Backlists & Piracy: Does the one defeat the other?

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Shifting Paradigms

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Not that long ago, I read a blog post (which I can no longer find, sadly) where the author complained that piracy was the reason her ability to survive off her backlist had dwindled.  It was a long post, mainly ruing the end of days when a healthy backlist could keep an author eating something other than ramen noodles on a regular basis (okay, paraphrasing here and clearing using my own words since I’m the one with an obsession with ramen noodles…).

But is piracy really the problem?  I mean, really?  So, I started looking into it. Nobody has the resources, really, to definitively say, maybe using actual hard numbers, whether piracy has influenced the author’s bottom line, but I thought I’d take a look at what all can influence it.  What all do we have to “fight”?  What situations (past and present) mean someone reads a copy of our books without actually paying us for it?  Here we go.


Yep, I figure that’s a given.  But piracy isn’t a new topic.  In most books that I can remember, there’s a page at the front that says, “If you purchased this book without a cover, you should be aware that this book is stolen.  It was reported as “unsold and destroyed” to the publisher, and neither the author nor the publisher has received payment for this “stripped book.”  That’s word for word from the second page of a 2008 printing of Tami Hoag’s Man of her Dreams.
So, like with other industries like movies and music, piracy is not some new fangled thing brought about by the Internet.  It’s just been made easier by it.  Especially in the book industry.  But really, until the last few years, I doubt there was a great deal of book piracy going on.  After all, how many of you would want to read a book in front of a computer screen?  Not me, that’s for certain.  Nooks, Kindles, tablets, and smart phones have changed that, but that has only really sprouted out with any sort of robustness in the last few years.
I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again.  Frequently, like with the rest of the categories below, people would download pirated copies of a book would never actual buy your book.  They didn’t feel it had enough value to spend the money on it.  Either they are the types who download everything illegally, want to sample something and see if you’re any good, or they’re dirt broke and can’t afford it.

Used Books

Did you forget those?  Yup, it’s true.  Until recently (and my sudden fascination with ebooks), all the books I purchased were used.  I either got them at used book stores or in yard sales.  I never bought new.  Well, except for the odd collection of ghost stories or when I downloaded a PDF copy of Twilight at midnight because I just had to read it now and went out first thing the next morning and bought a brand new copy of Twilight and New Moon in hardcover for the guilt.

But this is a very common means for people to purchase books.  And the author doesn’t get a dime.  My mother has a massive collection of books.  They fill up closets and attic space.  They sit on most available shelf space.  Not a one of them she bought new.
This is a phenomenon which has been sacrificed by ebook sales.  You can’t buy a used ebook.  You can’t sell an ebook you’ve finished reading.  This means 1) ebook have less fiscal value and 2) a single ebook doesn’t get as much mileage out of it that its paper cousin can.


Yeah, I don’t know about you, but I am quite familiar with what I like to call “lending circles.”  “Lending circles” are those circles of friends with similar reading tastes which you lend you books out to.  You get a new book at the used book store, read it, lend it to one friend, she puts her initials in the book when she finishes it, lends it to someone else, and then many, many months later, you might get it back and sell it back to the used book store.

This is another phenomenon which is being beaten to death by ebooks.  While you can lend some Kindle books, not all authors/publishers allow it and, if I’m not mistaken, there’s a limit on the number of times it can be lent.  So that precious word of mouth has been eradicated.  You can’t hand off a book to a friend and say, “This book was AMAZING.  You must read it.”  And, if you lend it to someone, I guarantee they’ll read it.  But if you just tell them?  Less likely.


This is a fuzzy one.  While, true, libraries do actually pay for their copies, many, many readers might read a book for every copy bought so the author is seeing little return on this other than promotion and word of mouth.  Plus, there are likely many people who will simply wait until they can get the book in the library rather than buy it themselves.

Free Copies

Depending on the situation, this is one of those touchy subjects for me.  In controlled quantities, I think giving free copies of your book is great.  A giveaway here, free copies to people agreeing to give an honest review there.  Brilliant.  Large scale freebies?  <shudders>  It’s just making things worse.  People, more and more, are expecting to get books for free, or at least so cheap nobody can make a living off it.  I know I’m no better.  I’m more likely to take a chance on an author when I can download an ebook for free or for $0.99.  So sue me.  But I also think that this propensity (especially at Amazon’s encouragement) to give away books, encourages people to devalue authors and their works.  How many people do you think are out there with a Kindle full of book they never paid for?  Are you going to be more likely to buy a book when you have a thousand already downloaded to choose from?  Not likely.  And every day there are hundreds of books on the Amazon free lists.

Still, piracy, like the rest of these categories, is not all bad.  Each has the advantage in that it spreads word about your book without costly promotion and marketing.  It’s free.  People are reading it.  And, all in all, you can’t fight it, not without losing even more readers.

So, what about the original point of this discussion?  Does piracy, or really any of these categories, new and old, contribute to an erosion of backlist profits?  What do you think?  What are your experiences?

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  • You hit the nail on the head. I’m personally skeptical about Freebies=eventual reviews or sales. I think, more, they encourage filling up a ebook reader with titles one only later tosses out to make space for more freebies. And because of it, people no longer want to pay even $.99. Seriously? Even a book at a used store costs more than that. While it “Free” promo copies may’ve worked at one time, I’m afraid Amazon’s freebie=windfall ship sailed a long time ago. Just a feeling I have…

    • A

      I think Amazon is realizing that too, to a certain extent. They have changed their affiliate protocols for free book referrals so sites that only refer freebies get kicked out of the program or don’t get anything or something.

      What more, I think their tendency to push freebies is more about driving sales and traffic away from other sites than anything else. Question is, what will befall the publishing industry by the time they’re finished pummeling their opposition? What will happen when the general public have come to expect such low prices? Wait… They already do.

Let me know what you think...