Nobody Is Stealing Your Book!

I’ve been unwell since finishing work yesterday, so I’ve not got anything prepared for the blog today (I still haven’t replied to most of the emails I’ve had since Tuesday for that matter). Since I’m going to be away at Thought Bubble over the weekend, I’ll just post this, about two related but opposite things I see self-publishers doing over and over again.

The first, and most bemusing, is going to ridiculous efforts to lose money. $3 to $5 is a reasonable price for a full-length ebook, most readers are agreed. Certainly Amazon are trying to encourage that price – $3-$10 is the price range they want, and you get the highest royalties at that price.

But a few people noticed that they could sell more books at 99 cents, and that by doing so they’d sell enough more that they could make the difference up. And that worked for a few people. But now everyone’s doing that, except those like myself who’ve realised it no longer works. I can sell a hundred copies of a book at $5 and make $350, or two hundred copies at 99 cents, and make $70. The maths isn’t hard.

So now people have noticed that selling their books for 99 cents doesn’t work, they’re trying to force Amazon to give them away. Amazon have a minimum price of 99 cents, but Smashwords (who distribute to Barnes & Noble, iBooks and so on) don’t, so people will put their books on both, set the price on Smashwords to free, then report a lower price on Amazon, who have a price-match policy.

The idea is supposed to be that you can gain additional publicity from this, and thus stand out from the crowd and sell copies of all your other books. That’s standing out from the crowd of other people doing this, and selling copies of all your other books to people who think even 99 cents is too much to pay for a novel. There may be a flaw in this argument. And those of us who know the phrase ‘tragedy of the commons’ can expect people to be paying readers to get their books within a year, for ‘exposure’.

Weirdly, some of these people are also the prime advocates for DRM. Now, I’ve already explained why Digital Restrictions Management is a horrendously bad idea. Without even getting into its immorality, or the impossibility of what it’s attempting (seriously, every DRM scheme by its nature amounts to giving someone a locked padlock, a key, and a note saying ‘do not put key in padlock on pain of prosecution’), DRM makes it more difficult for readers to pay for your work than to ‘pirate’ it.

It is impossible to compete with ‘free’ on price, so we have to compete on ease of use.

But a lot of self-publishers are absolutely terrified, beyond all reason, of ‘piracy’, of plagiarism, and of some filmmaker stealing their idea and making a billion dollars without giving them any.

Now, there is, of course, no evidence that ‘piracy’ has any negative effect on sales at all, and some anecdotal evidence that it increases sales. For example, I heard good things about the SF writer Greg Egan, so I torrented one of his books, Permutation City to try it (I would have borrowed from the library, but I have a habit of losing library books and getting massive fines). That was in April. As a result of that, I’ve bought Egan’s books Permutation City, Quarantine, Schild’s Ladder, Axiomatic, Oceanic and Luminous in paperback and Incandescence, Zendegi and The Clockwork Robot as ebooks. (I since discovered that Mr Egan has a lot of free stories available on his website. I would have tried those instead rather than torrenting had I known about them).

But assume I’m wrong. Assume ‘piracy’ matters. Assume every copy on a torrent site is a lost sale, pure and simple. Are your books going to be ‘pirated’?

I had a quick look at the top twelve Kindle bestsellers (as of 11:33 PM on the 17th November) on Amazon’s US site (where the vast majority of sales come from). I searched for each on two top torrent sites. I won’t link those sites here, but one ends in ‘bay’ while the other ends in ‘noid’.

The Journey Home by Michael Baron
Search terms – Baron The Journey Home
Results on site 1 – nothing
Results on site 2 – 28 hits, including Star Wars comics, DangerMouse cartoons and a documentary series by Jonathan Miller on atheism. The book doesn’t show up.

Rescue Me (a quirky romance novel about secrets, forgiveness and falling in love) by Sydney Allan
Search terms – Allan rescue me
Results on site 1 – nothing
Results on site 2 – 16 results, including a 1917 Douglas Fairbank silent film, a collection of albums by jazz-fusion musician Allan Holdsworth and a collection of 882 NES games. The book doesn’t show up.

Best Friends by Consuelo Saah Baehr
Search terms – Best Friends Baehr
Results on site 1 – No results
Results on site 2 – One result, the jazz album Moment To Moment by Roy Hargrove

Last Breath by Michael Prescott
Search terms – Last Breath Prescott
Results on site 1 – No results
Results on site 2 – One result, a collection of books by someone called Lisa Marie Price

Ghost in the Polka Dot Bikini (A Ghost of Granny Apples Mystery) by Sue Ann Jaffarian

Search terms – Jaffarian Polka
Results on site 1 – No results
Results on site 2 – A hit! A palpable hit! – one result, a torrent containing this book and the other book in this series.

