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On Piracy

Up until quite recently, when I thought of pirates, I thought of pirates, with hooks for hands and mustachios and scurvy. Now that I’ve become an author, however, I’ve become acquainted with another form of piracy.

I know that piracy within the music industry  has existed for a very long time, but I was never a music pirate. First of all, I was never technologically savvy enough to really get into piracy. But I am also entirely, completely bourgeois, and the idea of doing anything called “piracy” repels me. I’ve never shoplifted; I’ve never stolen someone’s credit card; I’ve never walked off with someone’s jewelry or iPod.

That said, almost everyone else I’ve ever known has downloaded free music off the internet. They defend themselves with the following excuses: that big music studios won’t feel the loss, that artists like Britney Spears can afford to lose a few bucks, and that they will buy other songs or albums from the artist’s they really like. In other words, the pirated album is like a taste test and once they decide they like the artist, then they will pay for future works.

I never really thought much about the fact of my friend’s piracy or about their reasoning legitimating their actions until piracy became very real for me, as an author.

There is lots of talk about piracy within the book world, especially now with e-readers everywhere and downloadable copies of our books so very easy to make and to dispense. I knew piracy would be an issue for me and, indeed, almost as soon as my debut novel, Tempest Rising, was published there were copies available online.

Most of these sites are very anonymous and very . . . piratey. In other words, when I find my novel on one of these sites, I can imagine a bunch of pantalooned men sitting around hawking into spittoons and chortling as they scan copies of novels with one hand, while ravishing wenches with the other.

Then I found a site for fans of paranormal romance and urban fantasy. It’s a pretty, pink site with links to authors websites and contests, along with reviews and lots of excited discussion of new series, or new books coming out, or old books recently discovered. In other words, it’s a pretty typical fan site for readers of my genre. Only with one difference: this website also offers our novels, free for download. The authors of this site even ask those who download a book to leave a comment, to let them know that “their work was appreciated.”

My first thought was, “Oh my God, how could you! You say you’re fans of our work and then you’d steal from us?” My second thought was, “Where is my downloadable form from Hachette’s legal department, so I can get their lawyers on this shit.” My third thought, after I’d filled out and sent the required forms, and cleaned my bedroom to cool off, was, “Okay, let’s say they are really fans of our genre, as they claim. That means they are not doing this piracy to hurt us. They don’t know what their actions mean.”

That’s why I’m writing this blog post: to let the sort of people who create or utilize such websites know what they’re really doing when they pirate one of my books.

The Assumptions

I imagine that when people pirate a book, or upload a book onto a pirate site, they are thinking some of the following things: that authors make the big bucks, that “big publishing companies” are untouchable, and that all they’re doing is taking a few bucks away from the fat cats. Maybe they think they’re even doing the publishing world a favor: that by offering our books for download, they’re increasing the size of our fan-pool; or cutting out some of the wheat from the chaff so that fans won’t waste money on authors who aren’t that great or that they don’t like, meaning they will have more money for authors they do enjoy; or trimming our salaries so we don’t become rock stars who pull rock star bullshit. Instead of going nuts, having babies, and shaving our heads, we’ll stay grounded and writing books, as we should be.

The Realities

First of all, publishing houses are not untouchable monoliths. DoubleDay, Simon & Schuster, and Random House all suffered huge losses over publishing’s “Black Tuesday,” with direct losses in terms of staff, budget, and, in some extreme cases, entire imprints. When a publishing company’s budget goes, that means they can’t pay their authors, they can’t buy new books, and they can’t offer new contracts to existing authors. When an editor is lost, that means fewer new books can be bought by that company over the following year. And when an imprint goes, that means that many of the series that imprint was sitting upon will be dead in the water, unless a particular series or author has such high sales number that a different publishing company will risk buying what amounts to a defunct brand.

Secondly, writers are not Britney Spears. We are not rock stars. We are not even folk singers. If I were to tell you what my advance was for my three novels, it would sound like a huge amount of money. You’d be all, “Holy shit!” Then I’d tell you that money would be doled out over two years, not one. Then I’d tell you that my agent gets (a well deserved) fifteen percent, and that the government then takes exactly one third of that money. Then I tell you that although my publishing company is actually very good about publicizing its authors, I am still responsible for my own conventions, travel, swag, contest materials, etcetera.

