. In particular, let’s look at games, which are more like books in that they’re an entertainment choice. Game developers have every incentive to get you to pay for what they do. Developing a new major-release game is a huge financial investment in salaries, marketing costs, etc. Way more than a book.

And yet the prevailing winds seem to be blowing in the direction of getting rid of DRM and relying on the players of the game who legitimately pay for it. According to this blog post “Game Developers Speaking Out Against DRM“, some games like Prince of Persia are now released without any DRM at all. A game called World of Goo is knowingly pirated by 90% of the players out there, but the developers feel those 90% would never have paid for it anyway. Putting strict DRM on would have just cut down even more that 10% who did pay!

Here’s a link to a blog post by veteran game developer Jeff Vogel. He opens the post by saying “This article is my decisive statement on how developers should deal with pirates. It includes humorous anecdotes about how dumb I have been in the past. And, believe me, I’ve been pretty dumb.”

For 15 years on his games, they had a complicated registration system that was supposed to reduce piracy, but all it did was reduce legitimate buyers. As he writes, “We stuck by this system for fifteen years. Might as well have just made a big pile of money and set it on fire.” Don’t make it hard for people to enjoy your product and don’t make it hard for them to be legitimate users. Life should not be easier for pirates than for paying customers. If you make life harder for your paying customers than for pirates, you’ll make less money. Simple.

Googling around now, I find many more articles about games getting rid of their DRM, including the wildly popular Dragon Age.

So, if the game publishers are dropping DRM to reduce the incentive to pirate and increase the ease of buying, and the result is rising popularity of games because people get to try them out first… that seems like a loud and clear cue that digital book publishers should follow. Kindle ebooks are now outselling printed books at Amazon. People want digital books. Give the people what they want and make it easy to get them in their hands.

While I have your attention, I ought to point out that authors who see 100,000 downloads of their book as equivalent to 100,000 lost sales are deluding themselves. Please trust me when I say that 100,000 downloads is not the equivalent of 100,000 copies shoplifted. It’s actually the equivalent of 100,000 people thumbing through the book while standing in the bookstore or library, deciding whether to invest the time in reading it.

There was an author (Anne B. Ragde) recently who spoke out against piracy in just that manner, though, calculating to the dollar what her “lost sales” were worth. During the interview, her son let slip to the reporter that his mother, despite her anti-piracy stance, had almost 2000 illegally downloaded songs on her MP3 player. Her defense was that she didn’t really listen to them anyway (that player was in a summer cottage somewhere); she pays for the music she “really” listens to. Well, guess what folks. Of those 100,000 who downloaded your book, most of them aren’t reading it anyway. 90,000 probably never open the file. Of the 10,000 who do, you just got the equivalent of them opening a copy of the book on the shelf at a bookstore to see if they like it. Most traditional authors would have KILLED to have such great placement in the bookstores as to attract 10,000 browsers to pick up the book and look in it. Out of those 10K, say 3 out of 4 decide the book is not their cup of tea. So now we’re down to 2500 who are genuinely interested. In the brick and mortar world, retail rule of thumb says 500 of them would have a good chance of buying it. Another 500 probably go to the library and borrow it. The other 3/5ths never close the deal and put the book back on the shelf and forget about it.

So your book needs to be downloaded 100,000 times before you gain a measly 500 buyers. The percentages go up when the downloads are legal, free copies marketed to your target audience, as with the Tor Books free giveaways (see below). O’Leary in the interview linked above also mentions Baen Books, another science fiction publisher, who has been spreading around free digital copies of their books for over ten years (including by handing out CD-Roms at sci-fi conventions — I have one from 2002). He mentions that they have among the lowest incidence of piracy in the book biz. This is not a coincidence.

So, you may not be convinced, but I am. Giving stuff away helps. Having it for easy sale also helps. In fact, despite all our “new media” chatter about publicity in the digital age, about blog tours and Twitter contests and Facebook pages, these two things seem to be the only two things that actually make a measurable impact on sales. Give stuff away to increase your customer base, and then have it for easy sale to sift money out of those who are eager to pay. That’s it.

This article was originally published at and has been reprinted here with Ms. Tan’s permission.

Cecilia Tan is an author, editor and the founder/publisher of Circlet Press.

25 thoughts on “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Ebook Piracy

  1. Will

    This model assumes there is a physical book to sell where the electronic version is simply promotional. How does this change when the book is only an e-book?

    1. Cecilia Tan

      Will, you might want to concentrate on the second half of the article which specifically concentrates on digital-only products and publishers?

