Complete Piracy at Last

It’s now official.  According to my editor and Macmillan Company, the parent of Tor Books, every single one of my titles has now appeared somewhere as pirated edition, in some form or another.  I’d almost like to claim this as a singular distinction.  I can’t. Macmillan also believes that every single book they’ve published in recent years – something like the last three decades – has appeared in pirated editions of some sort.

I can’t say I’m surprised.  Every time I attempt to check up on how my books are doing, I discover website after website offering free downloads of everything I’ve ever written, including versions of titles that never were issued in electronic format and even those that haven’t been in print in those particular editions offered in more than twenty years.  I could spend every minute of every day trying to chase them down… without much success.  So I grit my teeth and bear it.

Ah… the wonders of the electronic age.

Coincidentally, and unsurprisingly, the sales of paperback mass-market fiction books have also begun to decline.  Part of this is likely due in part to the collapse of a section of the wholesale distribution system, but that shrinkage doesn’t account for most of it, because it’s also occurring in the case of titles and authors who were never distributed widely on a wholesale basis, and whose books were largely sold only through bookstores. This hasn’t been so obvious in the F&SF field, because, while the average paperback print run has decreased, the number of paperback titles has increased slightly, but according to knowledgeable editors, the decrease is happening pretty much across the board, and some very big name authors – far bigger names than mine – have seen significant decreases in paperback book sales… and that’s without a corresponding increase in e-book sales.  Obviously, this isn’t true for every single author, and it’s impossible to determine for newly published authors because, if they haven’t published a book before, how can one accurately determine if their paperback sales are falling off from those of their previous book?

Despite all the talk, it appears that the popular mantra that information and entertainment need to be free remains in force for a small but significant fraction of former book buyers – even if such “free editions”  reduce authors’ incomes and result in publishers eliminating yet more mid-list authors because declining sales have made them unprofitable, or even money-losing.

The other day I came across an outraged comment about the price of an e-book version of my own Imager’s Challenge. The would-be reader was outraged that the electronic version was “only” a few dollars less than the hard-cover edition, especially since the paperback edition won’t be out for four months or so.  Somehow, it doesn’t seem to penetrate that while paper may be the single largest component of “physical” publishing costs, it still only amounts to something like 10-15% of the publisher’s cost of producing a book, i.e., a few dollars. Even without paper, the other costs remain, and they’re substantial – and publishing remains, as I have written, time and time again, a very low margin business. That’s why publishers really don’t want to cannibalize their hardcover revenues by undercutting the hardcover prices before the paperback version is on the shelves, especially given the decline in paperback sales.

There are many problems with piracy, including the fact that authors essentially get screwed, but the biggest one for readers seems to be overlooked.  The more piracy exists and the wider-spread it becomes, the less the choice readers will have in finding well-written, well-edited books, and especially of books that are not popular best-sellers.  The multi-million selling popular books – and the “popcorn books,” as my wife calls them – will survive piracy.  The well-written books for smaller audiences won’t.  So readers could very well be left with dwindling choices… and scrambling through thousands of self-published e-volumes, most of which are and will be poorly written and unedited in search of that rare “gem” – a good and different book that doesn’t appeal to everyone.

But… after all, information and entertainment want to be free.

61 Responses to “Complete Piracy at Last”

  1. JC says:

    I own pretty much every book you’ve published. The ones before I started reading you, I have in paperback. Everything else is in hardcover. I think I’m missing the green progression and the latest 2 hardbacks, but the latter will be rectified next time I visit Barnes & Noble.

    I also have pirated ebooks of most of your books. I don’t feel particularly bad about that, since I already own paper copies. I’m rereading the recluse series now, and was actually vaguely annoyed when I finished Scion of Cyador and realized I didn’t have ebooks for your other recluce novels. So my wife’s had to put up with a light on while she’s sleeping for the last week or so as I worked my way through to Arms Commander, at which point I said “I should just look for the epubs for these things” and the first result on google was this blog post instead of someplace actually providing epubs. So I thought I’d comment. (Write more sci-fi, please! You’re one of the few authors in that genre I enjoy.)

  2. James says:

    One thing I would like to see is that If I buy the book in whatever format(paperback or hardcover) I could also get the book in electronic form as well for $1 or $2 more. the trend for some books is that they cost more even in paperback esp if it is a popular series like one that is on TV. I have a lot of your books in my collection but I would never pay the same price for an epub version of anyone’s books. the cost to produce one book in an electronic form does not cost the same as it does to print a book. I think a epub book price should be @3.99 max assuming you don’t get a physical book. And you as an author should get the chunk of that price .

    • While I agree with your idea that buying a book in print form should entitle the purchaser to a reduced price for an ebook of the same novel, there is a misconception that producing a book in ebook format is hugely cheaper. It is less expensive than print, but not nearly as cheap as $3.99.

  3. Rowan says:

    To be honest i never really thought about that point you made, i mostly excused pirating ebooks because as you said most people believe they are far to expensive.

