Tobold's Blog
Sunday, October 23, 2011
Pirating eBooks

A reader kindly directed me towards the Mobile Read Forums, a great source for free eBooks without copyright. That and Project Gutenberg would be enough to keep somebody reading until the end of days. But while searching for free eBooks, I inevitably also stumbled upon the other kind of "free", that is free but illegal. And I noticed something which is slightly different in eBook piracy compared to the piracy of films or music: eBook files are generally small, often under 1 MB when without pictures; and in consequence people pirate complete libraries. Finding a torrent with hundreds or even thousands of pirated books is not unusual.

Jeff Bezos presented numbers during his Kindle Fire presentation showing that Amazon is now selling more eBooks than physical books. Their profit margin is only dented by the fact that they sell the Kindle devices at a loss. They obviously wouldn't do that if they thought that people would then stuff their Kindles with pirated eBooks. While all we hear from the music and film industry is wailing about piracy, the eBook industry appears not be very concerned, in spite of the fact that pirating eBooks is easier than pirating films or music.

Thus I wonder whether people reading eBooks are inherently more honest than people consuming other forms of electronic content. Maybe it is only people of a certain age and social class that are interested in books at all. This summer, during the London riots, the only shops that weren't looted were book stores. The underprivileged young people who thought that society owed them something and took everything they wanted by looting obviously weren't even interested in books when they came for free. It stands to reason that in calmer times, when looting is limited to electronic piracy, these priorities don't change.

Personally I generally don't pirate. I spend a lot of money on DVDs, mostly of TV series, instead of downloading them illegally. Music is less of an item, but what songs I own either came on legally bought CDs or from iTunes. But then I am middle class (in the UK definition of the term, not the US one which includes the working class) and middle aged. Thus presumably I will be a good customer for Amazon for eBooks too, only downloading for free the books that have no more copyright (and even Amazon has lots of those for free). The only problem with that is that there are books I already paid for in the physical form, and if I want those on my Kindle, I will have to pay for them again.

Feels like free to play. Some pay for others who play free.
I think Amazon wins because it makes it easier to buy a book than to pirate it.

I'm happy to pay for convenience - with the kindle (in my case on iPad and Android Phone) I really can start reading the latest Terry Pratchett novel in less than 30 seconds, whilst at work!
It has to do with the same dynamic piracy introduced to music: piracy is terrible for the superstars, but great for niche enthusiast-driven acts. Superstars with wide mass-market appeal have a lot of "casual" fans that are only vaguely engaged with their work. These are the sort of fans that enjoy the superstar's work but won't hesitate to pirate, because they don't feel a strong personal affinity withthe superstar.

Niche artists, on the other hand, profit from piracy because of the exposure with a wider audience (which they would otherwise have difficulty obtaining) and the fact that their fans are more likely to be highly engaged and feel strong personal affinity as part of a subculture/alternative culture.

Now here's the thing with literature: outside of, say, Harry Potter-level franchises, nearly all literature, from your pomo navel-gazing literary fiction to say Dungeons and Dragons novels, is niche. I'm pretty sure JK Rowling and Stephanie Meyer have lost some sales to piracy, because there must be quite a few casual readers out there who just wanted to read the books to find out what the fuss is about. But for everything else? Their readers are more invested.
"The underprivileged young people who thought that society owed them something and took everything they wanted by looting obviously weren't even interested in books when they came for free."

They no doubt were aware of the genuine risk of finding a book that might teach them morality.
As a bookseller I can tell you that the age profile of our customers continues to spiral upward. Children's bookselling is a vibrant market and teen fiction is strong too, but once you hit the 20s it just drops off a cliff until it bounces back around pensionable age. You'd need a sociologist to tell you the reasons but it seems that getting children to read books doesn't mean they'll buy them when they grow up.

Physical book sales are in long-term decline. There's only one high-street book chain left, where only a few years ago there were four or five. Independent bookshops are closing all over the country.

The future for physical bookselling is most likely going to be as a luxury market. We are selling more high-value, high quality books. Books as lush physical objects of desire, sold more for how they look and feel than any meaning they contain. That "feel" can't be replicated digitally and people desire it.

