Fighting piracy is the dumbest thing you can do

Last week during the London Book Fair there was one (digital) topic that came back a few times: piracy. This was not surprising. The book industry is increasingly digital, and it is understandable that the piracy of books is a subject people are concerned about.

However, the thing I found really surprising was that David Shelley of Little Brown (not the smallest publishing house) made, in my eyes, a very strange statement, which was supported by several others. Speaking at the London Book Fair digital conference, Shelley said one of the reasons publishers could not increase digital royalty rates was because of the increasing costs of fighting piracy. Okay… WTF?!

First: fighting piracy (actively) is pretty much the dumbest thing you can do. It seems that no one in the book industry wants to learn from the music industry. That you act against illegal suppliers of your content makes sense (also as a message to your authors: I’ll try my best for your work), as long as you don’t make it your day job. Because actively spending time and money on fighting piracy is the worst investment for your business.

Second: not only does it cost you time and money (and hardly shows results, again learn from the music industry), it can cost you your image. This might be a difficult one to grasp. Especially if you do not want/dare to look at other industries that have already dealt with this before. The reason people illegally download is not always because they want something for free. Common reasons are: convenience (in a file format of your choice to use on a device of your choice), speed (why wait for it to become available here if you can already get it elsewhere? It feels unfair, and more important: the consumer doesn’t want to wait) or availability (see the Harry Potter example, as mentioned on FutureBook two weeks ago).

If these are the reasons for people to download illegally, then how can it make sense for publishers to start actively fighting them. Because the most important fact is: they want your product! It’s up to you (as a content creator/provider) to ensure that consumers can buy your products in the simplest way, as quickly as possible, for a good (reasonable) price and without any fuss (no DRM, no unnecessary copyright notices and usable on a device of their own choice).

So stop thinking in terms of: they all want it for absurdly low prices, or even worse, free. It is very dangerous to assume that this type of person is the dominant group that illegally downloads your titles, or that this group download illegally because they don’t want to spend any money and would have bought your product in the first place. Downloading is like sampling: you taste it and might even want to buy it when you like it (it’s up to you to catch those people and guide them to the simple, fairly priced and fuss-free cash desk). Simple being the key term here.

Another common misconception is that every download is a missed sale. Most downloaders never even had the slightest urge to buy your product. So forget them, don’t even pay one second of your attention to them, but focus for the full 100% on the (potential) buyers that do want your product. That is the one and only good strategy.

But there is also a third reason why I was so shocked. Actually, the biggest reason why. Authors are the most important asset for a publishing house. Authors are the true brands of every publisher. And with your authors you build on a relationship—hopefully for the long term. With that in mind: how can you ever say to them, even worse, not directly to them but at a very large conference (and the author may only hope that he or she hears of it), that the royalties for digital products cannot go up because that money will be reserved for anti-piracy?!

It would not surprise me if some authors are reconsidering if their publisher is still the right one for them.




Take another look at some of these arguments.

James Gannon's response to this kind of post is well worth reading:

"How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Copy"

Can't beat the pirates on price

rowenacherry's picture

There are already numerous pirate subscription sites that do as Tim suggests. I'm not naming them. There is no way for honest readers to distinguish which (if any) are legal, and which are not.

No publisher could compete. Some of these sites have virtually no overhead, because they don't buy the e-books in the first place, and they don't pay royalties. They have no liability, unless  PayPal rats them out, which is rather unlikely.

Two of my books are being given away to subscribers right now, and there is nothing I can do about it. Anyone who subscribes $30 can download and read thousands of e-books free for a year... or is it for life?

Frankly, the publishers should stop delivering ebooks electronically. They should follow Netflicks' example, and deliver e-books on mailed CDs or DVDs or flash drives. And, it should be legal to sell the original, loaded CD, DVD, or flash drive.


Great point, Timo.  However, whether in paper or electronic I still want to own my books. I don't quite see it the same as, say, renting a movie, whereas they can often be fleeting and vacuous, books have a lasting affect and I know a lot of people that would prefer to keep some link to the stories that they've spent a decent amount of their time reading.

Agree that getting simple and easy distribution of ebooks will limit the appeal of pirated versions.  Also, not over-pricing ebooks would be nice - operative phrase = 'fair price'.

Thanks for replying to my comment!

Best regards



Not a fan of proprietary DRM...

Hi Timo

Really interesting article.  Yes, ebook piracy is a hot potato right now.  I couldn't agree more with some of your comments.  Proprietary DRM may slightly block pirating, but as with digital music, it is not sufficient to stop them.  If anything it isn't great for readers - the people actually willing to pay for the ebook; limiting what they can do, what devices they can use, and creating sandboxes to create ebook monopolies really is only in the interest of companies trying to edge anyone else out of the market.

I'm still not totally convinced that ebooks are the same as digital music.  We're talking a totally different demographic to begin with.  In the end, piracy will always exist, and I totally agree with you that ebook producers should focus on delivering their work in the way that readers want to receive it - i.e. convenient, simple, and at a fair price - this way the pirates are much less likely to look for your ebook from an illegal source.

'the most important fact is: they want your product!' Well said!

Apart from launching expensive legal campaigns against pirating or file sharing sites I'm not sure what else publishers can do anyway.

Totally agree: focus on those people that are willing to pay a fair price.  Anyone who isn't wouldn't have bought your book even if it was a hard copy in a bookstore that had no DRM or restrictions on its distribution or resale.

Personally I think authors should get improved commissions in the world of ebooks: they create the market through their imagination, after all.

All the best

Adam Charles


Hi Adam,  Thanks for your

Timo Boezeman's picture

Hi Adam, 

Thanks for your reply!

About your question: "Apart from launching expensive legal campaigns against pirating or file sharing sites I'm not sure what else publishers can do anyway."

What they can do is create business models that make it easy for consumers to buy and use your product, for a fair price without any fuss. The best example of that (in terms of e-books), is the iTunes Store and App Store. If you take this one step further, you'll come to the subcription (and/or freemium) model, where you don't purchase (and own) the content any more, but pay for the time you use it. Spotify is the best example here, and I wrote a piece on Spotify for Books here two weeks ago (about 24Symbols, a Spotify for Books).

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