An interesting addition to the Piracy conversation.

back orf, ye curs!

Over at The Center for Digital Ethics & Policy at Loyola University Chicago, Susan Connolly comes at the issue of book piracy from an interesting angle. Rather than directly discuss the business implications, she chooses to explore the perceived ethics of piracy and the relationships between reader and author (or customer and vendor) that these perceptions generate.

Susan interviewed me for this article back in September. Due to the limitations of her word count she feels she hasn’t explored our conversation in as full a manner as she would have liked. There will be further articles, apparently, and I look forward to them, but in the meantime, Susan and her editors at Loyola University have given me permission to post our original interview in its entirety. Here it is:

Do you feel that book pirating is harming authors?

Firstly can I preface anything I might say re piracy and it’s potential effect on both the industry itself and authors in general by pointing out that I live and work in a western European country. When I brought the subject up back in 2010 ( I think it was) the majority of the readers who contacted me on this subject were European, Canadian, American and Australian ( this includes those commentators who called me a ‘bitch’ and asked me how did it feel to have ‘ruined my career’ by asking folks not to pirate my work.) I can only bring this western European perspective to the subject, but I am aware that piracy has different resonances in different parts of the world. Though the western commentators who called me names and sneered at the fact that I should expect to be paid for my work came from the same privilege I do – residing in a portion of the world where they have the option of free delivery from online sources such as The Book Depository, living in countries where, for the most part, they have access to a library system  etc – there are many other portions of the world who do not have access to well distributed fairly priced books nor a working library system. I would very much like to hear those voices included in these conversations in a manner that resonates more deeply than some western teenager who lives up the road from a library and just spent a few hundred dollars on the latest gaming equipment co-opting them as an excuse to rip off the latest GRR Martin book.

In so far as I feel in any way qualified to comment on this problem of global distribution (again, I would much prefer to hear from those who are directly affected by it please – can we get those voices included in this conversation?)  it seems to me that the longer piracy is used as a Band-Aid for distribution/pricing problems, the longer it will remain the only available solution. Radical change is needed and that can only come about with a large vocal public objection to the problem and then a concerted effort by political and business interests to change the current situation. If the ‘solution’ continues to be the use of pirate copies coupled with business/political apathy then nothing will ever change.

SO – laying that aside and in the knowledge that I am now speaking in general terms which do not address the issue of global distribution, I’ll try and answer your questions as best I can.

Yes, I do think pirating is harming authors, and in ways that I think are more insidious than the obvious (and much disputed) impact on our wallets. When Cat Valente recently made The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making available free for a week(?) online, it sent sales of the actual physical book shooting into the New York Times top ten best sellers list. When my friend Charles Cecil did something similar with free downloads of Broken Sword, sales of legitimate downloads spiked for a good two week period. These kinds of phenomena are often pointed to as being definite proof that piracy is good for artists, the idea seeming to be ‘if you give it away for free, they’ll pay for your next one’ or ‘they’ll buy it later’. I argue that the two things (the public attitude to something that has been given to for free, as opposed to that which has been pirated ) are too disparate to speak for each other. There is a kind of personal contact implicit in the ‘freely given’ work that seems to strengthen the bond between the author and the reader. It seems, for want of a better word, to humanize the author to the reader, to promote a kind of understanding, and so encourages the desire to reward the creator for the work that they’ve put into the project. Piracy, however, seems to do the complete opposite; it seems to push the creator even further into the background to the point where, if they step forward at all they are treated with distrust and hostility. You are no longer ‘Cat Valente who allowed me read her work for free’ but you are ‘that grasping money grubber who wants me to pay for something when I don’t have to.’ In discussions on piracy, authors and publishers are often very quickly reduced to a faceless ‘they’… ‘they want me to go to the library when the bus doesn’t run there and the opening hours are shit’ ‘they’re all part of a huge monolithic publishing system which was outdated in the fifties and has no place in the modern world’ ‘they only publish rubbish anyway – the really innovative writers are all self-published.’ In the discussion of piracy the publishing world with all its multitudes of different aims, audiences and varying histories is almost invariably reduced to a caricature of a great ignorant beast which deserves all it gets.

