Pirates — ooh arghh! Oh wait. Not Those Kind.

This is pretty much the text of my comment on the Piracy threat over at Dear Author. The post is worth reading. So do that.

If you’re an author, please read this post. Alternatively, you could continue to be both Chicken Little and an ostrich. But do you want to be? Really?

I think I’m kind of pissed off.

Whatever. Here’s my comment:

Until about yesterday (seriously) I was undecided on the issue of piracy. Today, I am closer to forming my opinion, which I will get to in a bit.

There is hysteria and dogmatic opinion on both sides of the issue. And both those extremist positions tend to give me a headache.

Until yesterday, I had never seen any evidence to support either side. I haven’t yet seen any author or publisher come forward with numbers that prove piracy hurts their bottom line. But I’ve also been at the torrent sites and come away feeling like the file uploaders know perfectly well that they’ve done something unethical and illegal. The downloaders know it, too.

[ETA: I am NOT saying pirating isn’t illegal or unethical. It’s both.]

As a midlist author, I feel my chest go tight when I see my brand-new just released book on a torrent site. If those downloads represent lost sales, at my level, that’s my career going down the toilet. But I also understand I can’t prove it.

It is not, at this point, possible for anyone to know whether piracy hurts or helps or does something in between. There is not sufficient evidence to be sure one way or the other.

By way of background, at this point, just about all of my books are on torrent sites unauthorized by me or my publishers. I know that on October 4, someone was at a file sharing site asking that my October 6th release be uploaded. Which would mean illegally obtained. So it’s not that I’m not affected by piracy. I am a midlist author and I’m as worried as any writer today about whether I’m going to stay published.

The question is, HOW am I affected by piracy?

To my knowledge, only one person has undertaken a reasonably rigorous study of the effects of free and of piracy on books sales. That person is Brian O’Leary, who wrote "Impact of P2P and Free Distribution on Book Sales" for Tools of Change For Publishing (O’Reilly). It is available for download for $99. Yikes!

I emailed Mr. O’Leary earlier this week and told him I thought he should contact RWA because the organization would be a rich source of the data he’s looking to acquire. (He’s revising his report.) Apparently, RWA thought so too (before I so brilliantly suggested it!) My understanding is that they are discussing matters.

Mr. O’Leary was kind enough to send me a copy of his report. I’m almost done reading it. It’s taking me a while as I want to be sure I understand his methodology and his conclusions and what I think about the rigor of his work. I have a few questions, but I do think it’s fairly solid. On the other hand, I am not a statistician.

Fiction WAS included in his data set.

The EARLY evidence points to these results, which I am paraphrasing.

If you are a debut or midlist author, piracy *increases* your sales by 18-42%.

If you are an established, best-selling author, piracy looks like it hurts.

These conclusions may not, of course, hold up when there is more data, better data or if circumstances change (number of piraters and downloaders, for example) or when others have had a chance to take a look at his methods and data.

So, what do I think?

I’m not all that surprised by the results. The anecdotal evidence of an increase in sales has been pretty persistent for at least a decade in gaming and software.

I think authors who are up in arms over the issue need to take a deep breath. Really.

I think publishers need to rethink their strategies about digital formats and to help researchers like O’Leary gather the data that will help them make a reasoned response to piracy and, frankly, understand consumers a little better.

So. There you have it. I fully recognize that nothing is resolved yet and that the issues are complex. I urge authors to come out of the extreme position and press for the data and analysis that will give us a fair shot at understanding what’s going on and what the consequences are.

I urge readers to, well, please keep reading.

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5 Responses to “Pirates — ooh arghh! Oh wait. Not Those Kind.”

  1. SonomaLass says:

    Yes, finally, someone who has evidence to back up what they say, instead of just anecdotal experience and opinions! Thank you, thank you — this college professor part of me weeps with joy when I see critical thinking applied IRL.

    Agreed, piracy is unethical and wrong. But it sounds to me like a waste of your valuable time to chase it down – unless you make a hobby out of it because it makes you feel good to stop (albeit temporarily) an unethical act.

  2. annmariegamble says:

    Here are some thoughts from a guy working with film studios about piracy: http://news.cnet.com/8301-31001_3-10383572-261.html?tag=newsEditorsPicksArea.0

    Garland is another advocate of deep breaths and data–and acknowledgment of the new technologies, which make many old business practices unsustainable. In the days of the Internet, how can you justify release dates that are months apart in the US and the UK, for example? When businesses persist in those old habits, the environment favors piracy.

    Garland points in contrast to Hulu.com, which is actually pulling people away from some pirating sites because it is so user friendly. They're improving outcomes by improving useability instead of policing.

  3. meopta says:

    I just bought your latest e-release.

    I was on the fence, heard good word of mouth then the comments at Dear Author sold me.

    If I like it, I'll buy your backlist.

    Deep breaths cause sales! Counter-intuitive!

  4. Carolyn says:

    @sonomalass: Thank you and I hear you about the valuable time.

    @annmariegamble: thanks for the links. And yes, deep breaths and data! I agree with you about the release dates. The same applies to geographical restrictions. I don't understand that. If someone in, say, Germany, read English well enough to buy the English-language version, then gee, why shouldn't he or she be able to do so?

    @meopta: Thanks for dropping by and I hope you enjoy the book. I am breathing deeply now…

  5. Evangeline Holland says:

    I'm unpublished so my opinion is that of an ~outsider~ working towards being an ~insider~ and what it means to pursue traditional print publication in this wonky, wacky market. I get the whole "free reads equal new readers" argument–it's what has fueled the fight for UBSs in the past. However, piracy isn't simply going to a library sale, a yard sale or a UBS. A lot of people who pirate books feel entitled to that book and entitled to obtain it for the price they want–namely, free.

    Sure, there are a large segment of pirates who can't buy the book b/c of their location, but what happens when the lines blur between inability to access a book so I'll pirate, and I want this book and I deserve to have it? I say nip it in the bud and start a campaign before readers feel entitled to getting books for free the way they feel about music, movies, and television shows.