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  • [Reality Check] The True Cost of Ebook Piracy
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[Reality Check] The True Cost of Ebook Piracy
Written by
Zetta Brown
September 2013
Written by
Zetta Brown
September 2013

Howdy, folks! It's amazing how time flies when you take a month off.

How many of y'all have published in ebook format? If so, chances are good that you've been pirated. I've been pirated and I even traced down the b*tch on Facebook, but the harm had already been done and there is little that I can do about it to recover the damage they caused. Who knows how many people have taken my ebook and run with it. You may call them pirates and think of them (like they think of themselves) as these lovable rogues who are rebelling for equality. But they are not cute (like Capt. Jack).

In my opinion, they are ugly thieves. Digital thieves are worse than cockroaches. You can kill a cockroach and no one will care. Kill a digital thief and suddenly YOU are the bad guy. Go figure.

I'm going to kick off the season with an article written by my husband, Jim Brown. He is a professional ebook converter and knows a thing or two about piracy.


by Jim Brown

As a publisher and an industry professional, I abhor piracy and any form of copyright infringement. An awful lot of time and effort, by people ranging from authors, publishers, editors, cover artists, and typesetters, can be ruined in the space of the few seconds taken to download an illegal copy of an ebook.  It matters not whether the downloader is ignorant of the laws or simply malicious. Piracy is piracy. And it bears a cost.

A 2010 study claimed that piracy had cost US publishers $2.8 billion dollars in lost sales. That’s a frightening figure, and if we say that the average price of an ebook is $4.67 (source: allromanceebooks.com 2010) then that represents almost six million lost sales. If you’re an author or publisher and are thinking at this moment of just giving up, please don’t—read on.

Exactly how does someone come up with such an estimate? Well, this particular study was done by Attributor (more on them later), and was drawn from published download figures from just four file-sharing sites: 4shared, Scribd, Wattpad, and Docstoc, and levels of takedown notices (more than 53,000) of a total of twenty-five file-sharing sites. Those figures were then used to extrapolate the total number of possible illegal downloads of files from all sources. Business and investing books were the biggest targets, with technical and science books also popular.

So what’s the problem with that? Well, Attributor just happens to be a purveyor of anti-piracy solutions. That in itself would make me frown a little at the figures. After all, without piracy they have no customers. Talk about a vested interest!

The survey made the rather all-sweeping assumption that every single download is a lost sale, and that’s where it lost me. There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever to support the view that a pirate, unable to download the book(s) he/she is looking for, will instead simply buy them instead. There’s no evidence to suggest that the pirate even reads every book they download. The pirate comes in many forms, from the middle-class businessman to the cash-strapped unemployed person, and their reasons for downloading illegal copies of ebooks are as diverse as they are wrong, no matter what circumstances lead up to the deed.

The pirate may take one of the following forms:

  1. The File Junkie – he/she will download anything and everything they can, simply because it’s there, and have so many files they’ll never ever look at them all
  2. The “I want it for free” – he/she hears people talk about the latest book, song, or movie and wants it, but doesn’t want to pay for it
  3. The Smart-Ass – he/she knows it’s illegal and knows it’s wrong, but hey – who’s gonna know?
  4. The Ignoramus – he/she has no idea, or lacks the intelligence to realise, that piracy is wrong. “My friend gave me this link to copy stuff – it’s cool”
  5. The Uninformed – he/she has an idea it’s not right, but has no idea the harm they are doing
  6. The Poverty-Stricken – struggling for cash, probably unemployed, perhaps with kids to keep amused. The temptation will be too much for this person.

 #’s 4, 5 and 6 may well be the ones who could buy the ebook if it were not available to download, but 1, 2 and 3—sadly—are the most “dedicated” and possibly those who account for the most downloads—will have no intention of ever buying it.

