Guest Post: Writing on the High Seas

by Tobias Buckell

Ahhh, piracy. Jim Hines emailed recently asking if he could quote me in regards to some words I’d written about piracy recently in regards to an article he wrote. “Even better,” said I, “I’ve been slowly working away at an article.”

Not too long ago Sarah Prineas had asked me what I thought about piracy and its impact on authors, and I’d composed a long email that she suggested I post online for others. I promised to blogify that shit, but got sidetracked with a lot of other work.

But now with two good friends I really respect asking me to hurry up and get it together, I had to sit down and clean it up.

The truth is I have a complex, moderate view of piracy that falls somewhere in the middle of a variety of viewpoints. But in summary, I believe the following:

A) For many it does feel like a kick in the gut when you see people refusing to pay for something you’ve invested anywhere from six whole months to years of your life to create.

B) Artists deserve to be paid for their work.

C) Some of the people digitally accessing and copying work without pay can be dicks who flaunt it in your face, or who often work from some misguided ‘fuck you’ form of self-justification (saying things like ‘it’s too expensive, so I should have it, etc).

D) The opinion the artist takes towards the above should be one that divorces the personal (OMG, they’re stealing from me) reaction from the actual business that you’re engaged in. Because once you’ve created a work of art, the creator is done. Now you’ve become a businessperson. You are subletting the right to publishers to create a work, to market it, you yourself are selling other rights, trying to move books, trying to make appearances, and so forth.

It is with the mindset of running a business that I sit back and react to my books and piracy. And my reaction is something like this:

…It’s the price of success and fighting it will cost you resources better spent on writing and enjoying your life, and fighting it really hard might be very counterproductive, like trying to squeeze water…

Argument: combatting the ‘lost sales’ perspective

Author says the following: “If each of those pirates had purchased a book, each of those downloads would equal XXXX dollars, and I’d be making double my current income. Thus, those pirates have taken half my income and are keeping me in the poor house.”

But that requires a very huge basic assumption. That each of those downloads was a potential sale.

Consider hoarders. These are pirates who literally attempt to find every single book online that they can. These pirates are well documented. They’re obsessive collectors, list makers, compelled by something other than a love of literature. They do read many books, but when you see someone in a forum bragging about acquiring thousands of books a month, you’re not seeing someone who was going to be buying thousands of books had you only figured out how to wave a wand and banish piracy. So assuming all downloads are lost sales is a very dogmatic position to take. Not all downloads are lost sales.

But is it most, or a little?

Well, hard to tell.

Detailed analysis I’ve read of pirates and piracy and downloaders finds a few things. They’re often super-readers, as in they purchase a lot of books, and in order to afford the overall cost, poach various titles in a manner not dissimilar from people who supplement their reading habits with used books in order to not break the bank.

Which ones they poach depends on their own outlooks, to be honest. For example, some only poach books by big authors so as not to harm little authors. Others pay authors they love the most money b/c they’re superfans, and pirate authors they have never heard of to discover new works. I refer to this as ‘piracy as discovery mechanism.’ This is why eBook giveaways have led to authors gaining new readers. I myself have gotten frequent emails years after the Tor eBook giveaway from people then moving onto my second novels Ragamuffin and Sly Mongoose.

How big is the effect? Again, I can’t say, but it obviously exists at least in part. And this again, demonstrates that the lost sales theory is at best flawed, even though it comprises the largest corner stone of the piracy rants.

What is interesting about the discovery mechanism is that some pirates even eventually become superfans of, and then eventually graduate into paying customers, of books.

And again, as mentioned, there are the ‘collectors.’ They don’t actually read the author’s work, they just want the book to have it. Many online pirates have tens of thousands of books or more. They’re not reading them. They’re scratching some other itch.

So from the author’s perspective, a certain portion of these ‘stolen’ books aren’t actually stolen. They were not going to be sales to begin with. They’re stolen from a cup that was never going to fill.

In fact, studies I’ve read (and linked to before) seem to suggest rampant online piracy of an author’s book at the very least doesn’t seem to hurt sales. For example, see O’Reilly, and also a large publisher, I forget who now, did a very interesting presentation at Tools of Change conference in NYC back in 2008 that showed this. A certain book that usually sells about 5,000 copies, locked down and protected, seems to sell the same 5,000 copies as a book with a free giveaway and pirated. The difference, according to O’Reilly and many, will be that the second author sees a 5,000 copies sold book, and 5,000 downloads and wonders “why, I should really have had 10,000 sales!” But the truth might be more like, 5,000 people purchased each, and one of them got 5,000 additional reads.