From what I read from the trade press, digital sales are very strong and growing so it may be that we aren't witnessing the death of reading, just the decline of the book as the transmission device.

As for pirating books, in my experience most people who buy eReaders of whatever ilk simply don't have the knowledge to access pirated sources. Judging by the queries we get most of them find it sufficiently challenging just to switch the device on and off.
I tend to feel some emotional attachment to the authors and books they produce. I think the genuine accessibility of the individuals who create books has a lot to do with that bond.

I'm not sure that stops me from pirating their books though as I don't pirate TV/Films either!

With a book there's a shorter path from author to reader than there is from actor(s) to TV and it's easier to see how pirating may impact that author than it would be hitting Mr Pitt's wallet by downloading his latest blockbuster.

There's also a price differential to consider - books are generally much cheaper than a Blueray, often in the region of £5 vs £20. The consumption time is inverted though - a movie will take a few hours but a book will last 20+ hours.
Looting books has a worse price/weight ratio than electronics and clothes with expensive logos. The looters were just following the law of RPGs: take everything and leave the cheap stuff.
Unlikely, Klepsacovic, as one guy went to jail for 6 months for looting a 6-pack of bottled water.
For a rather interesting read from an author against drm and some aspects of current and trending copyright laws check out:
i would have no problem pirating ebooks of physical books i already own. i wish there were a legitimate process for getting these books in digital form since i already own hard copies, but there isn't.
Tobold, he was clearly just a really bad gamer.

Why would I pirate a book? I can use a library if I want a free book to read once. If I want to read it many times, I like to own it. If I just want something to read in general, there is a lot of free writing on the internet, from blogs to online news and commentary.
Cory Doctorow ( has some interesting essays about this and in fact he makes most of his books available for free download as well as selling them through publishers.

One important point he makes is that for the vast majority of authors obscurity is a bigger danger than piracy. Apparently there are also studies that suggest that people who pirate books are also likely to spend more than average on real books.

Cory's fiction is mainly aimed at young adults but enjoyable enough none the less. FTW is all about Gold Farmers and politics so that definitely worth a read.
Valor has it. It's just easier. Amazon is curated, the books are of a guaranteed quality level, and they are risk-free. Bootlegs are (relatively) hard to find and download, often poorly edited (since they are from OCRs) and high-risk for viruses and trojan.

It's the iTunes effect. iTunes found the price-point where people would rather pay the money than go through the hassle of pirating. Automatic delivery to the device has something to do with both of them too.

For example, take a look at Johnathon Coulton. He gives away all his music for free on his own site. And yet he still makes a decent amount of sales on iTunes for the same songs. Why? Because it is easier to find him there and it makes it easier to get it on your iPhone.
I don't pirate books - however, I DO break the DRM. I don't like the Kindle app on my iPhone, I use a different reader, so for whatever I buy from Amazon I break it.

I'm a big Baen reader, they get more of my book money than anyone else does (although at the moment I'm reading something from Amazon) and one of the major reasons is that they don't use DRM.
The low cost-per-hour of books ensure that more people will buy them than with something like music. People are actually moral, and even though most people don't mind pirating something they also don't mind paying a bit if they think it's worth it.

Of course, if there is more hassle to buy something than pirate it, a lot of people go for the quick solution, but especially for the Kindle buying is mostly the quickest way to get the book, and it's the cheapest entertainment you can get as well.

Well, apart from being a hardcore wow-player of course, if you don't consider hardware costs.
Two quick notes: there's no particular evidence Amazon sells their devices at a loss (certainly Amazon have always denied doing so), just rumours, often spread by people with agendas.

And yes, pretty much all you hear from the publishing industry is that "Piracy is the #1 threat to e-books." It's just that unlike the film and music distribution industries, nobody outside the book distribution industry much cares, so it doesn't get very widely reported.

As a consumer I'd rate arbitrary geographical restrictions and the Apple Price-fixing Scheme as much greater threats to long-term growth - I won't pay greater than hardcover prices for a reprint of a 25-year-old paperback, and even if I were willing to, I'm probably not allowed to buy it - than file-sharing.
Jim Baen definitely got it, and so do his authors. When everyone thought Jim was crazy for setting up a free library and selling the paid books without DRM, Eric Flint wrote this:

- - - - -

And, just as important -- perhaps most important of all -- free books are the way an audience is built in the first place. How many people who are low on cash and for that reason depend on libraries or personal loans later rise on the economic ladder and then buy books by the very authors they came to love when they were borrowing books?

