Friday, January 29, 2010


by Lauren

I know we talk about e-books a lot around here (and around the publishing world in general), but two of the issues we haven’t touched on quite as much as other subjects are free e-books and piracy. Two blog entries this week made me think more carefully about both issues.

First, free e-books. Mike Shatzkin over at the IdeaLogical blog dissected the question of free. As he points out, it’s generally fairly accepted by those on the publishing and agenting sides that free e-books engender more sales than they endanger, at least in the short term. (Anecdotally, back when it was available, I downloaded the free e-book from of the absolutely stunning Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, who regular readers will know we’re quite fond of around here. Half way through reading the free e-book, I bought a hard copy, because it’s amazing; he deserves my money and so do his publisher and agent for making it possible for me to experience it. Plus, I need to share it with people who don’t have e-readers and ultimately give it pride of place on my shelf. Noticing the really reasonable price, I also told all my friends to go buy it ASAP. I know at least some of them did.) Do you lose some sales? Absolutely. But popular consensus seems to be that you gain more than you lose, and I fundamentally agree.

Shatzkin also goes into the separate questions of how we count free downloads vis-à-vis sales, and, more important, what impact the free download has on sales and the industry overall. We know it helps that book in the short term and probably in the long run, but does it hurt all books and publishers and retailers, etc., at the same time? It’s an interesting argument—and the sort of question that always makes me worry. How do you put the genie back in the bottle, and how do you know when it’s too late? If you’re not reading Shatzkin’s blog, you should, because even when I disagree with his conclusions, he always seems to take the conversation that extra step further and never fails to look at the big picture.

And second, a different kind of free: piracy. Sure, this piece on hard copy piracy through a nefarious chain of libraries is tongue-in-cheek, but it’s an interesting counterpoint to the people whose fear of piracy prevents them from embracing a technological revolution. I understand the concern of authors who feel that they’re losing money on piracy—in a time when they’re losing money on everything else (advances, royalties, returns, self-promotion), it must be aggravating to add to the list. However, we don’t ban libraries just because someone who took the book out of the library might otherwise have bought it. I don’t know that many avid library fans even though I know a lot of readers, but the people I do know who are addicted to their library cards don’t buy a whole lot of books. If libraries didn’t exist, they probably would buy more books a year because they are big readers, but we don’t use them as a reason to ban libraries. We also don’t count every book we lend to our friends as a loss of sales, and I actually think if my friends lost their library cards, they’d probably just spend more time looking at my bookshelves. If you create something worth experiencing, some people are probably going to experience it for free. If you think you should stop that, you’re sort of missing the point, but if you think you can just by not going digital, you’re really misunderstanding how the digital world works. Piracy still exists when it’s the only option in the digital format.  (Plenty of illegal e-books are not generated from hacked e-books, so not creating an e-book does not prevent piracy.) A library reader will probably not go steal the book from their local bookstore if it’s not available at the library, but a digital reader might just download the file elsewhere if it’s not available legally. For people who find that distressing rather than just the way of the world, it might help to know that the lesson of the music industry has been: if you don’t give a potential customer what they want, how they want it, when they want it, they will find a way to get it anyway. If you can figure out how to give them what they want, how they want it, and for a price they’re willing to pay, plenty of people will buy it rather than steal it. Don’t believe me? Ask Apple.


  1. In regards to the free downloads. I have downloaded about 3 books that were available for free. I haven't read any of them. To be fair, I don't have an e-reader, so that's probably why. Honestly though, if I wanted to read them, I'd probably get them from the library.

    Which brings me to the next part of your post. I am a writer with no money to buy books. Before someone says I should cut back on other things and support my fellow writers, I have...a real job! So essentially, my cost of living is very low because I buy very few things and that way I can stay home and write. This is the lifestyle I've chosen and it works great for me, but because of it, I use the library almost exclusively. So you're absolutely right. If I can't get it from the library, it's very unlikely that I will buy it. I'd love to be in a position to buy all the books I want, but I'd rather write full time instead. Libraries buy books...seems like people forget that. Yeah, they might only buy 2 or 3 copies, and it might get read by a lot more than 2-3 people (hopefully), but I think authors would really feel it if libraries stopped buying books! And if you write a popular book, they buy more copies. And if you write for kids, well, school libraries buy books as well. I really don't see that libraries are taking away from sales. Interestingly enough, often the books I do end up buying are ones I read from the library and can't live without.

  2. I don't use libraries because I tend to forget to return books. And then there are fees. And then I really don't want to return the books. So, I prefer to buy.

    However, I worked at a library for a couple of summers when I was a student, and I purchased several books that I had read while working. It was a really good way to try new authors risk free.

    One author I liked so much that I hunted down every book in the series I'd started reading at the library.

