I saw this post at the blog of the hilarious Alex Bracken, where she justifiably fumes over discovering an online forum where someone asked for a free digital copy of Alex's debut novel, Brightly Woven (which is out on Tuesday funnily enough - be like me and stalk bookstores until they shelve it. I haven't read it, but I am soooo excited to).
I totally agree with her fuming, by the way, but it occurred to me that most people wouldn't understand why it would be a problem to read a free digital copy rather than say, purchase the hardcover in a bookstore.
These are the two main reasons in my mind:
(And please, if you are not a publishing-related individual, like for example, my sister who does read my blog sometimes, or Ms. Lollipop from Baking and Blogging, feel free to skip the publishing-related posts...)
(Also, if you are a writer and get freaked out easily, you might not want to read this. I mean, I personally think it's important to understand the business as a writer, the good and the scary, but I don't want to be responsible for sleepless nights over digital piracy.)
- It does count as stealing. I have watched free movies online too, on Hulu and Youtube, but they don't really seem pirated when I know that I could've watched it on TV if I had cable. Also, it seems like they deal with epic amounts of money anyway, so I don't feel like the $3.99-4.99 I saved by not renting it from iTunes or Wilson's Video down the mountain is even needed (if I could even find the obscure, random movies I feel like watching this week to rent).
In the publishing world, it's a little more direct. Let's say you really want to read the book The World Is Ending and All I Want Is Chocolate, by Lila Cart. (I made that up, by the way. Pretend it's a YA post-apocalypse thriller spoof in manner of Shaun of the Dead). You do a little googling, find a free digital copy, and feel incredibly relieved that you don't have to pay the $17.99 that the bookstores charge for most YA hardcovers these days.
You start reading. It's hilarious. So funny in fact that you're still reading at 3AM and accidentally wake up your little brother since you're laughing so hard with your laptop on your pillow. You're so excited about it that you send the link to all your friends, and because you have impeccable taste, they all read it. Actually, your bff gets ten kinds of into it during free/study period and ends up reading it on her iPhone under her desk during French class. This wouldn't be a problem except for the fact that M. Lours is kind of strict, so when your bff starts laughing really hard, he confiscates her iPhone and gives her detention. Being a kind-hearted soul, your bff doesn't hold it against Lila Cart or The World is Ending and All I Want is Chocolate, so she posts a link to the free copy on her blog, along with a funny anecdote about how much detention sucks, especially since she was just ten pages to the end and couldn't WAIT to find out what happens. It's almost as funny as Lila Cart's novel, and it gets emailed to your bff's college-age sister, who emails it to all of her friends, and then they send it all across that world wide web...along with the link to the free digital copy. (We call this "viral marketing," but that is another lesson.)
So, here's how the math works. If Lila Cart receives standard royalties for The World is Ending and All I Want is Chocolate (ie. 10% of the hardcover list price of $17.99), then you stole $1.80 from her when you read it online instead of purchasing the book. (I know I am rounding up a little bit. Be nice. It makes my math easier.)
That doesn't sound so bad. I mean, it's less than $2. What can by you buy for less than $2? Not even a soy chai latte at Starbucks (which are delicious like whoa). But then you emailed the link to the free digital copy to 80-some friends, and all of them read it online for free instead of purchasing their own hardcover. That's $150 that has been stolen from poor Lila Cart, because of you. Not the hugest amount of the world, but enough for an iPod nano, which Lila is actually really eager to get, because she broke hers during a moment of despair while revising The World is Ending and All I Want is Chocolate before it pubbed and hasn't replaced it yet since she's a starving artist and can't afford it.
Also, your bff sent it to her college-age sis, who sent it to her friends, who giggled so hard that they made it their fall semester anthem at KIP University. No, really. And they were in charge of organizing the pep rally for KIP's homecoming football game that October, and they get all the cheerleaders to dress up as zombies and do a hilarious skit based on a scene from the book, which gets a bunch of the students (and some alumni) reading the free digital copy instead of buying the book.
So, let's say that's 20,000 people (including the alumni) who found the link on the KIP cheerleaders' blog. The original link to that free digital copy has over 20,000 hits. My calculator says, over $36,000 has been stolen from poor Lila Cart. She could buy more than just a iPod nano with that kind of money. She could buy a CAR. She could buy two (used) cars.
