The Costliest Price for Ebooks? Free.

My debut novel, ASHFALL, has become popular enough that it's being widely pirated. Oh. Joy.


For the last week or so, I've been having a remarkably civil conversation via email with the owner of one of the pirating sites. It's not so much that I think I'll change his mind--I'm pretty sure that the next time someone changes their mind due to the internet will be the first--I just want to understand what motivates him to take the considerable personal risk of owning a pirate site.

It turns out that he feels justified in what he does because he believes he is helping authors--he's tasked me with reading extensive selections from Cory Doctorow's writings about the benefits he gets from making his ebooks available for free. Now Doctorow is both smarter and a more accomplished author than I, and I have no doubt that making his ebooks free benefits him. But here's what he gets wrong about the ebook market: an environment in which the value of a book descends to zero hurts both authors and readers. In the long run, the costliest price for ebooks is free.

There's no doubt that copyright laws are in serious need of overhaul. As currently written, they excessively protect corporate interests at the expense of individual consumers and content creators. But the important part of copyright law--of any law, actually--isn't what's written down in the law books--it's the social norms and  habits that follow from the law.

I learned this viscerally during the year I was a foreign exchange student in Brazil. On my way out of the airport in Cuiaba, we slowed nearly to a stop at every green light. I tried to ask why, but my broken mix of Portuguese and Spanish wasn't up to the task. I had my answer soon enough though, as I saw cars ahead of us blowing through the reds at cross streets, full speed. Does Brazil have traffic laws? Yes, but the norm is that traffic lights are suggestions, not mandatory, so every intersection becomes a high-speed game of chicken. And to insure a car in Rio costs about a third of its purchase price every year. A similar phenomena applies to speed limits in the United States. The limit in Indiana, where I live, is 70 mph, but the norm is that people drive 75-80, and most of us tend to get annoyed at those going much slower or faster.

When laws work, they become a benchmark that sets a social norm and creates the habits that govern our day-to-day life. Right now, the social norm is that people who create and publish books deserve to get paid for their labor. Most people make sure the authors they enjoy do get paid, either by checking their books out from a library (which paid for the books) or by buying them.

Could I make more money giving ASHFALL away for free, like Cory Doctorow? Maybe, at least in the short-term. He's right when he says the biggest challenge facing new authors isn't piracy, it's obscurity. But my personal test for whether my behavior is moral or not is this question: If everyone behaved this way, what would the world be like? And if we all pirate books--or even give them away for free--the social norm becomes that books are free. And in a world where authors don't get paid for their work, I (and thousands of other authors) can't continue to write. Such a world would be considerably poorer for readers and writers alike. Which is why the costliest ebooks are free.

By the way, at least one of the sites pirating ASHFALL is charging for it. If you pay anything less than Amazon's price for ASHFALL, currently $8.98, I don't get even a penny.





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13 comments:

Sherry Gammon YA Author said...

Great post! May I repost to my blog(linking back to you)

Mike Mullin said...

Sure, Sherry, I don't mind. I'd really appreciate it if you included the cover of ASHFALL :). Thanks!

Eliza Tilton said...

That sucks. I can understand doing a promo and having it free for a short time, but other than that, no way. And this guy didn't ask for your permission and he's probbaly getting a kickback on the site somehow. Darn pirates always ruin everything.

CindaChima said...

Mike, I'm right there with ya. If any author chooses to give his books away, that's his choice. The key is choice. If I choose to give away the ice cream I make in hopes of building my business, that's my decision. If someone takes my ice cream without permission, that's stealing.

Carlhose said...

Awesome article and great points. I'm a little more upset by the idiot who thinks he can sell your book and make money on it than by the idiot who pirates it out for free.

Katja Weinert said...

That's dreadful. I recently started a page for my blog on facebook and started trawling through interesting pages that relate to what I do, I stumbled on a "bookclub" with over 900 followers who were uploading about 8 books a day to their 'library' and people who liked their page needed only to e-mail the page administrator to get access to the free books. I contacted a couple of the affected authors and the page immediately disappeared, but I'm sure the library still exists. I've heard the Cory D excuse more times than I would have believed this time just four years ago. Something's certainly changed in our culture. Your post has come at a time when many authors have felt the need to speak up about e-piracy (yours is the third in less than a month that I've come across). What gets me is people purport to be fans, but if they're short on cash and are fans they should be checking out second-hand book shops or visiting their library.

Ali Chisholm said...

Great article. Many folks who would never pirate music will happily do so on ebooks - which I don't really get. My public library has a great ebook selection - why pirate when I can request a book through them if I don't have the cash to buy that week. I do love when authors post sneak peeks or sample chapters because it helps me learn about new (to me) authors.

Mike Mullin said...

Great point, Ali. I have free samples of both my books on my website, mikemullinauthor.com. And I've given explicit permission to share those samples as widely as you wish, so long as you don't charge anyone anything to access them.

Cathy Keaton said...

This is kind of assuming no one has a moral compass and feels entitled to have books for free. Most people don't feel that way since books are still being purchased despite how easy it is to pirate them these days. I could do it, too, but I don't. Why? Because I'm better than that. I want authors to get paid for a book I loved and I guilt when I do something I know is immoral.

Plenty of people have high enough morals to never get their books illegally. I think we need to have some faith in humanity because there are still some good people out there.

Mike Mullin said...

Great point, Cathy. You're absolutely right. I'm incredibly pessimistic about the human race. In my defense, there is some evidence to back my pessimism--we'll sell others into slavery, massacre Jews, or wreck our planet if that happens to be the social norm. What's a little ebook piracy next to that? I do hope your higher opinion of human morality proves to be correct, though.

@WriterSherry said...

Nicely written post! May I repost to my own blog(linking back to yours) and include your book cover and some links where people can BUY your books?

Mike Mullin said...

Sure, Sherry, please do. Thanks!

@WriterSherry said...

thanks, Mike. you can see the post here: http://fictionwritingtools.blogspot.com/2012/07/the-costliest-price-for-ebooks-free.html