Pirates Ahoy

by Michelle Gagnon

I received a Google alert last week for a website called, “Plunder.com.” I clicked on it, and lo and behold, it led to a file sharing site. And there were all three of my books, in their entirety, available for free download. Including THE GATEKEEPER, which was just released two weeks ago.

Obviously this is not a rarity, I know plenty of other authors who have been the victims of piracy. And to the site’s credit, as soon as my publisher’s legal department contacted them, the files were removed. But still–who knows how many free copies were downloaded during the few days that the files were posted? Ebook downloads still constitute a small portion of overall sales–but did the free files make a dent in my Kindle and/or Sony Reader sales? Impossible to say.

The publishing industry is entering a new phase. They’re now confronting issues that the music industry has been wrestling with for the past decade. Year after year, total music sales have declined, and industry insiders attribute much of that loss to the continued popularity of pirated songs. According to a report issued in January by the IFPI, fully ninety-five percent of all online music downloads were unauthorized.
The statistics are much lower for pirated books, but it’s only going to get worse. As eBook readers come down in price, chances are they’ll become as ubiquitous as iPods. And when that happens, this type of piracy will become more and more prevalent.

Most authors who renewed contracts in the year since the financial meltdown saw their advances slashed by thirty percent or more. Combine piracy with the impact of the book price wars, and it’ll become nearly impossible for most writers to eke out a living from their work.

Last week Declan Burke posted a poignant message about why he’s decided it’s no longer feasible to pursue a career as a writer. Unfortunately, there’s a chance that more and more authors will be forced into making the same decision. Our own John Ramsey Miller recently posted about the difficulties writers face today, and how it only seems to be getting harder.

Some people argue that self-publishing ebooks will fill this void. To be honest, I have my doubts. First of all, the benefit of an advance is that it enables an author to pay the bills while writing the book. You also receive editorial assistance, marketing help, and distribution. I can say for a fact that without that editorial help, all of my books would have suffered. Sure, I could hire an outside editor–but that would involve more money out of pocket. Throw in cover design, formatting, marketing materials…and my ebook would enter the marketplace down a few thousand dollars. So I’d need to earn at least that to see a profit.

And if the marketplace is flooded with self-published books (which is already happening), how does an author stand out among the crowd? Even if you manage to claw out a niche for yourself, how do you sell enough books to earn a living? I know authors who are garnering a few thousand dollars a year from their ebooks, but that’s clearly not enough to survive on. And it’s only going to become more difficult.

Sorry to be all doom and gloom, but the truth was that seeing my work posted for free struck me as a harbinger of worse things to come. I spent a year of my life on each of those books. If you factor in the total hours worked on them, I earned less than minimum wage for their creation. And now someone was giving them away, completely disregarding all of that effort. Someone was basically saying that they were worthless, so people might as well have them for free.

I realize that “Rachell” probably didn’t have all this in mind when she converted the files so they could be shared. But think of it this way. You can’t leave a restaurant without paying for a meal, otherwise the next time you go, the restaurant will likely have closed since they couldn’t pay their bills. A good meal costs money to produce; so does a good book. If you don’t pay for things, down the road they won’t be there for you. So if you love books, and want to continue enjoying the same wide selection down the line, for God’s sake buy them. If you want to read them for free, get a library card. Anything else just makes you a thief, and in the end you’ll be stuck eating mac and cheese.


24 thoughts on “Pirates Ahoy

  1. Sorry to hear that your book was illegally distributed. That sucks.People who do that sort of thing without the distributor’s approval have no regard for the rights of the artist.
    However I am curious about one thing; why were you the one who had to stop this? You are not the publisher or distributor of your book so you don’t hold the license to distribute but you are protecting the distributor’s rights. What gives? Where were they? It shouldn’t be an author’s responsibility to stomp around the net in big black boots kicking ass and taking names. This makes you look all anti-reader and is Bad For Your Image.
    On the other hand it is really good to know that someone somewhere who would probably otherwise not bother to read your work (because of the price or the format) has read it. I guess you can think of it as a second-hand book sale in advance?
    It still sucks though.

  2. “And if the marketplace is flooded with self-published books (which is already happening), how does an author stand out among the crowd?”

    Thoughtful post, Michelle. Unfortunately, the times are changing. Recently, Harlequin announced their new self-publishing division called Harlequin Horizons. I’m afraid this is only the beginning.


  3. What’s most frustrating is their willingness to take the books down as soon as contacted by your legal department. They knew it was wrong; won’t even contest it. They’re no better than the asshats who spend their free time creating destructive virusus.

