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Neil Gaiman on Why eBook Piracy is Ultimately an ‘Incredibly Good Thing’

Here’s Neil Gaiman talking about his experiences with piracy…

Short version: He was against it but then discovered that it increased his profile and, subsequently, sales…

What do you folks think? Is piracy anything for authors and publishers to worry about? (And: are you a reader, author or publisher?)

[via Techdirt and SFFaudio]

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

23 Comments on Neil Gaiman on Why eBook Piracy is Ultimately an ‘Incredibly Good Thing’

  1. And this has been the result discovered in studies of music “piracy” — that not only did it not significantly cut into profits but actually served as a marketing vehicle.

    Having worked in media for almost 25 years, I can tell you that the fear mongering coming from corporate interests stems from the fact that the suits who have lived high off the hog with their bloated excesses are fearful that a system of direct sales, from artist to consumer, will undermine their drive to ride in limos, sip champagne and act as if THEY are the artist.

  2. Mr Gaiman made a conscious decision based upon actual evidence from his own circumstances. That’s what matters: That the rightsholder chose to tolerate e-piracy of his own works. That is a completely different issue from, in the words of the late Hon. Florence-Marie Cooper, United States District Judge for the Central District of California, “an overenthusiastic fan living in his parents’ basement scanning and posting a collection he mistakenly thought was out of print.” (N.B. That’s not in the reported decision, but was in open court; the reported decision is slightly, but not much, different.)

    The real problem with e-piracy is that someone who clearly does not have much knowledge of the rightsholder’s circumstances makes that decision for the rightsholder. Yes, there is some “publicity value,” particularly if one accepts the “all publicity is good publicity” meme (how’s that going for Charlie Sheen and Lindsey Lohan, or for the Kardashian sisters with their “credit card” endorsement?). I know personally of a number of instances in which piracy has harmed the rightsholder’s ability to actually get income from or create further works from stories/collections/novels. For example, one major translation market has been essentially foreclosed to Famous Author X for Famous Work X’ by a truly inept e-pirated translated edition of X’ that has been specifically cited as blocking by publishers in that language.

    In short, there isn’t a universally correct answer here, and there probably isn’t even a “more probable than not” answer here. For that reason alone, I frown on e-piracy… because it takes that choice away from the rightsholder, even if (in a startling post hoc rationalization!) it turns out to have some benefit for the rightsholder that the rightsholder chooses to accept as greater than whatever harms also resulted.

  3. I’m not one of those ‘motherf’n downloaders’, as Ron Thal would say.  But I don’t see any kind of e-piracy ever stopping.  Once something is bits, it can get out there.  Unfortunately, this might mean the Leo Laporte model, putting advertisements in.


  4. I’m not entirely sure where I fall in this argument, and as a reader my opinion is not as informed as an author or publisher.  By and large I would tend to side with the author in this regard and I certainly don’t see anything in Gaiman’s statements that I disagree with.  In particular I think Gaiman is one of those authors who was (and maybe still is) little known outside of the genre community who jumped into the online journaling pool early on and has benefited greatly from internet exposure.  The internet can help create a sort of cult following for authors, artists, musicians, etc. and a little bit of searching can reveal a bunch of examples just like what Neil Gaiman mentions.  I have no doubt that one could find a bunch of examples of the opposite, although it would be interesting on both sides to see what kind of data is used for the measurement. 

    A couple of us recently dived into this discussion regarding all the free short stories that can be found online and whether or not this ultimately cheapened the author’s product by having it out there for free.  I had just read a story by John Kessel, whose short story collection The Baum Plan for Financial Independence is available free in its entirety for download on the publishers website (Small Beer Press).  While reading it I examined their site and found this statement:


    “Will giving this book away kill sales?

    “We don’t think so.

    60,000+ people have downloaded Kelly Link’s Stranger Things Happen since we made it available under Creative Commons. In the meantime the book has gone into its sixth printing, has been translated into more than half-a-dozen languages, is being taught in many schools, and is still being passed hand to hand to new readers.

    Our books are available in hundreds of libraries, on and’s Search Inside program, in a few used bookshops, on BookCrossing, Scribd, Teleread, and, again, in hundreds of libraries.

