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.

62 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: http://www.davidderrico.com/cost-breakdowns-e-books-vs-printed-books/

    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 & BN.com 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.

  6. Siege says:

    In reply to JB above, I would also like to add that not only could you sell a physical copy and get some (or potentially even more, depending) of your money back, and not only did the market wail and gnash its teeth over cheap paperbacks and survive, but let’s not forget something that is functionally eliminated as regards ebooks – used book stores and libraries.

    The existence of the used book store and library is not really much different than piracy, when you look at them on their face, and there is no proof that piracy of books or movies, music, etc., has done any more harm to those industries than did libraries, used book stores, swap meets, reading groups, VCR’s, movie rental stores, or radio stations. In fact, there is no little evidence that piracy has actually BENEFITED numerous industries – a prime, incontrovertible example is Adobe’s Photoshop, whose maker has always not just ignored, but nearly encouraged piracy of their product in the knowledge that for every person who learns it at home via piracy is one more person who, if they ever come to need it professionally, will insist on it over other applications, which is exactly why Photoshop is 100% dominant in its market.

    Now, don’t take me as encouraging piracy here, or saying that it’s actually a good or desirable thing most or all – or even any – of the time, BUT, it’s not as bad as most would tell us. As as JB said above, you’re never going to convince me that the publishing costs for an ebook are anywhere near even half the cost of a printed edition, be it paper- or hard-back. For an ebook, you have the authors’ pay, the editor’s pay, some software licenses, and hosting. That’s it. I know. For a fact. Because I’m doing it.

    For print, you have to cut down trees, transport them, make paper, ship paper to printer, print, bind, box, put on a truck, fill truck with gas, send truck (or airplane, or ship) across the country/world, put on another truck, store somewhere, and finally distribute (on yet another truck) to the end location where it will be put on a shelf in a retail location someone has to pay rent and maintenance costs on and take a gamble that your book will eventually sell at the price the author/publisher has suggested.

    For an ebook? None of that. At all. Your overhead is what your contract promised the author, the editors and publishers, and keeping the lights on. As economics have proven time and again, the market will only bear what it will bear, and short of that, it will find another means. Just as game publishers have found that bringing prices DOWN means MORE sales and more profit – especially regarding digital-only products as opposed to boxed retail copies that add a significant cost over the former – I cannot see how the same wouldn’t be true for ebooks: bring the price down, you’ll sell more of them, and see less piracy as a result. Maybe your margin might be a little slimmer, but the extra sales at a more reasonable and affordable price point that might just have turned to piracy otherwise will surely make up the difference, and probably then some.

    Besides, you can also view it this way: there are basically two, maybe three kinds of “pirates”:

    1.) those who were/are simply never going to pay for the product they were pirating in the first place – these people don’t matter in any market consideration, because you were never going to make money from them, and at least they aren’t stealing physical items that have a really-real real-world cost associated with them that would have to be borne by a seller, etc. That doesn’t make it right, per-se, but it’s far less bad. These people are usually truly dedicated to piracy, regardless of their economic status, and rarely likely to generate sales. The same people who sneak into movie theaters and sporting events. They don’t make you any money, but they don’t really cost you anything either – again, at least unlike someone stealing a physical item does.

    2.) Those who are curious and interested, but put off by the cost of the ebook being nearly the same as the physical copy. These are the people who may, out of curiosity, find one of your books as an easily obtained ebook – no differently than they might at a library – and discover your works for the first time, and go on to become a fan, whereupon they are likely to start buying physical books, or legit ebooks, or at least start evangelizing for you. These people are like radio listeners and people who use their local library regularly.

    – After all, I’d love to see a publisher or author try to quantify (or, for that matter, quantize) the total market effect of libraries on publishing and readership and assert that libraries amount to piracy by letting multiple people read a single copy of a book as missed sales by illegal sharing. I can’t really “share” an ebook, can I? Not readily, anyway, outside the DRM controls placed on a file or device. I can either make pirate copies for my friends, or I have to loan them my ereader? Would you believe the first of your books I ever read, that lead me to reading many more, was borrowed off of a friends’ bookshelf, and it was a book I never later borrowed a copy of. Was that piracy?

    Finally,

    3.) Those who are already familiar with your work, who would like to give you, the author – and your editor/publisher/artist – your fair cut, but who sees the ebook price as being unjustifiable, because the publishing industry has yet to produce any actual, concrete, logically, mathematically and statistically justifiable evidence for why ebook prices should be as high as what they are, except to try and artificially maintain the sizes of traditional physical print runs, given the consumer the “choice” (in reality a false dichotomy) of paying just as much for an ephemeral bunch of bits that otherwise can have no real value attached to it besides what the seller sets and what the buyer pays as they would for a physical copy that will have a lasting value and exists in the really-real world, where it can be loaned, read by candle in a blackout, sold, archived… treasured. These are the people who have very likely already purchased physical copies, but want to be able to read the story, perhaps on the go, perhaps without damaging a hard cover or first edition, but for whatever, without the physical copy, and cannot justify paying as much or more for an ebook.