At the bottom of that caricature – stuck down on the monster’s bum somewhere – are the authors. Whether you like to admit it or not, authors are the only members of the industry who don’t work for a wage (we depend on those advances, we depend on those royalty checks) We are the only ones who do the majority of our work for free (it can take from six months to two years to write a decent book – for most of us that is six months to two years of working on spec.) We do so hoping that – when we do finally get the book finished – someone somewhere might pay us for the time it took us to work on it. We are (for the most part) the only ones who are dropped – often never to work again – when our sales don’t reach expectations. When you are a writer there is one thing and one thing only that keeps bread on the table, and editors coming back for more, and that is sales. That’s the bare truth of it. There is nothing anyone can say or do to change that – small press, cool indie, big four, self published, it doesn’t matter how you get your work out there, when you are an author sales are the only things that can keep you going. Having our work pirated is not the same as making a sale. It is not the same.

Speaking of the smaller publisher and the less mainstream writer: it’s a sad truth that the smaller you are, the more vulnerable you are to fluctuations in profit margin. This means that the more challenging work, the quirkier work, the less mainstream work, is in much more danger of sinking due to lack of sales, as are the small press publishers who give that kind of work a chance. Piracy is often touted as being a great source of ‘word of mouth’ recommendations for such work ( ironically often by the same sources who claim that the pirates ‘never really read the books they download.’) But if these recommendations are not backed up by sales then that author may never again get the chance to produce a work worth reading. They either won’t have time because they’ll be too busy earning their bread some other way, or they’ll simply never get another publisher to pick up their work.

Do you see an ethical difference between use of a library or borrowing books from friends and book pirating? If so, could you explain this difference?

Yes I do. In terms of the library (and, again, please see my qualifications at the beginning of this interview) many countries have a system whereby records are kept of what books are taken out, when and how often. These reports are sometimes used to calculate a small payment to the author themselves ( here in Ireland it is called the Library Remuneration Scheme) or to the translator, should that book be a translation from another language. Even if this remuneration isn’t accepted by the author (and goes back into the library system) or doesn’t exist in the first place, library loans are a concrete way of proving the popularity of a title – in other words they add to the author’s reputation. (unlike piracy figures were it is generally assumed that pirates download and share in bulk and don’t really care what it is they are distributing )

Libraries are also a wonderful support system for authors, often giving so much back in terms of arranged readings, coordinating school visits, facilitating book clubs etc etc. They are a genuine source of word of mouth recommendation and a wonderful resource, I am a huge supporter of the library system.

Borrowing books from friends, and more importantly loaning books to friends is also another genuine source of word of mouth recommendation. Unlike a piracy site where (as is often pointed out) hundreds and thousands of titles maybe downloaded at once, for no other reason than they are available, a friend will only give you a book that they have seriously liked. There is a connection between them and the work, and as a consequence a respect for the creator, which they are then passing on to you. It is, in a way, an echo of the feelings engendered by the free downloads I spoke of earlier. Handing a book to a friend and saying, ‘I hope you like this, I felt it worth sharing,’ is an act far more intimate and telling than any amount of carelessly uploaded files. It brings the author closer, it turns them into more than an abstract argument over marketing. Loaning a book to a friend is all about the book itself, and what that book meant to you and how badly you want to share it for its own sake, because it spoke to you – not just because you happen to have a computer and it was available at the time.

Why do you think people pirate books?

I’m certain there are many legitimate reasons why some folks do (again, see my preface to the beginning of this interview) What I can’t understand is why those of us with spare cash in our pockets and ready access to legit copies would chose to.

Do you feel that ‘fan fiction’ and the free availability of other fan-generated content has affected how people view book pirating?

Only in the most positive ways. The creators of fanfiction and other fan generated content tend to identify very closely with the original creator, they are usually very loyal, very supportive and very respectful of authors as individuals and of the author’s rights as creators. They provide not only wonderful word of mouth recommendations but are often very vocal against piracy and its effect. Fanfiction writers in particular are quite prone to piracy themselves and so are more intimately aware than most, of its effects on the creator.



By Susan Connolly

The ethical and legal issues surrounding the illegal downloading of music and film have been exhaustively played out in the media, court and public opinion.  And yet, people continue to pirate media. An often overlooked area of media piracy—at least in comparison to that of music, film and television—is the pirating of books.  The rise of “ebooks” – digital versions of publications that can be read on computers or special electronic devices – has made book piracy much more viable. However, scanned PDFs have been a problem for some time.  Author Stephanie Meyer abandoned her ‘Twilight’ saga novel Midnight Sun due to leaked online drafts. Despite differences between books and other media, ethical debate over book pirating often simply runs in accordance with the principles laid down in the existing, lively ethical discussion over music, film and television piracy.

Read Susan’s article HERE


Thanks again to Susan Connolly for engaging with this subject in such a rounded and thoughtful manner, and for inviting my participation in such a fascinating conversation.

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15 Responses to An interesting addition to the Piracy conversation.