Practically every reader, that’s who. Most readers of science fiction and fantasy develop that interest as teenagers, mainly from libraries. That was certainly true of me. As a teenager, I couldn’t afford to buy the dozen or so Robert Heinlein novels I read in libraries. Nor could I afford the six-volume Lensmen series by “Doc” Smith. Nor could I afford any of the authors I became familiar with in those days: Arthur Clarke, James H. Schmitz, you name it.

Did they “lose sales?” In the long run, not hardly. Because in the decades which followed, I bought all of their books -- and usually, in fact, bought them over and over again to replace old copies which had gotten too worn and frayed. I just bought another copy of Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters, in fact, because the one I had was getting too long in the tooth. I think that’s the third copy of that novel I’ve purchased, over the course of my life. I’m not sure. Might be the fourth. I first read that book when I was fourteen years old -- forty years ago, now -- checked out from my high school library.

In short, rather than worrying about online piracy -- much less tying ourselves and society into knots trying to shackle everything -- it just makes more sense, from a commercial as well as principled point of view -- to “steal from the stealers. ”

Don’t bother robbing me, twit. I will cheerfully put up the stuff for free myself. Because I am quite confident that any “losses” I sustain will be more than made up for by the expansion in the size of my audience.

For me to worry about piracy would be like a singer in a piano bar worrying that someone might be taping the performance in order to produce a pirate recording. Just like they did to Maria Callas!

Sheesh. Best thing that could happen to me. . .
Piracy is as much about getting what you want quickly and without having to bundle it as it is saving money. A lot of pre-internet companies are still trying to get paid a rather ridiculous amount of money for their product because they haven't come to terms with the fact that they are ultimately just selling data.

Piracy became popular because the music industry kept trying to get you to buy a $20 CD to get that one good song on the CD. That's $240 to get an hour of music you actually want to listen to if you only want one song per record. .99 cents is much more reasonable, but $12/hour is still a bit high. (I'm assuming the average song is 5 minutes long for that math, so the real price is probably higher).

With TV I think piracy will become less and less of a problem because you can generally get what you want either with a reasonable subscription to Netflix and Hulu, or you can buy the episodes for 2 bucks a pop on Amazon. With movies they want to charge you $13/hour of video and they want to control when you get to see it (you have to see in the theatre and then buy the blu-ray, so in that sense they want to charge more like $20-30/hour); Amazon charges $2 per hour for TV shows.

Basically my point is that if you don't try to control access by making people buy the product two or three times like with movies, or charge a really outrageous price for said product, like with music, piracy is not going to be a really huge concern. 8 bucks for a book that will entertain you for hours and hours is well within the price range that makes people willing to pay it, both out of a sense of fairness and out of a feeling that going to the trouble of pirating the stuff is just not worth the hassle.

So, at least for me, I'm finding myself pirating much much less that I used too because companies are coming around to the fact that they can no longer strong arm me into paying exorbitant prices for their data, and that the way to get me to pay for their product is to make it very convenient and cheap to purchase their products legitimately.
I would gladly pay money for e-books -- provided that the price is right. Living in the Netherlands, Amazon sends me to their US site. And for some reason, the e-books I can buy there cost MORE than dead-tree edition versions (at least when recently released). And if I buy a dead-tree version in the UK, getting a discount, no transport costs, et al, the price difference becomes even more pronounced. And Dutch e-book sellers have a very small stock of non-Dutch books (and even of Dutch books I want, though I prefer to read my fiction in English).

If only they'd let me use the UK shop for the UK prices (or the UK prices modified with Dutch taxes or something similar), I would be happy to use that, and pay actual money.

So, right now, I either stay with dead tree versions of the books I want, or "find" version on the Internet for free.
@Krel I don't pirate ebooks, either. Nowadays it's not quite hard to do but I'd rather buy them from All you can books.I'm feeling better about myself and my book because I know that the money goes to the author.
It is interesting, but I think it's accurate that your average music or video game pirate isn't all that interested in literature. Or your average 16-40 year old. I started reading less when I had less time. Books are investments in terms of entertainment to me. Getting a Nook changed that for me, because of the portability. Not only do you have a virtual library in that little slab, you can read on your phone, PC or tablet, basically it's always there for you. I think more people will be pulled back into books because of this.