In other words, what sounds like a great big sum of money becomes, quite simply, a very small salary. I estimate that this year I cleared from my writing, after taxes and all the expenditures (conferences, swag, etc), about 25,000 dollars.

Yes, my author’s salary for the year 2009 was about $25,ooo. For around $25,000, I wrote three books. Which means I wrote rough drafts, then did edits (in one case, grueling edits), copy edits, and final pass edits. I wrote back copy and front copy, and acknowledgements and dedications. I maintained a website, I blogged, I did copious interviews, I ran contests, I travelled and spoke at whatever convention would have me. I Tweeted, and Facebooked, and paid for a launch party, swag, and postage for review copies and bookplates.

To be honest, I had no idea writing was going to be this much work. And, for all of this work, I made about $25,000 dollars.

In the meantime, however, I am one of the lucky ones. I have a day job that allows me to write. As a professor, I have another salary on top of my book money. But don’t get too excited: I work for a state university in Louisiana. Which means, for all intents and purposes, I’m a Louisianan civil servant, i.e., not rolling in the dough. But I do have a salary. And, more importantly, it’s with a job that gives me time to write and, more importantly, gives me health insurance.

This is why most writers aren’t full time authors: until you are very successful (and there are only a handful of writers in America with this sort of success) you don’t make a lot of money. For keep in mind that an advance is just that: an advance on royalties. So I won’t make another penny on my first three novels until I pay back my advance. And that is going to take a very, very long time, unless a miracle (HBO series) appears on the horizon. Meanwhile, authors don’t get insurance through their publishers. We are independent contractors, meaning we get taxed out of the wazoo and if we want to see a doctor or a dentist, we pay out of pocket.

In fact, for the most part, any full-time author that you know about who isn’t Stephen King, Anne Rice, Danielle Steele, or the like is either a) married to someone who makes a decent living b) independently wealthy or c) okay with living as a starving artist.

Why Pirating Hurts Readers

Let’s say you don’t give a hoot about what I just wrote. Let’s say, for instance, you’re all, “I don’t care that author’s children can’t see a doctor, they get to be an author! that’s recompense, enough!” or “Whatever, so an author lives in a garrett and shops at the Salvation Army, s/he could get a day job! Nicole has one!” or, “It’s just one book, and I’m strapped for cash right now. One book totally doesn’t make a difference! I’ll buy the next one!”

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Let’s take the “It’s just one book,” “the company can afford it,” or “the author can afford it,” excuse.

Firstly, as a new writer, I’m judged not on my literary merit but on my sales. Every single reviewer in the country could say I was a genius; that I deserve the Nobel prize. My fans could name their babies after my characters and move, as one, to Maine to start a town called Rockabill where they will squabble over who gets to be Jane for the day. But if my numbers aren’t good enough, my publishing company won’t buy more Jane True books. And not only do I need to sell books, but I need to sell my first book. Because I’m releasing on an eight-month schedule, we’ll be negotiating for more books based almost entirely on the sale of Tempest Rising. So unless you want my series to end at number three, my first book has to sell.

Secondly, most authors can’t afford to do this job. I read a lot of reviews of books where people talk about how “so and so is just churning them out nowadays, like she/he doesn’t even care about the quality of his/her work.” What readers don’t understand is that a lot of writers are on ridiculous publishing schedules not because they don’t care, or because they’re so eager to get that jacuzzi installed in their yacht, but because they have to eat. How many individuals (let alone families) do you know who could live off a $25,000 salary?  Especially when that salary gets eaten up by covering the family health insurance, dental insurance, etcetera? Most authors cannot make ends meet on their book salaries alone, meaning that a lot of authors have day jobs that, unlike mine, are real nine to fivers.

Keeping in mind that my professorial job was created to give me some (if limited) time to write, and that last year I worked pretty much all the time with my two jobs, I can’t begin to imagine how someone with a “real” day job could write a book. Let alone if they have a family on top of everything. It just couldn’t be feasible, long term, for anybody. People will either stop writing, or they’ll start writing to make deadlines rather than writing to tell a story. And who could blame them?

