I was recently alerted to the fact that a number of my books are available on pirate sites. I’ve got mixed feelings about that, and I thought it would make suitable fodder for a blog so I thought I’d toss my hat into the debate.
On the one hand, I’m flattered. With almost a million indie authors out there who can’t get arrested, that sites feel my work is in suitable demand to offer it, albeit pirated, can only be considered a compliment. Another way of looking at it is that pirated copies are basically no different than the freebies I give out during free promos, and the more readers familiar with my work, the more are likely to buy something eventually.
Still another way of looking at it is that this is merely book lending, albeit with no limit on the number of times a book can be simultaneously lent. In the physical world, you can only lend a book one at a time, like a library. In the virtual world, you can do the equivalent of counterfeiting, which is where you fire up the Xerox machine and make 10K copies of that one book and distribute them. There is a reason that copyright wording restricts the ability to copy to the copyright holder, not the purchaser of a single copy of the book. If you want to look at it clearly, the content of the book is licensed for that single use copy, and the copy is the property of the buyer – but not the content, at least not to reproduce it. Because again, that would skew supply and demand.
NEWS: How about that? The Geronimo Breach is featured as an example in a blog on self-editing for indie authors. Worth a read.
The other hand is less pretty. That perspective is that piracy is theft, pure and simple – a book’s intellectual property is still property, as clearly articulated in the copyright notice, and it’s not anyone’s property but the copyright owner. That’s not ambiguous. One might argue that’s unfair, or bad, or shouldn’t be, but the one thing it isn’t is ambiguous. So if you are pirating, it is clear you DON’T OWN the property you are electronically copying and distributing, and that it is AGAINST THE LAW to do so, because the law views the taking and distributing of material that isn’t yours as copyright infringement – a kind of theft. Those offering pirated goods are offering stolen goods, and those downloading the stolen goods are participating in the theft – they are benefiting by getting something they would have had to pay for if they obeyed the law or if the stolen articles weren’t available for download.
I’m familiar with all kinds of arguments for piracy – that the receivers of the stolen property might not be able to afford the goods, or that it does no real harm and is thus a victimless crime, or that it can have a benefit for authors by familiarizing readers with their work, or that protection of intellectual property is basically greed-driven and “old paradigm.” I can sympathize with all of these arguments, but in the end I find them to be rationalizations for stealing. Inevitably those with broken moral compasses try to muddy the water and debate whether stealing is wrong or not (if you had to steal to survive, is it really so wrong? To save your baby? And so on), but I’m pretty clear that whatever it is, it isn’t right.
If I invest several thousands of dollars in editing and creating covers and the like, I hope to recoup that cost, plus a reward for my time in creating the work in the first place. That’s reasonable – as per the copyright, I own it, so I’m entitled to expect compensation (if I have the work for sale) for my effort. When someone decides to download a pirated copy of one of my books, they are gaining the benefit of my work without compensating me. All other arguments aside, that’s the net of the transaction. I don’t see the revenue that is my due as the intellectual property rights owner.
I’ve heard folks who say, yeah, but it’s not really hurting your sales anyway, or the sales of big companies, who are making tons of money and thus can afford to be victimized by criminals. The problem with that idea is that it assumes that I’m not being harmed. I would argue I am being even more harmed than a large company that can afford to have some lost revenue due to theft. Because I’m a small business, every lost sale hits me directly in hundred cent dollars. My self-publishing business is a business, not a philanthropic enterprise. It pays bills. It does so by being paid for the product it distributes.
I believe that the more people who read my work the better. But it is my right to decide which work I make free, and when, and to whom. If someone bought a hard copy book of mine (assuming I had them) and lent it to a friend, who lent it to a friend who did the same thing, I would have no problem with that. Because the form factor limits the ability to distribute it – there’s no chance of that same copy being lent 10K times in one month, or simultaneously. Likewise, I have no problem with someone selling it for 10 cents at a used book store or garage sale, for the same reason. But with an ebook it is very different.
