Book Piracy: Is it any different to streaming movies online?

Poppy Jennings


Book piracy has been a problem for authors and publishers for years. For anyone with a computer or electronic device, downloading books for free is pretty easy if you can find the right places to get them. A few weeks ago the issue took a massive spotlight on twitter and many, many authors weighed in with their opinions. Of course, having worked in sales in the publishing industry, I feel like it’s necessary to weigh in with my opinion too.

When people become so aggravated about being denied something they feel entitled to, they confuse the basic distinctions of what they’re fighting about, and that’s something I feel has happened with this issue. Some people think that books are a basic human right. Some people recognise that books cost money to make, and within the expanding publishing industry across the world, books are ultimately a luxury item. If books were free, writers and publishing staff would go unpaid – that includes authors and literary agents, editors, sales, marketing, publicity, production, finance, and so many others. Who would pay the printers? It goes beyond the office walls of your well-known publishers too.

I think a lot of the time, people don’t really associate books with the people behind them. They see books as what they are – stories printed on paper. You don’t see the amount of effort that goes into them. The money. The heart-wrenching emotion. For a lot of people, it’s a full-time job. For others, it’s a full-time second job outside their day job because they don’t have advances or large enough salaries to support them so they can produce their work full time. Writing isn’t just a hobby like a lot of people assume; people who push and push themselves to write novels and short stories to be published are either striving to be paid for the work they love, or are trying to live off the money they have been making from their writing. It’s no different to someone working in publicity, accounting, law, television, etc.

Since I’ve given my professional view as someone who was paid a wage for a publishing job, how about an author’s view too?

I decided to speak to Kit Mallory, author of Blackout, about the issue:

‘As a reader and a person who hasn’t always had the disposable income to spend on books I really wanted, I totally understand the temptation of illegal downloads. I really do. And as an author, especially as a new author, it’s super flattering and exciting that anyone actually wants to read my book, however they get their hands on it.

BUT. The bottom line is that authors – and everyone else involved in the production of a book – deserve to get paid for their work. It took me five years to write Blackout; when you have someone’s book in front of you, that’s months and years of their time and energy you’re looking at – and, depending on the route they’ve taken to publication, the money they’ve put into production, and other people’s time and energy and money. If somebody has the means to obtain a book legally – whether it’s by purchasing it or ordering it from their local library or entering a giveaway or requesting an ARC – and they choose to download it illegally or make it available for other people to do, they’re helping to block the author’s ability to write and release future books, and the publisher to fund new releases. Authors are human and we need to eat and pay bills just like anyone else – and ultimately, if everyone who wanted to read a book decided they were going to take it for free, authors and publishers would end up running at a loss and there would simply be no more new books. If you like an author and you want them to release more work, stealing from them is not the way to make that happen!

I grew up in a low income household, and access to libraries literally made me the person I am today. I believe with my whole heart that free access to books should be a fundamental right and not a privilege. However, while I also believe wholeheartedly that everyone should have access to free healthcare, that doesn’t mean that I think nurses shouldn’t get paid. If you can’t afford to buy a new copy of a book, there are lots of potential avenues around that still mean you can support the author and their work. I get that not all of those avenues – libraries, for example – are equally accessible to everyone, and honestly, if someone contacted me to tell me they desperately wanted to read my book but literally had no way of obtaining a legal copy, I’d do my best to find a way to help out. I’m sure lots of other authors feel the same way; it’s a huge honour to know that someone’s excited to read something I’ve created. I want my books to be read and enjoyed, and I want to find way of breaking down potential barriers that would stop people being able to do that. But I can only do that if people talk to me about it. I see no reason at all not to have curtesy and respect for the author to get in touch with them and explain the situation rather than steal from them. I think pirating/downloading things from the internet can often feel a bit more detached and it’s harder to think of it as actually stealing, but at the end of the day, illegal downloads are theft in exactly the same way that walking in and taking a book off the shelf in Waterstones without paying is theft. I think authors definitely need to listen if readers are telling them there’s a struggle to get their hands on a book, and work together to address that; and at the same time we deserve to have our work valued.’

So, how does this affect people from poorer countries and places with limited access to literature?

Massively. Without access to bookshops, libraries, delivery services, the chances of you being able to get a hold of books you want in a language you can read becomes even harder. And as much as it would be great to be able to snap your fingers and change the way the world works and interacts and prioritises these things, that’s just not the case. But there are ways to battle this. Be patient with libraries when you request books, read something different but similar to the one you want, appeal for change however you can. We need to avoid being angry at authors and publishers. The more you download books illegally because you feel unsatisfied by the books you do have access to, and the more you feel entitled to whichever new release there is that you want, the more damage you do to someone’s career and life.

And with so many people attacking the idea of authors wanting to be paid for their work, Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat, weighed in on how sales can have an effect, and some things for readers to think about:

‘Most authors don’t mind their books being sold in charity shops because it’s usually going to a cause they’re happy to support. But many readers have been asking me about how royalties work, and how best to support authors. So, once more for the late crowd: not all book sales help authors. Second-hand books – in shops or online – don’t count as sales, and don’t earn the author anything. Not saying it’s wrong to buy second-hand – everyone does – but authors don’t benefit. Nor am I saying don’t buy at a discount. Everyone likes a bargain – but some books are so heavily discounted that authors might have to sell 100,000 copies to earn £2,000 in royalties. Independent bookshops may not be able to afford to sell books at high discounts, but they are still worth supporting. And if you can’t afford to buy books at full-price, libraries too are worth supporting, and they pay authors on your behalf. What isn’t worth supporting is the number of pirate sites that offer eBooks for free. Piracy affects sales to the point that some authors have lost their publishing contracts and had their series cut short. This doesn’t help readers or authors. Project Gutenberg provides thousands of legitimately available free eBooks, without hurting anyone’s livelihood. It’s a great resource, and worth supporting, too. But authors aren’t being greedy for wanting to earn a living. The average author’s earnings come to less than the minimum wage. And if the public wants more variety and diversity in books, then it’s worth looking at ways to support what they do.’

We’re lucky enough to live in a country where access to books is easy and affordable for people from all backgrounds. Think about the people you’re hurting before deciding whether or not to pirate a book.