There’s been a lot of talk lately about the theft of eBooks, and how this piracy has negatively affected authors. And while I absolutely agree that intellectual property theft is a serious issue, I do feel that the debate is often oversimplified.
A few weeks ago, I found one of my books illegally listed for free download on a very popular website that’s used by a lot of people in the art community. It was a weird place to find a book of mine, but that’s beside the point. The point is: my intellectual property was freely available for download, by anyone, at any time, for absolutely nothing. And how do I feel about that? Well, I’m not exactly sure.
I feel as though I should be outraged that I’ve been ripped off. I feel as though I should be bombarding the site with letters of complaint, demanding that the file be removed. I feel as though I should be clambering up onto my expounding platform and proclaiming the injustice of it all to anyone within the sound of my voice. I feel that I should be doing all of these things, and yet I’m doing none of them.
When we quote facts and figures about how many illegal downloads there have been of a certain product, and how this equates to sales and cold hard $$$, we’re making one very basic assumption: that all the people who downloaded the book illegally would’ve purchased the book, had the illegal download not been available.
Now that’s a pretty big assumption. This interpretation of the problem represents a worst case scenario, and draws our attention to the maximum amount of loss that an author could possibly sustain as a result of eBook piracy—but it’s not wholly accurate. On the flipside, one could equally assume that that nobody who illegally downloaded the book (or movie, or song, or whatever) would’ve ever have paid money to legally purchase the product in the first place. That being the case, the owner of the intellectual property would have suffered no financial loss whatsoever. The people who downloaded the product would never have been paying customers.
So there you have two opposing ends of the spectrum, both of which are (in my opinion) flawed. They each rely on an all-or-nothing assumption, and testing the validity those assumptions appears to me to be an impossible task. The reality of it is that the extent of the actual damages caused to individual authors as a result of piracy is extremely difficult to quantify in monetary terms. The best I have to offer as an alternative would be a comparison study.
There are certain similarities between how the KDP Select platform works (in terms of authors being able to offers their books to readers for free), and the effect piracy has (in terms of readers being able to obtain free books from the authors). If we level the playing field for a moment, and remove legalities from the equation, the end result is the same: the reader gains a free product. Only, with KDP Select, we have actual sales figures to draw real numbers from.
For example, if I enrolled my first book in KDP Select and took advantage of the free days, I might receive, let’s say, 500 free downloads. Can I assume that every one of those 500 people would have downloaded my book at its regular price? No. Likewise, can I assume that none of them would have paid to download my book? No. Of course, the truth is going to fall somewhere in between: some of them would have purchased the book anyway, while others wouldn’t.
But what sort of percentages are we talking about? Well, it’s going to differ for everyone, but if I were to look at my average sales figures for my other available titles (which were never offered for free), and compare a previous monthly average to the numbers I sold in the month following my free promotion, I would be able to obtain an accurate figure for the increase in sales, which I could infer was directly due to the promotion. I could then use that figure, along with the total number of free books given out, to generate a percentage that was representative of the impact the free promotion had. In short, I would have a number that more accurately reflected how many people, after receiving something for free, would go on to become paying customers. (In my case, that percentage was a mere 6.14%).
Now, I’m not trying to make light of the effects that piracy is having on the industry as a whole. Nor am I in any way condoning intellectual property theft. All I’m trying to illustrate is that there’s a difference between the prevalence of eBook theft and the direct impact that this theft is having. It’s just not as simple as saying that 100 illegal downloads of an eBook equates to 100 losses of sales—the problem is far more complex than that.
We have no way of really knowing how much revenue an individual author might be losing due to piracy, or even what factors could be affecting this (such as product availability, which varies by country and format). If a book is only offered for sale in North America, for example, and a reader in Europe wants to purchase it, they can’t. Their only option would be to seek to download the book from another source.
Ultimately, there’s a whole lot of conjecture in the piracy debate. For my own peace of mind, I’m going to keep on believing that if a person chooses to illegally download a copy of a book—whatever their reasons might be—they were never a customer to begin with. This might be naive of me, but it helps me to sleep at night.
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