In the meantime, I wish I was a rock star. I wish I had minions who I paid out of my overflowing bank account, stuffed full of the riches I earned from my books. But that’s a pipe dream. I mostly do the writing because I love it and to cut off my characters, now, would be like amputating a limb. And yet, I also need to pay my bills. At the same time, my publishing company has to know they’re not sinking money into a wasted cause.

Which is why, as a debut novelist, literally every book counts and is counted. And each of those books will add up to whether I get to write more about Jane True and her friends. So when someone reads her story, without paying their $7.99, Jane loses a vote. One vote doesn’t seem like a lot, but a lot of single votes adds up to a lot of votes, period.

And every pirated copy of my book downloaded illegally means one less chance I get to publish anything after book three. So if you enjoy reading and want to read more books, especially more debut novels by new authors, please don’t pirate. Not just for our sake, as authors, but for your sake, as a reader. For piracy skews numbers: it means that the “big” names will get bigger while less money is spent on younger talents. It means that debut novels that you enjoyed won’t be followed up by a second or a third book in the series. And it means that more authors will take on too much work, just to make a decent living.

In other words, if you have any love for books, don’t be a pirate. Or just buy an eye patch and a parrot and pretend, at home. That’s far more exciting. After all, someone will have to be the wench . . . 😉


  1. atsiko wrote:

    Gotta love the internet. :)

    I didn't mean to imply you were being defensive, Zoe. It's just that the conversation was veering more into the advantages and disadvantges, and I wanted to stay more on track.

    You're perfectly correct that dropped authors could go the self-publishing route.

    Saturday, January 23, 2010 at 12:03 pm | Permalink
  2. Alana Abbott wrote:

    This is a great entry, Nicole. I'm thinking I need an icon that has an anti-"Yarr" somewhere along the line. :)

    Sunday, January 24, 2010 at 12:48 am | Permalink
  3. Zoe Winters wrote:

    LOL atsiko, yeah the Internet is hard! hahaha. Glad we were finally able to understand each other! 😀

    Sunday, January 24, 2010 at 1:50 am | Permalink
  4. Jade wrote:

    Your article has been a BIG eye opener. I have to admit that I have read many books I got online. In my mind it was not pirating. I honestly did not think about of it that way. It was more like when you borrow a book from a library or from a friend. I have never downloaded songs for free because I knew that was wrong, but books- that's what they are for, to share them.Right?. Well, now I know different.

    See, I barely discovered the UF and Paranormal Genre. I did not even know there was one or that books in this genre were good. I used to think that most books written after the 1940's were not worth reading. Boy was I wrong. WHen I did discover the genre I devoured them like Jelly beans. Sometimes I did not know which books or authors to read next, so somehow in my research I found websites where you could download the books for free. I sampled authors and if I liked them I bought the books and complete series. Hardcover, full price if necessary just to find out what happened next. So in my opinion, this websites actually helped me discover authors I would never even considered before. Many first time authors, like Ms. Harper from the Nice Girls series.I have all of her books now and like them so much, I have shared them with my sisters and friends. THey in turn like the series so much that they have pre-ordered from Amazon or borders the next book. So in my personal case I feel like these sites have helped instead of hindered the ability of authors to make money.

    I do not use the sites as much, because to me electronic books are not the way to go. I want to carry mine around, turn the pages and get that smell. After your article I will definately not even try to download books for free. I want new authors, I want new stories.Even if I have to give up my MOchas to afford the book.

    Sunday, January 24, 2010 at 12:43 pm | Permalink
  5. Nicole Peeler
    Twitter: nicolepeeler

    Stephen: It is hard! Good luck! I wish I could say it gets easier, but I'm starting to learn that the pressures never fade; they just increase as things get bigger and less and less within your own control. But it's worth all the frustrations! Keep writing and keep reaching for your goals!

