Thursday, February 04, 2010

A Serious but Touchy Issue

I was reading the posts at one of my publishers' loops this morning. The discussion began to turn on why fewer and fewer authors are giving away free e-book downloads via contests. The reason, of course, is rampant piracy.

Most writers know there are "contest whores" out there who haunt Yahoo groups and blogs. Although I find their mindset a little annoying, I've never taken too much issue with them. Hell, who wouldn't like to score a free read now and then? But are their numbers growing, and could their motives be more nefarious now than in the past?

While I was checking out Wave's site today, I noticed her stats. At the time of my visit, she'd had 78,647 visitors from 136 countries -- an incredible achievement for a relatively "young" review site, but one with a potential downside. Just how many of those visitors, I wondered, are e-book pirates, hoping to nab one of the free Amber Allure or Dreamspinner titles or the books routinely offered by individual authors? You know such people are lurking in the shadows. Frankly, that realization creeped me out.

So what's the solution? One writer at the aforementioned loop said she only offers print books and bundles of promo items (bookmarks, pens, that kind of stuff) as prizes. Many writers who have only e-books available either don't offer them at all or offer only backlist titles that have been out for, say, six months or longer. Should publishers follow the same route? Should they stop doing highly visible promotions that have the potential for attracting dozens of pirates? Should they only put up older titles in these promotions?

I hate like hell that the world of e-publishing has come to this, but look what's happened in the music industry. One executive said their sales are down 50% since the advent of Internet thievery.

I, for one, don't mind freebies going to people I know and trust. But I don't know that many people in cyberspace, and I trust even fewer. So how would you feel if the well of e-book giveaways ran dry or only backlist titles were offered? I just know something has to be done, because the industry has been farting around way too long on this issue.


wren boudreau said...

You make some good points. The couple of times I gave my book in a contest I cringed just a little and hoped for the best. Part of the issue is marketing/promotion - since the pubs don't do a whole lot in that regard we must take it on. And I'm not so great at getting myself "out there". I'm not terribly social, but getting better, but I will never be the kind of person who seems to be everywhere online all the time.

I enter some of the contests - mostly on a lark. It wouldn't bother me if the well ran dry. Maybe authors needing to promote new books can do so by offering an older one (if they have them!) while hyping the new one.

LVLM said...

K.Z., this is a tough issue. I for one don't believe anything can be done to stop piracy. Not with all the technology that's out there. Even paper books can be scanned within mins. and posted online, so it's not even digital vs. paper in this case.

And the music industry, well, I really wonder at that. Before digital, everyone and their mother copied music from each other. And in many third world countries bootleg copies of music was/is rampant. So really, I wonder at their figures. They had no idea before how much sales were lost that they can now keep some track of.

I just think it's the nature of the beast and there will always be people out there who feel fine about stealing.

I think for the most part though, readers who hang out on review/author/reader blogs are ones who aren't uploading freebies to bittorrent sites. They are genuine readers who love books and want to support authors. You're never going to be able to stop it if a few get through the cracks. All you can do it check IP addresses for phonies and repeat commenters. But what's the alternative?

If you don't offer books for fear of piracy, then in a way, you are punishing your real fan base who do support you.

I mean, I discovered you through a free download of your book. I'm glad I did. I might never have picked up any of your books. And I've bought several of your books because I enjoyed that free one.

So you kind of have to look at it that way as well.

I know it's hard for you authors to see your books being downloaded for free, but I would argue that many of those people would not have bought your book to begin with.

I know that in the case of music, the music I copied from friends, I would never have bought myself. It was nice to have it, but if it came to push and shove, no, I wouldn't put out the money for 15 songs when I only wanted 2.

So I would say that yeah, a percentage of pirates are people who would have bought your book and it's a lost sale, however, most, probably would not have bought your book if it weren't pirated.

If you're concerned, you can always offer a free copy of a book that hasn't sold a lot anyway. It's still a nice gesture, but doesn't hurt you as bad as offering a best seller if it's uploaded.

Jenre said...

I can understand author's concerns about this. I've entered lots on contests for free books and so far have only won twice - and rather ironically one of the times I won I hadn't even realised there was a contest going on! So it wouldn't bother me too much if authors stopped giving their books away. Then again I have enough disposable income that I can afford to buy books and can well understand those who are serial competitors for free books. If you don't have the cash it's a great way to get a free book, especially if you are conscientious enough not to visit those pirate sites.

Then again, I also understand what Lea is saying, giving books away can get you a fan for life. It's a hard decision to make, particularly if you become convinced that each time you give a book away you are providing material for the pirates.

K. Z. Snow said...

What tipped me over the edge, Wren, was seeing my last LI book turn up on Asshatalk within the first week of its release. And I hadn't even had a chance to give away any copies, except for the one Tam won fair and square. (And I love Tam and trust her implicitly.)

It is a shame publishers don't do more to promote their titles. I cringe now when I see those Book-a-Day giveaways at the Romance Studio or similar promotions at large venues.