It’s my right to decide, as the IP rights holder, when and how I want to give stuff away free. It is not someone else’s right. Forgetting for a moment any moral arguments, can we agree at least that if something is illegal everywhere, it’s probably illegal for a good reason? Now, one might argue that it’s OK to break bad laws, and I might even sign up for that. But the real question comes down to, how much of someone else’s property that I have no legitimate right to is it OK for me to use and receive the benefit of and distribute? Put another way, how many hours of your 40 hour workweek, after you deduct the roughly 20 hours you work for the government, and the 10 to 15 you work for the bank and insurance companies…how many of the five remaining hours are you willing to work for free, for me, so I can have the benefit of your labor? One? Two? All five? How would you feel if a criminal syndicate showed up and simply stole one hour’s worth of post-tax, post-mortgage/CC money from you every week? Would you be ambivalent? Would you be furious? Would you figure that you weren’t really being harmed, or worse, that you were being “greedy” because you sort of had use for that money you worked so hard to make?
Or we can look at it another way. You are a sculptor who has managed to create a line of work that is unique, and you have protected it so nobody else can knock it off and represent their copy as your creation. You make little sculptures for a living, and you have opened a store to sell your designs. How many sculptures is it OK to steal from that store? 1%? 10%? 20%? Or how many copies of the protected work is it OK to make and sell, represented as the sculptor’s work, in a shop right next door?
I’ve heard pirating likened to book lending. It isn’t. I’ve heard arguments that say “the more pirating of books, the better, as it increases my sales.” Well, maybe so, if you sell hard copy books through stores. But when the only thing you have to sell are the bits and bytes that compose the intellectual property of a book, there’s no such distribution or form factor-based differentiators. There is simply product X, which consists of bits and bytes, and pirated product X, which is identical in every way. I’m quite sure that if someone was operating a factory to create hard copies of Neil Gamon’s work and sell them alongside his legitimate work in bookstores or at the airport, he wouldn’t have the same laisser-faire view he tosses out now. If Barnes decided to print copies of his book, foregoing that annoying part where they have to pay the author or publisher anything, and then sold them for nothing as a loss leader to drive store traffic, what would the value of his identical legitimate offering priced at $12 be perceived as, right along side of the identical copy for free?
The answer is obvious. But somehow the concept that in cyber-space, because the bookshelf is virtual, versus in a store, it makes it OK to do the same thing. Except even a cursory analysis shows that it isn’t OK at all. If Nora Roberts has a book for $8.99 at Amazon as an ebook, and Shiftyreads has the identical book available as a free download for anyone who wants it, it DOES have an impact on how many books she will sell at Amazon. Of course it does. I can go on and on. If Baskin Robbins charges $4 for a scoop of Y flavor here, and right next door they give away knock-off Baskin Robbins flavor Y for free, will it have an impact on Baskin’s legit sales? Figure it out. Of course it will.
About the only two arguments I’ve heard for piracy being good are anecdotes from authors who seem to mistake correlation with causality (sales increased by 100% since being pirated), and those comparing it to book lending via libraries or in book clubs. Let’s address the first. If one makes the mistaken assumption that pirating didn’t occur BECAUSE the author was picking up steam and becoming more popular, one could mistake that for pirating RESULTING in higher sales. It also requires that one confabulate print books with ebooks. I could see where if you have a radically different product (print books) than the pirated ebook, familiarity with the author’s work which was a function of reading a pirated copy could boost paper sales. But I think it’s fairly obvious that they aren’t going to boost ebook sales of the available-as-pirated titles, if all the same work is available either as a pirated good or as a genuine one. If you think it will, go back to my Baskin Robbins scenario. How much more of flavor Y will Baskin sell out of its location if Pirate Ice next door gives away the identical thing for free? My gut says not a lot. Now assume that it’s a virtual storefront, and that the store is everywhere at once, available to everyone at once. Same question – how much ice cream will they sell? The answer – less than if Pirate Ice wasn’t giving it away right next to them.