    In other words: as with any book, if you want to read it for free, you can. We’ve just made it easier for this book to reach the 6 billion readers out there!”


    I hadn’t really considered the idea of reading something free online as akin to sharing books, but I like the analogy.  And one also has to consider that there is a difference, at least in the spirit of things, when an author and/or publisher puts something up for free, which is obviously a conscious choice to roll the dice from a marketing perspective, and someone who publishes something online without permission to do so.



  5. The simple, most effective argument for this whole topic was, again, made by Neil Gaiman. And it was that the biggest threat to an author was not PIRACY, but OBSCURITY. Reading you too much, even without permission (or something) is preferable to the alterantive, which is that no one is reading you at all, or has heard of you.

    It’s utterly true. It’s ALL utterly true. I also think it’s an extremely hard concept to really become comfortable with, for older and more established authors, and for younger people who grew up in this weird cusp of two systems, like me, who can agree at the value and the logic, and yet still feel a slight weirdness at the thought of writing something and then just giving it to the world. 

    The way it definitely works for me is that when I read something online that wows me, it doesn’t make me read MORE online, it sends me off to find a physical book. Because I’m wired for physical books. (ebooks are wonderful, no argument, but they aren’t for me.) I remember reading forty pages of Hugh Laurie’s The Gun Seller online and was so wowed by it, it stuck with me for four or five years. Then I encountered it in a college bookstore and snatched it up. 

    Mostly, I keep thinking about how you should balance it all out. What do I write that I give away? What do I write that I sell? It would take a tremendous amount of faith to give it ALL away and hope that perhaps you eventually gain readers and perhaps even some income. (which doesn’t make it a bad idea; just one that you have to put a lot of faith into and hope). 

    And if this seems like a useless, scattershot comment, yeah, well, it’s something I’m constantly thinking about, so I have no neat opinions to offer up. Just ruminations. ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. I think you just have to listen to what Giamen actually says in this interview…. Its really quite simple.

    The reality is that the door is open and the horse has bolted, ebooks and ebook readers are here and they are a part of the future. Internet piracy is here (and has been here for well over a decade), its not going away, repeated attempts have been made to kill it… and its more popular than ever… and those pirated industries…. they are still here… music publishing hasn’t died, record labels haven’t vannished, bands and musicians are still making livings, movies and tv series are still being made and making profits….

    The problem is that the old business models no longer work in the electronic era, businesses need to be smarter if they want to part us with our money… They need to be more understanding and creative….

  7. Just a comment on the frequent comparisons between ebook piracy and music piracy: People seem to forget that music artists get a LOT of their money from touring and merchandise like t-shirts, etc. This is not exactly an avenue open to many authors…

  8. If you are a pirate, I take it that I may pirate from you. N’est pas?

  9. This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while (especially after I got a Google notice that a version of my yet-to-be released novel was already on a torrent site–yeesh).

    My first reaction is that piracy effects you a lot differently if you are Neil Gaiman than it does is you are someone who doesn’t yet have a lot of (or any) foreign sales, or a large body of work for people to pick up or the like. My book being pirated into Russian is not going to guarantee me it will be picked up in Russia, let alone that it will generate more sales or demand. I might, but there’s no way to tell; just as there is, realistically, no way to tell if pirated versions in english will help or hurt my sales here.

    I also take some issue with the idea that pirating is the same as loaning: in the case of a loaned book, someone had already paid for the book that is being loaned, and there are a finite number of people who can realistically get their hands on that book. The author and publisher have at least made some money off the book, and may make more; but if not, their losses are limited to the dozen or two people who may read it and not buy any more of that author’s work. In the case of piracy, the number of people who can get a copy that wasn’t paid for in the first place is geometrically larger. It is entirely possible that no money will have changed hands, even after a 1000 people have read the pirated version. So, there is a difference of scale to consider.

    However, that being said, I also think that there is some truth to the comment made by some other authors that basically boils down to: “Look, most people who pirate your book weren’t going to buy it in the first place. If you start looking at every pirated copy as lost sale, you’re drive yourself crazy.” Because I think to a fair degree this is true, just as I think it will be increasingly true that they will pirate other work if they want more of it (assuming it is available, etc.). And I also think that the observation that a lot of people pick up new authors through loaning is an interesting one, and one I hadn’t considered in relation ot e-piracy. 

