When the impact of online piracy is discussed, while common argument is that an unauthorised copy does not necessarily translate to a lost sale.
In other words, if someone couldn’t get your movie, game, song, or book for free, they may not have gotten it at all.
However, what isn’t really understood is how many pirated copies of something is a lost sale. If it was impossible to pirate something, how many more copies would it have sold?
This is obviously nearly impossible to quantify — it depends on the type of item being copied, the quality of its production, and how else it may be enjoyed. If someone downloads a copy of a new movie, they may still be interested to see it in a theatre, for example.
Since it is difficult to answer the question for the general case of whether more people would buy a thing if they couldn’t copy it, it is more useful to consider a question that can be answered. What happens when something that is widely enjoyed does not meet financial success?
What money from book sales means for Jacques Pauw
In South Africa, we’ve received one answer to this question from author and journalist Jacques Pauw, whose book The President’s Keepers has drawn the attention of SARS and the State Security Agency.
The South African Revenue Service said it is considering legal action against Pauw for “the unlawful disclosure of confidential taxpayer information”. According to reports, the SSA has opened a criminal case and has tried to block NB Publishers and Tafelberg from printing more copies of the book.
This attention has caused a spike in the book’s sales, with an unauthorised PDF copy of it being circulated via the web and WhatsApp.
Pauw said that he has been inundated with requests from people who want to pay him for the PDF copy they downloaded for free, but he is not going to take their money.
“If you have a PDF copy and can afford to buy a book, please do it. Erase the PDF and buy a book or the Kindle version,” Pauw said.
He said that if you can’t find a book now, read the PDF but still order a book. If you can’t afford a book Pauw said you have his blessing to read the PDF.
“This is not about money. It is about your support that is going to enable us to legally lock horns with SARS, the State Security Agency and whoever else drags us to court,” Pauw explained.
“It was incredibly brave of Nasionale Boeke and Tafelberg to publish this book, and we have already incurred substantial legal costs in the run-up to publication.”
Pauw said that they face the potential of a multitude of legal challenges, criminal and civil, and the State Security Agency has already indicated that it will bring an urgent application to remove the book from local store shelves.
Online piracy does impact sales of some eBooks
Another writer who recently weighed in on the topic of copyright infringement is Maggie Stiefvater, author of The Raven Cycle.
In a detailed post on Tumblr, Stiefvater explained that she wanted to test the beliefs that piracy doesn’t hurt publishing.
She asked her publisher not to send out electronic advance reader copies of the final instalment of The Raven Cycle, and worked with her brother to devise an experiment.
Stiefvater’s publisher later informed her that the print run of The Raven King had been slashed to less than half that of the third book in the series — Blue Lily, Lily Blue.
There were no hard feelings, but the third book had not sold well. Electronic sales especially had declined significantly.
For her experiment, Stiefvater’s brother created a PDF of the Raven King that was the same length as the actual book, but it was just the first four chapters over and over again. At the end of the document they wrote a small note about the ways piracy hurt your favourite books.
Stiefvater said she wanted to hold the fort long enough to prove a point — one week — to show everyone that times have changed.
“This is no longer 2004. This is the smartphone generation, and a pirated book sometimes is a lost sale,” said Stiefvater.
“Then, on midnight of my book release, my brother put it up everywhere on every pirate site. He uploaded dozens and dozens and dozens of these pdfs of The Raven King. You couldn’t throw a rock without hitting one of his pdfs. We sailed those epub seas with our own flag shredding the sky.”
Stiefvater said the effects were immediate. The first printing was sold out in two days, and the publisher had to print two more batches of the book. For awhile print and ebook sales were evenly matched.
“Then the PDFs hit the forums and e-sales sagged and it was business as usual, but it didn’t matter: I’d proven the point. Piracy has consequences.”
As a result of the success of the series, helped by the sales success of the final book, Stiefvater said that her publisher has ordered another trilogy set in the same world.
However, the numbers almost didn’t support their decision to buy more books in that setting, said Stiefvater. Rampant piracy of ebooks, even amongst fans who would otherwise pay, almost cost those same fans another series from an author whose books they clearly enjoy.
“Even as I knew I had more readers than ever, on paper, the Raven Cycle was petering out. The Ronan trilogy nearly didn’t exist because of piracy.”