Ebook piracy – one author’s opinion

by David Hewson

The world is embracing the ebook at an astonishing pace. Most of us who write for a living welcome this. It means new opportunities for authors and readers alike. It means you can carry lots of books in a single, light device. With some systems you can do clever things such as sharing comments and even lending books to your friends.

Everyone who works in publishing — as writers, editors, designers, in sales and marketing — wants you to make the most of that new gadget, and to understand how it fits into the world of books. So this is an attempt to set down a few facts about this fast-changing medium.


Ebook prices have been in flux, mainly due to the speed at which ereaders have taken off. There was a time when ebooks were sometimes more expensive than their print equivalent. This rarely happens now. If you look on Amazon you’ll usually find they are slightly lower in price than the print book. Prices still usually follow the cycle of paper publishing. So the original ebook price will be based on the hardback cost, and will fall when the paperback comes out. To use my own work as an example, my current hardback, The Fallen Angel, costs £7.99 at Amazon UK and £7.19 for the Kindle edition. My current paperback, The Blue Demon, lists at £4.19 while the paperback is £3.98. So you save money and get the added convenience of the ebook, but don’t, of course, have that nice book to put on the shelf. The choice is yours.

Having a look before you buy

You don’t need to commit to an ebook before buying it. In fact you can read a substantial amount of it for free, much more than you’d get by flicking through a paper book in a shop. All main ebook systems come with a sample function. If you’re uncertain, use it — you may be surprised how big a chunk of the book you get (I know I was).

Free out of print books

Books have a limited copyright life, one determined by different sets of laws around the world. Lots of well-known works are now out of copyright. So you can download editions of Shakespeare, Conan Doyle, Jules Verne and many other authors for nothing. A great site to find these authors is Project Gutenberg which has been digitising out of print books for some time. You will also find inexpensive editions of classic books on Amazon and other stores. Often these are based on Gutenberg texts so you may want to use the original for free.

Unauthorised editions

The music industry was devastated by the proliferation of piracy of MP3 files shared freely across the internet. There are similar fears that the book business will be impacted in the same way by the growing amount of stolen copyright modern books now being placed online, often as money-making ventures for the criminals behind this trade. If you’re thinking of getting some ‘free’ books this way please think again. People who love books don’t steal them, because they know that in the end that practice will damage the livelihoods of people working in publishing, and their continuing ability to be able to afford to write. You could also find yourself the victim of fraud and theft too.

Here are some fallacies about ebook theft you may encounter.

It’s not really stealing.

People who obtain illicit books on the internet try to justify their actions in many different ways. They call themselves ‘pirates’ or ‘file sharers’. They will say, ‘But I wouldn’t have bought the book if I had to pay for it.’ Or, ‘If I like the book I got for free it makes it more likely I’ll tell my friends and buy the next one.’ Don’t fall for these excuses. People who rip off ebooks are taking something of value without paying for it. That’s stealing.

It’s not a big problem

Almost every commercial ebook now published is available in ripped-off form, and many popular audiobooks. One ‘file sharing’ site alone has more than 300,000 registered users, who frequently share stolen books among each other and give themselves ‘rewards’ for new titles.

Authors don’t need the money anyway.

Some of us don’t. But most authors don’t earn much at all. For many writing is a second job while something else pays the bills. Book theft deprives them and the employees of their publishing house of income. Musicians who lost their sales income through mp3 ripoffs could try to replace it with concerts and merchandise sales. Authors have none of those opportunities. Their principal source of income comes from the sale of a book.

If you just made the books cheaper I’d buy instead of stealing.

How cheap does a book have to be? As we’ve already said, ebooks are, in most instances, cheaper than their paper equivalent. In many large markets book prices have fallen considerably over the last decade. A mainstream ebook can now be had for £3 to £4 in the UK, which is cheaper than an equivalent book cost twenty years ago.

If you object to book piracy you should also object to libraries and second hand book sales.

Libraries buy books, and in many countries pay a public lending right to authors, a small sum based on the number of times a title is lent. Second hand book sales are of one copy alone. Digital books can be ‘duplicated’ a million times at no cost. A second hand sale on eBay is not the same as uploading a file to a torrent site that serves hundreds of thousands of users.

Book torrent sites are run by book fans who are just giving out free advertising for authors. You should be grateful instead of moaning.

Not so. As a report from the US International Intellectual Property Alliance details, media piracy is big business, controlled by organised crime rings in many parts of the world. There are vast profits to be made here as intellectual property moves into the digital medium and can be hidden around the world, then served up from sites based in countries without enforceable copyright laws. This is about money: getting a subscription out of you in return for access to all that stolen material. Do you want to give your credit card details to a criminal gang? Then sign up for one of those torrent sites.

Why don’t you cut out the publishers altogether and sell your books direct over the internet yourself, at a lower price?

