BLOG: How Book Piracy Impacts Authors

Over the last few months, I feel like I have been seeing news of book piracy on a monthly basis. One site was taken down, but then it was back up, then there were calls for tougher legal responses from publishers to piracy sites, then there was an open letter to the government to take action, and that’s all just  since last August. If you search ‘piracy’ on the Bookseller, there are issues with pirate libraries dating back years. In 2015, a pirate ring was fined $37.5 million after a joint action from global publishers, but somehow that hasn’t stopped pirate libraries operating. Following that lawsuit, the Publishers Association had to block a further seven websites, but like that bramble in my back garden, unless the roots are dealt with these pirates will keep coming back.

With estimates currently suggesting that 17% of ebooks are read illegally, I wanted to address the impact of piracy as it hits the individual authors. 17% may not sound like much, but that translates to approximately 4 million books. That’s a lot of sales. Unlike TV and film, which have no clear path to a single individual and become faceless masses, or music where the bulk of money is now made from touring (as, funnily enough, a result of piracy making record sales unsustainable as a form of income), the path from reader back to author is actually relatively straightforward. This makes it easy to follow the money, and easy to see where it is hitting people.

In my post on the ideal length for a debut novel, I gave some of the maths for print books and the revenues that authors receive per copy of their print book sold from the publisher. For a book sold for £8.99, an author will get approximately 90p in royalties. So even if they sell 1000 copies, they won’t be earning £1000. If they have an agent, the agent will take 15% commission. So for every 90p the author gets, the agent will take 14p, leaving the author with 76p per individual book sold. Pre tax.

The take away from this is not that you should cut the agent out of the equation (I will write a post on why agents are great at some point in the future, but a good agent is your loudest cheerleader, your strongest ally and your most fervent advocate), it’s that authors don’t earn as much as you think they do.

90p multiplied by 4 million pirated books equates to £3,600,000 in lost author royalties. That’s not small potatoes. Imagine that being put back into the book industry, imagine that being used to allow authors fair wage for their work, and allowing them to produce more books.

It has been in the news of late that author earnings have dropped significantly. In June 2018, it was found that the average annual earnings for a writer were under £10,500 per year, below even the national minimum wage. Earnings for authors have dropped approximately 42% since 2005. Some of this might be cumulative impact from the dissolution of the Net Book Agreement in the late 90s, which meant that publishers could no longer dictate the prices books were sold at, and making it harder for publishers to make as much money from sales, but ebook piracy is a contributing factor.

It’s worth noting that authors are often paid an advance on their book, and don’t receive any further money from the publisher until their advance is “earned out” – they have sold enough books to make back the money the publisher paid them up front. These advances are not often huge – you hear stories of six figure sums being bandied around, but these are the exception not the rule. Even if you’ve been given an advance of £5000, you are earning that out 90p at a time. You have to sell approximately 5555 books or ebooks before you start seeing any more money from your work. Bret Easton Ellis, author of American Psycho, recently stated in an interview that even though some of his books were bestsellers, they still haven’t earned out their advances.

Here comes another issue – many book deals will be based on multiple books. So you won’t be paid the full amount when your first book is delivered, only when your second book is delivered. But your second book won’t go ahead if sales of your first book aren’t good enough – and if your book is being extensively pirated, then your sales won’t be good enough. This is particularly a problem for writers of series, and has led to series being cancelled by publishers because there isn’t enough interest. Maggie Stiefvater, author of the hugely popular Raven Cycle, had the print run of her final book cut due to a fall in sales for book 3, and she nearly lost her contract for the follow up trilogy. When she put out a fake pdf of the final book to measure the exact numbers of illegal downloads, she was able to track the effects immediately, and prove her point.

Philip Pullman is a significant figure in pushing for change of book piracy laws, and Joanne Harris has been in an ongoing battle with the owner of one piracy site who continually lists her books for download, and is one of many authors banding together to try and get these sites taken down. Presently, authors have to notify publishers when their books are uploaded, and then the publishers have to take action to have the book removed – but this is tedious work for hundreds of books, and lacks the consistent approach. Each request will only take down works from one author, or one publisher, but the rest of the pirated works will remain accessible. It also puts the onus on the victim to ensure justice is done, rather than being monitored by the law and dealt with decisively. It’s reactive, not proactive.

This is not to say that people who cannot afford to buy books should be penalised. The research mentioned above found many pirates were between the ages of 30 and 60, and usually middle class. Libraries are far better ways of acquiring books, as in the UK they are subscribed Public Lending Rights scheme – this means that authors receive income whenever their books are loaned out, at no cost to the borrower. This was extended to cover the loan of ebooks in 2018, making libraries even more accessible for readers. It’s also worth keeping an eye on Amazon daily deals, where books are often reduced to as little as 99p for periods of time, or signing up for BookBub, where publishers will promote their books with exclusive discounts. If you are a reviewer, you can also sign up to NetGalley, where some books will be made available in exchange for reviews. These routes are all legal, and all discounted or free.

With recent EU legislation on digital copyright being passed in March this year, focusing specifically on digital content and making platforms responsible for the content they host, this will hopefully make it easier to prevent these pirate websites gaining ground. If web hosts are at risk of financial or criminal punishments for allowing piracy to flourish, they should be more active in making sure websites that engage in criminal activity are unable to function. Proactive, not reactive, and putting the onus on corporations not individual authors to police copyright law.

6 thoughts on “BLOG: How Book Piracy Impacts Authors

  1. writingthebluesaway says:

    This is a really interesting post with lots of facts I didn’t know, and it wasn’t a topic I’ve ever thought about. As someone who wants to publish their novels it is quite disheartening to see the figures and I wasn’t aware of the piracy. It’s such a shame that writers aren’t taken as seriously as other occupations and as people just trying to make a living from something they love!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Claire says:

      Yeah, fewer and fewer writers are able to make their living solely from writing – and if they do, it’s often because they have a partner or support network with a much higher income. A lot of writers have to multitask – some offer freelance editorial services, others ghostwrite for other authors. It’s hard work, so you definitely have to love it!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Claire says:

      The money really comes from volume of sales of each individual novel – and because it actually takes fewer sales than you’d expect to become a bestseller (particularly depending on time of year – it takes more sales to become a bestseller before Christmas, for example, than it does in January just due to the comparative sales of other books) then there’s less income, even with bestseller status.

      People like JK Rowling are unusual because the sheer number of units she shifts are insane, and also people will buy multiple versions of the same book, which happens very rarely. But she also retained all the digital rights for her books, hence why she was set up Pottermore and exploit ebooks in a way where she was taking basically all the profit. But she was only able to do that because of the value of Potter – funnily enough, when it started it nearly bankrupted the publisher because they didn’t have the resources to keep up with printing demand on such a huge scale, and in publishing the money has to be spent before it comes back in. The only reason Bloomsbury were able to manage it was because they had recently become a publicly traded company so they were able to get additional funds from shareholders.


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