  1. Estara says:

    Yes, I think if you live in the English speaking countries there is little excuse for pirating – especially if your town has a library. I get my ebooks legally but I do have to jump through various hoops and make various ebook seller sites believe that I live in the US in order to buy certain books in English which I have no interest in reading in German – that’s because if you have a high enough level of English a clumsy German translation makes you bonkers (at least it does to me).

    And getting a really good German translator who basically recreates the amazing experience of the original in his language is … not impossible (I’ve read books like that) but very rare – from a recent online acquaintance who works in technical translation I have heard that translators are not very well paid either, on average (I imagine that similar to the case of manga translators).

    So when I new book comes out, I fiddle about and check Kobo and and Books on Board and others and see who’s willing to sell me the ebook. And I’m glad for every backlist author who is willing to sell me his book without drm – I crack it anyway to reformat it for my reader. With MS-lit and various other formats – .lrf and .lrx by Sony are no longer supported on their newest announced devices – already having been given the boot, an ebook reader would be a fool to depend on the seller to make their book available permanently into the future.

    A backup on my pc and possibly burned or on SD-card makes much more sense. That’s also a reason why I’m not interested in the current crop of e-manga sites – quite apart from the fact that they don’t want to sell to me – it’s all flash and access only – if the publisher goes under or they think the site is a money sink you’ll have paid purchase price for basically renting the content.

    And really – regarding pricing, whether Agency pricing or whatever, if I haven’t read a new author yet and their book is too expensive for sampling, I simply forget about them after a while. If the buzz is high enough I wait until the mmpb comes out and check if the ebook price has sunk correspondingly. If it doesn’t, well, there are so many other books – and really so many books on my TBR pile alread, I’d be good for another two years if I’m honest and only read that. Auto-buy authors and series I’m willing to buy at any price ^^.

    • Thanks Estara, very interesting comments. ( And, on that note, big shout out to Astrid Finke, my wonderful, amazing and most likely chronically underpaid German translator – you wouldn’t believe how very very hard she works to get everything right.)

  2. Hi! I feel like it’s been forever since I stopped by. Hope you are doing well, and keeping up with all the amazing places and things you had in October. 🙂

    Oh, this was a great interview. I like that you both touched on so many different aspects of the piracy issue. So many people us other venues as an excuse for piracy to be okay. When really it’s not, on so many different levels.

    And libraries are a great example of borrowing books, because they are recorded. And to loan a book to a friend. How many do you think you can loan out. Piracy hits so many more people faster.

    Very well thought out. Thank you for sharing the whole interview.

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  4. Scorbet says:

    I think one problem is that of preference. For example, I prefer to have ebook editions of books as I can carry around a couple of hundred (or thousand) without paying a fortune in baggage fees. So being told that I can use Book Depository or amazon or whoever to order the paper book does not help. Yes, I have the book and I have paid the author but I haven’t actually got the format I want. But a lot of people seem to not understand that, as for them paper books and ebooks are equivalent, or paper books are preferable, with ebooks solely as a “if I must” or even a “never ever.” I can therefore understand a desire to pirate a book for that reason – I already own the paper book, I’ve given money to the author and publisher, but now I want a format I can use. A bit like ripping a CD for an iPod.

    The second problem I have is that like Estara above, I’m not living in an english-speaking country (China), but want to read books in english. (In fact it’s a bit complicated in my case as my credit card is german.) I did a quick check earlier for 3 different vendors of ebooks. Booksonboard wouldn’t sell me any of the Moorehawke trilogy unless I convinced the site that I actually live/have a credit card somewhere else (strictly speaking probably fraud). Kobo would sell me Books 2&3 but not 1. Amazon would sell me all 3, but as I don’t have a kindle either I would have to read it on my laptop, or I would have to crack the DRM. (Probably not all that legal either.) After a while hoop-jumping to try and get a non-pirated version does get annoying, to be honest.

    As I mentioned I’m in China, which makes getting paper books a bit more difficult than in Western Europe. Book Depository does not deliver here. Amazon does, but I’m not sure how much hassle is involved. I’m in Shanghai, with a library and bookshops with english books (Agatha Christie seems really popular here for some reason) but getting books I want would mean a bit of work.

