Why I was furious when my book was pirated
Author Robert Colvile explains how the electronic black market threatens authors’ livelihoods
There are two things you do when your book gets published. First, bookmark your Amazon page, for obsessive checking of sales rankings. Second, set up a Google Alert, in case anyone is talking about it. Or, as it turns out, stealing it. A couple of weeks after becoming an author, I got an automated email: a free version of my book had popped up on a site called DailyUploads.net. A few hours later, my inbox pinged again. It was official: I’d been pirated.
The reaction came in several stages. First, outrage: they’re pirating my book! Next, a curious kind of pride: they’re pirating my book. Finally, pure bafflement: why are they pirating my book? At the time, the American edition – the one that had been copied – was 309,607th on Amazon. This wasn’t giving the public what they wanted: it was giving them what they didn’t even know existed.
My mistake, it turned out, was to imagine the pirates as anglers, plucking the juiciest titles. In fact, they’re trawlermen, sweeping their nets across the publishing schedules. When I talked to other authors, they all had stories to share.
If you buy an eBook online, it will come in a format that can’t be shared. But there are free software tools that simply strip those protections away. The resulting files are distributed across the internet – not for profit, but out of a conviction that people should be able to read what they want without paying for it, just as they should be able to watch films or listen to music.
And like everything else, it’s speeding up. In 2008/09, titles took 19 weeks to hit the electronic black market. This year, Lloyd Shepherd, a British author of historical thrillers, published his fourth novel – and found a “box set” of all four available for download within 72 hours.
My second Google Alert, for example, led me to a site called Mobilism, where you could find any book you dreamed of: The Next Pandemic by Ali S Khan, The Mayo Clinic Cookbook by Alice Hamilton, White Eagles over Serbia by Lawrence
Durrell, Violin for Dummies by Katherine Rapoport, Duty and Honor by Tom Clancy, Orientalism by Edward Said, Nightmares and Dreamscapes by Stephen King, A Summer at Sea by Katie Fforde. And those were just from the past 12 hours.
There were thousands of titles – protected by the tissue-thin legal defence that the site does not host illegal material, merely allows users to post their own links. The uploader of my book, “moneyguzzler”, had posted almost 20,000 times since 2013.
So who are these pirates? When Shepherd received the dreaded Google Alert, he went on to the forums to find out what motivated them.
“The people who are doing this systematically have got some very odd justifications for it,” he explains. Many insist that information should be free. Others have “a sense that writers are wealthy and publishers are wealthy, and therefore they’re entitled [to steal from them]”. In fact, as Philip Pullman, the president of the Society of Authors, has pointed out, they’re poor, and getting poorer – something Pullman directly links to piracy.
How bad a problem is it? Shepherd found that many of the pirates are those who cannot get the relevant titles in their own country. There are also indications that piracy can actually help sales, by spreading word of mouth.
But most of those within the industry see it as a threat. The UK is relatively law-abiding: according to government research, only 1 per cent of UK internet users are reading eBooks illegally, compared with 9 per cent for music or 6 per cent for films. But, says Stephen Lotinga, CEO of the Publishers Association, this still amounts to 7.2 million titles a year, or about 10 per cent of eBook sales. Intriguingly, unlike film or music thieves, UK book pirates tend to be between the ages of 35 and 55: “These are not spotty teenagers sitting in their bedrooms who can’t afford a book,” says Lottinga.
Publishers need to play a constant game of Whac-a-Mole with the illegal sites, he adds, because the more convenient it is to download illegally, the more people will be tempted. “Right now, the problem is contained,” says digital publishing expert Michael Bhaskar. “It’s frustrating, but not life-threatening.”
That’s probably true. But I still felt a sense of raw fury when I noticed Mobilism staff plugging a premium, paid-for download service. The final insult was that they signed off with a plea to support software developers by paying for their work. Their work – but not, it seems, ours.
‘Publishers need to play a constant game of Whac-a-Mole with the illegal sites’
More than seven million eBooks are read illegally in Britain each year
These titles are among the tens of thousands that can be found through sites such as Mobilism