Sunday, May 30, 2010

Joe Konrath and the Fallacy of Victimless Book Piracy

Mystery writer Joe Konrath has become another major writer who doesn't fear ebook piracy and who thinks pirates help more than hurt. .A Newbie's Guide to Publishing: Piracy... Again

I just adore very successful writers who come out in favor of piracy or make it a victimless crime because it hasn't hurt them. Of course, it's not hurt them enough to notice because they have so many other ways to sell their books, unlike most other authors.

Think of it this way. Someone steals $1000 from a wealthy person. It doesn't really hurt them. Someone steals $1000 from someone on welfare. The poor person will probably end up homeless.

Think of it this way. Very successful authors who publish through the large conglomerates (New York based publishers owned by conglomerates, i.e. most of the publishers of books you see in bookstores) have diversified risk. That means lots of book titles in many formats-- paper (hard cover, trade, and massmarket), ebook, audio, and possibly media rights (TV, movies, graphic novels, etc.). Those paper books are available in most brick and mortar stores. The new book title as well as the backlist is available in paper on those bookstore shelves.

Most other authors with the conglomerate publishers are very lucky to have one book on those shelves for a very short time, and with the possible exception of the ebook, there are no other media rights sold. Other authors have no paper books on those shelves and must rely on online sales for their paper books, if they have a paper version, and their ebook version.

Most newer authors with the conglomerate presses get a very small advance, unlike the $100,000+ for a three-book deal Konrath has talked about for his books. Depending on the genre, etc., the advance runs from under $3,000 to $10,000 with his agent taking a 15% chunk. It will probably be the only money the author will ever see on that book. The author will be expected to use at least 10 to 25% for promotion.

If the first book doesn't sell well enough, the publisher will not buy the next book of that author. End of career or a major restart with a new name for the author.

Those authors with indie press and ebook publishers get no advance. Their books are only available online, usually as ebooks or more expensive trade paperbacks. They must bear the promotion expenses as well as the incredible amount of time needed to get their names out to the reading public since they don't have the platform of a major publisher.

Some have done quite well because they produce numerous books a year, those books are high quality and similar in kind, and the book is a popular genre like erotica. Everyone else struggles to come out even after the expenses of the website, etc.
Few will make minimum wage for their time, not including the years it took to develop publishable craft and the months it took to write the book. They continue on with the hope that they will be able to make a good living eventually. Most never will.

Most authors cannot continue to write if there is no profit after a period of time. The only exception is the hobby writer who has a second income through a financially successful spouse or who is able to hold down a full-time job as well as writing two or three novels a year and spending many hours promoting them in their "spare" time.

With their diversified list of books, types of media, and sales sites, the average conglomerate publisher can take a loss, perceived or real, on ebook sales. The average small press or ebook publisher goes out of business because they aren't so diversified and ebook sales plummet.

It's hard to believe that piracy doesn't hurt when an epublishers' entire list is available for free all over the Internet, there's no income from any other source because the books are only available as ebooks, and the money isn't coming in.

It's hard to say piracy doesn't hurt when an ebook has thousands of pirated downloads all over the web, and the author can't take her family out to McD's with her quarterly royalty check, and the only thing the author gets from all that "free" promotion of pirated earlier books is that her next new book will hit the pirate lists even faster than the last did.

Some of the most successful indie ebook published authors of the last years are some of the biggest foes of pirates because they are watching their own profits dropping while the market is expanding.

I belong to lots of lists where some of these small publishers and authors hang out, and many are hemorrhaging to death. Authors are becoming dispirited that their "fans" show so little respect for them by stealing their work, and their income continues to fall. It's getting harder and harder to justify spending hundreds of hours of their lives in a profession they are losing money at. Publishers are watching the steady march toward bankruptcy and are fighting to stay in business.

What does this mean to the reader? Those authors who are making lots of money will continue to publish. You will continue to see the big names in the bookstores and online. The conglomerate publishers will continue to publish lots of books for much fewer authors. That means fewer choices of the types of paper books available.

The small presses and epublishers where future conglomerate stars are developing a following and the types of books that aren't mainstream are being published will disappear so you'd better develop a taste for the authors on the bestseller lists, and only those authors, because everyone else will disappear.

Ebook piracy a victimless crime? Maybe for a few authors like Konrath, but not for the rest of us.

For information on authors who are being hurt by piracy, I suggest the group Authors Without Yachts, .

For information on copyright and epublishing, I suggest my blog articles on the subject. Click on the "copyright" label to the left to find them.


Cheryl Tardif said...

You said it, sister!!

As an author who will proudly stand up for authors' rights and will do what she can to fight against piracy, I think Joe's blase attitude is very harmful to our industry. He's boasted about his phenomenal sales for so long that it's gone to his head. While I do admire his marketing success, he's not being realistic and I think he's pointing new authors in a dangerous direction. Most authors will NEVER see that kind of success.

