Why Writers Should Fear Obscurity, Not Piracy



Image from Flickr by pasukaru76.

There’s one question that seems to crop up more than any other in my email inbox, and when I’m talking about self-publishing.

And that’s: How do I stop people stealing my book?

A lot of new indie authors are worried that publishing in digital format means it’ll be far too easy for readers to get illegal copies of their book for free, instead of paying.

In some cases, they’ve heard of DRM (Digital Rights Management) – or are at least wondering whether or not they should tick that box when uploading their book to Amazon’s KDP.

But here’s what I always say: Don’t worry about piracy. Worry about obscurity.

DRM Unfairly Punishes Readers … and Doesn’t Stop Pirates

When you enable DRM, it makes it tough for readers to transfer your book between devices. If someone buys my book, I want them to be able to read it on their computer, their Kindle, their iPad, their Kobo, their phone … whatever they want!

Unfortunately, what often happens with DRM is that it penalizes the customers of your book. Many readers like to have access to their digital books on multiple devices. However, DRM can prevent them from having access to the book they bought on non-Kindle devices.

This can be annoying to the customer and may even result in lost book sales as some readers will refuse to buy books that are DRM enabled.

(Shelley Hitz, The Pros and Cons of DRM, The Future of Ink)

While DRM makes it slightly trickier for your book to be pirated, if someone is determined to steal your book and put it on a file-sharing site, they’ll still be able to do so.

I don’t have any sort of DRM enabled on Lycopolis or my Blogger’s Guides: I don’t think it’s fair to make life hard on all my perfectly legitimate readers just in case someone might steal my work.

Combating Piracy: Make Your Book Easily Available at a Fair Price

So what can you do?

I believe that people pirate books (and music, films, etc) for one of two reasons:

  1. They’re opposed to paying for their entertainment at all.
  2. They can’t easily get access to a legitimate copy at a price that they’re willing to pay.

In the first case, there’s nothing you can do to sway them. And why would you care? They’re not going to pay for your book, so it’s not like you’ve lost a sale.

In the second case, though, it’s clear that what you need to do is make your book widely available at a fair price.

(If you price your book far too high, you’re unlikely to make any sales anyway.)

Most book readers aren’t going to even consider pirating your book. They may well not have any idea how to do so, and even if they do, they’re unlikely to begrudge paying for something they genuinely want.

The hard truth is that, for most indie authors, we’re far more at risk from obscurity – no-one knowing our name, no-one knowing our books exist – than from piracy.

I know this is a touchy issue with authors, and I’m very open to hearing the other side of the argument! Whatever your thoughts on piracy and DRM, please feel free to add a comment below.

Thanks for commenting! I read all comments, and reply to as many as I can. Please keep the discussion constructive and friendly. Thank you!

10 thoughts on “Why Writers Should Fear Obscurity, Not Piracy

  1. In addition to publishing, I also format ebooks for clients. They are often concerned about piracy and I give them the same advice. In fact, in future I’ll probably just send them a link to this post.

    When I was studying computer science, I knew plenty of folks who were downloading thousands of songs from pirate sites. One of them claimed to have over 10,000 songs, so I asked, somewhat naively, ‘Wow, how do you have time to listen to all those songs?” His answer: “Oh I don’t listen to them. I just like to HAVE them.”

    Most pirates are like this guy. They aren’t buyers. They won’t buy your book if they can’t get it for free, and they won’t read it either. The time it takes to send a DMCA to a pirate site (which will be ignored) could be much better spent marketing your book.

    • Catherine, I think you’re absolutely right — pirates just aren’t buyers.

      And in the case of the few who might also be buyers … if one of them pirates your book and really loves it, they may well go on to buy others you’ve written (or buy it in hardcopy, etc). They’d not have tried it without being able to get it free (albeit illegally).

      I can understand why it worries people, and it’s interesting to hear that you and Joel get asked about this a lot too. For me, it’s similar to the traditional publishing worry — from unpublished authors — of “what if a publisher steals my idea?” And again, it’s a case of focusing attention on the wrong thing.

    • Most people who upload pirated media are not buyers.

      However, several independent studies of music down-loaders show that many people download an album by a band they might like, and if they like it buy the rest of the band’s catalogue.

      So illegal downloads in the music industry are often the transition from hearing one song on the radio to knowing if you like the band.

      I am not aware of similar studies on ebooks, but if the comparison holds many of the people who illegally download one book will be buying others.
      Dave Higgins’s last blog post ..Moonshine Superman

  2. Yes, Ali, the other side of the coin is that someone who stole the book to actually read it may well become a future buyer and a fan. As a youngster, I recorded songs off the radio, because I was too poor to buy record albums. I have since bought many of those songs many times over in multiple formats.

    As a side note, I have the first book of a trilogy permanently free on Amazon and other sites. When the book went from 99 cents to free on Amazon, the sales of Books II and III quintupled. So free can be a good thing, even if the “freebie” was stolen.

    • I’ve definitely heard good things about making the first book in a trilogy free (and I’m glad it was so successful for you!) Need to actually finish my trilogy and try it out myself… I can’t see it working with just one book. 🙂

  3. This is a really interesting and important point. We have a much better of how and why people buy things these days, and it doesn’t really match up to the DRM model.

    I have a copy of “A Place of Greater Safety” on my bookshelf which has never been opened, but I’ve read the book twice – first a copy I borrowed from the library, another from my mother, and when I finally paid for the book it was because I loved it.

    Dave’s point about music is great as well. If people enjoy the product they often want to pay for it. Things like Kickstarter and Patreon are demonstrating a very different relationship between the modern artist and consumer: almost as if the modern reader is more akin to an investor than a purchaser.

    So I guess the important thing is to get noticed and produce a product worth investing in.

    Great blog by the way!
    Keith Crawford’s last blog post ..Things to Try when it’s Hard to Finish a Story

    • Great point about Kickstarter and Patreon — perhaps it’s a return to an older model of support in some ways (Shakespeare and Chaucer both were supported by patrons).

      I agree that getting noticed and producing something that readers/consumers will love is the way forward.

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