Double Exposure by Michael Lister
Search terms – Lister Double Exposure
Results from site one – nothing
Results from site two – nothing

The Wounded Heart: Hope for Adult Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse by Dan B. Allender Ph.D. and Dan B Allender
Search terms – Allender Wounded
Results from site one – nothing
Results from site two – nothing

The Mill River Recluse by Darcie Chan
Search terms – Mill River Darcie
Results from site one – nothing
Results from site two – Another hit – several copies of the same torrent, containing this and other bestsellers.

Come Back To Me by Melissa Foster
Search terms – Foster Come Back
Results from site one – nothing
Results from site two – one hit, a solo album by the former lead singer of Hootie And The Blowfish

Flat-Out Love by Jessica Park
Search terms – Flat-out Park
Results from site one – nothing
Results from site two – Another hit, a torrent of this book.

How to Be a Writer: Building Your Creative Skills Through Practice and Play by Barbara Baig
Search terms – Baig writer
Results from site one – nothing
Results from site two – nothing

WIRED by Douglas E. Richards
Search terms – Wired Richards
Results from site one – nothing
Results from site two – another hit – actially in the same torrent as Mill River Recluse

Just for fun, I also searched for myself, to see if any of my books showed up. On site one, nothing showed up, and on site two I saw the DVDs of the three Transformers films, and a copy of The Name Of The Rose in Italian.

So, of the twelve biggest selling books on Kindle, each of which must be selling hundreds of thousands of copies, only four of them are even available at all – so if you make it to the very, very top of the best-seller list, you still only have a one in three chance of having anyone bother to torrent your work.

There are currently 887,909 books in the Kindle store. If the books at the top aren’t being torrented, what do you think – really – that the chance is of your book, when it enters at 887,910, being pounced on?

As far as I can tell, the most sensible strategy is the one I follow:
Make at least some of your work available for free, like I do through this blog, so anyone who wants a taster can have it.
Make it as convenient as possible to buy your books in whatever format people want. Have them available as paperback, ePub, Kindle, PDF… as smoke signals if someone wants that.
Don’t give anyone a reason *not* to buy. DRM is a reason not to buy.
Sell for a reasonable price. Ideally you want to sell for a price where every sale will net you a noticeable amount of money, but not enough to put anyone off. I go for $5 for electronic copies (except short stories, which are 99 cents). The paper copies have to be more expensive because they cost much more to produce, but I get the same money (or less) from them.
Put the book out and tell people about it. And by ‘tell people’ I mean ‘tell people who are interested in your writing and/or the subject matter’, not ‘spam forums whose only readers are other self-publishers and then complain that you’ve got no sales’.
Then write the next one, and don’t worry about who’s doing what with the last one. If it’s good, people will pay for it if you charge fairly. If it’s not, people won’t even take it if you give it away.

Caveat – I’m not a full-time writer, so I’m obviously not *that* successful. But I *am* doing well enough that my income from writing makes up a significant percentage of my income.
I’d be interested, therefore, if anyone had any better strategies, or any refinements on the above.

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12 Responses to Nobody Is Stealing Your Book!

  1. J.C.V. says:

    I always wondered why an author would give away their product. Then I do give away stories on my blog in hopes of building a platform. It shocked me a bit someone asked me to post part of one of my manuscripts. I just feel like my manuscript deserves more respect than to be given away. Keep up the good work.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      There are ways to give away the work and still make money, but giving away the whole book through Amazon isn’t one of them. What I do is serialise my books on my blog in first draft, then publish them as books in second draft, with added indexes, introductions and so on. People can read as much as they want on the blog, but the book’s far more convenient and polished, so most choose to do that. So long as it’s more convenient to pay than to get it for free, having it be free isn’t a problem.

  2. Mike Taylor says:

    “There are ways to give away the work and still make money, but giving away the whole book through Amazon isn’t one of them.”

    Yes. But what your whole article seems not to take into account is that there are other motivations for giving away work than to make money. When your pay-for works compete against works whose authors give them away for free, the reason they’re doing that is probably not in the hope that it will make them more money down the line, but just because they want to be read. (That is certainly why I write for free at the Reinvigorated Programmer, a site that has never spawned any books and doesn’t look immediately likely to.)

    For many people, just being read is enough. Being paid would be icing on the top.

    So how can an author who does want to make some money compete against a free product? Well, once the question is stated like that, it’s obvious: that author needs to be better. That can mean writing with more style, more knowledge, or more insight. Often it means just being the specific author that you are — someone that readers specifically want to read. But I think much of the time the answer is just to write a niche book that no-one is competing with. How many books are there that make a serious attempt to analyse the music of the Monkees? For the small but non-negligible number of people out there who really like the Monkees, your book is the only game in town.