In the end, I have arrived at several conclusions. First, pirating can increase visibility of an author’s work, which is good. No question. Second, theft of intellectual property is still theft, just as counterfeiting a stock or a note is theft (it deceives the receiver, and robs the remaining genuine articles of their value by the number of fakes in circulation – diminishing the true value of the real thing due to increased supply. All markets are supply/demand driven, in that if you increase supply to one unit more than existing demand, the price goes down). Third, I believe those taking the stance that pirating is OK haven’t thought it through, or are making some flawed assumptions (mistaking causality with correlation).
I think it comes down to whether you believe that theft is OK, or not. Because none of the pro-piracy arguments can surmount that one niggling detail – that copying and distributing the work is prohibited by copyright, and violating that prohibition is copyright infringement, which amounts to stealing from the intellectual property owner.
Put me down as anti-stealing, I guess. Call me old fashioned that way. If I seem intolerant on this topic, it’s probably because it’s my shit being stolen, not yours.
What do you think?
I’m going to try a little experiment as a summer promotion. I haven’t really played around with prices lately, so I figured I’d give it a whirl and see if price made any difference in sales volume.
To that end. I am putting two of my titles, number one and number two in the Dr. Steven Cross series – Zero Sum and The Voynich Cypher – on sale for two weeks in August. Starting later today, both titles will be reduced from $4.97 to $2.99 apiece.
Why, you ask, would you do that, Meester Blake?
Because I’m afraid I’m missing some boat where cheapskates are unwilling to give a book a try if it is over $2.99.
NEW NEW NEWS: A guest blog on six tips for ebook promotions by yours truly.
BREAKING NEWS: A new blog by author Bert Carson about, well, me. Good stuff.
NEWS: New guest blog on writing with the lovely Emerald Barnes is worth a look. “My Year of Writing Dangerously.”
BOOK REVIEW: A shockingly positive book review on my newest one, Silver Justice, by acclaimed author Steven Konkoly!
A few weeks of that will tell me whether that’s the case or not. These are both well-written novels, one over 130K words, the other over 100K. At $2.99 they are priced in the basement. Voynich has already sold about 8000 copies since its release at the end of March, so it’s no slouch, and Zero Sum is almost at that level (although it’s been out longer), so these are not unpopular books. But I would like them to be even more popular. I’d like new readers to gain exposure, and not by giving em away free – most who are downloading free books don’t read what they have. I know I haven’t. I’m probably not alone. I typically put in the time to read something I’ve been willing to pay for. Just the way I am.
So folks, if you could help spread the word of my summer madness sale, I would appreciate it. If over two weeks or so not much has changed in the sales rate, the price goes back up. To put it into perspective I would have to sell 30% more books to be even with the regular price. Needless to say if that doesn’t happen, I just paid a decent chunk of lost revenue to discover the effect of discounting on my work.
As always, please, no wagering.
I’ve been starting my interviews and guest blogs for the upcoming launch of Silver Justice, my newest novel that will release on July 23. As part of that, I’ve been asked time and time again about the underlying framework for the novel, namely the cause of the 2008 financial crisis. The book is set in New York, and follows Silver Cassidy, an ass-kicking FBI Agent who’s running a serial killer task force that’s hunting a brutal murderer of financial industry players. A big part of the plot involves the slow unveiling of my supposedly fictional account of why the 2008 crisis happened, resulting in the worst recession in our lifetimes. I already know this is going to be a book that polarizes readers, who will either love it or hate it. It’s a shocking ride, and the conclusions it draws are disturbing at a very basic level. Many don’t like living in a world where things are deeply disturbing, so they’ll hate it, rather than becoming outraged or curious. I get that. It’s worth the risk.
BREAKING NEWS: New in-depth interview with yours truly on craft, self-publishing and the price of coffee is worth a look.