Seems to me the backlist solution is the only way to go, at least temporarily. That means new authors would have to rely on reviews and blog posts and the like to get their names before the reading public. Those are the most effective methods, anyway, so not much would be lost in terms of promotion.

wren boudreau said...

I know how you feel, KZ. In the first few days after my book was published (and it's the first and only one I've done so far) it was on Asshatalk (love that name!). I really do wonder who these people are.

Tam said...

*sniff* *sniff* I luff you too.

Sure I've won a few free books at Wave's and elsewhere but if the books dried up I'd be fine with that. It's certainly not going to stop me as if I want a book I get it. The freebie is just a nice bonus.

I enter most of the daily ones on Wave's that interest me and I've won less than 6 over the last year or so. To be honest I treasure my paper books I've won there with my name written inside (fan girl squeee) more than e-books. So if pirates are counting on winning contests to get freebies they might have quite a wait.

I suppose free short stories on websites/blogs might be a better way for authors to get recognized but all it takes is for ONE person to buy the book and post it on the pirate sites and whoosh, it's off and multiplying a million times over, so I don't think pirates are always waiting for freebies, they probably think if I buy one and put it up and the other 50,000 people each buy one we'll all have tons of books to share. That kind of thinking can't be stopped.

At this point there is no solution to end it. Can it be slowed down? With advanced technology I'm not sure it can and there will always be enough people who don't care to make it work. Sucks.

K. Z. Snow said...

Now you've given me the guilts, Leah! ;-) (It doesn't take much.) You make many valid points.

I, too, doubt piracy can be stopped. But I believe it can be curtailed if publishers work in concert and the legal system starts taking it seriously.

I know book giveaways can garner readers. I used to run contests on loops and blogs all the time. But now I'm forced to ask myself, Is winning one loyal reader worth the risk of giving away dozens or even hundreds of copies?

You could very well be right when you say the illegal downloaders would likely not have bought these books anyway. I've tried to comfort myself with that thought.

But, "it's the principle of the thing." Know what I mean? Simply throwing up one's hands in frustration and letting the situation continue is like giving thieves a carte blanche to keep being thieves.

I guess all I'm saying is, if we simply turn our backs on piracy, it's only going to get worse. I, like countless authors, am just at a loss what to do about it.

K. Z. Snow said...

Jen, thank goodness I'm not yet so distrustful that I think every winner of a free book is a pirate. But it's hard to keep paranoia at bay when you visit authors' loops. I've read countless posts about declining sales (granted, there are many possible causes for this) and the time writers spend sending out take-down notices because publishers don't want to bother.

I'm still pondering what to do in my own case. Really, I don't want to throw out the baby with the bath water!

Chris said...

It's a complicated issue, made more so by some studies that have found the most pirated books are books that haven't been released as ebooks (such as Harry Potter or a particular Stephen King that was released as an ebook months after it was released in paper). And studies suggesting that people within the publishing industry may be the sources for many pirated copies.

I think the best thing that ebook publishers, writers, booksellers, and heck even bloggers can do is educate people to not pirate. (Is that called social DRM? I need more caffeine.)

Val said...

This is a serious issue, K.Z., and thanks for posting about it. I'm not sure what to do either. It's very time-consuming for authors to have to patrol the www and go after these pirate sites.

If the pirate sites have an internet service provider based in the U.S., then you can complain to the ISP under the DMCA, and that usually has fast, effective results. If the pirate site is international but supported by advertising (banners, Google ads, etc.), you can threaten to contact their advertisers with evidence of their e-theft if they don't take down your work, and that's very effective (I had an American friend do that to a South African site).

In the case of Asshat-talk, they're sort of impervious, unfortunately, since they're in the Cayman Islands beyond U.S. jurisdiction and they're not supported by advertisers. I think you're totally right that the epublishers and legal system need to get behind protecting intellectual property rights.

As for freebies, I hadn't even thought that e-thieves might be hanging around contests at big sites like Wave's waiting for stuff to collect.

I personally wouldn't hold it against the authors if they stopped doing those contests. I almost never remember to enter them and when I do, I never win. Aside from that, I understand the concerns about piracy.

A couple of people have mentioned some good compromises in the comments already: run the contest but offer a backlist title, or offer free short stories that introduce people to the character.

K. Z. Snow said...

I can see you've done your homework on this, Val. ;-)

The biggest problem is indeed with offshore sites. The more press e-piracy gets, the less likely U.S.-based operations, and those in other countries with strict copyright laws, will want to mess with it. But that still leaves us with the asshats operating under the aegis of more "lenient" jurisdictions.

Chris, I don't if it's even remotely possible to educate the dishonesty out of people. Ethical and moral standards are becoming ever more fluid in the modern age -- sometimes, for the better; sometimes, for the worse -- and with this comes all manner of justification for behaviors that were previously considered reprehensible. What it comes down to, I guess, is how much of a conscience a person has and whether or not s/he pays it heed.

