RANT: On eBook Piracy (Again)

A teachable moment came across my Facebook feed just now. It came in the form of this article: Last year the eBook piracy industry cost American publishers $300 million. Go ahead. Click and read the article. And then read the comments. I’ll wait…

Ok, now we’re back and I have a few lessons to impart on this topic, so let’s start from the top.

AUTHORS: If you publish eBooks, they will definitely get pirated.

The sad, hard truth is that piracy is now so prevalent and wide-reaching there is no avoiding it. DRM? Someone already knows how to strip it. DCMA take-down notices? International server doesn’t recognize copyright laws. Or if they do, the book just pops up on another server the next day. Exclusively sell through only one outlet? You just made it that much easier for someone to upload your book to all the other outlets and, unless you search for it, you’ll never know.

You can’t escape it. Come to terms with it now, and prepare yourself to fight a whole lot of battles going forward, because it will likely never end.

AUTHORS: Piracy no longer means only that your book is available for free somewhere.

Pirates are now so sophisticated they set up entire storefronts and sell your book illegally, making the profits due to you. This is part of that $300 million of lost revenue. Check with all your eBook distributors to get a full list of stores that carry your book and do periodic searches for your book to make sure those are the only places where they show up. It will not guarantee your book won’t show up someplace else the next day, but it might just keep your losses to a minimum.

READERS: Authors/publishers do not owe you free content.

Read that again. No matter what your personal beliefs or life circumstance, it does not entitle you to steal. Entertainment does not fall under the definition of “information” you claim you should have free access to. Claiming you can’t afford a fiction eBook means nothing–no one is forcing you to read it, you want to read it. And if it’s worth that much to you, it’s worth paying for. Claiming you read too many books to be able to afford paying for them all? How on earth is that an excuse?? “I love travel too much to afford going to all the places I want to see, so I’m gonna stow away on airplanes and use other people’s hotel rooms to do it.”

No.

Authors do not work for free. Publishing good books costs money (up front), and we get paid back through sales. This is a business. We already put in the work; we do not owe it to you for free. You want to read an eBook that has a price attached to it? Pay for it.

READERS: eBooks don’t actually have a smaller ecological footprint.

Sure, no trees are lost in the making of an eBook, no heavy machinery is used to manufacture them. You’re right about that…

…Ever wonder where electronics come from? All that plastic, microchips, Lithium batteries, hazardous materials, packaging, shipping… How much energy and pollution do you think goes into the making of whatever device you use to read eBooks, to say nothing of bringing it to you from any number of international sources? And what happens to that device when it stops working, or you decide to upgrade to a newer, shinier model?

If you don’t know, maybe you should read up on it, and please get off your lame high horse and spare me the eco-conscious bullshit. At least physical books are made from a renewable resource. They are recyclable, biodegradable, and non-hazardous. They also have a resale value, make great gifts, and, when donated to libraries, help your local communities.

READERS: I like to own my own content

This is straight from the comments on that article. And the response to it was absolutely brilliant, so I’ll repeat it here: “Authors like to own their content, too.” They created it; they registered it with the US Copyrights Office. That means, by law, they decide how their content can and cannot be used, distributed, and shared. And that means, if you do not comply with their directions, you are breaking the law.

If you want to own what you buy, then buy a paper book instead. If it’s not available, contact the author and ask if it will be. Trust me, they will be delighted to hear there’s a demand out there. It might take time (paper books cost money to set up) but you might get what you want eventually.

FINAL THOUGHTS:

I like eBooks as much as the next person. They’re cheaper than print books, they’re convenient, you can get them instantly online and store thousands of them on your digital device, which makes them ideal for travel. For all these reasons, eBooks should be a beautiful happy middle ground between readers’ desire for great books and authors’ need to put food on the table.