NEWS: I was fortunate enough to be named one of the top 100 indie authors for the 3rd month in a row. #50.
As part of writing it, I was forced to become somewhat of an expert on everything from Keynesian economics, to fiat currencies, to the creation of the Federal Reserve, to how and why the IRS was created and by whom, to why the gold standard mattered, to the reasons the dollar has lost 90+% of its buying power since 1971, to fractional reserve banking, to market manipulation and how arcane instruments like credit default swaps and other derivatives work. The tail wagged the dog in this case. By the time I was done, I became convinced of two things: 99.999% of all people have no idea why the middle class is being wiped out and the world is in the pooper and getting worse as we speak; and that that’s not accidental. The ignorance is by design. It’s encouraged, and there’s a big machine devoted to keeping reality from slipping into the equation.
Now, I can appreciate how there are many more important things to do than know about why the biggest financial calamity of our lifetimes took place. I mean, there are reality TV shows to follow, and claims that America’s got talent, and the search for the very best dance crew, whatever the hell that is. I get that most are otherwise occupied, and prefer to debate one political party’s invented rhetoric over the others, or consider which mammoth flat screen TV would look best in the living room. These are heady times. But it occurs to me that ignorance has an incredibly high cost. As an example, the Fed revealed a week or so ago that the average middle class family’s net worth has dropped to where it was in 1982, erasing 30 years of savings since the financial crisis in 2008. That means that if the average was $78K in 82, it is still $78K in 2012.
The ugly truth is that it’s much worse than that. An ounce of gold was $360 in 82. It’s now $1600. So it takes almost five times more dollars to buy the same commodity. That means that a dollar in 82 had five times the buying power it has today. So really, the middle class has lost five times its net worth from 82, when adjusted. The short version is that most of the wealth accumulated by the middle class over the last 40 years has been confiscated – stolen by the relentless erosion of inflation, and by the markets in 2008. (By the way, anyone who thinks measuring the value of the dollar against an ounce of gold is silly would be advised that until 1971, gold was money, for thousands of years. It was only once the US violated its agreement to stay on the gold standard, got caught doing it, and then abruptly announced it wasn’t honoring its agreement anymore, that the new folksy wisdom that ‘gold isn’t money’ started being advanced by the media. Until then, of course it was. FWIW, it still is. It’s just that a collection of uber-rich bankers have spent the last forty years trying to convince everyone that it isn’t, because otherwise people would rebel and demand that the money they are working like slaves for actually possess some actual worth, as opposed to a mere promise of steadily declining worth from the government.)
I also understand that blogs that aren’t railing against free books, or are pro-kitty, or that purport to offer writing tips, don’t get read as much. They aren’t as popular. Because most people’s heads hurt when they are required to think, and to consider any sort of a macro picture of reality that diverges from whatever is advanced as the truth by the media and its owners. People want to believe that the system works, and protects them, and even with its flaws is still the best ever. They have a lot of emotional investment in that idea. So even when a chink appears, and it become obvious that most or all of it is an obvious lie, human nature is to ignore the data, and instead focus on more pleasant things.
I’m here to tell you that there’s a cost to that. In real terms, it’s a cost where most will be wiped out within another 10 years, if they haven’t already been. By the statistics, I’m saying many already have been. But some haven’t. They think it’s all going to somehow get better. That’s because they are ignorant of what is actually taking place, and what the true drivers are. The precarious construct that is their reality has a very, very expensive price tag. And I’m afraid for most, the price will be everything they have – just as in the Great Depression, when millionaires (and there were many in the US by the late 20s) discovered after a few years that they were penniless, and owed everything to the bank. It was considered impossible until it happened. Right now, tell someone with a two million dollar home in Scottsdale or a one million dollar home in New Jersey or a five hundred grand home in San Diego that they could be close to penniless in no time, and they would sneer. Just as people sneered in the 20s.