    • Its interesting that you bring up China, Scorbet. I’m not certain what the situation is now, but I recall sitting at a table with a bunch of industry professionals a good few years ago and the subject of trying to sell translation rights to China came up ( along with that of several eastern European countries to which the following problems also seemed to apply at the time.) The general consensus of opinion seemed to be that trying to publish in China was hardly worth the effort. At the time there was practically no enforcement of copyright, and this was combined with the almost global acceptance of pirating. This meant that any Chinese publishers who were interested in legitimately translating and publishing foreign works were left with no way of making a profit – and therefore no way of paying for the rights to foreign work ( nor for good translations of that work) It seemed (to this very poorly informed outsider) that the whole thing had become a vicious circle with the paying public relying solely on pirated copies, and so leaving no room for a local publishing industry to even begin trying to grow and provide the legitimate copies that I have no doubt folks would buy were they available. At the same time, due to the fact that thier interests were not being protected under law, outside publishers weren’t given any incentive to approach the market.

      • Scorbet says:

        Pretty much everything to do with copyright/IP in China is “interesting” and made more complicated by the government being much more involved. My Chinese is still at the “hello” and “thank you” stage, so I haven’t really investigated the Chinese-language books available. (Though I have seen copies of Twilight and Harry Potter around.)

        I think there is a slow effort to increase the understanding of copyright and IP but It is nevertheless pretty amusing to be wandering around a “fake” market selling knock-off iPhones etc., with large posters telling you to protect IP.

      • I know it’s probably changed at this stage, but in the past my army buddies have told me similar stories of ‘fake’ markets from eastern Europe.

  5. Alison says:

    I find the global rights with regards to ebooks very frustrating. I can buy a print book from or the Book Depository, no problem, and they’ll ship to the US. I can’t buy the ebook version from however (and it’s not available at and I am at the point where I’d rather have the ebook version.

    • I’m not actually sure how it works in regards to this issue. But I think that e-books have the same kind of regional constraints that physical books do ( as in, you’re not supposed to be able to buy the AUS/NZ copies of a physical book in a UK or US shop, and vice versa. Perhaps this also applies to the e-book version?) So perhaps the books you’re looking for haven’t yet been published as e-books in the region you are looking for them, but they have been published as physical books??

      Totally guessing there, so I’d love if someone who does know for sure could tell us?

      • Scorbet says:

        From what I’ve understood of the issue, theoretically, it works the same as for physical books – the English speaking world is divided into territories and publishers buy the rights to publish in one or more territories and their books should only be available in those territories, whether paper or ebook.

        However, in practice, there tends to be a difference. Quite often you have what are known as “grey imports” of books, e.g. Hodges Figgis or Forbidden Planet will have US versions of books available (ones not actually available from a UK/Ireland publisher) and/or amazon will sometimes send you the books despite you living in the wrong territories. for ebooks this doesn’t happen. Sales are strictly by address, or credit card address. Sometimes even according to IP adress.

        The second difference is how the territories seem to be applied. From what I’ve seen of physical book territories, what’s important is where you can’t sell a book. For example, US copies not available in the US or AUS/NZ copies in the UK. Ebooks seem to be more based on where you can, e.g. only in the US, or only in the UK/Ireland. This is then a problem for those of us who live outside any of the english language territories, as quite often you can’t buy any english language ebook at all, without convincing the site that you live somewhere else. Whereas you can buy both US and UK/Ireland copies of the physical book in a normal bookshop.

        Hence the fact that Estara and myself have to jump through hoops to get english ebooks. It appears that either the fact that you live in e.g. Germany means that you “should” want to read only german books, or that someone is going to buy the rights to sell english ebooks in Germany.

      • That’s very interesting, Scorbet! Thank you for clarifying. I wonder is it possible to buy German language ( or ‘insert language here’ language’) e-books in other regions? Probably not. So in effect the publishers are better able to impose regional constraints on the e-book versions of their product. This is interesting, because in theory regional constraints should be protecting them and their fellow publishers ( confining sales to a particular region implies that you will at least be ensured the sales from the region for example – this is why single language markets are usually self sustaining ( at least in the case of large markets like Germany and France, a publisher can actually survive off the proceeds of their regional sales. Ditto for the Australians who, while an English language market, are ensured an income from their own market due to parallel publishing. This regional protection means a bigger chance of publication for local authors/more quirky authors because local publishers are in less danger of being squeezed out by the global (generally English language) conglomerates and have a chance to survive. ) But it sounds like the reasons for regional constraints aren’t fully clear to the consumer (or, if clear, aren’t important anyway) and lead only to frustration and (therefore) piracy. VERY interesting. I wonder if there is a way to maintain the benefits that regional constraints give to smaller/local publishers while freeing up the access to legitimate copies for the consumer? ( at the moment the only legal solution to freeing up copies seems to be he author handing global e-rights over to a conglomerate – which does nothing for small publishers)

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