    Take me, for example: I’m faced with a dilemma. I have one my favorite of your books as a physical copy, buried somewhere in a box from my last move. I’d like to re-read it. But not only do I not want to dig through all those boxes (my issue, yes, I get it), but I also want the convenience of being able to read it on my Nook. I went looking for a ebook edition to buy, but stopped when I saw it’s $7.99 on Amazon, yet I could buy any number of used copies starting as low as $0.01 – I can’t tell you how many used books I’ve bought on Amazon that I paid more for in shipping than I did the book itself: is that still piracy, because you and your publisher aren’t getting a cut of the price on a second-sale of the book? Because *Amazon* and the seller are getting my money? At this point, given that I already own a copy, what’s the difference between me pirating an ebook and simply digging my own copy up – or buying one from Amazon, or from my local used books store – and scanning it into an electronic format for my own use, except that the latter takes more of my own effort but achieves the same end? I’d be willing to pay someone a couple of dollars for that convenience… but $8? No. Especially not when I’ve already paid for it.

    Given that the entire focus of book publishing remains on the print run, and that publishers calculate and plan for the majority of their sales coming from print editions, viewing ebooks as a secondary necessary evil, the cost of the ebook editions is functionally zero: everything else was paid for and factored into the print run – your advance, the artists pay, the editors’, etc. There is no extra cost besides hosting it somewhere, and the cut the online merchant takes of the sale price.

    Want proof? The scads of free ebooks available at the Baen Bar. Eric Flint. David Weber. I read 1632 in print as a second-hand paid-more-for-shipping-than-I-did-for-the-book copy. Found the Baen bar. Read the next book for free as epub from there. Then went and bought physical copies of 1633, 1634, and several others. Followed from there into the Honor Harrington series I discovered from there that I not only have ebook copies of, but print copies of the first dozen books, and even paid for my wife to listen to the series on Audible… all because I discovered Weber via Flint and the Baen bar, which gave me the chance to read the first few “Honorverse” books for free and whet my appetite for the series. And what does it cost Baen, weber, and Flint? Website hosting. That’s it.

    So, long story short, piracy is nothing more than the result of market pressure pushing back against artificially/arbitrarily inflated prices for a desired product. Rather than fight it – which has never once in all of human history worked: never once has a black market been wiped out by keeping up the same pressures which created it – do what works, and bring prices down to what the market will ACTUALLY bear, not what you wish they were, and you will see piracy decrease massively and a corresponding increase in total sales and profits. If you get 8 pirates for every one person who pays $8 for your ebook, don’t you think that by bringing the price down to $4 or even $2 (because really, what does a digitally-streamed copy of a PDF actually cost? HDD space is approx. 35GB per $1 USD today, and a pdf is maybe 5MB?) that you’d see more sales and less piracy? Wouldn’t a $2 sale be better than a $0 piracy? Especially for books that have long since finished their initial print runs, and for which the majority of copies are in private hands, libraries, etc.?

    I mean seriously, for Gravity Dreams, which is no longer in print, it seems, would you rather I go buy a used copy at a used book store or on Amazon or dig up my old copy, or would you prefer a whole new sale on an ebook copy that meets my needs for convenience and instant gratification and earn yourself and your publisher another $2 – that you wouldn’t get otherwise – by offering it at or below a price the market will reasonably bear? How many more people do you think would download a book for $2 from a major author just to be able to read it on the go on their phone that wouldn’t read it otherwise? Especially if, looking at an Amazon or Play or Apple Store app on their device and see an ebook for a mere $2 instead of the $8 or $10 so many other publishers are trying – and largely failing – to charge?

    Not including the publishers’ cut, the editors pay, your advance, & the artists pay, what’s the actual profit margin from the print run of an $8 paperback, after production costs, shipping, and wholesale prices to book sellers? $1? $2? Well, that’s what the cost of your ebook should be. MAYBE tack on an extra $0.50 convenience fee for the hosting and bandwidth. But that’s it – nothing more. Because that’s no more than what an ebook costs – the time and effort it took to write, and webhosting. If you sold 1000 physical print books at $8 with a $1 profit margin for you and the publisher, how is that any different or less costly than selling 1000 ebooks for $1.25? You don’t have give a wholesale discount to a book store, you don’t have to have a middleman, you can sell directly from the publisher’s website, and you could even get an extra few cents per sale above and beyond the hosting costs, make just as much or money per sale, and offer the consumer a better value.

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