    I always tried to buy hard copy versions of books that i thought were worth the money, so as to make up for this but as an Australian,I could rarely find such books with out paying $10-$15 in shipping fees.

    I will try harder to resist piracy in the future but frankly i’ve been ripped off to many times with buying electronic examples of something to be willing to pay the non-electronic full cost. I will think twice about such things however and make sure to support those that are worth the extra cost.

  4. JB says:

    I’ll start by saying I do own a physical copy of every book in the Recluce series before Arms Commander (which I just found out about today, for some dumb reason I had convinced myself you were done with this great series and now I find myself three books behind in it and I’m so glad for it). And I do intend to buy physical versions of all other books you write in this series. But I strongly disagree with some of your views here…

    The costs involved in a physical book and not in a digital book are not just about the paper. Distribution and storage, for instance, are much more expensive for physical goods than for digital goods. Handling returns is more expensive as well. Keeping a chain of book stores with their rent and employees and all their costs is way more expensive than keeping an online store (particularly if the online store sells only digital goods). I agree that paper is cheap, but all the other costs involved in getting a physical book to the reader aren’t quite as cheap, and when you add all those little things together, for most people it looks like the difference in prices between physical books and e-books should be higher than it is. And the value of physical books is also greater – I could resell a book after reading it and get back some of my money and I can’t do that with e-books.

    Unless someone shows a breakdown of the prices of books in both media to patently demonstrate that this perception is wrong, the perception is likely to remain as it is for the public (I, for one, don’t really believe it is wrong). Has anyone shown that yet? I have actually looked for it in the past and all I used to find is stuff that supports the fact that publishers are actually earning more per book from e-books than from books in physical media by keeping the prices up artificially, like this breakdown here from sci-fi author David Derrico:

    And this perception is certainly helped by the fact that we have seen the industry go through a similar period of complaining, doom crying and trying to keep prices artifically up back when cheaper paperback books were becoming a thing, and yet after many decades we have tons of cheap paperbacks, more writers and more readers. Granted, back then people couldn’t just ignore inflated prices and get a pirated version of the book as easily as now, but I still don’t see all that doom approaching.

    The idea that every product that is pirated is a lost sale is also often thrown around, and has been rejected just as often (this has been argued to the ground in the videogame industry, so I’ll try to be brief here). Yes, maybe some people who would actually have bought the book had the pirated version not been available did not buy it, but very often people who get the pirated version would not have bought the physical version anyway (for a ton of reasons that have been detailed elsewhere and I won’t repeat here), and some people that get the pirated version already have the physical version. Actually, often once-pirates become new buyers when they find something they really like through piracy and then start buying it…

    I never pirated books because I like physical books so much but I have certainly bought tons of second-hand books, particularly back when I was a broke student, which means I have books for which the author and the publisher never saw a cent of my money – and that’s how I actually found out about Recluce, with second-hand hardcover copy of The Magic of Recluce, which I would only have found in book stores here in Brazil many years later if it were not for that copy someone had bought in the US and then sold to a used book store… Most of the Recluce books I bought I had to have imported (and I had a choice of paying twice the price to get it here fast, or wait 3 to 4 months for them at only a slightly higher price). And I sure pirated a lot of expensive videogames back in my young and a broke student days, and later I went back to those game series I had enjoyed in pirated versions kept buying them, and I still buy them up to this day, decades later (I also bought legal copies of many of the games I had already finished as pirate versions, just because).

    Finally, there are quite a few examples of companies that are making a nice profit and rewarding authors properly by selling digital goods with a business model that costs their clients much, much less than physical goods… Take for instance Steam for videogames or Netflix for movies and series. So I’m confident that other companies will eventually catch up with this not-so-new context and adapt and find a way to make money (companies are pretty good at that), or die and be replaced by other companies that did, and things will carry on, likely to the consumer’s advantage.

    And until publishers either do a much better job of convincing me their prices for e-books are fair, given their costs and the lower perceived intrinsic values of such books, or lower those prices considerably, I’ll keep refusing to pay a single cent for e-books. (I have actually bought e-books before, in a book bundle I bought mostly for a Mercedes Lackey book in it, but that was different, of course.)

  5. Marcus says:

    I am curious… I would happily purchase Madness in Solidar at the paperback price… if I could get it on my nook. How does Amazon & charge almost twice as much for the Nook/Kindle version. I’ve purchased almost all of your books (many in hardcopy), but I can see why someone would not want to pay $14.99 for a softcopy. It’s not as if there is something special about the softcopy like there is a hardback (is there?)
    My comments have no summary… just an observation.
    I’ll wait for the library I guess.

    • If you wait for the paperback version, you can usually get a Nook/Kindle for about the mass market paperback price. The publishers make the initial ebook price roughly the same as the hardcover would be without the printing and distribution costs… and yes, it does cost that much, which includes the advance to the author, the cost of the cover artwork, and a share of the editors’ and other publishing costs.

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