    But here’s the kicker: we have no way of knowing if any of this is truly valid. Just as it may have helped Mr. Gaiman’s sales, it may have hurt another author’s sales (as mentioned by C.E. Petit above). It’s all anecdotal, and I suspect that’s all it will continue to be for a long, long time: people citing their experiences or beliefs or anecdotes about how e-piracy helped/hurt/didn’t make a whit of difference for Author X/Y/Z.

    Do I like the idea of people possibly torrenting my book even before it’s out (assuming that notice wasn’t for a place holder for later torrenting). Not really. The part of me that was raised to say theft is theft, and that stealing is wrong, gets upset by the moral implications here. But at the same time, I also know that, in the end, there isn’t any fool-proof way to stop it. And I even admit that it *might* lead some new people to your work, who may actually pay for it. Like I said, there is something for the “loaning argument.” But it’s hard to know what’s what at the end of the day.

    What I’d really like to see is how something like what Mr. Gaiman did would work for a newer author vs. an established mid-lister with a reasonable back-log of work vs. a multiple award winner and best-seller like himself. Again, it would all be anecdotal, but I think a comparison like this could prove educational, although I’m not sure how you’d do it…

  10. Whilst I sympathise with your worries Douglas and I hope that your novel goes on to sell well and that you become an established author.

    I also think that horse has already bolted, the milk is already split, the window is already broken, e-piracy is here and it has been for well over a decade… there have been numerous attempts to stamp it out already and they have failed, utterly, totally and abysmally… in fact I would suggest that the draconian efforts of the RIAA and other such associations have actually made e-piracy worse… they raised it from something that was essentially something indulged in by tiny numbers of people into a global phenomenon, they gave napster and the rest huge publicity, whilst at the same time making the technologies of e-piracy ever more accessible, user friendly and difficult to deal with from an anti-piracy standpoint.

    My suggestion is to stop trying to figure out ways to utilise this technology to your benefit, try and think of ways to add value to the people who pay hard cash for your book(s) whether they are paper or electronic. Try and find ways to entice people into spending their cash… and giving people a free way to enjoy your novel (or half of it) is a good way to start.

    When it comes to loaning books, I am currently lending 23 books to 6 different people, and borrowing 5 books from 2 people. I personally have a collection of novels that is threatening to evict me from my flat because there isn’t enough space for myself and my book collection, I am also one of the highest lenders at my local library… Of those 6 people only 1 was a regular reader before I started lending books to her (my Mum) but I have widened her reading to now include historical fiction, as well as some fantasy (something that she hated me reading when I was a child), the rest are people who I have interested in books, who have started to buy books because they are now getting the bug, and I am also trying to encourage them to get their children reading… Of the 23 books I am lending 8 are ebooks that I own (legitimately) that I am lending to a friend along with my spare pda.

    The reality is that people have always lent and borrowed books, its a great way to share much beloved authors, its a way to share my passion and interests with others. E-piracy is also here to stay… deal with it or don’t…. but if your book is already being pirated and isn’t on sale… I would suggest kicking your publishers to get it on sale asap (even if its just in ebook format) so that people who want to read it can buy it and read it.

  11. Here are some hard numbers on what e-piracy does to a smaller author.

  12. Andy:

    Unfortunately, it’s not up to me as to when or how the book comes out. Authors have little to no say over most aspects of production. Publishers work on a set, year-plus schedule, so while it’s nice to say “Get it out early”, it’s usually not an (easy) option. Nor is it necessarily a solution. As you say, piracy is here to stay, so I’m not sure whether getting a book out a month or two early will make much of difference if, as some argue, most piraters weren’t planning on buying the book in the first place (an assertion I can’t comment on because, as I said above, there’s no data–just conjecture–on most of this). In addition, part of the reason for set dates is so that things like promotion, reviews, and the like can be arranged prior to the book being dropped into the ocean that is the market place. Getting a book out before anyone knows about it doesn’t necessarily help it sell broadly, even if there are some people who want it “now”.

    Giving away books to promote said book is not a new thing. My publisher is currently giving away 60 advance reader copies in a couple of venues to buiild interest. A drop in the ocean, I agree, but the precedent of loss-lead is long established. I expect, or at least hope, that we will see offers of free electronic ARCs in advance of publication, or at more consistent early releases of initial chapters at some point. However, I think there are both logistical and financial concerns on the publishing side that cause some hesitation in this regard.