Price is very obviously not the issue here. Some authors are going the direct route, especially with their backlist titles. But it’s a fallacy to think that a book goes from manuscript to finished title without any intermediate processes. Professional publishing involves several sets of editing and creative input that help an author produce a better book. Even if a writer wants to sell direct, a wise one will still factor in the cost of external editing, marketing and design. Just taking out the printing process and the publisher does not change the fundamental economics of the business. Self published authors are just as likely to be victims of ebook theft as anyone else.

In short…

The digital book revolution is a great thing. It makes it easier and cheaper to read and buy books than ever before. You can try before you buy and you can still go back to paper when you want to. But the phenomenal growth of digital book theft is a threat to the modest income many writers rely on. There are individuals out there who rip off copyright work — books, software, movies and music — out of some kind of warped principle. They don’t want to pay for other people’s intellectual property and never will.

Authors are never going to win that battle. So we’re relying on the vast majority of honest book buyers to support the writing community. Use the established sites. Download samples. See what you like. And then, please, buy it, don’t steal it.


  1. Scott_T14 March, 2011

    Heh, total crap. Its the total opposite I’ve seen other authors say, could’ve come straight from riaa’s playbook.

  2. Krystian Galaj14 March, 2011

    Sharing books on the Internet is at most copyright violation.

    On the other hand, writing a book, and then declaring that due to copryight law no one can make derivative works of it for 70 years from authors death, ie. the jumble of ideas that is the book is now withrawn from common pool of cultural resources is indeed stealing.

    The claims from report you quote and virtually all reports of this organization have been debunked in the past. I refer to http://www.techdirt.com/ for details – check blog posts from dates shortly following the release of report.

  3. Krystian Galaj14 March, 2011

    I do believe the authors should be rewarded for their effort, but let’s not confuse things here. The effort was producing the book, the book itself, as an idea, belongs to everyone and no one, as ideas can’t be property. Copyright exists as a purely utilitarian government-granted monopoly, to encourage authors to produce more books, and I think it’s sensible to have it, but it should not be granted for any longer than absolutely necessary, and it shouldn’t encourage the delusion that one can claim part of common culture as one’s sole property.

  4. Tilmon Hocutt14 March, 2011

    Couldn’t disagree much more. Wake up and smell the coffee. Baen has already proved that giving away e-books increases paper book sales. It not only increased the sales on THAT book but all the authors OTHER books.

  5. Jason Evans14 March, 2011

    “Ebook prices have been in flux, mainly due to the speed at which ereaders have taken off. There was a time when ebooks were sometimes more expensive than their print equivalent. This rarely happens now.”

    I disagree with this statement. A book that may still be in print but it more than a couple of years old is much cheaper than it’s ebook equivalent. Here I am speaking of the “second hand book” market. This is where ebooks should be competing. If I can buy a used paperback for $5 but the ebook costs $8.99, Why would I spend the extra $3.99? Is it only for the sheer convenience of having it on my ereader?

    I for one want to buy ebooks but I don’t want to pay full retail price for a book that’s not new when I can get the paperback edition for less money and I can trade that book in for store credit when I’m done.

  6. elmonica14 March, 2011

    I recommend that authors stop writing books and publishers get out of the business. Piracy can’t be stopped and the incentives for writing are decreasing. Channel those creative talents and investment capital into other vehicles.

  7. William Walsh14 March, 2011

    “The music industry was devastated by the proliferation of piracy of MP3 files shared freely across the internet”

    And yet they continue to see record breaking revenues set every couple years.

    So very devastated.

    A proven fact the music industry pretends doesnt exist, is that every study that has looked into it has found that, as a group, those who download music outspend those who do not in music purchasing. By a large and significant factor.

    I cant say for certain that it is true in the ebook industry, but I wouldn’t doubt it.

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  9. Monty13 November, 2011

    All these emails that say it is O.K. to copy an author or composers work are basically saying either that creative people should be paid much more for their original effort or creative people need to make their living doing something else and create just for the enjoyment of doing so.

  10. Myron15 December, 2012

    File-sharing is not the same as stealing. In fact, it’s almost the exact opposite. If I go to a store and take a book without paying, then I’ve deprived that store of their copy of the book. They no longer have possession of it. If, instead, I download an ebook, all the stores still have their copies and so do customers that bought it and the copyright holder. I haven’t deprived anyone of anything. For it to be stealing, there has to be some tangible loss. With digital content, that doesn’t apply. The most that you can say is it’s a hypothetical loss of a potential sale. Hypotheticals and potentials just don’t cut it.

  11. Dan @ StopEbookTheft16 October, 2013

    Thanks for the great post. I agree completely with you. It’s sad to see the authors losing out on royalties for their hardwork and energy which was put into these books. Free sample chapters and even free ebooks (on a promo day or week) is one thing BUT pirating the ebook completely and offering it for free (illegally) is another thing altogether. This is why I’ve set up a team of advocates like myself to help stop ebook piracy (or at least make a good dent in it). Feel free to check out my blogs on this subject.


  12. […] Ebook piracy – one author’s opinion […]


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