I know far too little about copyright law and advances in technology to comment with any authority whatsoever on viable solutions. All I know is, the problem's getting worse.

Clare London said...

In my naivete, it never occurred to me! LOL

I wouldn't mind offering backlist titles instead as giveaways, though I rather think the readers are looking for a freebie of the new work i.e. getting ahead of the crowd.

Promo goods are fun but I usually have to send them overseas, which can be tricky.

I spend a half hour to an hour a week on the hosts, zapping down some of the illegal links. I try not to let it depress me - that way lies madness, because it's impossible to stop completely - but I also think it's important not to let them get away with it totally.

My last short at Amber Quill appeared on Asta THE DAY of release.

But I'd like to think that most readers are genuine fans and happy to occasionally win a book. *I* have, a couple of times, and I was thrilled.

The number of giveaways seem to have increased recently though, doesn't it? Or is that just me? :)

K. Z. Snow said...

Hiya, Clare!

Alas, I haven't awarded too many freebies lately. And I'm already getting the jits about my upcoming DSP releases being offered at Wave's blog. (I hate, hate, hate feeling this way! It's too similar to the way I've come to feel about marriage.)

Kris said...

Honestly, the idea that there might be people contest-slutting to get free ebooks they would then put on pirate sites had never occurred to me at all. Now that you have mentioned it I can understand why you and others would have concerns about giveaways.

Unfortunately I don't see piracy going away any time soon, if at all, therefore alternatives to new book giveaways such as those suggested here seem to be the best and most practical answer to addressing some of your concerns.

Clare's comment that her latest release was on a torrent the same day as it came out seems to me to indicate that it's not necessarily the contest winners who are participating in the pirating. Not that I've made a study of it, but aren't some contests like the ones at Wave's happening a couple of days or more after the release? Other contests like the ones at Chris' go for a week so the timing seems a little out to me, but again I don't know enough about what actually happens to say either way.

Finally, there's no doubt that readers love freebies and the ebook format allows for this relatively easy method of promo. At the same time, there are other ways for authors to market themselves and their work. Whether an author chooses not to offer any freebies of a book for 3 - 6 months after its release I don't think is going to make much of a difference as long as they do promo in other ways.

Question: Isn't the whole thing a bit moot though if it's the publisher who's doing the offering and not the author? How much say does an author actually have when it comes to this?

Jeanne Barrack said...

On one of the lists I'm on, we had put together a collection of excerpts from various authors all in one handy download. Also included was the author's backlist, websites, etc. and coming soon. Cover art of course.
They make a nice prize.

K. Z. Snow said...

No, no, Kris, I didn't mean to suggest giveaways are the root of all piracy. But I and many other writers suspect they might contribute to it.

You wouldn't believe the number of people who devote considerable time to cruising the Web for free books. Some even contact authors personally; I kid you not. This was especially obvious when I was promoting my EC titles. The same names would turn up repeatedly as contest entrants, at group after group.

These people rarely if ever participated in any discussions. They just showed up to throw their names in the hat. I'd see them at group after group. (Believe me, this has been a topic of discussion for years among EC authors.)

To tell you the truth, I think some individuals even post books at file-share and torrent sites out of spite. (We've all seen bona fide wankers at blogs and discussion groups, and there's no doubt in my mind they're capable of this.)

I can't really answer your last question, since the only time a publisher gave away one of my books was during the Twelve Days of Christmas bash at ARe. But by that time, Bastards and Pretty Boys had been out for three months. And Liquid Silver's publisher did alert me well in advance. I suspect if I'd objected, she would've chosen a different title. That company is run by really good people.

K. Z. Snow said...

If you're referring to the MFRW collections, Jeanne, I'm in two of them. And you're right.

Lea Sinclair said...

Hey, KZ. I'm not a writer-- only a reader and ebook buyer. I think that writers and publishers should not be giving away their books. EC has free short stories, and I have discovered writers that way. I discovered you on, when you were recommended to me. Since I do not have Kindle, I went to the epublisher's website and bought your titles. On EC they listed your webpage and that's how I found out about your other titles. The only title of that was hard to find was HOOCHIE COOCHIE MAN. I had to do several searches to find it. The best thing a writer can do is have a webpage and interesting blog. You need to make it part of your contract to not allow your books to be used for promotions for a specified amount of time. Only offer free short stories, but do not offer an entire novel. These pirates are ripping off both the writers and their fans. I guess paying for everything is a generational thing-- I'm 40. Most people under 30 think it's their right to NOT pay for things.

Lea Sinclair said...

OOPS! Sorry about the split infinitive-- not to pay for things.

K. Z. Snow said...

Interesting point you make about the age divide, Lea. I've noticed that sense of entitlement in younger people who've grown up with the Internet. My partner's two kids, who are 16 and 20, take it for granted that movies and music never have to be purchased; they can just be downloaded. I find it really appalling.

P.S. Don't worry about your infinitives. People, writers included, split them quite regularly. (And there's a dangling modifier, too!) :-) Language is ever-changing.