This is mainly because collectors stealing your book were never going to read or buy it. The other stealers are either about to become superfans, or are using the piracy as a discoverability method (like listening to radio before buying a CD, from their POV) to sample your work. So you get small loss in sales from people not buying it but pirating it, but a corresponding increase in buying readers who convert to paying fans after discoverability.

Cory Doctorow and other authors focus on discoverability to leverage sales, and I believe that for authors with large platforms (i.e., you write for BoingBoing) it can overpower the lost sales and give you a ‘bump,’ but most authors without tremendous platforms like Cory aren’t necessarily seeing that benefit. Several authors I know have released books to pirate themselves, but haven’t seen big increases in sales (the Tor free eBooks didn’t see major bumps, when all was said and done, I believe), but what’s also remarkable, was that those authors don’t see their sales diminished either.

What it does is seemingly create a halo of other readers.

So I believe that the upshot is, unless you are gaming it with a platform or a lever (as Cory is well able to do), it’s a rather neutral affect from the data that I’ve seen and my subjective perspective. My most pirated book is Halo: TCP, and it did not affect its rise to the NYT Bestseller list. My least pirated book is Crystal Rain, and we even gave that away via Tor and I provide the first 1/3 for free on my site.

Also note, piracy scales to success of author/creator. No one bothered to pirate me until Halo: The Cole Protocol came out! Tracking of pirated movies actually even shows that pirates trade in response to the physical bestseller status of the item; i.e., movies, songs, are actually pirate-available in relation to the popularity in the real world. As movies drop out of theaters, their pirate-trade level drops! So another way to view piracy is as a leading indicator of real world sales/success.

My most pirated book is also my most successful.

And it really doesn’t mean anything in terms of actual earnings.

Once you can divorce the two, you’re able to look at this with the cold eyes of a business owner.

Argument: the salesfront product loss rate

I was talking to a bookseller a few years back who told me that they build in 5% (if I recall correctly) of their costs for theft. A certain number of books are just lost to consumers who steal physical books, and he prices that into inventory. Sure he has cameras and alert employees, but there’s an effort/balance side of things. Hiring security to police the store would be overkill, but ignoring it isn’t. So he both trains his employees a bit and just builds it into the cost of doing business. He doesn’t strip search every customer. He doesn’t yell at everyone for being thieves. A lot of business people accept this and just price it into their models. I personally think we’re not different. We’re business people as well, even if we don’t realize it.

As a result, my approach has been to not worry too much about it. Some stuff will be stolen, just like in a physical business. And the more corporate my business looks (books sold through large publishers) the more people will feel less guilty, whereas my homefront stuff (short story collection) will feel more like a mom&pop store and probably not be pirated due to the personal connection.

The price of going after pirate readers, like RIAA did to music people, means negative publicity that I’m not sure is worth it.

Making cheap and easily available eBooks is a more positive comeback, as I think iTunes proved with music. Make it easy to pay for something, and most people don’t want to have to muddle through filesharing, porn, weird online forums, and stuff, just to get what they want.

But human nature being what it is, some people are dicks and will stick it to us because they’re dicks. But at some point, the amount of militarization that would be needed to force them to stop being dicks gets in the way of treating nice people nicely.

Consider where your energy is best spent, and what kind of PR you are engaging in.

Argument: global digital reach and developing world income

When I was growing up in Grenada, I used to watch TBS, and other cable TV networks on the government TV station. TBS didn’t actually want that, the government straight up aimed a dish at the TBS satellite and stole the content without paying and would randomly rebroadcast it to fill in content around the news and government PSAs. It did this because there was no money.

You could buy dubbed cassettes. Stars remixed songs from the US to calypso and reggae beats. Since the average income was a fraction of the US, anyone who got their hands on a working computer used pirated software, no one could even think about $500 or more for a Microsoft product.

People spliced cable, or even power lines.

America in 1770s had this. Britain’s manufacturers got legal lockdowns on tools. It was illegal to manufacture guns or ploughs or machines in the US, you could only buy them and have them shipped so that Britain could maintain control and income (that’s how a colony is milked). Early US manufacturing was full of pirate manufacturers making illegal guns and tools.

