The Cost of Free Downloads

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

I have an odd habit. No, it's not pirating books :-P (But it IS related to the practice.) Ever since I was sent the link to a site which allowed users to freely share copies of books they hadn't purchased, I've been somewhat fascinated by putting authors' names in the search bar and seeing if they're on the "available" lists. (I then tell said authors, if they are, so don't smack me.) I tend to do this when I get stuck on a WIP because it makes me feel productive. Add that to the recent Guardian article about a prominent Spanish author who has decided not to write for a while in protest of such "sharing" practices, and this post was born.

Let me say this upfront: This is NOT a post debating whether or not file sharing is thievery (though if you want to debate this in the comments, that's your right - just try and keep it civil).

It's also NOT a post defending those who choose to upload/download/share files they have not paid for, nor is it a post vilifying them.

I'm NOT going to get into how major authors have found ways to turn book pirates into a tool to boost their sales, or how other authors have tried to mimic those methods and had them fail.

What this post IS:

There's a very specific response to discovering one's books have been passed around, or are available for download, that makes me want to scream - mainly because I think it does more harm than good. It makes the author turn into a snarling banshee, which in turn makes the recipients of their ire go on the defensive, and that's never the best position to be in when you're trying to make a point that will hopefully change the other party's mind about a certain behavior you want to stop.

On its surface, this response makes perfect sense, but the logic doesn't bear out, and in the end all it does is lead to a lot of screaming and finger pointing, and eventually the sort of defensive flame wars that end up going viral.

Here's what usually happens:

Suzie Q. Author has a book. Maybe it's doing well, maybe it isn't, but the fact is the book exists, and as sure as it exists, it's likely on a pirate or file sharing site somewhere. Either a friend/fan or Suzie herself discovers that the book has been uploaded to one of these sites. She checks the download count, sees 5,678... and hits the roof.

"FIVE THOUSAND DOWNLOADS!" she screams, tallying the royalties that would have been paid had those been sales for profit through a legit provider. She hits Twitter and Facebook and her blog and rails about how she's been cheated out of nearly six thousand sales.

Only... she hasn't.

Those illegal downloads don't correlate to sales. They're the equivalent of someone snatching a free flier off a table and stashing it in their shopping bag; if the flier had cost money, it's not likely it would have ever left the table. Free downloads are popular simply because they're free. People take them because they're there; it's not an indication of whether or not someone would ever pay money for the same property.

When a (legal) free novel goes up on Amazon, it can rack up thousands of downloads a day - even if it's gibberish. There are dissertations offered for free, but written in obscure languages or concerning fields with less than 50 members worldwide; they'll still be gobbled up because they're free. They're likely never even opened.

If I were to take 10 public domain novels and put them(even backward or mixed together) into an "omnibus edition" and offer it for free, it's possible that it could be a "best seller" by Amazon standards... because it's free.

Some of these sites are run by kids who swap homework assignments; they've branched out to books. It's not likely they've ever considered what they're doing to be theft. In fact, from what I've seen, most equate it to checking out a book from the library or loaning one to a friend, not realizing that those libraries actually purchase the copies on their shelves.

And if you've never seen the quality of one of those "free" downloads, you may be picturing a high quality version of the novel like you'd get from Amazon or B&N -- it's not. Most are garbage. They're a formatting nightmare that's barely coherent. (I understand from others that a program called Calibre has made this almost a non-issue, but I couldn't say myself.)

The point is, you can't assume that even 1/10 illegal downloads would have ever been a sale.

Again, I'm not excusing the practice - piracy is piracy. I'm just tired of seeing authors jump up and down, waving virtual banners with these huge numbers on them under the delusion that, had they just been paid for those downloads, their advances would go up and they'd be on the NYT bestseller list. Sure they would, but those were never "sales" to begin with.

Let me put it into different terms. I used to write fanfiction. Between my different screen names and fandoms stretching from the ultra small to the ├╝ber large I had tens-of-thousands of readers on a regular basis. (I've had 5-6 different screen names, but I'll only cop to 2 ;-). ) I didn't write in the larger fandoms for long; there are several writers who did which had audiences approaching 100,000. It would be easy for someone with a reader pool that large to assume that it would carry over (I know for a fact there are people who think this is a given.) But again, this is flawed logic.

Fanfiction audiences read in a universe with which they are familiar; they have a vested interest in characters already in existence. And most of all -- fanfiction is free. You can't guarantee that a single person willing to read your work for free will do the same for a fee. Some won't - some can't - others... might.

Does piracy exist? Of course it does.

Is piracy a pain? Of course it is.

Does piracy cost writers sales? Of course it does.

Does piracy cost writers a sale for every download? Not even close.

"If I'd been paid for just 1 out of 4..." is the same idea as "If I had a nickel for every time you said..." It's a nice thought, but it's not reality.

If someone's file-sharing or pirating your book, then do what you're supposed to -- TELL YOUR PUBLISHER. The offending party may not even realize that what they're doing is any different from handing a friend a copy of a book they love; if you come at them, fists swinging, all you're going to do is create an enemy who won't listen to you. If you allow the publisher to handle things, and they submit a shiny C&D or notice that the offending person / site is violating Terms of Service or copyright or whatever else they're able to do through their legal departments then you're more likely to get your books taken down.

There are a couple of file sharing sites that I check regularly and then tell authors with whom I'm familiar that their books are available if I find them, so they can have their books removed from the site if the site runners are willing to do so. (Some are; some aren't.)

I wasn't even aware these sorts of sites existed until a couple of years ago when I was looking for information on a specific book. I was given a link to a site which I thought was some sort of on-line library, only it was a download site. One author in particular, who I knew through a writers' site, was listed with every book she'd ever published - nearly 10,000 downloads. She informed the site, and they took down her books. Recently I checked my site stats and found that a few readers were jumping over from one of those homework sites I mentioned; I took a look and found that there were hundreds of books there being passed around.

Never assume that a site which was intended for large scale file sharing knows about, or condones, the transfer of copyrighted files. Some are attempting to run a legitimate service, and will cooperate with anyone who holds copyright to something that's been uploaded to their site.

2 Chiming In:

Author R. Mac Wheeler said...

Interesting post. Thanks for, er, sharing ;O)

Brent Wescott said...

Chris Anderson talks about this in his book FREE. He says basically that as this "sharing" trend causes a product to become worth less, the artist-musician-author will find other ways to make money. As far as I know, that doesn't bode as well for writers as it does for musicians who already rely on concert tickets to make money. When does an author sell out stadiums to hear him speak?

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