    Hmm...I think I just talked myself into renewing my library card, I've been feeling the need to expand my reading list, but haven't wanted to spend the money on authors whose work I've yet to read.

  3. Very interesting topic, Lauren. I'll go to the library to do research, but generally, I buy fiction. This practice is primarily to build up my own library (and to loan to friends). Often I will read a book over and over (ex. Harry Potter series), and it's simply more convenient to have the books on my shelves here at home. What if I want to reread Chamber of Secrets at midnight some night?

    I do think there is a market for all sorts of books. We don't all live in big cities with bookstores on neighborhood corners. For those book lovers way out in the sticks, I can see a larger market for ebook downloads. And hey, if they find FREE ebooks, more power to them.

  4. I am an avid reader, I have bookcases full of books - and I love the library. My wife is ecstatic that I got a Kindle(R) for Christmas because our bookcases are full. That being said, I download free e-books whenever I see them on If I like it I read it through, if not I archive it. But if I REALLY like it, I buy a copy. Perhaps I'll just buy more bookcases. But libraries are an excellent way to get to know a new writer.

  5. Free or the price is the next big war between publishers and retailers -- and between authors and publishers. What companies like (and authors who self publish on are finding is that the cheaper an ebook is the more copies it will sell.

    Look at the Top 100 lists on in any category. Notice all the free or cheap ebooks landing in the Top 100.

    The big publishing houses are looking to push up the price of ebooks with the release of the iPad at a time when consumers are cutting back on spending. This has already resulted in the first tug-of-war with Macmillan and it isn't going to be the last.

  6. I think the lesson I've learned from basically every person I know concerning pirating of music and movies has nothing to do with giving it when and how people want it--it has to do with the fact that it's easy and they won't get caught. Pretty much everyone I know illegally downloads things, and when I say I'm buying something on iTunes, the response I *always* get is, "But you could just download it for free." It irritates me to no end, honestly.

    I think if it's easy for a person to get something for free and without effort with an incredibly low chance of getting caught, a lot of them will do it. It seems that (with my age group at least) people don't even view it as theft. These same people would never walk into a store and steal a CD off a shelf, but they don't make the connection that what they are doing is the exact same thing.

    That's what makes me nervous about ebook piracy. As readers become more prolific, I can easily see how a person would go to Amazon or a bookstore, find what they want, and then go download it so that they can avoid paying for it. In college it seemed that everyone's excuse was, "Well, I'm a poor college student. I can't afford it." Unfortunately, that excuse never seems to wear off...

  7. Thanks all for the great comments! Joelle--totally agreed on the free e-books. I download every one I hear about, and I have two e-readers. I've still only read the one I would've bought anyway.

    Kaitlyne--your point is a valid one, but I'm not sure how one can build a business model around it. It's pretty easy to download illegally if you're already doing it (and almost certainly impossible to ever make it easier to buy than to download), and I know people who still get music and such that way. The lack of fear of getting caught is absolutely a motivating factor. But I've also seen people who used to be best friends with Napster become devotees of iTunes. I think those are the people who need to be targeted--the ones who WOULD pay, if it were easy enough and cheap enough--not the ones who never will. If in the future, there will only be pirates...well, intellectual property will end up devalued to the point that few will participate in creative endeavors, and then we'll all be sorry. I simply don't think there's anyway to forestall that without creating more dire consequences if it's in fact the coming future. Fortunately, I don't think it's quite so bleak. There will always be thieves, but if you build a business model around thieves, you can't make money. See JK Rowling, whose books are certainly downloaded--and often--but never legally, because she's prevented that option. Piracy WILL increase as e-books become more popular, but if sales also increase, well, I can't say I'm that concerned. Trying to roll back the tide of digital innovation simply isn't an answer. Prevention of piracy is important, but creation of a viable customer base is much more so.


  8. Thanks for a sane and sensible post!

  9. >>a digital reader might just download the file elsewhere if it’s not available legally.

    And it certainly *seems* as if most pirates are from overseas--*seems* being the operative word!

    I could be wrong but keeping track of illegal DL's is a part of my job and a huge problem IMNSHO seems to be the regional restrictions. Even people in the UK who own kindles can't buy my bosses books via their kindle because ... they're not available!

  10. What I hate is buying a book and finding I don't like it within 20 to 50 pages. I wan't read the reast anyway. I bought 5 sci-fi books on the basis of multiple reviews on the net. I couldn't stand any of them. I did finally force myself through Revelation Space because I promised someone.

    Why don't publishers give away the first 50 pages or 4 chapters or whatever and if that hooks people they will buy the book, either paper or e-book.

  11. It's a good article. I totally and I challenge the site of injustice every day and know new things.