At some point, the fact that a book costs a majorly significant portion of a person’s income may turn them to piracy. If your average Westerner had to pay 10-20% of their monthly income to purchase a single book, you’d see more hesitation as well.

In other parts of the world there are also different royalty schemes for fair use reading/copying as well, where a tax on digital media/computers/paper is sent back to artists there (think about how the radio system is set up in the US). So the assumption that people are out to steal from the artist may also be a massive cross cultural disconnect when, for example in Canada, authors get government payouts from media sales.

Eventually, a global author payment solution may have to be reached. These things are still early days. But some people are indeed acting in good faith while doing things that seem in bad faith to you.

The ‘used books’ arguments

Many of the same arguments against piracy I see used also work against used books. It’s a way for people to cheaply acquire books that makes us nothing. Yet, it allows discoverability, and people buying used books aren’t necessarily ‘lost sales.’

If your argument against piracy fails to work if the words ‘used books’ are inserted into them, then think hard. Some authors want to get rid of used books, or at least divert money from them to authors, as they really do view them as ‘lost sales.’

I understand the argument, but like with piracy, I view it as a discoverability cost to the author. And the negative PR that would come from authors attacking used book sales? In a digital book world it isn’t that dissimilar from what we face if we were to compare going after used books.

Wrapping it all up

I know it feels like a slap in the face when someone says directly to you they won’t pay for your book. I used to respond by trying to get them engage with the economics of their decision, but no one wants to be called immoral, or a bad actor, so the human mind will throw up barriers to protect itself in these arguments. You can’t win them.

Sometimes I will engage with people who complain about price as a justification for stealing. I will often talk about how poor I was growing up and how I had to fish for dinner and how amazing libraries were to me because they let me read books without paying: because $7.99 was too far out of my reach.

I understand why someone would choose to pirate my books when in poverty. Because I’d rather they were able to purchase a small meal than buy my book. And I remind everyone that the library is a great place for discoverability or not paying for my words, thus making that comeback argument (I use piracy to find new good books or because you’re too expensive) a harder argument.

But there is no point in a crusade. I only say those things if someone is asking me to engage in a question and answer session, or directly.

I believe piracy a neutral effect from all the studying I’ve done, but also that standing up to declare you didn’t pay for it for whatever mental judo justification you have means you’re being kind of a dick. But whatever. Like I said, some people think they have a right to steal donation candy too. Some people are genuinely hungry. Some people are trying to discover if they like the candy, and might become paying donation candy buyers. Some people are pissed that the candy store requires a full pat down and an armed security guard.

Rampant piracy hasn’t destroyed software creation. Its still growing. It hasn’t destroyed the music industry, although it was full of drama for a while. People are making music. The large corporations are still making music. So are lots of little guys. Even though record stores folded, half of all music is still sold via CDs. Seriously. Look it up. Piracy didn’t destroy the music industry, it just changed some of where things were purchased and destroyed one avenue of distribution (record stores).

I don’t personally believe piracy a threat, and haven’t seen convincing data for myself to believe otherwise. I do understand the authors who feel strongly about work being ‘stolen,’ but efforts to stop it just cost you more. JK Rowling refused to do an eBook edition, so everyone just pirated it, thus losing her those who would have paid. DRM only stops people who would have paid anyway, the ‘collector’ pirates are all smart enough to crack DRM.

Lastly, if it becomes damaging enough, assume that the large corporations, who’s interests are somewhat aligned with ours in this instance, will come up with a strategy. The fact they can’t, indicates we’re not going to do much better ourselves. They put some DRM on there, to slow down the rate of piracy but not stop it, and they occasionally shut down a big pirate site every once in a while. It’s like the physical book store: they put up a few barriers, but then just assume there’ll be some loss.

Even assuming piracy is something that could be stopped and stamped out, I’d rather a corporate team do it than me (and let them get vilified). I have writing to do. It’s the same reason I don’t design covers, inside typography, etc etc. I know what my specialized function is here.

Basically, my instinct is that I have better things to do than become angry. I understand why some authors think piracy is horrible. I don’t buy their arguments, they’re certainly not using any studies I’ve seen to prove otherwise, as all the studies I’ve seen demonstrate a neutral effect. I don’t buy that it helps me either, as the individual case studies also show that what you get is a neutral effect.