So where does that leave our original $2.8 billion dollars in lost sales? Attributor used a heavy spoonful of speculation and assumption in finally arriving at that figure, and I think with a reasonable amount of common sense applied to the question, we would arrive at a figure that’s a fraction of the $2.8 billion stated. How big a fraction is another puzzle. I don’t doubt that the effect of piracy has a dollar amount attached to it, but sorry, it is not $2.8 billion.

But there’s a bigger cost of ebook piracy. It’s one you cannot put a cash figure to, but one that has a huge bearing on the book industry. Searching for, locating, collating, and taking down links to pirated books and sites that sell them only to see them reappear later in other venues, is something that costs authors and publishers time they cannot afford to lose. Some publishers even employ staff for the sole purpose of shutting down links and sites. It’s also a huge strain on the author, given the time and effort that goes into writing a book only to see how easily that book is devalued by the inconsideration of others.

The ebook industry needs authors. If chasing down pirates and download links becomes too much, they may simply decide enough is enough and stop writing. And there you have what could be the true cost of ebook piracy if something isn’t done to curb it – the loss to the industry of talent. Talent that in the long run it cannot afford to lose. No authors = no books.


Jim Brown is the founder and co-owner of JimandZetta.com,  a professional publishing services provider since 2008, providing print and ebook conversion services to publishers and authors alike. He’s also a former secretary and vice-president of E.P.I.C. (the Electronically Published Internet Coalition). Born and raised in Scotland, he traded his kilt for cowboy boots and now hangs his hat in the great state of Texas.


Got a [REALITY CHECK] about the publishing life to share? If you would like to be a guest on my blog, please friend me on She Writes with a message! :)

©2013. Zetta Brown is the author of several published short stories and the novel Messalina: Devourer of Men. If you like this post, then stop by Zetta’s Desk or Zetta’s House of Random Thoughts.

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  • Jim Brown

    @Karen - there's no safe protection in traditional publishers. Their books are even arguably targeted more because they are a higher profile target. The Harry Potter series was pirated into ebooks long before they were officially released as ebooks. But I will repeat, my intention is not to put anyone off publishing ebooks or self-publishing, only to bring the subject of piracy to your attention, because it does exist. When a product is put out on the market, be it a book or a pair of sneakers, there will alwasy be those minority who choose to try to take personal advantage of it. Counterfeit goods are, in my opinion, a far bigger issue to the clothing and footwear industry than ebook piracy is to the publishing industry.

    My point was that the real cost of ebook piracy wouldn't be lost sales (because I think those are vastly overestimated), would be authors being put off by the existance of piracy. You've pretty much proved my point yourself, but I implore you not to do anything other than work normally towards publishing in a manner that is going to best benefit you.

  • Karen A Szklany Writing

    This type of article makes me want to keep submitting to traditional publishers instead of self-publishing, or making my own versions of my stories as artist books, instead of selling independently.

  • RYCJ Revising

    ...piracy is a large influence for keeping the print industry in demand. Print books can still be pirated, but the *value* of printed materials exceeds that of digital or virtual materials.

  • RYCJ Revising

    Zetta! Calm down... Oh Boy! Now this is THE post that belongs in the "Hall of Publishing Minting Fame."

    Not so long ago quite a few didn't view piracy as such a big deal, which YES, I agree that stealing is wrong. And stealing in mass, or piracy, well that one always had me speculating when it would become a very big deal. 

  • Tasha Turner

    LOL as to how many books we own and when are we going to find time to read them. It's a good point. In our family's physical library we have over 5000 books and maybe 100 haven't been read yet. My kindle library has over 3300 books, I've read over 500 of those. All the books I own were bought, given to me to review, or downloaded as freebies. Will I read them all? Probably not but I don't value them less. It's sad that I can't share many of my kindle books the way I can my physical books.

    I'm with Jim on don't let worrying about piracy keep you from publishing a book and don't spend much of your time and energy on pirates. Focus on building a platform, getting the best book out there you can, and then move on to the next book.