I think you see the point I'm trying to make. $1.80 a book doesn't seem like a big deal, but it definitely adds up.
- Hits to the website of the pirated copy is not how the publishing house measure popularity...or profitability. If a lot of people read the book online without purchasing it, then it can seriously damage the writer's career.
Let's say that the house that published Lila Cart's The World is Ending and All I Want is Chocolate only signed up the one book (typically, debut authors' contracts can sign one book to maybe four, depending on if the author is writing a series or not). But Lila Cart's editor Susie Quinn really loves Lila - her work is fantabulous, and Lila is a joy to work with, quick with revisions and happy to self-promote.
So, when Lila Cart's second novel arrives from Lila's agent, Susie Quinn is so excited that she jumps up and down in her cubicle by the end of chapter three. Cart's sophomore effort, We're Rebuilding the World and I Think It Should Be Pink, blows her debut novel out of the water. Not only is it even funnier, it's brilliant and heartbreaking and full of the same poignant hope as the post-apocalypse novels that are currently clinging to the bestseller list. This one is going to BIG. Editor Susie Quinn can feel it.
So, she brings We're Rebuilding the World and I Think It Should Be Pink to her publishing house's Acquisitions meeting. Susie Quinn introduces Lila Cart's next book, talks about it, and says that the house should really sign Lila for three more books. She reminds the meeting attendees of the phenomenon at KIP University. The Powers That Be that decide these things looks to the Sales team. (The sales team are the guys in the publishing house that go to the bookstore chains like Barnes and Noble and Borders and many others and try to convince them to sell xx number of copies to sell in xx number of stores.) The Sales team inspects a list of numbers that comes from Nielsen Bookscan (or the publishing house's in house equivalent).
Nielsen Bookscan is a database that counts how many copies of each book are sold. It can track how many hardcovers are sold versus paperbacks. It can track how many books are sold in the Northeast as opposed to the Southwest, and how many Barnes and Noble sold versus Books-A-Million, and much much more. (And editorial assistants are frequently told to click around and collect all these numbers.)
So, without ever reading either book, the sales team looks at the numbers for Lila Cart's The World is Ending and All I Want is Chocolate. They're not promising. Sure, over twenty thousand people (from KIP University and elsewhere) read the book (for free online), but only 9,281 bought it in its first eleven months. (Yes, Nielsen Bookscan can be that specific.) And it's the buying that counts. After all, publishing houses need to make money too.
The sales team shakes their heads. The Powers That Be Shake their heads. Editor Susie Quinn bows her head, sighs deeply, and leaves the meeting to go tell Lila's agent that that house won't be able to publish We're Rebuilding the World and I Think It Should Be Pink.
Lila Cart and her agent are both really disappointed, but the agent submits We're Rebuilding the World and I Think It Should Be Pink to other editors at other publishing houses. Unfortunately, they get the same response. You know why? Because ALL sales teams have access to Nielsen Bookscan numbers. They ALL know how well or how badly a book sold in stores. And it ALWAYS matters.
Because people chose to read a pirated copy instead of purchasing Lila Cart's The World is Ending and All I Want is Chocolate, the world is forever deprived of We're Rebuilding the World and I Think It Should Be Pink. Worse than that, since the whole publishing world is looking at these numbers and shaking their head, Lila Cart - a talent writer/starving artist just a few years out of college - might never get published again. (Even though she's fictional, I actually do feel bad for poor Lila Cart.)
Yes, this does happen. (Okay, maybe not the homecoming skit, but the part about the viral marketing and the meeting decision, definitely.) I mean, authors do get published again after their debut novels only sell 9K, but it is much, much harder. Either you have to write under a pseudonym or you have to wait a few years or decades, hone your craft, and write such an exemplary book that the whole publishing world freaks out as soon as they read your manuscript.
Or if you really want to read the book for free, go check it out from the library (they're struggling too).
(I am writing from my own personal experience and understanding. If you work in the publishing industry and you see a fallacy in this post, please let me know in the comments!! Thanks!)