That happy middle ground has now turned into a no man’s land. Authors big and small are losing livelihoods to piracy. How do people not understand that an author who is losing money on his/her books will eventually stop writing all together? How long before all the authors you love are driven out of business and all you’re left with is school projects and vanity publications that never came within sniffing distance of a proper editor or cover designer?

If you think I’m being dramatic, just look up how many bookstores and publishers went under in the last 10 years. Talk to your author friend and ask them how many people they’ve known who have given up on writing.

I’m not writing this to appeal to any sense of compassion. I know pirates only have excuses and disdain for the authors they steal from. Instead, I am writing this to caution you that if you continue to illegally download books you want to read, you will eventually run out of affordable books you want to read.

Because books are not like music. Even when you buy a music CD, you still listen to it on a digital device. Paper books are self-sufficient. When you buy one, you don’t need anything else to enjoy it, you just start reading. So guess what’s gonna happen when authors decide making things convenient for pirates is no longer in their best interest? They will go back to the print-only publishing model and you’ll end up paying 2-3 times more for your books, not including shipping.

Say, that’s a good idea…

AUTHORS: Want to avoid eBook piracy? Publish your books in print only! 🙂

Yes, I am angry. Not just about the piracy itself, but the bullshit attitude of entitlement that goes with it. I’ve been a published author for 10 years now, I’ve paid my dues and, vanity aside, I think I put out pretty damn good books. I deserve to be paid for the work I put into them. And I think I’m officially done being nice to anyone who tries to tell me otherwise.

So if you want to come at me with, “You should be grateful people are reading your books at all,” or “It’s free exposure, and the pirates might buy other books from you legitimately,” you can just fuck the fuck off out of my face. I don’t want to hear it.

End rant.

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On eBooks and DRM

The buzz stories from the last month are all about the state of the publishing world. Kristen Lamb did a series of really well-researched and written articles:

If you’re serious about becoming or continuing to be a published writer, do yourself a favor and read both of them. Trust me.

But for today, I want to focus on another article:

Ebooks Purchased From Microsoft Will Be Deleted This Month Because You Don’t Really Own Anything Anymore

First of all (and shame on me), I had no idea Microsoft started dipping its toes into the eBook business. But from the looks of it, that’s all they ever did, and they quickly regretted the choice. My guess is, they had no idea what they were getting into and weren’t in the least prepared for it. And now a lot of their customers are going to be very, very upset.

So here is where I put in my two cents’ worth.

Something many people don’t know about eBooks is that when you buy one from a Big Name store (Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble), you don’t actually purchase the book, you purchase the license to read the book. That has always been the case, and it means the article is very much correct: You do not actually own the content you purchased. You basically just own the right to access and read it whenever you want for as long as the store that sold it to you is in business. You are placing your faith and buying power behind the idea that your chosen store will remain in business indefinitely (or at least as long as you live).

These days, with the publishing landscape constantly shifting the way it is, there is a certain level of risk involved in doing that. But it’s the price we pay for convenience. You want your content delivered instantly to your device? That means giving the store access to your device and all its content. You want your content accessible anywhere from the Cloud? That means entrusting your content to someone else’s servers.

This is very much a faith-based business and sometimes, as in the case of Microsoft, that faith ends up being misplaced.

I know, it seems really unfair, but there is actually a good reason for things being set up the way they are.

Digital files work differently than physical copies. It’s time-consuming and expensive to make even ten copies of a printed book. Not really worth the effort when it comes to redistribution. But with an eBook, you can redistribute the file to an infinite number of people with just one click. That’s an infinite number of pirate copies of someone’s hard work just floating around the Internet for anyone to download without paying for it. It’s potentially several fortunes’ worth of royalties the author has just lost with the simple click of a button. Years and decades of hard work flushed right down the toilet, and back to square one.

This is where Digital Rights Management (DRM) comes in. It’s a piece of code that effectively locks your eBook so you can’t share it illegally. It’s there to protect authors as well as bookstores against illegal file sharing (piracy). It’s restrictive, but well-intentioned, and well within the store’s rights to protect its bottom line. After all, they’re not in the business of giving stuff out for free.