  • Jim Brown

    Thank you for the continued comments on the article. While it was my intention to bring the subject of ebook piracy to the attention of the group, I certainly don't wish to put anyone off ebooks and ebook publishing. What has to be borne in mind is that any and all figures produced to indicate levels of piracy are at best only estimates. The report in my article drew figures from only those few legitimate file-sharing sites that give figures for the numbers of downloads of all shared files (not pirated ebooks - pirates and illlegal sites are not going to give out any information), and that was used to estimate how much piracy could exist. I personally think the figures are way off the mark, and dollar amounts hugely inflated. The purpose of the article was to show how easy it could be for authors to be put off by subject of piracy. While I think piracy is an issue, I don't think it is a problem that is ruining the ebook publishing industry.

    What is a pirate? It's someone who copies an item, either for their personal use or to give to someone. Yes, there are people who try to make something out of it by putting up illegal file-sharing platforms but let me come back to that in a moment. I think by far the huge majority of readers are normal purchasers of books. That's shown by the huge success of the likes of Amazon and Apple in selling ebooks. But sometimes people will give the copy of an ebook to a friend, just as we used to do when we'd finished a paperback, except they probably don't realise that to do so is wrong because they are copying it rather than giving it away in its entirety.

    There's also those people for whom collecting freebies is almost an addiction. They may go to a pirate and get a copy of thousands of ebooks. Just when are they going to get the time to read those? Never, to be honest, and they may see a great book later on Amazon and buy that because they DO want to read it.

    The question of freebies also raises an issue in my opinion. I feel strongly that, as a collective industry, we are giving away far too much for free. It seems that everyone is falling over themselves to give away ebooks for free, having been led into the opinion that you now have to give stuff away for free in order to gain a readership. If ebooks are regularly given away for free, it is so much easier for 'pirates' to feel everything should be free. I recall in a Kindle readers group I am in reading about a lady who proudly proclaimed she now had over 400 free ebooks on her Kindle - all legitimate freebies. I showed Zetta the post and said to her, "Just when is that woman ever going to buy another book? With 400 to read it would be years!"

    As an industry we harm ourselves by giving away too much for free. It can give reason for readers never to need to buy another book, and can allow pirates to feel vindicated because the 'free' culture is seemingly supported. I think it is much more important to concentrate on pricing your ebook product properly. Your efforts as a writer need all the reward you can get. Be careful about what you give away. Use a freebie as a short-term means to promote a new book, or to wake-up an older title, but price your product accordingly. If your ebooks are set to the optimum price it can do much to discourage people from just copying it.

    Piracy exists, yes, but the worst offenders are people who will not buy the product anyway, or opportunists who take the copy that is offered. That doesn't make it ok, obviously, but many sources try to proclaim every copy of an ebook to be a lost sale, and I think that is wrong. It leads to over-inflated, scaremongering figures being produced.

    The question of DRM has been raised too. DRM can help, but it is not the complete protection. What DRM can do is cut down on the opportunism. Most people won't go searching for the ways to crack the DRM, so it's left to the serious pirates to do that - the ones who have no intention of buying anyway.

    Vigilance is key. Authors set up Google Alerts to search for their book titles, which can indicate where a book is available whether for legitimate sale or as a download from a pirate site. Pirate sites have to be hosted, and many authors will issue takedown notices to the site offering the download AND to the webhost. Legitimate webhosts do not want illegal conduct being practiced on their servers.

    We all need to be aware of piracy, but I implore you all not to feel that the spectre of piracy is ruining the industry. Many industries suffer from this and from counterfeiting, and while it is sad that people do it, it doesn't diminish the huge success that ebook publishing has achieved in the last ten years.

  • Dera R Williams Writing

    Thanks Jim. I have a better idea of what is going on. And thanks Tasha for your input. Wow, I had no idea. I'm working on an ebook;lots to think about.

