Piracy and How it Affects Writers

A look at piracy in the publishing industry and the affect it has on authors.

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Piracy is something that has been around for as long as there has been media to pirate, and with eBooks making pirating and distributing books a lot easier, it is a continuing concern. However, there is another side to the story and a not-insignificant number of writers are not concerned with piracy. So, let’s take a look at both sides of this argument.


The main reason why piracy is bad for the writing industry is that by doing it, people are stealing from the author. When somebody downloads a copy of a book illegally, they aren’t purchasing it which means that the author, agent and publisher aren’t receiving anything for all the work and investment that they’ve put in. While there may have to be an initial purchase of the eBook to distribute it, this doesn’t always have to be the case and that single purchase can translate into tens of thousands, if not more, of downloads. That’s a lot of sales to be missed out on.

You could say that those pirating wouldn’t necessarily purchase the work, which means that there’s no loss of revenue to the author. This argument doesn’t quite hold up though, as they could have borrowed it for free from a library, at which point the author would still have been paid a royalty. Plus, there have been numerous attempts to analyse why people pirate, and the main reasons were that it isn’t available legally (yet), it was difficult to access, or it was too expensive. The availability and access isn’t so much of an issue with domestic distribution, but if a book isn’t being distributed internationally—or properly translated—people who are looking to purchase the book may go elsewhere.

It does seem like it’s a legitimate point that piracy does equate to loss of sales. As a middle ground, perhaps publishers could be doing more to make the books that they’re publishing more readily available to everyone so that the people who want to buy the book have the opportunity and don’t seek out the pirated copies, but then the question of territories and rights comes in and that, for many publishers, leads into complicated partnership arrangements and subsidiary deals that cannot be overwritten by just releasing an eBook internationally.


The other side of the argument is that distribution of books—in ways that do not provide the author with any compensation—have been around and accepted for a very long time, such as lending books to friends and family, or buying books from second-hand sellers. These practices have all been accepted by authors and publishers for as long as they’ve been happening but, at their core, multiple people are still getting a copy of the book and they aren’t paying the author for it. That sounds like quite a similar situation to how the piracy industry operates.

The main difference between this and piracy is the scale at which distribution happens. I could, realistically, lend a copy of a book to ten people and then sell it on as a second-hand item. This is factored into projections and sales figures by publishers, considered when setting a price point, and even mentioned in a note on the publisher page of a physical book. Even at a push, if twenty people were able to have the book without paying the author over the course of a few years, there still would have been an initial purchase and the price-per-reader return is still not dramatically low. With online distribution of pirated materials, a book can reach tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people in the space of a couple of days or months, with nothing going to the author beyond possibly a single initial purchase. That’s a very sizeable difference, as the price-per-reader drops into minute decimals.

Personally, I think that piracy is an issue in the publishing industry just as it is an issue affecting other media. However, I don’t think it’s as big of an issue as some people regard it to be. Reading and sharing can lead to greater purchases, and older books being intentionally leaked has proven to boost sales of new releases by the same author within certain territories.


In terms of advice or guidance to writers, there is a very important point that I need to make about everything I’ve said so far: you shouldn’t let it interfere with your writing. I have seen far too many writers in groups and on forums that say that the threat of piracy is putting them off publishing. Don’t let it stop you.

Let’s say you publish a book. It sells a thousand copies, but is pirated a hundred-thousand times. One way of looking it is that you make a thousand sales, though you miss out on a hundred-thousand more because of piracy. Another way would be that you make a thousand sales, and over a hundred-thousand people have read your book.

If, on the other hand, you don’t publish your book, you haven’t missed out on that piracy, but you haven’t gained anything either. Nobody read your book and you haven’t made any sales.

While the first option is far from perfect, it sounds an awful lot more appealing to me than the latter. Perhaps you need to think about whether you are writing purely for money, or if you want people to read your words. Whilst it will be a good day for the industry if and when piracy is solved, it doesn’t look like it will be anytime soon. Even so, don’t let it get in the way of your dreams.

Davina Chime is a Thanet-born hopeless romantic.

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