  4. Many years ago, Robert Bork wrote a book entitled, SLOUCHING TOWARD GOMORRAH. I never read the book, but I’ve always loved the title as a description for our times. We of a certain age remember when Right and Wrong were much more clear cut than they are today (provided, of course, that you were of the appropriate race, creed and religion). Stealing, in all of its forms, was wrong, as were cheating and lying. There was an element of shame attached to “accepting charity” and success in all of its forms–academic, athletic, artistic, economic, you name it–was earned solely through performance. Coming in second translated to being “first loser”, and the mere act of trying, while universally respected, was rarely rewarded. You made it or you didn’t.

    So much of that paradigm has changed. Our corner of the world has become way more cuddly than I’m comfortable with, and I think one of the results is this sense of entitled moral relativism that allows people who are not generally larcenists justify acts of theft. I’ll leave it to sociologists to sort out all of the causes, but it seems clear to me that ethics and honesty as we used to know them are evolving in the wrong direction.

    Then again, who am I to judge right from wrong? I’ll say instead that the evolutionary direction troubles me. Deeply.

    As for the direction of the publishing business, I think we authors need to stop thinking of ourselves as victims and start thinking of ourselves as navigators and architects. We’re entrepreneurs, every one of us (some more reluctant than others), and like entrepreneurs in any business, we need to remember that innovation is key. Our comfort zones are usually about us, and rarely about our readers or our defacto patrons (i.e., publishers). Staying relevant is our responsibility, not theirs.

    Just as an aging pitcher has to learn to deal with stronger batters, and opera stars have to work harder for the high notes in their forties than they did in their twenties, so, too, must authors knock themselves out to evolve with new tastes and technologies. They have to cope.

    If advances dip too deeply and royalties don’t cover the gap, then there’s always the day job. You make it work, just as so many millions who juggle two and three jobs to make ends meet. Sure, it can be hard, but who said it was supposed to be easy?

    At the end of the day, every author has to ask himself, “How much to I want this?” If the answer turns out to be not enough to make it happen, then it’s time to quit. No shame in that; just opportunity for the ones who want it more.

    John Gilstrap

  5. “I think we authors need to stop thinking of ourselves as victims and start thinking of ourselves as navigators and architects”

    I couldn’t agree with you more, John. Rather than wondering what’s going to happen to the traditional publishing industry, we need to embrace the new opportunities in technology being offered to us and realize that there’s never been a time when writers have more choices to get their words out to the public. Look at it this way: we’ve never been more in control of our on destiny that right now. And it’s only going to get more so as each day goes by and more companies fine more ways to make money. We can either utilize the waves of new innovation or get run over.

    And regarding pirate sites like Plunder.com. Get out in front of the illegal uploads by uploading the first three or four chapters of your book yourself followed by information on where to buy. Since the public is downloading electronic files, then push the fact that if they liked what they just read, they can buy your books for Kindle, Nook and Sony e-readers. Make what appears to be a negative work for you.

  6. Going forward, I don’t know what’s going to distinguish “real” writers from the self-published crap on the web. But I think dedicated, talented writers will ultimately find a way to make it work. Call me an ooptimist.

    p.s. That plunder.com site is absolutely infested with Trojans and spyware, so I wouldn’t recommend anyone toying with it.

  7. Great idea, Joe! Good Judo move. It never hurts to give the customer a taste. That’s why you see so many food ambushers in supermarkets.

    Looking at Plunder’s site, I get the feeling they just offer a place for others to upload files. Probably unaware that they carried copyright stuff until Michelle’s publisher contacted them.

    The new technology is going to open up the publishing field to a lot of previously unknown authors. New York no longer controls what we get to read nor who gets to be published. The reader can increase his chances of purchasing a good work by reading reviews when available, purchasing eBooks from legitimate publishers like AKW Books, rather than outfits that take on anyone, and shopping at the publisher’s site instead of the super stores (Amazon, B&N, Fictionwise, etc.) where anyone can be sold.

    Of course, if you know which book you’re after, the super stores can be a good place to find it. Browsing for something new is where the reader often finds him(her)self walking through a minefield.

  8. Keep the faith Michelle, I understand your feelings completely.

    We have a bootlegger who continues to dog us on ebay and via a website, churning out cheesey goods and selling them under our trademarks. I have been in intellectual property litigation for FOUR flipping years against her and her little cabal with no end in sight.

    On the reading front, it looks like my library’s copy of ‘Boneyard’ has been stolen. So, it’s off to Amazon I go, I can’t read ‘Gatekeeper’ until I get through ‘Boneyard’!


  9. Michelle – I’m glad you raise the issue though I wish it wasn’t because you found your own work illegally available! It may be inevitable but despite all the changes in the marketplace I think readers have to be aware that if you devalue artistic work in the end all you’ll end up with is crap.

  10. All digital forms of my work will include a hidden geometric spiralling pattern that will throw the reader into convulsive seizures by page 27 if they downloaded it anywhere except the authorized distributors.

    This feature is automated only when placed on an unauthorized file sharing site….pirate reader beware…you have been warned.

