This week I unwittingly got drawn into a heated debate on the merits and disadvantages of having your e-book disseminated by the ‘torrent community’ aka – pirates.

On the merit side of the fence was a British journalist/writer/teacher, Damien G Walter who proposed that getting your work ‘pirated’ is a very good way of marketing and selling your books on the internet. This I imagine is along the thinking that, if your name is spread around enough (and it certainly will be if your work is suddenly free to download) and what you’ve written is enjoyable, then said ‘pirates’ will be inclined to search out your other work and be tempted to purchase it. Now, on the face of it I did think that this might be a feasible way of getting your work ‘out there’ and, in fact, I’ve gone one step further and have made some of my work free to download anyway. But… I write for fun, I don’t have to write to put food on our table or pay the mortgage and that’s where the other side of the fence needs to be taken into consideration too.

It didn’t take long for the debate to warm up as writers such as Sarah Pinborough and Juliet E Mckenna, who make a living and depend on the sale of their work to survive, rightly put forward their point of view that piracy does in fact hurt their sales and I could see the worth of protecting the work through copywriting and attempting to make those pesky pirates ‘walk the plank’ for basically stealing from you.

Digitalbookworld.com did an investigation into digital piracy and their finding was that when surveyed 4 of those polled said no, piracy doesn’t hurt sales while 25 said yes.

But then you have someone like Hugh Howey who wrote Wool and started off by self-publishing novellas on Amazon through the KDP system and checks the ‘torrents’ regularly to see if his book is being pirated and feels bad if it isn’t as he thinks it’s no longer in demand if it’s not.

So there lays the conundrum, should you feel elated to see your hard work listed for free download and your name being widely broadcast? Or depressed because you probably won’t get a penny for all the time you’ve hunched over your keyboard inventing an imaginary world for your readers to immerse themselves in while your empty tummy rumbles and your bank manager won’t refrain from sending you nasty letters?

I asked the SF writer, Neal Asher, who has a PayPal ‘donate’ button on his blog, for pirates to use should they have an attack of conscience, if anyone ever sent him money through it. He told me it had been used three times.

My view? I think if you’re a small indie-writer like me who doesn’t have to depend on income from your work then perhaps piracy isn’t too much to worry about and it might even help get you noticed, but if you want to make a living out of your writing then to think piracy will put food on your table is somewhat naïve. I imagine the only ones making money from piracy are the file-share sites that host the torrents, and as e-books become even more popular they can only grow bigger….



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  1. Upon reflection, there are a couple of other things I should point out.

    First, the segment of the population that pirates books is actually quite small and there is a disproportionate large effect because the technically saavy tend to be readers. The general book, movie and music buying public don't pirate, and in fact, don't know how to pirate. As easy as it is for you or I to download something from a torrent tracker, most people have no clue.

    Second, one of the major factors in one of those technologically saavy decision to pirate a work is Digital Rights Management. DRM keeps legitimate owners of digital works from using what they have paid for in the manner they wish to use it. For example, Apple doesn't offer a epub reader for their desktops, but the epub reading software available cannot read books with DRM. I am forced to purchase and read on a specific device. DRM laden books cannot be lent, or sold second-hand. DRM books may or may not be available in every country. DRM books cannot be backed-up. Amazon has already proven that they can and will delete material you have paid for if they wish to, and do so without your consent or compensation. You do not own DRMed books; you lease them.

    By definition pirated ebooks are DRM free.

    Some of the major publishers (particularly SF and Fantasy) are now doing away with DRM. Will this make an impact on ebook piracy? It is too soon to tell yet, but we can look at what happened to the music industry once they removed DRM from digitally sold songs: sales increased. Dramatically.

    Can ebook piracy hurt authors? Certainly, but it is still early days in ebook publishing and distribution. Digital music distribution went through exactly the same process. There are still a great many options available to publishers and authors that should be explored to deal with ebooks, their distribution and their piracy.

  2. You may want to take a look at this, a new study released on the effects of "piracy" on purchasing. While ebooks may not yet be showing the same effect, that has more to do with the size of the audience rather than piracy itself. The growth of ebook sales has indeed been explosive, but compared to movies and music, books (especially digital books) are but drops in the ocean. Once the format becomes ubiquitous, I have no doubt that purchases by "pirates" will trend the same way they are with movies and music.

    Also, Neal Asher, as awesome as he is, isn't really all that well known here in North America where the bulk of "piracy" is committed so I am not surprised that his paypal button isn't used more often. To be honest, I wouldn't have bought and read everything he has written if I hadn't "pirated" his books in the first place.

