March 13, 2019

Book piracy is a real problem—and it could affect you


Harry Potter without The Deathly Hallows. Game of Thrones without A Dream of Spring. The Trainspotting saga without (shameless plug) Dead Men’s Trousers. What if your favorite series was cancelled before it could arrive at its conclusion?

It could happen, at least in the book world. According to Katy Guest’s report for The Guardian, authors hoping to finish a series have a new foe to contend with: the specter of having their series cancelled if heavy pirating leads to poor sales.

Book piracy’s impact is difficult to measure. After all, what is the ratio between total illegal downloads and true lost sales? Nonetheless, the article offers a very tangible, author-centered way to think about the problem, which is only growing more rampant as eBooks become more popular.

Justifications from book pirates run aplenty in the article, from the compelling (lack of money or access, difficulties presented by disabilities) to the obnoxious (a means of “previewing” books before buying them, because of the ease piracy offers).

In this article and others, many of those who prop up book piracy by uploading texts and maintaining websites strike a common note in their rhetoric: their mission is one of equality, access, and justice, and was ultimately born of a true love for books. They suggest that they aren’t taking money out of the hands of authors, they’re taking it out of the hands of a greedy publishing industry that is overcharging for eBooks. They suggest that their work is for the greater good, a way to provide books to those who could otherwise never get their hands on them.

But as the Guest notes, government data seems to suggest that the benefits are flowing elsewhere, estimating that the majority of book pirates are adults from higher socioeconomic classes between the ages of thirty and fifty. So while piracy might provide crucial access to those who truly need it, it seems as though it is far more often being exploited by those who simply want it. This is where the true lost sales come from—from those who could comfortably afford to pick up the book at full price.

Once, while eating at a diner with some friends, I met a guy who didn’t tip servers because he thought the way restaurants paid workers in the U.S. was unethical. He believed that if anything was going to change, one generation of servers would have to take the hit, and he had decided the time was now and the person was him. (Never mind that he did nothing else in service of this cause.)

I don’t mean to suggest that the plights of authors who lose sales and those of servers who aren’t paid a living wage are in any way comparable. But I do see some similarities between this guy and the book pirate community as a whole: while their goals and rhetoric are lofty at the top, for the vast majority of them—as I suspect was the case with my stingy companion—they simply don’t want to be bothered to cough up a few extra bucks to support the things that are supposedly important to them. And, just as the rest of us chipped in extra to add up to a proper tip that morning, these economically-comfortable book pirates are perfectly happy to stiff the people working on their behalf or pass the cost on to the rest of us. Viva la revolucion.



James Collier is an intern at Melville House.