The research I did for Silver Justice has changed my perception of reality to the point that virtually anything is possible, and it appears that the real powers that be are hell bent on destroying the prosperity of the middle class, just as they did in the Great Depression (about which I could write a book). And my hope is that Silver Justice gets enough traction so that it makes people question the illusory status quo and wonder how much in it could actually be true. While I’m normally aggressively self-promotional in a transparent way, this book is different, and so is this blog. I’ll write another one when it launches, but let me just say that what I’ve learned has me pretty glum about many peoples’ chances moving forward, unless there’s a massive change in the majority’s awareness. The only hope is that they figure this out while there’s still time. Silver Justice is my small effort to move people in the direction of that requisite awareness. We shall see whether it has any effect.
End of rant. For now.
For a synopsis of Silver Justice, as well as a short interview, click here.
Readers of my blog know that I began my experiment with KDP Select in mid-January. The main attraction for me was the ability to put a title free for a day or three, thereby enhancing visibility and presumably giving me a boost on the “most popular” and “also bought” lists following the free day(s).
So how has that worked?
Glad you asked, internal dialogue that always seems to know just what to inquire for maximum effect.
Sales of my books increased by a factor of four in January, from my most popular month ever – December. Given that I have been at this for a whopping nine months, that would kind of make sense. December, everybody on the planet got Kindles for Xmas, and needed content for them. Ergo, more books would sell.
BREAKING NEWS: Fantastic guest blog at The Veil War on the writing of The Voynich Cypher.
MORE BREAKING NEWS: Interview, book review of The Delphi Chronicle, Book 1, and a short story. Must read! With author Kathleen Patel.
UPDATE: Monday, 3-12. Interview with Digital Ink Spot on Amazon promos, process & thoughts.
UPDATE: New interview just posted with Eden Baylee. It’s a fun one.
I also released a slew of books in December – Night of the Assassin, King of Swords, and The Delphi Chronicle trilogy. Night and Book 1 of Delphi were and are free, so I increased my available paid titles by two that month, bringing it to a total of seven possible paid titles to buy. I don’t count the first book of Zero Sum, because that was free as well, nor do I count the individual books in the trilogies, as nearly everyone who buys, buys the bundles.
If all things were equal, I would have expected an organic growth of 20-25% from the new titles, which is about what I saw from November to December. All very predictable.
In mid-January, I enrolled my first book in KDP Select, and ran a couple of days free. The Geronimo Breach saw 12K downloads in its two free days, and then sales took off like a rocket for 5 or 6 days, eventually dropping back to a sustainable rate that was above December’s run rate, but nothing like what the post-free week was like. That got me looking at other authors’ experiences, and sure enough, the post-free phenomenon was being discussed, although it was still largely too new to rate.
I then ran a few more titles free, for a day here and there, and lo and behold, saw the same effect. This resulted in a reproducible sales boost, and appeared to have pulled my other titles along with it. I finished January giddy, with four times December’s bucks in my pocket.
February, for the first two weeks, sales were down 30% from January. Other authors indicated that was a well-understood effect of readers digesting all the books they’d downloaded. Made sense, but still not a lot of fun to see. In the final two weeks, I ran Geronimo free for one day, and Zero Sum free for two, and Geronimo saw 10K in one day, and Zero Sum saw about 20K on two days of downloads, hitting number 5 for free downloads. Post free, sales took off like a scared rabbit again, and I finished February at the same sales level as January, which is to say back at four times December sales, but income was up 25%, at five times December’s sales, due to a higher ASP after the artificially low promotional pricing I’d tried on a few titles in Jan. I figured it would be down 20%, so that was a pleasant surprise.
March, Zero Sum has been continuing its run from the free days the end of February, performing well and holding in the 500 paid range now 8 days post promo, which is unexpected but nice. But here’s the amazing part about the KDP promotions: by March 10 I will have sold more or less as many books as I did all of Feb. Obviously, that portends good things. If sales stay on track the rest of the month, I can expect a double to tripling over the course of the March, or roughly eight to twelve times December sales.