  3. Here's a twist no one mentioned above: When I moved to my present community, I donated copies of my trade paperbacks to the local library. A few months ago we noticed that they were tired and worn from use, so I donated new copies. I suppose one could argue that this is just good marketing or "getting my name out there," but those library readers are still reading those books for free. Same for freebie promos on Amazon I ran awhile ago (I don't do that anymore). I don't have to make a living at my writing but I do value my work. Maybe the right principle is: if I don't actually give you a copy of my book, you should pay for it. I'm hoping to entertain people, but entertainment is not a charity.

  4. Bob, your comment on the surveys is inaccurate. It was 25 studies which stated that piracy harms authors/publishers and 4 studies which stated that piracy doesn't harm authors/publishers.

    For more information, go here:


    The days when piracy may have helped authors is long gone. Now that digital sales are often 50% of sales, even pirate fanboy Cory Doctorow is remarkably silent on the subject.

    Friends who have been watching their book sales as well as trolling the pirate sites for their books say that, if they have huge downloads of their backlist, that only means that their newest book will be put up faster when it comes out.

    Meanwhile, their sales numbers are falling.

    One poor soul I know put her book up for sale at Kindle. She had three book sales, but they were promptly returned for refund, and copies of her book appeared at all the major pirate sites to good reviews and thousands of downloads but hasn't sold the first copy of her book otherwise. That's a microcosm of what is happening to sales numbers.

    Readers need to be educated about copyright and the harm that all those pirated copies do to authors and readers. If an author doesn't sell books, the publisher doesn't buy her next book, and the reader loses more good reads. That's just sad for those of us who love to read.

    I have a series of articles on copyright and piracy aimed at readers and writers. I suggest

    “A Reader’s Guide to Copyright,” as a starting spot.


    1. Hi Marilynn,

      Where is the inaccuracy? I said "4 of those polled said no, piracy doesn’t hurt sales while 25 said yes" you've said, "25 studies which stated that piracy harms authors/publishers and 4 studies which stated that piracy doesn’t harm authors/publishers", surely that's the same? 🙂

      That example you showed of the 3 Kindle sales and following piracy downloads had to be really depressing for the writer 🙁

  5. The problem is that piracy has become too easy. There is little risk in the actual act and consequences have little meaning. When one engages in internet piracy there's no pitched battle, no risk of being killed by sword or axe. When you take your plunder, your victim still has it. Internet piracy can go unnoticed because there is no inventory missing.

    Nor can the internet pirates be hung by the yardarm as a warning to other pirates. It's all too clean.

    If someone had actually taken a book, made several photocopies of it, bound it like a real book and was hawking it on a street corner we would be appalled at his audacity. Were he to claim that he was merely sharing, or making some sort of political statement about words and ideas needing to be free… well, that argument would get him laughed at in court while the judge passed sentence.

  6. There's a huge difference between an author or publisher deciding to distribute a work for free and somebody else making that decision for you. What's important to remember is that when your material is distributed for "free" somebody (other than you) is making money on it, typically through click-through advertising on the piracy site.

  7. "The disheartening thing to me is that so many people are happy with the idea of taking something for free in a torrent, and never end up paying for it no matter whether they like it or not. Writing is not exactly a great way to make a living as it is, and as of yet the markets have not really adapted to the ebook revolution."

    Precisely. I find the assumption that people have that they can just take and not give back, profoundly wrong and offensive.

    The same happened with music about a decade ago.

  8. I have no doubt that some people have actually had their careers helped by piracy. Unfortunately, I also don't doubt that a lot of people have been harmed more than they have been helped. The frightening thing about piracy is that we frankly have little control over how far it goes with ebooks, and there is a lot of question as to how much writers should even try to protect their work because it can end up discouraging sales.

    The disheartening thing to me is that so many people are happy with the idea of taking something for free in a torrent, and never end up paying for it no matter whether they like it or not. Writing is not exactly a great way to make a living as it is, and as of yet the markets have not really adapted to the ebook revolution.

  9. If a creator considers every pirated copy of their work a lost sale then I can see why they would be very worried. Piracy, despite the best efforts of governments and big businesses alike, is growing. However, ever pirated copy of a work doesn't represent a lost sale. Just because someone downloaded a book, game, album or film doesn't mean they're doing it instead of buying that item.

    The industry numbers show a rise in sales almost across the board, even while piracy is growing.


    Is this down to piracy as many advocates would claim or something else, for example the ease with which people can access content now (legal download to own sites, streaming, low costs of e-formats)? Or a combination of factors including (and some induced by) piracy? Hard to say without resorting to personal stories (I bought X and Y after pirating Z) as no one's really plugged al the numbers together yet.

    On the whole though, I think the main body of pirates do put money back into the pockets of creators, especially as more and more creators are by-passing the big middle men, publishing their works themselves and/or interacting with their fans via blogs and social networks.

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