Though I can take my family to MacDonald's on my royalty checks (and to Red Lobster, if I wanted to), I view every pirated download as a lost sale.

Some may argue that the pirate would never have heard of the author without the pirate site. But it's not the pirate site that brought pirates to JA Konrath this week. Many didn't know of JA Konrath (regardless of all his promotion) until they read his blogs on piracy. Most will now go get his books from their pirate sites. If he can't see he's just lost sales, then he's very delusional.

Pirates download books that interest them. They steal them because there's a system that allows them to. They justify this by blaming high prices. I heard this directly from pirates.

My ebooks range from $1.99 to $4.99, and my new release Lancelot's Lady will release for $7.99--certainly not high prices. So if price is really a factor in why they pirate, they should be buying these inexpensive ebooks. And JA Konrath's $1.99 ebooks.

But let's be honest here. If I said you could get a book for $1.99 or for free, which would you choose?

Pirates also blame the fact that ebook publishers and retailers don't make the books accessible in all formats for all devices. We're working on that, people. At Smashwords, you can purchase an ebook and have access to multiple formats.

There is no such thing as victimless piracy. Any time a book is illegally downloaded an author has lost a potential sale. And a pirate has broken a law that's in place for a reason. We don't live in a free-for-all society. And why should we?

At this rate, the book industry's future could very well be built on a bunch of hobby writers who don't need the income and the approximate 5% of major authors who are making a substantial income already. The rest of us who are striving to support our families could be history.

I've participated in the debate on Konrath's blog and have written on my own blog about piracy, and was recently successful in getting my works removed from a pirate site.

My advice to authors: research both sides of this topic and don't follow any one author's advice--not even mine. Think for yourself, pick your battles and fight for what you believe in. Don't give in to passive wimpiness. Stand for something and be part of a solution instead of the problem.

Cheryl Kaye Tardif

RowenaBCherry said...

I have a sneaky suspicion about the "Piracy IS Profitable" school of thought.

All Ponzi schemes work for those who get in first, and this is similar to a promotional ponzi scheme.

Doctorow, Konrath and others may not be seeing increased sales as a result of piracy but as a result of the publicity piracy gets.... as a result of the fact that their names are mentioned favorably every time there is a discussion of ebooks.

Moreover, there are a couple of general assumptions about piracy.

One is that pirates read one stolen book to check out whether or not the author writes crap. They then buy the rest of the works.

(Judging by the posts on pirate sites, this is not true. They request more free books.)

Second, any author who is held to do well despite piracy must be a really great read. Therefore, honest readers trust the pirates' endorsements and the authors' boasts, and buy the books.

If 100,000 of us all started advocating piracy and tolerating our books being stolen, the Ponzi promotional effect would not work.

RowenaBCherry said...

By the way, if Joe Konrath honestly believes that piracy is good, and he politely rebuffs authors who tell him his books are being pirated....

Who Is Sending Take Down Notices For His Books To Pirate Sites?

Check out Konrath books on the pirate sites (not to download... just to see whether he walks the talk).

BrennaLyons said...

Nicely said and very similar to what I said about Doctorow.

These bigwigs don't seem to realize that they are not the newbie authors, the ones without the big contracts that are still trying to build an audience and don't have an established readership BUYING books. If you are trying to build that readership, the pirated copies are not helping you. Pirates pirate, almost invariably. Most of them don't buy, so them knowing your name does nothing good for you and a lot of bad.

Of course, as far as I can tell, these authors don't consider anyone else when they make these statements. They don't care what happens to the newbie authors out there...the ones trying to become like them. They don't care that pirates hear what they want to hear and will use any excuse, seeming permission, or seeming alliance to their favor in hurting others. As long as Konrath and Doctorow continue to sell to their established audiences of actual buying readers, they don't care about someone trying to build that audience.

The only thing I agree with Konrath on is that you can't STOP piracy, but you can make it darned uncomfortable for the pirates, which is all I intend to do. My books are already reasonably priced and widely available. I even give free reads. I make it as easy as possible to get my books legally, so making getting them illegally harder and doing education to those who don't know better is all I need or want to do to encourage (gently) legal sales. Of course, pirates that do nothing BUT pirate will still pirate.

As far as piracy not hurting anyone, I know he's wrong. Enough said.


Crystal-Rain Love said...

Very well said. I'm sick of these already hugely successful authors praising piracy and belittling the authors who are against it. Authors who are trying to make a career, but are getting cut off at the knees.

Marilynn Byerly said...

Thanks for all the comments. What I've learned over the last few years talking to and about pirates it that most of the pirate rhetoric is nonsense.

Although they always blame the victim for their crime, pirates steal books that are ridiculously cheap as well as expensive, books with and without security DRM, etc., etc.

They steal because they can for their own pathetic reasons to make themselves feel better about their own failings. Most are bullies and sad children, whatever their ages.