I’m rather ambivalent about it.

But in order to help discoverability, I put out the first entire third of my own books for free and in various formats so that readers can sample me. If you’ve read a third of my book and don’t know if you want to pay for it yet, then we’re probably wasting each other’s time. You don’t need a whole book to ‘discover’ me, is my opinion. (sidebar: just like authors say ‘if those 10,000 downloads of my pirated book were sales, I’d make XXXX much more, and thus I’ve “lost” XXXX much.’ But you know what, my legal 1/3 samplers get 5,000 downloads, way more than I sell regular copies, in much the same way. Since it’s only a 1/3 sampler, I know that these aren’t, as such, lost sales, but rather, samplers. I think this demonstrates the flawed assumption that download=lost sale a bit. Also, my books, due to the samplers, are not as crazily pirated, but are often downloaded as a sampler).

However, if you can’t afford me, that I do understand completely, as I’ve dealt with that before. For that I recommend libraries. If you have no libraries, then your life probably is not the sort of life where you also need me condemning you for stealing a book.

If you can afford to buy me, and you don’t want to read a free 1/3 and make a decision, you have some philosophy about how you’re owed a free book, then you’re the kind of person who’d steal a candy from the donation table. Then again, my time is wasted condemning you, you were a lost sale to begin with as you have an outlook on life that doesn’t make you someone I’d want to deal with in any retail situation.

Life is for the living, in my opinion, and not getting constantly outraged about. Maybe the world will come up with a system that looked at most pirated titles, divvied the sum up, charged a tax on internet access, and sent a portion of the proceeds on (like the Canadian library system), because if piracy really collapsed our incomes to 0, companies that made mega-money off of artists would demand something like that. The fact that things are proceeding leaves me… ambivalent.

That being said, I don’t think writers worried about piracy should be vilified. Consider, from their perspective, the lost sales argument seems extraordinarily compelling. It, gut feeling, feels right. But economics can be tricksy, and I don’t think that gut response is necessarily the right one.

That being said, who knows, maybe everyone pirates work and we’re all forced to stop writing.

Yet the fact that it hasn’t stopped people from making and making a living off other venues where the digital world and piracy have created a lot of fuss.

So from my point of view, it’s a rather neutral phenomena that hasn’t been proven to, with a very solid set of data, cause career implosions. If there was such a series of studies, we’d expect people to be discussing this. So far the actual studies that have been done indicate neutral results or slightly positive. What we have is ‘lost sales’ theory argument via anecdote, and I don’t buy into it.

PS: someone pointed me to one of the best studies I’ve seen, which looks at the Tor, O’Reilly, and Random House tests on free eBooks. You can read it here. Interesting bits:

With one exception, sales of the nonfiction titles increased after a free digital release, and when the sales of the books were combined, sales were up 5%. The majority of the fantasy/science fiction books that were not part of a group release also had increased sales, and as a group their sales increased 26%, largely as a result of “Title 12.” Four of the five Random House books saw sales gains after the free versions were released; in total, combined sales of those five books increased 9%. These three groups were in contrast to our initial hypothesis that book sales would decline. Although we cannot say that the free e-books caused sales to increase, a correlation exists between a free e-book and increased print sales.

The results of the Tor book sales were quite different. Only four of the twenty-four books saw increased sales during the eight weeks after the free version was made available. Two of these books (titles 32 and 41) both had releases of paperback editions that preceded the free book by only a few weeks. Thus for the majority of the “pre” weeks, a paperback version was not available. These newly released paperback versions could easily explain why the “pre” sales of these titles were less than the “post” sales.

So, no smoking gun that readily available freebies kill sales, but various mixed data, with the data experts concluding “The present study indicates that there is a moderate correlation between free digital books being made permanently available and short-term print sales increases. However, free digital books did not always equal increased sales.”

That’s what the experts said. With data, not anecdotes. Who had math. With tables.

So anyone saying definitely that half their sales are lost is really flying against what data seems to suggest.


Tobias S. Buckell is a Caribbean born SF/F author and NYT best seller who now lives in Ohio. He is the author of Crystal Rain, Ragamuffin, Sly Mongoose, Halo: The Cole Protocol and over forty short stories in various magazines and anthologies. His next novel, Arctic Rising, is due out in 2012 from Tor, and he’s working on his next book. Find him at

This post originally appeared on Tobias Buckell’s weblog.