    Dane: I don't know what to tell you. Again, I think the system for a lot of digital publication is probably flawed and will need to be overhauled as systems, reading habits, and technology change. And that's great you wish we got more money, as authors, from digital publishing. Unfortunately, when you pirate, we get no money and, as importantly for you, no "credit" for your sale in terms of our sales numbers. So that next book in the series might not be available at all, paid for or pirated, because we were never contracted to write it.

    Alana: I love the idea of Anti-Yarr! LOL

    Atsiko and Zoe Winters: Awww, group hug . . . come on, then. 😉

    Jade: That's great, Jade! I mean, not great that you pirated without knowing it OR that you might have to give up mochas (they're full of empty calories anyway . . . I'd stick to whisky). But I can absolutely understand your circumstances. Like I said, I never really thought about this issue, myself. And I think you're a good example of why piracy needs to be cracked down upon, at the source. You were doing it for all the "right" reasons, not knowing the books were stolen in the first place. But you were doing it because you wanted to know what to buy. That said, most authors have really good ways to "test drive" their product, and libraries are also a great place to try out a new series for free. But I can understand how, if the opportunity is presented to you by a pretty pink site like the one I found where the books are presented as legitimately "free," you'd look no further and hit the "download" button. So I'm really glad you found this post and read it and do please share it around. :-) And I'm also glad you found UF! I'm an english prof, and the classics are GREAT. But what's wrong with a little paranormal romp every now and again? I think it's good for the soul. Thanks for posting!

    Sunday, January 24, 2010 at 2:43 pm | Permalink
  6. Silver Adept wrote:

    Atsiko: It's really bad that profits are down for everyone, and that lack of profit is driving prices up and people away from buying books. I have no solutions there. The way things are going now can't be helping, though.

    Monday, January 25, 2010 at 2:00 pm | Permalink
  7. Nicole, I'm coming into this debate late because I've only just found it, so all I can add is this – well said and I'm off to tweet.

    Saturday, February 6, 2010 at 10:55 am | Permalink
  8. Ashkente wrote:

    E-publishing needs to change its model drastically, be it books, music or anything else.

    Given the average price of a book, or an album/CD, and knowing as most of the populace does, that over 80% of the cover price does not in fact go to the writer/musician/talent involved, people are left with the following options:

    1) Buy it retail, and risk hating the item in question, and considering it a 'waste of money'

    2) Buying it online, for the same cost, hating it and now really considering it a waste of money due to a lack of an actual material item.

    3) Pirating, which to the end user in the immediacy of the moment, is a win/win situation. If the CD/Book is bad, they didn't lose anything, if it's good then they have the opportunity to now purchase the item and show their support.

    I am sorry that your social circle is hellbent on never paying for anything, but to tar and feather every single person who has ever downloaded any form of artwork just because your friends don't show their financial support is quite frankly just wrong.

    I've moved more times than I can remember, leaving behind books, cd collections and other heavy objects each time.

    By the logical argument of the 'anti-pirate', each time I move, I should find the time and the spare cash to repurchase everything I have ever owned.

    Which helps your sales more, me finding a digital copy of the first chapters/volume of your story to share with new people to encourage them to actually go out and buy it, or me personally buying your book three or more times?

    Is it fair of the publishers to charge me $8 every couple of days just so that I can fill my shelves with things I read once and then ignore for five years or more due to a constantly voracious reading habit and the ability to recall 90% of a work after reading it a single time?

    Given that the average sci-fi, fantasy, etc. author is usually attempting to tell their story over multiple volumes, and most of these books come out, at best, once every 6 months, personally, that is what kills your 'vote' in my wallet.

    I read too often, and too much, to justify spending $24+ on a story that if I simply ignore it until it is available as a complete set, or omnibus edition can be purchased for half that price tag, consumed in a couple of days and thrown to the side.

    That said, I'm not advocating piracy, I'm merely attempting to voice the devil's advocate.

    I'd rather purchase your book, directly from your website, for $4, and know that three of those dollars goes directly to your bank balance, than spend $8 on something that I may not enjoy, and on top of that, be aware that you've seen maybe $0.20 of that $8.