But with every lock, there will come a day when someone makes a counterfeit key. So it is with DRM. People everywhere are now sharing tips and tools for removing this piece of code, as if it’s a matter of course. They usually have valid reasons, like protecting their content from being taken away, or converting it to a different format so they can read it on a third party device. Mostly it’s due to a lack of understanding (you didn’t buy the book, but a license to it) or misguided entitlement (“I bought the book, so I should be able to do whatever I want with it!”)

But regardless of their reasons, removing DRM from an eBook is still against the eBook store’s TOS and (I believe) illegal, to boot.

Side Note: This is why I am staunchly against proprietary software, file formats, and monopolies in general. Big Name stores forcefully create loyal customers by making it convenient for readers to buy their content and highly inconvenient to “cheat” on them with other platforms and content. Think how impossible it is to transfer the songs you bought on iTunes to a different brand MP3 player. Same concept. Once you start using one proprietary platform, you sort of lock yourself into it. They don’t play well with others.

So what can you do to make sure your investment is protected?

As an author:

#1 Publish as wide as possible to give your readers options for buying your books. This not only makes the buying experience more pleasant for your readers, it protects your book from being uploaded to a store by someone else.

FYI: This happens a lot, especially to authors exclusive to Amazon. Someone will take a book, strip the DRM and upload to another store under their own account to illegally rack up sales for themselves. If/when Amazon find out, they can flag your account for having published elsewhere against their TOS. So not only do you get robbed of sales by a pirate, you also lose your legitimate royalties.

#2 Direct readers to all the places where they can buy your books, not just the ones you prefer. You never know where your readers like to shop. Giving them a link directly to a variety of stores makes it easier for readers to find and buy your book.

#3 If at all financially feasible, set up your book in print as well. If you can’t afford IngramSpark, go for LuLu. If you are a die hard Amazon fan, you can also use their KDP platform to create your paperback but I hear it’s gone down hill quite a bit since the days of CreateSpace.

As a reader:

#1 Take the time to understand what you’re paying for when you shop at a particular store. Microsoft is not the only store using DRM. They are not the only ones that can go under at a moment’s notice. Having a Big Name does not guarantee a store’s future success.

#2 Shop at stores that give you several options for file formats and don’t use DRM (Smashwords.com is an excellent example). Any time a store doesn’t have a dedicated reader device or app, they are more likely to give you options so you can use whatever reader or app you prefer.

#3 Purchase hard copies instead of eBooks. Yes, they are more costly but, if you’re like me and re-read your favorite books every year, it’s more than worth it. Plus, a bookshelf full of books is a beautiful addition to any home. 😉

Practicing what I preach: 

If you’re still with me, know that this is not one of those, “Do as I say, not as I do” things. I make my own books available worldwide, as eBooks and paperbacks (with only a couple exceptions), and I am slowly putting them into audiobook production, too.

You can purchase them at the Big Name stores (Amazon, B&N, Apple Books, Kobo) but if you want to have the freedom of eBook format choice, I recommend buying them from Smashwords.

For paperbacks, it’s always appreciated when you support your local independent bookstore and request a copy through them. It helps create some healthy competition in the marketplace and supports your neighborhood small business owners. 🙂 But if that’s not your thing, there’s always Books-A-Million as an online alternative.

If cost is an issue, I recommend checking with your local library. They may already have the eBook or even paperback version available and, if not, you can always request them. It saves you money, helps support the library system, and still gets authors paid. Win-win-win.

For those unfamiliar with my work, I write cross-genre, mostly science fiction or fantasy with varying degrees of romance. Each series is very different from the others, so buyer beware–you may love one and end up hating another. Here is a chart to help you navigate the different series:

You can always find more information and additional buying options on my author website: aliannedonnelly.com

Thanks for reading!