      Quote from above: “Here’s the thing. You could still argue that all these examples of authors “pirating” their own books leading to higher sales are all about physical books. … Piracy of digital files might help print sales, but they’ll hurt digital sales, right? RIGHT?? Not so fast. Let’s look at the software industry for a possible answer.”

  2. Walter


    A wonderfully insightful and well written article that looks at a subject from an angle other than 90 degrees. From this perspective you provide data and the “common sense” rational for the results that the data appears to indicate.

    It reminds me of a day long ago in computer retailing (before the big box stores) when all the computer – printer vendors (I was at HP) were afraid of the “grey-marketers” who were “pirates” of a different sort … not being authorized dealers.

    Once we got over the hysteria, we learned how to use the buzz of the grey-market as a way to create demand.

    For me your point is well taken… there has been and always will be “pirates”…. what you say makes great sense, don’t empower them and most importantly don’t make it harder for paying customers to “open” or purchase your work.

    1. Cecilia Tan

      I tried to take a non-emotional approach and look at the actual data. If the data showed piracy was truly sapping our livelihoods, I’d be loading cannons instead. But the data so far just doesn’t bear that out.

  3. AL

    Thirty years ago the first software to be hugely profitable was Visicalc. I remember reading that 83% of the copies in existence were pirated. That is when I had the first hint that piracy had its merits. Today people give away their books in the hopes of selling them later, selling their backlist. It is–as you correctly tell us– about discoverability.

    1. Cecilia Tan

      Wow, Visicalc. That takes me back.

      Speaking of software, now that I think about it, years ago the reason I settled on Quark Xpress instead of PageMaker was because I got a pirated copy and liked it. Nowadays both Quark and InDesign give you a fully functional demo copy for 30 days so that you can really try it out and use it for real work before you decide to pay and unlock the license. They figured out that the test drive has to be a real one or they lose sales.

    2. Paul

      Another comparable is Microsoft putting up with a lot of piracy in China and other undeveloped markets in order to establish its OS dominance. So it’s also bought into the idea of piracy as a marketing tool, at the very least a loss-leader.

  4. Lindsay

    I’ve had a few people find my personal site by googling book title + author name + free download so maybe I should put up pirated copies on my own site. *g*

    Maybe because I’m such a new author, I don’t sweat this stuff. I d/led all sorts of pirate music when I was a kid…because I didn’t have money to buy it. I figure most folks in my target audience are in a position to pay for my stories. And if they’re not, I wouldn’t want to keep them from reading them.

    I have one short story up for free at Smashwords, Feedbooks, etc., and I hope to add more. I think it’s a good marketing idea, especially if you add an excerpt to your paid stuff.

    Anyhoo, done rambling. Thanks for the post!

    1. Cecilia Tan

      You’re welcome! I have lots of my own work up for free, too. Not all of it, since publishers hold those rights and they’d look askance at me pirating my own book… most of the recent ones have offered free copies of my books at various times, though. The Siren & The Sword (Magic University Book One) was offered free at Amazon and at All Romance eBooks a few times, and also for 69 cents in special promotions that helped upsell the whole series.

  5. Linton Robinson

    Great article.
    This whole concern always reminds me of the writer forum posts you always see, new writers worrying about getting their work ripped off. And you say, the people most worried about getting their work stolen are the ones who have nothing to worry about.

    It’s becoming known, despite the various hysteria, that giving books away is not bad for the bottom line. (Kind of like writers accepting that having their work available for free in libraries isn’t an evil thing)
    Is it different if the work is stolen, rather than given?

    One little quibble here: the idea that digital is just a promotional device for print books: I’m seeing the reverse a lot, in this age in which amazon sells more Kindle books than printed books. Many writers put out a printed book merely as a “badge of reality” or website bling to support their ebook sales.

    1. Cecilia Tan

      [quote]Many writers put out a printed book merely as a “badge of reality” or website bling to support their ebook sales.[\quote]

      Excellent point! I was just in a marketing meeting yesterday in which I planned a bookstore promotion to get a book out through trade distribution into bookstores and these words came out of my mouth: “What an excellent way to reach the people who aren’t already visiting our website and driving traffic there.” The tail wags the dog in the new book economy.

  6. Catherine M. Wilson

    As the unknown author of a self-published trilogy, I found it difficult to get my books noticed until I started offering a free download of Book I in multiple formats from my author website. I priced Book I at 99 cents on Kindle, and would have made it free if Amazon had let me.

    It’s one thing to post announcements on various groups of book lovers that you have a book for sale. It a whole ‘nother thing to offer a freebie. The first says, Buy my book! The second says, Here’s a gift for you. Some groups have policies against BSP (blatant self-promotion). Few mind if you offer to give something away.