    Sunday, May 2, 2010 at 4:13 am | Permalink
  9. Mike Massie wrote:

    Widespread file sharing and music piracy wrecked an industry and hurt a lot of the "little people" who made their money working in the music industry.

    I saw this happen at the molecular level as my brother-in-law (an extremely talented musician – works as a session musician for Sony in Nashville. You've heard him on the radio, I guarantee it, but he doesn't get huge royalties for his work.

    Yet, when file sharing became a major issue that caused tremendous fallout in the music industry, he was directly affected by music piracy due to there being a lot less work because studios weren't gambling on smaller projects and less "bankable" musicians anymore.

    And that's how the music industry parallels the publishing industry; when publishers begin to lose major market share to new media, AND they lose revenues to piracy at the same time, it's going to be the less known, new, and undiscovered artists who suffer.

    Folks, the writer only sees about 10% to 15% of every book sold – a pittance when you think about it. When you pirate their work, you aren't helping them at all. Instead, you're just further diluting and diminishing the already meager sum they receive for their work.

    Bottom line is, don't pirate an author's work. They deserve better than that from their readers.

    Tuesday, July 20, 2010 at 10:58 pm | Permalink
  10. re: royalties

    I just wanted to point out that authors published with e-publishers often make 30-50% royalties, with the average seeming to be 35-40%.

    Because of this, I try to purchase more books from small e-publishing houses whenever possible because the authors make more money and, frankly, the books are often a lot cheaper than the big presses.

    Wednesday, July 21, 2010 at 2:07 pm | Permalink
  11. I meant to say: authors make more money *per unit*


    Wednesday, July 21, 2010 at 2:08 pm | Permalink
  12. shaun darragh wrote:

    Nicole, thanks for the discussion, Missy. (That's Mainiac talk, there) I attended a discussion by Jim Swain a few weeks ago on what he sees as the future of e-publishing, and decided to put my own novel on Amazon within the next few months. I began working on it in 1972, but the realities of both military and intelligence careers kept me from finalizing it until retirement. (Good thing it's historical fiction, Eh?) Anyway, a mate down in Aussie has already fired me a shrill "you must be bloody barmy… there's pirates out there" which did instill a bit of fear. My first reaction was; even piracy would get the story out. At 177K words, it stands little chance of paper publication. Swain recommends low pricing at the $2.99 to $3.99 level, arguing that even if people are disappointed, they won't feel taken to the cleaners. My brother, ever the CPA, argues that I should price it around $5.99, the cost of a Starbucks. Now I can add your experience to the equation; i.e., that even were it to become immensely popular as a pirated version, I would still lack the readership evidence needed to convince a publisher to print any follow-up novels that fell within the genre range.

    Hmmm. Food for thought.

    Tuesday, October 19, 2010 at 5:05 am | Permalink
  13. marie-claire wrote:

    All good points but what about in a situation like mine where I happily bought the first 2 books (at over double the US price by the way, as I live in Middle East) and now can't get my hands on the third as for some reason none of the bookstores stock it? And I don't have a credit card to order a copy so than option is out too.

    Tuesday, October 26, 2010 at 5:51 am | Permalink
  14. freebard wrote:

    Because of your article I've subscribed to a book club and will take browsing in the local bookstores more for enjoyment and less to find the best "deals".

    As to marie-claire's dilemma of not having the ability to buy the third book I believe her (and everyones) ability to consider this as a logical matter says more about their (our) willingness to cut corners than be a part of economic improvement and empowerment.

    Saturday, December 18, 2010 at 8:34 pm | Permalink
  15. Guinnevere wrote:

    Is it true that once the books are bought by the bookstore that's considered a sale for an author?

    If that's the case, we should just shoplift from the large chain bookstores, stick it to the man.

    Wednesday, January 5, 2011 at 10:01 am | Permalink
  16. Guinnevere wrote:

    Marie-Claire, The third book didn't come out until Jan. 3, 2011. So that's why you couldn't find it yet, I hope you can now :)

    Wednesday, January 5, 2011 at 10:03 am | Permalink
  17. Dave wrote:

    Found this article through my wife, who's an author. Well written article, but one assumption you make that is not accurate is that a pirated book = a lost sale.