  • Tasha Turner

    Advertising on pirate sites I believe is pretty big business. Downloading a copy of a book and stripping its DRM is not that difficult according to a number of my friends who do this so that retailers can't pull books they've purchased and if new formats come out they will be able to convert them. These same skills can be put to use to pirate your books. If you use google alerts you may be able to find out when your book is on a pirate site. Some of my indie friends spend hours a week going after pirated copies. Others feel their time is better spent writing more books and being creative with freebies and pricing. It's interesting to note that Baen books do not put DRM on their books and do a lot of creative packaging and freebies and I believe have one of the lower pirated percentages as of a year or two ago (I haven't been able to find the article about this since I originally read it).

  • Jim Brown

    Piracy takes many forms, and in my discussions with publishers it's came to light that there's some reason to believe that electronic review copies sadly make their ways to the pirates. Also pirates can and sometimes do, scan print books to make ebooks. It is in this fashion that the Harry Potter books were illegal ebooks when they hadn't yet been released in that form. This is one of those issues that can indeed make you wonder if it's worth it all, but my own personal opinion is that it is worth it.

    Pirate sites do list thousands of books which can look bad, but many sites are nothing but portals to 'grab' creditc card details from unsuspecting people who think they are getting a cheap deal. There's also a reasonable train of thought that says the ones who are the hard-core pirates will never actually buy those products anyway, and so the effect on lost sales may not be anywhere near as bad as is led to believe.

    However, piracy is an issue regardless of how big an issue it might be. When Zetta said they were rebelling for equality she meant they simply 'want' what others have - except they don't want to pay for it. Piracy is combatted by a number of people who remain vigilant - one of whom is Rowena Cherry who has become like a bane in the pirates backsides. She lobbies governers, senators, and government. Her yahoo group is http://groups.yahoo.com/group/AuthorsAgainstE-BookTheft/. Her stalwart efforts have shut down many pirate sites.

    Many of the 'successful' pirate sites are based overseas and so are harder to combat against. Unless a country has signed up to the Berne convention for copyright control it can be impossible to get them shut down.

    Thank you everyone for the comments. I will keep up with them and reply again if need be. But please feel free to ask any questions. I will answer if I can.

  • Sheree Nielsen

    I just read another article on ebook piracy recently.  Makes you not want to publish an ebook, doesn't it.  It's sad this is happening.  Are the 'stealers' paying for their ugly acts of theft?

  • Dera R Williams Writing

    I didn't finish my thoughts. How can these "sites" post books that were pirated and distribute to others? Is it only illegal when you get caught and threatened with litigation? How do they make money if the ebooks are free? What is their purpose for this? Why the risk?

  • Dera R Williams Writing

    Okay, I hate to sound naive, but how can you pirate a book other than obtaining a PDF link that someone sends out? What other ways are there? Is that file sharing? Several years ago, a link to a PDF went out in a group I'm in for a current NYT best seller. I assumed someone in that traditional publishing house leaked it out? How else could have happened? Despicable and dfishonest to say the least. So how does secenario #3 get his or her pirated copies?

    And what does Zetta mean by these pirates are rebelling for equality? I told you I am very naive about this situation.

  • Maureen E. Doallas

    Such an important issue! Excellent post.

    A while back I discovered by chance that someone had taken a lot of my blog content, including my poetry. I contacted Blogger and within a couple of days the site "featuring" my work was shut down. E-theft is ongoing. Trying to control it most of the time seems futile. Like hackers, content thieves are always out there and finding new ways to do wrong.

    Many people, even intending to do no harm, never think to ask a person if they might use that individual's content; they just copy and post it. I've found a number of poems from my book on other sites where permission was neither requested nor noted in accordance with licensing. Some attribute; some don't. It's the latter that really infuriate, and I usually leave a comment making it clear how I think about that.

    I do wish Blogger and other blog sites would find a way to add a watermark to content so that when it is lifted the true author's name appears. Better yet, it would be great if the hosting sites and e-publications made it impossible for anyone to copy content wholesale. 

    Outing a thief publicly is something everyone should think to do. Today's social media can be the public stocks of yesteryear. Not so long ago, the poetry community internationally outed a content thief. He had not only stolen many well-known poets' work; he resubmitted it for publication!