The Myth of the Lost Sale

{This is Part 3 in a series on libraries and digital books; Part 1 can be found here; Part 2 can be found here. This post was originally scheduled to go up on Friday, but due to an unexpected visit from the Migraine Fairy it had to be postponed.}

I have been talking a lot about entitlement from a publisher/reader perspective, and in this final installment it is time to turn to entitlement as it appears in authors.

This is probably a bad idea. There is all kinds of trouble I can get into by even trying to talk about this—not least, the possibility of offending other readers and authors. But some of these ideas have been buzzing around in my bonnet for some time, and they're getting quite loud. So if I get something wrong, please chime in and tell me what I've screwed up.

By critiquing the notion of lost sales, I do not mean to imply that piracy is not a real issue. But the dialogue surrounding piracy often seems to get in the way of making things better, for authors and readers and publishers.

Pirates are Thieves

Author Tobias Buckell has a must-read article on book piracy that deals with a familiar hypothetical:

Author says the following: “If each of those pirates had purchased a book, each of those downloads would equal XXXX dollars, and I’d be making double my current income. Thus, those pirates have taken half my income and are keeping me in the poor house.”

But that requires a very huge basic assumption. That each of those downloads was a potential sale.

In the terms I've been using in this series, the author who feels that all piracy is money stolen from instead of money never received feels entitled to those revenues. But those revenues are imaginary: many of the people who downloaded that book for free would never have touched it if there had been a price tag. Bucknell again:

So from the author’s perspective, a certain portion of these ‘stolen’ books aren’t actually stolen. *They were not going to be sales to begin with.* They’re stolen from a cup that was never going to fill.

Those sales are not "lost"; they have not been misplaced; they did not drop down into the couch cushions with those quarters and that lint-covered cherry Mike and Ike. They would never have happened.

I get very uneasy when people get furious—really furious—about piracy, especially when they assume that as an author I naturally do too. Yes, you should absolutely report violations of your copyright to your publisher. Yes, you should send a professionally-worded email asking the site to take down the file(s) in question. Those are your rights as an author and copyright holder. But to claim that a measurable financial loss has taken place seems a little too facile to me.

Maybe I'll change my tune when my own books start showing up on those pirate sites. (So far, not yet!)

An engraved image of famous female pirate Anne Bonny, in men's clothing, firing a pistol and looking dashing while a galleon sails away in the background.
"Arr—give me all yer Harry Potters!"

Piracy Boosts Sales

This video by Neil Gaiman has already gone everywhere and back again, so you don't need me to tell you that Gaiman feels piracy can be leveraged into book sales. This kind of piracy functions as a discovery mechanism. Isn't this why we do giveaways and contests and sample reads and the like?

But like the author who claims piracy as lost sales, there's something facile in the way Gaiman equates book lending between friends and library checkouts with pirated downloads. One small part of this is the difference between print books and ebooks: though I believe ebooks should be lendable, sellable, and transferable like print books, so far the industry does not treat those two products as equivalent objects.

The larger part of this is the context in which the actions occur: lending, library lending, or pirating. When you borrow a book from a friend, we can presume you have been talking about the kind of books you both like, and that the lending will help further this conversation. When you borrow a book from a library, that is also part of a larger engagement with the reading ecosystem. Additionally, even though you yourself have not made the purchase, both those copies have been paid for: the former by your friend, and the latter by the library budget.

But the context of pirate sites is not one of literary engagement: instead, of the many sites I have seen, the context is one of protest, rebellion, and a trollish quality that I find untrustworthy in the extreme. You may recall the comic book authors who claimed being pirated on 4chan was a huge boost to sales—they posted this image, which I have borrowed for commentary and have not altered:


Part of a graph showing a tiny bump labeled "reviewed at BoingBoing" and a much larger spike labeled "bootlegged at 4chan."
How big is your bump again?

Notice anything missing? For instance, the entire left side of the graph? We have no idea what the scale is here, and it makes a big difference whether each of those units represents 1, or 10, or 100 books sold. That giant spike could represent as few as 10 or 50 books, or as many as 1000. Without knowing those numbers, we have no way of knowing how great an impact 4chan's piracy had on book sales.

Additionally, we have no way of knowing how many of those downloads were actually read, and how many of those were enjoyed, and how many of those went on to recommend the book to others. And this strategy is going to be very dependent on genre and outlet—if you tried to replicate this experiment on 4chan with, say, an erotic historical romance about the invention of the vibrator during Victorian times, you might get wildly different results.

(Not that trollishness is limited to the pro-piracy groups: witness this site, which I find equally unsettling, particularly for the sense of long-simmering outrage, the flirtation with invasion of privacy, and the creepy demands that Google ban searches on words like torrent.)

You Lost My Sale

In the course of this post series, I've found all kinds of new-to-me corners of the internet—including Lost Book Sales (sponsored, you will notice at the very bottom of the page, by Dear Author). These are stories submitted by readers, about experiences that prevented them from buying the book of their choice.

Here is one of the recent submissions:

Text explaining why a certain customer refused to buy a digital copy of China Mieville's The City and the City.

This is a pretty typical response, in that the poster:

  1. was looking for a specific digital book
  2. objected to the digital price being as high/higher than the print price
  3. when thwarted, chose to buy another book instead

It is clear when looking through this site that by far the most common reasons customers turned away from a specific book are that the price was viewed as too high, or that the digital version was not available in their geographic region. The most common response was to buy another book, followed closely by borrowing the book from the library, or reading something else, or surfing the web generally, with only a few scattered instances of self-reported piracy taking place.

It becomes equally clear that these readers care deeply about what they read, and are very well-versed in the industry's current trends and happenings (as evidenced by the number of responses that mentioned HarperCollins' 26-checkout limit, or who protested agency pricing or other recent changes).

These only count as 'lost sales' if you are the author whose book they did not buy. Many of these are high-volume names: Mieville, Stieg Larsson, Bill Bryson. And again, many of the reasons the reader switched titles are beyond an author's control: there are valid and legally complicated reasons why a smaller publisher might not be able to sell digital books in New Zealand, Greece, or the Czech Republic. As an author, reaching out to these readers is somewhat beyond your control, because we are not quite as global a culture as we like to imagine we are.

Too Long; Didn't Read

The one thing above all that I took away after spending most of an afternoon cruising around Lost Book Sales is this: there are a lot of readers out there, and they are looking for books. They may not necessarily buy yours, especially if there are geographic restrictions or DRM to take into account. But you can only control so much of that.

In the same way, any single author can only spend so much time responding to piracy, especially since there are plenty of folks out there who pirate for the sake of protest, and who were never going to become your customers anyway. Arguing with people whose minds you cannot change is a one-way ticket to chronic exhaustion.

There is a sea of readers out there, and they will not turn into pirates the second you stop writing angry emails to torrent sites. Leave piracy to the pirates, and go out to tea with your readers and fellow authors, who are much more delightful to be around.