Why I Fear Congress More Than I Fear Thieves

I would like you to do something for me. Go to Google and type in “Mercury Falls book free download”. Hit Enter and you should get a few pages of sites purporting to offer free digital copies of my novel, Mercury Falls. I haven’t checked the integrity of the files they are delivering, but it seems pretty clear that if you want to steal a copy of my book, you can do so fairly easily.

Let me be clear: Mercury Falls is not free. I worked for three years on that book and I own that content. I have contracted with Amazon Publishing to be the sole provider of that content, and because of Amazon’s customer-friendly pricing structure, the Mercury Falls is available in paperback and electronic form for a very reasonable price. If you are willing to screw me out of my royalties so that you can save $4.75 (the current price of Mercury Falls in the Kindle store), then you are a thieving asshole. And don’t give me that crap about not wanting to support Amazon or wanting to read the book in a format other than Kindle. If you’re boycotting Amazon out of some sense of principle, then be prepared to deal with the consequences of that boycott: namely, not having access to content provided by Amazon. Don’t steal from me and tell me you are doing it to stick it to the man.

HOWEVER, I do not need the U.S. Congress sweeping down to save me from pirates. The fact is that my sales are doing just fine, thank you. I have no hard data on how many sales I’m losing to piracy, but I suspect the number is negligible. Why? Because normal, generally honest people don’t have the time, technical know-how or inclination to steal books through pirate sites. People who use those sites are going to be devoted thieves and people with who rationalize piracy through a misguided and self-serving notion that all content should be “free.” These people are not going to be stopped by something like the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). As with most anti-piracy measures, the people who are going to be punished are ordinary people.

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence, in fact, that making content cheap and easy to download actually increases profits. Take, for example, the case of Monty Python increasing sales by 23,000% by releasing free videos on YouTube, or the case of comedian Louis C.K. releasing a DRM-free recording of his performance for $5

In my own case, I sold roughly 4,000 copies of Mercury Falls for $.99 through Amazon’s Kindle platform. I originally priced the book at $4.99, but then dropped the price to $2.99. The result? Sales more than doubled, so that I was actually making more money (and reaching far more readers) at the lower price. I then dropped the price to $.99 (the lowest price Amazon will allow) and sales once again more than doubled. At $.99 per copy I was making more money and reaching five times as many readers as I was at $4.99. If I could have given away Mercury Falls for free, I would have (and in many cases, I did). Frankly I would have been thrilled to find my book being offered as a free download on a torrent site, because I believed in my book and I knew that the more people who read it, the more people would buy it.

Now that Mercury Falls has been picked up by a publisher (AmazonEncore), do I feel differently? Sure I do. I’m no longer just an unknown author throwing content into the void, hoping to be noticed. AmazonEncore has to pay for marketing, publicity and overhead, so it’s unreasonable to expect them to give away their content. Now it’s a liability to have Mercury Falls popping up as a free download on pirate sites. But how much money am I losing because of those sites?

The simplest way to calculate lost profits would (theoretically) be to multiply the number of pirate copies downloaded by the profits I stand to make per legal purchase. By this measure, if a thousand people download pirated copies of Mercury Falls and I am making $2 per book*, then I have lost $2,000. But this is a vastly misleading number. Here’s why:

Scenario 1: Joe Freeloader is browsing through a pirate website when he comes across an interesting book he has never heard of before, entitled Mercury Falls. Rather than looking for a legal way to buy the book, Joe illegally downloads the book free from the pirate site.

Scenario 2: Jane Nomoney doesn’t have a dime to her name. One day she is browsing through Amazon when she runs across an interesting book called Mercury Falls. She wishes she could buy it, but because she has no money, she ends up going to a pirate site and downloading the book illegally.

Scenario 3: Jim Jerkwad has plenty of money, but he’s a jerk who doesn’t mind screwing authors out of royalties. He finds Mercury Falls on Amazon, decides he wants it, and then downloads it from a pirate site.

Note that only in Scenario 3 am I actually losing any money. Joe never would have heard of Mercury Falls if it weren’t for the pirate site, so you can’t include his lack of purchase in my total potential sales. Jane was never going to be able to buy the book, so I’m not losing any money there either. Only Jim, who deliberately uses Amazon to find books and then goes out of his way to get them illegally, is actually hurting me in any real way. And it’s my belief that people like this (1) are relatively rare and (2) will find a way around any piracy restrictions. This doesn’t justify the thievery in the first two cases, of course; my point is only that I’m not actually losing any sales in those cases.

Additionally, there is the possibility that the downloader will like the book enough that someday they will buy a legal copy, or recommend the book to their friends. Scoff at this if you want, but it’s word of mouth that sells most books.

These facts are overlooked in blog posts such as this one by author Karen Ranney, which also hilariously states:

Oh, by the way, they’re going to take your credit card number and steal YOU blind. And you’d better run your virus protection right away, because you’ve probably been infected with malware or another virus.

Which is it, Karen? Are these short-sighted opportunists who are using your books as bait to get credit card numbers and spread viruses or are they a serious threat to your business? I mean, if selling books illegally at cut-rate prices is such a great business model, wouldn’t these sites want to keep their customers coming back and encourage them to refer their friends? Stealing credit card numbers and spreading viruses is a sign of desperation, not the hallmark of a business that’s going to give serious competition to Barnes and Noble or Amazon. If piracy sites really were as overrun with scammers as she indicates, then no one would use them. At least not more than once.

The real threat (to the extent that one exists) is not sites that are using content as bait in some virus/credit card scheme; it’s sites that deliver exactly what they promise: free (or vastly discounted) illegal content. But again, given the three scenarios above, how much money does any given author stand to lose from piracy? Very little, I suspect — and piracy might actually result in a net gain for the author.**

And the price for protection against this marginal group of content pirates? What Google’s Sergey Brin calls “measures that would put us on a par with the most oppressive nations in the world.” Is it worth the price? Absolutely not, and people like Karen Ranney should know it.

*Not actual numbers.

**Of course, the higher a book’s price, the greater the temptation there is for people to pirate the content. Publishers who insist on selling e-books at $10+ each are frankly asking to become piracy targets. Fortunately, AmazonEncore prices my books very reasonably.