Over on Galleycat, it’s Piracy Week, which coincidentally matches exactly what I wanted to blog about. We’re both addressing this topic because of last week’s Publishers Weekly article about e-piracy, in which publishing losses from illegal downloads are estimated to be three billion dollars. Of the titles they tracked, the average number of illegal downloads was 13,000.
I confess to being a voice of doom on this topic. A good friend of mine is a legendary singer/songwriter, a man who wrote one of the defining songs of our generation. He made a fortune in the music business and is still very much in demand on the concert circuit, but he says that with rampant illegal downloading of tunes, there’s no way he would be able to achieve that success today. He’s already a big name, so he can make a good living playing live concerts. But these days, if you aren’t already a big name, the only real money in music is if you sell your tune for advertising jingles or write theme music for TV. “I feel sorry for truly talented young musicians,” he says. “No one will be able to do what I did thirty years ago Piracy has destroyed the industry.”
And that, I fear, is what lies ahead for writers.
To assess just how much illegal downloading is hurting me personally, I went onto one of the websites mentioned in the Publishers Weekly article ( 4shared.com) and checked out how many Tess Gerritsen books were available for free downloading. I found over ninety files available, in a variety of languages, including the entire Jane Rizzoli series. The site tells you how many times the files have been downloaded, and at least 4,000 copies in English have been downloaded. That’s 4,000 book sales I never made. And that’s just the English titles, on just one site. Were I to track down every site on the web that offers free downloads of my books, I’m guessing the number would be many times that number. Thousands and thousands of book sales that never happened because readers got the stories for free.
For the moment, illegal downloading represents only a fraction of total book sales, but I guarantee, that’s about to change. As e-readers become more popular, as consumers gradually abandon the old-fashioned book and embrace the electronic book, those free downloads are going to look pretty tempting. The only thing that stands in the way of our complete ruination as an industry is the lingering popularity of print books. We want to believe that the print book will always be with us, that our children and grandchildren will prefer a real book, just as we do.
Buggy whip manufacturers probably thought the same thing.
For the moment, all we can do is play whack-a-mole with the pirates. Every so often, a reader emails me, pointing out sites pirating my books, and for that I’m grateful. Fortunately, most sites are good about taking down illegal copies if you alert them. I contacted 4shared.com, and within a day, they took down the English language files I specified. (I didn’t contest the foreign language files, because I can’t read precisely what they’re offering.) I’m sure that within a week, there’ll be new ones on the site. And there are so many sites to monitor, I’d need a full-time assistant just to keep up.
Like my friend the musician, I’m grateful that I was able to build my career when I did. When books are easily stolen and given away free, writers won’t be able to make a living. And when no one values the storyteller, it will be a sad day indeed.