    And this is one of the very best things about the Internet: ease of access means that individual authors can specialise down to any subfield of a subfield that they love; and if there’s an audience out there at all, they’ll find it. It’s why I have been able to run a blog entirely about the vertebrae of sauropod dinosaurs that is closing in on a million hits. It’s why if you want to read a blog about, I don’t know, Edwardian soft furnishing, then you’re probably be able to find one. I love that.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Oh I agree, and I hope I’ve never given the impression of being that mercenary myself – I’d blogged for many years before ever considering turning my writing into books, and in the case of my first two books it was because people specifically asked me to.

      But a lot of the people doing this are doing it as a get-rich-quick scheme, and wanting to make a lot of money very quickly. There’s a form of tulipmania at the moment with the Kindle, with an awful lot of people convinced that if only enough people had heard of it then their twenty-three novel series about vampires in high school would make them the next J.K. Rowling.

      I write because I’m literally unable not to. I see any cash from my work as being a nice bonus. But a lot of these people see this as their full-time job, at least potentially, and are still doing everything they can to sabotage themselves…

      • Mike Taylor says:

        “Oh I agree, and I hope I’ve never given the impression of being that mercenary myself – I’d blogged for many years before ever considering turning my writing into books,”

        Oh, absolutely. No, that’s exactly why I was surprised that you seemed to overlook that write-for-the-sake-of-writing in your article — because I knew that was what motivated you.

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          Yeah. It’s just not the motivation of at least a significant minority of the people going into self-publishing (especially the people just doing ebooks and nothing else). After all, nobody who was primarily concerned with being read would add DRM to their books in the first place.

  3. I see the validity in everyone’s point of view here. Whether one chooses to give their work away for free is their prerogative; each person’s motive for doing so differs. However, for those who are in it for the money, it’s important to keep in mind that from a consumer’s perspective, it’s human nature to view anything of perceived value that is available for ‘free’ with wary eye, for I would say that with most things, you get what you pay for.

    For those who want to offer their wares at no cost, primarily for the sake of edifying others, or for the joy and satisfaction derived by a sense of contributing a thought, a point of view, or general knowledge, then I say more power to you!

    Thanks for sharing!


  4. Dunno if you folk Pete Townshend’s recent comments about file-sharing and the music industry. I guess you could say that I’m more or less on the opposite side of the debate. But he said at one point, in self-acknowledged contravention of his main argument, that if you give any creative person a choice between being heard and being paid they’ll pick the first one.

    So perhaps that’s an advantage of DRM. It points out who all the people who are not worth bothering with.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Very good point. And yes, I’m on the opposite side from Townshend there. I don’t believe that most people who are file-sharing are spending any less money on music, films or whatever than they otherwise would, but they’re almost exclusively getting stuff *they would otherwise not have got at all*.
      At that point, it’s not even a choice between ‘get heard’ or ‘get paid’ but just between ‘get heard’ and ‘don’t get heard’.

    • Mike Taylor says:

      By the way, for anyone interested in reading Townsend’s comments, I found them (a transcript of his John Peel lecture) at

      I think they’re mostly wrongheaded, though. When someone says something like “it would be better if music lovers treated music like food, and paid for every helping, rather than only when it suited them”, it’s all I can do not to leap out of my seat shouting “but it’s NOT like food! If I give you my food, I don’t have it any more!”

      • Do you remember the old ads to get you to pay your TV license? They had somebody walk into a cafe and take chips from someone else’s plate, while a voiceover intones “this is like not paying your license fee.”

        And yet if my neighbour doesn’t pay theirs, I am not at all sure the picture on my TV would get fainter. They might as well have held a gun to a puppy and said that was like not paying your license fee.

        The other important point about intellectual property is that human developments are cumulative. We’re told it’s necessary to encourage innovation whereas in fact that’s precisely what it stifles. That’s very obvious in the case of technology. We probably wouldn’t be able to communicate the way we are if Tim Berners Lee had got proprietary about his net protocols.

        But I think it’s also true in terms of culture. Bob Dylan was only able to write ‘Bob Dylan’s Dream’ because nobody owns ‘Lord Franklin.’

    • plok says:

      He also demolishes his argument self-acknowledged another way: by saying that the whole thing’s a bit tricky when you’re arguing from a position of being successful and wealthy. Well, but maybe it is not just a bit tricky, maybe it is awfully tricky — Mick Jagger recently said some silly things about this modern world of ours, too, and what was most apparent from his remarks was that, like Townsend, he can afford to speculate.

      Quite possibly, it’s unrealistic to expect these sorts of speculations to have much value.

      But, HA! So you went out and got all the Greg Egan you could lay your hands on, eh? I thought you might.

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