    All three books of the trilogy are now up on torrent sites. At the same time they started showing up, my sales took off. A big part of the reason for that is the growing popularity of the Kindle and other ereaders. But I don’t doubt that being pirated helped. It may have helped a lot!

    Catherine M Wilson

  7. Marian Schembari

    Cecilia, I could not love this post more. It is so articulate, makes me think about piracy in a way I never had AND gives me some rockin’ ideas for the future. Thank you so, so much for posting – I hope every single person in publishing reads it.

  8. Ellen

    This sounds good if you have a potential audience of hundreds of thousands of readers, but what about those of us in small nonfiction niche markets who only sell a few thousand of any one book? In that case, the potential for word-of-mouth sales si small. it seems that every book pirated would simply be one less sale.

    1. Cecilia Tan

      Ellen, that is what O’Reilly publishers thought when they first started looking into this. They are a niche nonfiction publisher who do software manuals and technical journals, some of which have a very small user base. They expected if their books were pirated, no one would bother to buy them. But that wasn’t what happened. Old books whose sales had dropped off suddenly began to pick up and they wondered why. They discovered the rise in sales was only happening on the books that had pirate copies circulating. People would use the free copy for a while and then decide to buy it. It was completely counter to everything they expected to see.

      At the time most of the people arguing it was a fluke said well, that must only be the case for niche nonfiction. Surely for “entertainment books” like novels that won’t work? But of course we’ve seen it borne out with all genres so far, fiction and nonfiction.

  9. James Hartley

    A very good article, takes me back to the early days of the PC. What is now called “DRM: we used to refer to as “copy protection.” There were products on the market that were specifically designed to “crack” the copy protection, and in certain circles “copy protection” was translated as “includes a free puzzle.” Who cares what it is, let’s see if we can crack it, it’s fun trying.

    Someone mentioned Visicalc … I know there were an awful lot of copies floating around with the serial number 31415926 (pi), and most were owned by people who did not have a clue how to use the program, but were simply proud of having a copy.

    Obviously I would prefer to have people pay for my books, but it’s not clear what the best answer is. I think we’re still learning how to move into the digital age.

    1. Cecilia Tan

      James, you remind me of a related point which I might have to dig into in a future article. The question of how much to charge is one publishers and authors are wrestling with a lot right now. Whenever I see publishers have priced the ebook at hardcover price, I know they’re going to drive a lot of people to pirate (as well as to the library).

      One author, very affronted by the idea of giving away books, snapped at me recently, “I’m worth more than that! All my work is worth more than that!” I asked her how much she thought her work *was* worth, then, and she couldn’t give me a concrete answer. How much do you need to make per copy sold before you feel “cheap”? And is the author’s *feelings* about validation the most important thing, or would she rather see a larger accumulation of money at the end? She said “well of course I would rather have more money at the end” but she simply could not believe that cutting the price of her book in half might gain her more than twice the paying readers. (Meanwhile, how many thousands have free pirated copies because the ebook was priced too high?)

      I tried to explain it using a metaphor that Richard Nash of Cursr has often used: airplane travel. Airlines have been very savvy about maximizing revenue. A plane is going to fly across the country. The airline wants it to be full. Everyone on the plane knows full well that some people paid exorbitant first class rates, some are flying for free on miles/points, and everyone in the middle paid varying prices depending on when they bought and the demand at the time. Books need to also be sold at all different price points. Sell a first class edition to the people who want that, and a mass market edition (or mass market priced ebook) to those who want that. There’ll be fewer “stowaways” if the product is affordable.

      What is the ideal price for an ebook? Amazon thinks it is between $2.99 and $9.99. I think if we’re really going to take the airplane model, then it needs to be variable. Have some special sales and offers sometimes (including sometimes free), and also premium “first class” pricing sometimes with some kind of extra perk (exclusive online chat with the author? unlock a special story or chapter like on a DVD easter egg?).

  10. D.

    How about offering first chapters free?

    I’m really not sure what the point about browsing is, that most of these so-called pirates are just folks browsing the goods and not fully enjoying them. If they want to browse so much, why is the first chapter not enough information for them to make a decision?

    Many authors offer the first chapter free. Are these authors maybe experiencing less piracy as a result, then?

    And I’m not sure how the non-pirating readership is inconvenienced by DRM. You mean the downloaded files are not portable among eReaders? Well, that’s just a technical inconvenience which can be solved by technology, no?

    Say, I want to have the ability to copy my ebooks whenever I want. Okay, well, every copy made by a customer above a complimentary initial ten or so will register itself to a database so that the author can detect instances of obvious piracy, as when fifty copies exist, all bearing the same unique identifier(s).

    Indeed, doesn’t something like this already exist somewhere??



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