I pay for media because it's right and because it should benefit me to do so. I want to reward the creators and publishers for providing me with entertainment, because if I do so, they're more likely to create stuff that I will want to buy.

A lot of the people who advocate piracy seem to justify it by claiming that it actually helps the artists whom they are victimizing, or by saying they wouldn't buy this anyway so they aren't actually losing any real revenue. Both are crap. A creator of content is perfectly capable of giving that away for free if they choose. You are not doing any favors by pirating against their will.

So... against piracy... but not innocent. I have downloaded ebooks which I presume were scanned in because the actual ebook is not available anywhere at least that I can find. A lot of novellas or collections fit this bill. When possible, I try to purchase a new copy of the work in print, but again, sometimes these are out of print as well. Buying a used copy would allow me to justify it legally somewhat, but I care more about rewarding the owner of the copyright, so in those situations it's a bind.

I'm sure I could have easily pirated the Wheel of Time collection I've most recently plowed through on my Nook. But I'm more than happy to spend the $120 or so on the books because of the enjoyment they offer. I know Robert Jordan isn't getting any of this money himself, but his family is. Because of the fact that bundles don't seem to exist in the ebook world, and finding books in a series can be more complicated than it needs to, it might actually be easier to pirate them. But, it would feel very wrong.

I think the value proposition of ebooks for the most part is correct as well. There's inconsistencies (why is this paperback less than the ebook, and such) but for the most part, you get good value for your money.
Phelps makes a great point. I started reading tons of books from my library. But when I started working and read most of my library's scifi & fantasy books, I started buying my books. At the price of ~€7 a book the price is no issue as that book will give me hours of entertainment. However, I do expect the online books to cost less than €7 which just isn't the case at the moment.

As for pirating, since I started using Steam I've pretty much stopped pirating games. Steam offers cheap deals, offers very fast download services and you don't have to mess around with cracks. It's better value than piracy for an affordable price.

For TV series, I'm still downloading them as there is no proper alternative. I downloaded the Game of Thrones series. There isn't even a release date for Belgium... If they want me to stop pirating TV series, the solution is simple: show them the same day you show the series in the USA. Then I'll be happy to watch it on TV.
I was about to order a Kindle when I started looking for certain titles I wanted for it. Once I realized they weren't offered I decided not to purchase it.

I mainly read Warhammer novels, Fantasy and Sci-Fi. I have bags and bags of books that I have read or intend to read. I would have gladly repurchased most of those had they been available on the Kindle. Alas the Black Library doesn't seem to be on the Kindle.
example 1: ebooks are awesome to get books from publishers back-catalog, but more than one publisher decided already to only sell their "current" set of books. Most times, "piracy" was used as reason for that ... how it reduces piracy if you cannot get the ebooks legally anymore is to anyones guess.

example 2: my beloved ISP enable their porn-filter with the result, that I could not buy my eComics anymore without forking over monthly money to "enable premium services", but of course torrent sites are not on the filter.

In both cases I blame technical ineptitude paired greed for causing piracy (meaning an MBA must have been involved in the decision process).
"Personally I generally don't pirate."

"Generally?" So what are your personal standards against pirating that you'd be willing to admit?

I, personally, only pirate material I already have the license to.
Yeah, that pretty much covers it. I have also in the past used CD cracks on games I bought, so I didn't need to search for the CD every time I wanted to play.
I have absolutely ZERO qualms about "pirating" something I already own. Fair use, screw their damned DRM.
Public libraries have been giving away the content of books for a long time now, so why would authors suddenly become concerned about "piracy?" The music and movie industry are nuts, and they have managed to convince a large number of democratic countries to pass very bad laws to prop up their failed model of business and to help them punish their best customers (people who download music and movies spend way more money than average people on music and movies).

The fact that authors and booksellers haven't followed this model isn't because of a difference between people's willingness to pirate books vs. movies. It is because its just a terrible idea.
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