    Don't misunderstand, I'm not condoning piracy…but it's a part of any industry where the product is available digitally and there's very little you or I can do about it.

    I empathize with your point, but at the same time, it's not a fair statement to say every time someone downloads your book, you've lost a sale.

    In other digital industries (specifically the music industry) studies have shown that piracy can and has helped the originator of the content, though nothing like this has been looked at for books, and I imagine it's probably a bit different due to the medium.

    Monday, July 4, 2011 at 12:09 pm | Permalink
  18. Amber wrote:

    My two cents…apologies. Lets start with that I consider myself an artist. I vary mediums from cake to paint to words, music and fabric…etc I found your article here while looking for piratey pictures to use as a screensaver during my son's pirate birthday party this weekend… FYI, I totally "pirated" your piratey clip art! *GASP!* Ok, now that we are all over the shock lets get to the point. I am of the opinion, you must first understand, that a capitalist society is inherently sick. If you are already lost I suggest reviewing highschool social studies, or looking up altruism… I think that human kind could have a much healthier society if we were just a little less greedy. To me it seems like if one is to make art of any kind it should be for the sake of the art. In my experience art made for profit usually sucks. Art is something that causes emotion in others, I believe this should mean it comes from the heart, and soul, if you will. When someone is writing, drawing or creating in anyway to try and pay the bills, that's not art to me. Articles like this make me feel sad, I start to think that the rest of the world will never see what is so plain to me. If we could all just share with each other openly, share our art, our food, our love and compassion…truly, that would be a world without "piracy".

    Be the change

    Fight the system

    Don't worry, be happy


    Tuesday, September 6, 2011 at 11:16 pm | Permalink
  19. Cromethus wrote:

    Sooo…. I know this is an old post, but I feel compelled to comment.

    I pirated your books. Yep, I did. I also *loved* them. They now sit proudly on my bookshelf, along with about 400 others.

    First, let me say *thank you* for writing. I am an aspiring writer (with 2 novels first-drafted but slogging through editing is a chore). I understand some of the pain. Being that I haven't published more than a couple short stories so far, I don't quite have the same perspective, but I'm getting there.

    So, why pirate? Because I'm a starving artist, of course! But I buy when I can. On to the real problem – social issues… The real problem is that buying things, just about *anything*, triggers a pain response in most people (seriously!). People would rather have it for free. Isn't that obvious?

    The fact is that the world is changing distribution patterns again. Back in the day, before about 125 years ago and the age of recorded media, artists had to have patrons. In the age of recorded media those patrons became publishers. Those publishers are more worried about making money than the artistic value of things. However, with pirating become more common – because digital media makes getting your hands on someone's work so darn easy – patronage is making a comeback. It seems like a crappy way to do things, but actually works quite well. I suggest you check out if you do ever lose your publisher. Many people would probably be willing to *front* some money to get that next book . I would. Worth a try.

    The point of this wandering, rambling, somewhat incoherent post is this: Pirating, much like speeding, is wrong but also a fact of life. Good people do it because it is *so* justifiable. However, there are alternatives for someone who is reasonably well established such as yourself. Projects like Kickstarter offer you a way to get things off the ground. It's good stuff.

    As far as income goes, that problem is as much the publisher as the reader. While pirating *does* hurt the writer's income, there is a good argument for it as advertising, as well as an argument that 1 download does not equal 1 lost sale (or even 1 lost sale opportunity). Publishers, however, have many things they do that screw the author. For example, paying out your 'advance' over two years. That's shitty. Worse, they bundle the sales of all three books together so that even if one book sells *ridiculously* well, you still have to pay off the advance for all three books before you see any royalties. Doesn't seem like much, but it screws the author by passing to them a larger portion of the risk and significantly delaying their payday for each book. There are *tons* of these little tricks they use. Every publishing firm, whether for print or other media, uses them. Artists are in a very bad way right now, truth be told.

    Wednesday, June 27, 2012 at 8:56 am | Permalink
  20. I say NO

    Tuesday, March 10, 2015 at 4:18 am | Permalink

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