  11. A grandchild once told me “If you don’t get caught, it wasn’t wrong.” Needless to say I explained to him just why that was wrong, wrong, wrong. I think that sort of thinking is pervasive now. If you don’t get caught, do it.

    I believe in right and wrong. I have an indicator inside that tells me what’s OK and what’s not. I don’t need someone to catch me to tell me it’s wrong.

    I think we will eventually have some sort of monitoring on the web.

    Today I’m going out to buy Gatekeeper. It’s my only effective way of supporting the writers who give me so much pleasure.

  12. Thanks so much, Marilynne, that kind of support means more than ever these days!
    I think some very valid points have been raised here in terms of paradigm shifts in society at large. I think you’re right, John- I’m fortunate to have my grandfather’s WWI diaries, and the concept of honor seemed to mean a lot more back then, to more people, than it does today. The attitudes toward intellectual property theft is just one example of that change.
    I agree that there are opportunities buried somewhere in there, but still think it would be a shame if that translated to the vast majority of writers making their passion a hobby rather than a career.
    And Basil, I need your help, obviously-patent that idea, and there’s a fortune to be made.

  13. Michelle,

    I totally agree with you, and the restaurant meal analogy is a great one.

    Sadly, people don’t seem to make that translation when it applies to work in another medium.

    I’ve seen software developers who would scream about software piracy happily stealing music for free.

    And I’ve seen comments from a published author denouncing the theft of books online talk about bootleg music files ‘owned’ by said author in the next sentence.

    Stealing is stealing. Whether it is a meal someone made in a restaurant, a book someone wrote, or music someone performed. Online does not mean you should get it for free.

    Seems like people can’t seem to wrap their minds around the underlying moral principle that defines theft.

    And you’re right. If it continues will all be stuck with Mac and Cheese… and not the good, homemade kind with real cheese and buttered bread crumbs, but the stuff that tastes like the cardboard box it comes out of.

  14. Why do you blame piracy? Many authors have learned to embrace it and use it to their advantage. Paulo Coehlo set up his own site for pirating his own works, and saw his actual sales increase massively. Cory Doctorow gives away his works for free on purpose, and it’s turned him into one of the most well known SciFi authors around — and he sells a ton of books.

    It’s not the fact that the book was offered for free. It’s what you do about it.

    Sit around and complain and, yes, you might run into trouble. Learn to use it to your advantage and you can thrive. It’s not the piracy, it’s what you do about it.

  15. Mike-

    I’m a little puzzled by your comment.
    I currently lease the rights to publish the book to my publisher- I’m contractually prevented from posting my own work (aside from a few sample chapters) for free. And the problem is, the more free stuff out there, the less people expect to pay for it- ever. What you’re talking about with those other authors is basically self-publishing. And there are obviously merits to that, but they made that decision. No one posted their work for free without their permission. It’s a whole different beast.

  16. Michelle, you ask: how does an author stand out among the crowd? Connect with your fans, and give them a reason to buy physical books and other scarce goods. Also, focus on the Eight Generatives Better Than Free: Immediacy, Personalization, Interpretation, Authenticity, Accessibility, Embodiment, Patronage, and Findability.

  17. I just found your post today, and wanted to comment in reply to the Doctorow Borg above who blithely cites He Who Must Shill Himself Endlessly and will Do Anything To Get Attention for Bucks.

    As an author who has had a website for nearly a decade years, and who posts almost daily, I can say with a reasonable degree of certainty that what Doctorow is selling is a personal crusade against creator rights and not great writing. He is selling context far better than content, creating fame not great art. And that’s fine. But what he dismisses in the fog of his greed and clamour for recognition is the author or artist whose work is more thoughtful, less expansive, and doesn’t thrive on a personality cult fueled by ADD. It took me nearly 8 solid years to even begin to build a decent market on the web, and it is a tiny fraction of the money I earn from my legit sales. FREE doesn’t work for everyone. What Doctorow sells is not the same thing you or I sell. But he and his band of thugs prefer to bully, badger, harass and intimidate anyone who disagrees with them. If you even hint at protecting your copyright or trademark interests, you are the enemy of the cult of Doctorow and his multi-million dollar org Creative Commons Corporation – a scam if I ever saw one. Docotorow’s pyramid scheme of financing (a business model heavily weighted toward first movers like him) is almost impossible to duplicate for late-comers, and very few make a living at it. Doctorow and his cult ignore any evidence to the contrary, and tout dubious statistics about third rate creators who bring in chump change bucks with their freebie experiments. If you make a couple of thousand bucks giving away your book online, Boing Boing will sing your praises like you have discovered a new continent. If you mention you used to make a good living as an author and now you can’t make ends meet, they will sneer at you and their hordes will dance on the grave of your career. For surely as a dedicated author, you should be pleased with whatever scraps thrown at you.

Comments are closed.