That’s an eye-opening number. Extrapolating, if March comes in as it’s shaping up, from that point on with no sales growth at all (even though I’ll be adding a slew of new titles this year), I will sell well over 100K books in 2012. Needless to say, if that happens, I’ll be one of the very very very few indie authors making a significant living from my passion. That’s amazing for two reasons. First, up until Amazon created its revolution in self-publishing, it would have been impossible. Utterly, completely impossible. A pipe dream. Second, it’s astounding because I will be a failure by traditional publishing standards.
Failing has never felt so good.
If I have 12 paid titles out by the end of 2012, and I’m selling 100K books, I’m only moving 9K books per year, per title, mas o menos. That’s a disaster by traditional published standards. And yet obviously, by living in Mexico self-publishing standards, it’s a home run. The numbers assume that none of my books really hit in any way big. In fact, these numbers might. My new one, launching on March 17, The Voynich Cypher, could blow things wide open. It’s that kind of a book. Mainstream, accessible, my take on a Dan Brown/Raiders of the Lost Ark style adventure/thriller. If it gets traction, it could be a big book. Early readers are enthusiastic, so I’ve got high hopes for it, but even if it sort of of putters along flat, I’m still in the mix to hit my 2012 numbers. Again, this all assumes that none of my books really get discovered, or in any way hit the mainstream.
I attribute my success to date, such as it is, to two things. First, to writing a heartfelt blog about a beloved & perhaps misunderstood public figure and comparing him to my dad, and having it go viral. Okay, maybe not so much that. Seriously, it’s because of being fortunate enough to have delivered a reasonable product to those brave or stupid enough to try my offerings, and building slow recognition organically. And second, it’s because the KDP Select program has created a venue whereby indie authors can displace the big name brand authors, and get a small slice of awareness from an audience they previously would have had no chance of reaching. The first takes 15 hour days, 7 days a week, for 10 months. The second took KDP deciding to offer “free” as a perk for joining the Select program.
I owe Amazon deep and sincere gratitude, and hope they crush the bones of their competitors to jelly and dance in the still-warm blood of their adversaries as they rule the book world. At least, for another year or two, it would be nice. My game plan is to have twenty titles out by the end of 2013, all selling for between $2.99 and $6.99. If Amazon’s KDP program stays in place and their algorithms don’t change, I and a whole group of writers who had no real shot at making a decent living suddenly have become viable. Perhaps Indie will become the new slush pile – but one that pays well. Or perhaps there won’t be any more slush piles, and the phones will go unanswered in NY sometime soon.
On a related topic, my UK sales are now trending at 10% of my US sales, so the UK is having more of an effect than I would have expected. Given that I have done exactly zero marketing beyond twitter and a lackadaisical Facebook presence, that also portends good things. Although I will say that I have been participating in Melissa Foster’s World Literary Cafe, and the visibility from that group’s efforts have likely played a role in my sales. I recommend them highly, for those looking to participate in a good organization.
Loans have also increased, and as of today, for March 8, I have 450 borrows. As I said in a prior blog, on titles at my price point at least some of those are displacing sales at a considerably higher net rate, but the overall positive of being in the KDP program is outweighing that negative. Hard to bitch over the cost of doing business on that one.
That’s where we are as of today. Whether sales continue apace, or dirt dive, is unknowable from this point on, but I’ll keep everyone updated. It’s been a fascinating experiment so far. I’ll post an end of year summary in December, and maybe a mid-year one in July – really, the first full year of being in this game. Beyond that, thank you to my readers, and good luck to all the authors following this blog. It can be done. It’s just not easy. Nothing is.
UPDATE: As of March 10, midnight, I have sold 3015 books this month and had 540 borrows. A little slower than I’d hoped, but the last few days were laggards. Still, difficult to whine too much. I’ll save that for the end of the month when I’ve crashed and burned…