As to the reason behind these pro-pirate authors, I'd suggest self-promotion rather than book promotion. According to my sources in publishing, Doctorow is a prime example of this. He makes his money off being a celebrity and his movie deals, not on his books.

I don't know Konrath's motives, but he does remind me of a lemming heading for a cliff now that his big mystery series is being printed by Amazon Encore which will keep his paper books out of the major chains so they'll be much harder to get.

Book piracy may be around forever, but our best defense against pirates is educating our readers so that they won't believe the "it's okay to steal because it doesn't hurt authors" rhetoric of the pirates and writers like Konrath.

When readers understands that piracy is a vampire sucking the life out of their favorite kinds of books, they fight back. Some of the best pirate scouts I have are readers who are as mad as heck and don't want to lose their favorite kinds of stories.

Or to quote a friend, "A smart junkie doesn't kill his dealer."

Anonymous said...

I don't particularly like piracy, and I think some of the "give it away and pray" Creative Commons types are somewhat naïve if they think they're going to make any money at all. But I do agree with Konrath's hypothesis that piracy isn't something that's simply going to disappear. It's just too easy, too tempting, and too damned convenient for many, many people. I also think piracy is a sort of digital extension of humanity's thirst for knowledge, a very base instinct we all have that often transcends morals and is therefore nigh unstoppable. (I'm not trying to glorify or justify piracy here, any more than I'd seek to justify jealousy or hunger or rage. It just is.)

You might, might, just be able to convince some people that their actions are immoral. Maybe. But I think authors need to look out for number one and find another way, and that's to try to find a way to convert as many freeloaders into paying customers as possible. Doctorow's method of self-aggrandizement and attention-seeking, whilst vulgar, undeniably works. He uses the internet to play the hiveminds of the internet community like a fiddle, and he does it well. But I don't think that's the only option. There are shades of grey between hating on pirates and slavish devotion to them. There are over a billion people online, and yours, his, and everyone else's works are available to all of them for free whether any of you condone it or not. The freeloading market is enormous, and if just one per cent of them decide to actually pay for something in their lives, then you can see how that's a huge opportunity.

Luring this market, I feel, should be the prime goal. Raging at them will only turn many of them away. Many of them will simply download the works out of spite, or because they can. People can be cruel, heartless and fickle, especially when they don't agree with you on a moral level. But they're not all like that. Many of them are just cheap. I think that convincing some of them to pay is going to be easier and ultimately more lucrative than convincing all of them that they're wrong.

Unknown said...

Pretty much what Anonymous said. Positive reinforcement is a better tool than negative punishment, and it's a lot healthier for the soul. :)

BrennaLyons said...


It's not that I disagree, but there are a few facts you seem to disregard. One is that the majority of these people will NEVER be buyers; they've dedicated themselves not to buy, no matter what the authors do. The best I can do is try to stem that where I see it without devoting my life to it. And considering the fact that copyright requires a defend it or lose it situation, we have to do a certain amount of taking down the pirates to live to that.

Those that will choose to buy someday have ample opportunity to become fans and buy. I load free reads ON pirate sites for them to "stumble across" and decide they want to see more.

Am I slitting my own throat here? Probably. Because the 99% will continue with their usual MO and convince others that might someday become paying readers that what they are doing is okay, and I'm providing the content for it, in some cases. The very fact that the potential reader is finding the free read on a pirate site means that the chance of said person buying the next book is exceedingly slim. But...I'm trying a certain amount of honey here.

That doesn't mean I'm not going to hate the 99%, because they don't deserve any better than that.


William Aicher said...

Wow, what a great article. Nice work. Also love the discussion you spurred. Definitely means you hit some points people care about. FWIW I wrote up a bit on my site about Konrath's "experiment" too. Feel free to stop by and take a peek.

Marilynn Byerly said...

Sweetness and light isn't the way to face hardcore pirates. Most pirates are bullies, and sweetness and light are seen as a weakness which fills a bully with contempt.

Normally, I try reason by demolishing all their stupid justifications for stealing, but I don't deal well with threats. (As exemplified by the Konrath discussion board toward the end where I receive three veiled threats of retaliation for believing what I do.)

NOTE TO PIRATES: Never start a verbal p*ssing match with a professional wordsmith. You will not win. (evil grin)

Anonymous said...

@ Marilynn -

You may feel smug thinking you've won a battle or two of words with pirates, but you won't win the war that way. Pirates that you tick off will leave the words to you and let their actions speak for them, making sure to pass on everything of yours they can find. Just ask Harlan Ellison. He has scored a few minor victories against a couple of individuals, but has also ensured that his books will be available for illegal download in perpetuity.

Clearly you have a way with words, and I hope believing that you have verbally outwitted a few people online helps you sleep better at night, but while you are sleeping the file sharing goes on...and on...and on...