Written by Morgan Southworth
Earlier this year, Joanna Penn, author of several fictional thrillers and nonfiction books marketed to other authors (like How to Make a Living with your Writing and How to Market a Book) wrote that “the idea that piracy costs authors money is based on a mistaken premise.” In her writing, she went on to outline three different scenarios: one where a reader happens to accidentally stumble across an illegal copy of your book online and downloads it out of curiosity; one where a reader with no money to legally buy the book instead illegally downloads a copy; and one where a reader with money to spare illegally downloads your book because they’re a jerk.
“Note that only in the third scenario are you actually losing money,” Penn wrote, because theoretically that third reader—the jerk—is the only one who realistically could have bought your book. Reader One, the curious one, would not have found your book unless they’d stumbled across it illegally, so they wouldn’t have bought the book in a store. Reader Two has no money to buy the book anyway. So Reader Three is the only one who could have honestly paid you, even though all three of them read your book in the end. Reader Three’s money is the only money you’re actually losing. Simple, right?
That’s not necessarily true, though. Even though Reader Three is the only person who purposely searched for your book, had the money to buy it, and chose to illegally download your book anyway, all three readers did read your book in the end. Just because two of them either could not pay or chose not to pay doesn’t mean you’re not losing money.
Borrowing books is different. Libraries buy their copies of books legally, and if two people are sharing a book, at least one of them went to the store to buy it. While there might be more people reading a book than there are copies of the book sold, it’d be difficult to qualify readers who borrow books from friends/libraries as legitimately “stealing” anything. It’s not illegal to borrow something that somebody else has already bought. Choosing to illegally download a book and purposely bypassing the legal sale of said book is another story altogether.
The real question is this: Do pirated copies of books actually affect sales?
On October 30th, Maggie Stiefvater, author of New York Times-bestselling series The Raven Cycle, published a post on her blog discussing how e-book piracy has impacted her book sales. Book three in The Raven Cycle series, Blue Lily, Lily Blue, sold print copies just as well as the previous books had, but e-book sales had dropped dramatically. Stiefvater said she witnessed these illegal e-copies being passed around among fans through various social media platforms, but when she brought the issue up to her publisher, they replied that “piracy didn’t really do anything.” Coincidentally, they were going to cut the print run of the next book in the series, The Raven King, to less than half of the print run of Blue Lily, Lily Blue because apparently the series was in decline—despite the fact that, as Stiefvater noted, the series had “19 starred reviews from pro-journals and was the most starred YA series ever written.”
However, Stiefvater continued, those reviews “just doesn’t equal sales.” She ascertains that those lost e-book sales—lost to piracy sites that her fans found instead of buying her book via Kindle or other electronic platform—caused her subsequent print runs to be shortened.
So which side are we to believe?
If you’re still thinking that e-piracy isn’t really a big deal, I’ll leave you with a final quote from Stievfater’s blog. With the production of the last book of The Raven Cycle series underway, she created her own PDF of the final book in the series, The Raven King—a copy that was only the first four chapters of the book written over and over again—and on the night of the release date, she had her brother post the PDF on as many piracy sites as they could find. Stiefvater wrote:
“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. Two days.”
When real copies of the book hit piracy sites, e-book sales fell again. It seems pretty clear to me whether piracy has an impact on book sales or not.