    Publishing is changing, although not as fast as some would want, and I think we will continue to see those changes in the form of alternate formats, samples, and the like. I’m not sure there will be a rush to release the e-format in advance of the print, at least initially–too much is still wrapped up in the idea of the physical book for many in the business. Then again, they may well consider that at some point. I do like the idea of getting a free electronic version with purchase of a paper edition, for example, and am interested in alternate content options. However, you have to remember that any extra content can take time away from the author’s main gig (writing), or cost more money to produce (increasing cost to sutomers), or both. So, while attractive, there is also a potential of added cost, or time, or both to consider, depending on the kind of value-added content we’re talking here. Not saying it can’t be done, though, and I expect to see more of it, at least for bigger names.

    I’m a huge fan of lending, either individually or via institutions (libraries, etc.). That’s why I was so interested in the comparison between lending and piracy–it’s a comparison I haven’t heard before. And I think it has some strong parallels. But as I said, there’s really no way to know if piracy works the same way as lending in every instance–everything is anecdotal, and one person’s success story can be another’s tragedy. I’m happy to admit that in some ways, piracy is similar to lending, but I’m not about to give it a complete pass, if for no other reason than we really don’t know it’s impact one way or another. But I am also willing to be swayed either way down the line.

    Don’t get me wrong: I’m not spending time trying to figure out how defeat piracy or fretting over potential lost sales. Nor am I terribly worried about trying to figure out “How to Make e-Priacy Work for Me” (why can I see that book for sale on a bookshelf in a year or two? ๐Ÿ˜‰ ) My main concern is still trying to provide good base content (the book), along with trying to make it easier for people to find out about said content (samples on the web, etc.). Like I said, some of this is out of my control (making half of the book available early on Kindle/Nook, etc., is up to my publisher, not me), but I also expect more and more options will be open to both authors and publishers as time goes on. And some of this, I am sure, will come in the form of more, or time-limited, or whatever, free content (look at Baen, for example); but, at least right now, that isn’t the common practice. I expect, though, it will change.

  13. Novelists like Cary Doctorow and Gaiman who declare free or stolen ebooks good for their bottom line are in a situation very different from the vast majority of authors.  Their entire backlist is in every big box and book store.  They have audiobooks.  They have movie deals.  Ebook income would be a few percent, if that, of their sizable income.

    The vast majority of writers, even those with the big publishers, don’t have any of their books in bookstores, they don’t have audiobook deals, and they definitely don’t have movie deals.  Ebooks are an important part of their bottom line.

    Novelists without the kind of distribution Gaiman has can make money on free ebooks, but only if they offer the first book of an established series for free, or they have an extensive backlist in paper.  

    If an author wishes to put his book out for free, that’s fine, but it’s very wrong for someone else to do that.


    Fame is great, but if an author who isn’t an ego freak isn’t paid for her work, she will stop writing.  That hurts everyone.

    If you love to read, you need to respect authors’ copyrights and pay for their work.  

  14. @ Douglas, thanks for your reply. I understand some of the frustrations of being an author (2nd hand, a close friend is struggling to get her works actually on the shelves as her publisher has juggled her about for the last 6 months saying on thing then another), and realise that a lot of the power currently resides with the publisher, in pretty much the same way it does in the music industry. I remember the napster battles of the 90s and the ongoing struggle against music piracy… and they are still having them and still loosing them… Although there is light at the end of the tunnel thanks to the likes of itunes and individual artists that have done things differently and have made emusic work.

    My concern as an avid reader is that the obstinency of the publishing industry at large and its intransigence in accept the realities of epiracy means that we are in for some real struggles and turbulent times until the industry wakes up and realises that the milk is not only split but went off years ago… its only because of the growth is ebook readers that epiracy is becoming an issue. Being a bit of a nerd and forward thinking sci fi fan I just wish that the publishers would stop falling back onto strategies that have already been proven to have failed and instead get with the program and look at ways to take advantage of the new technologies.

    As for freebie books I am a member of Amazon vine so I am fortunate enough to get my hands on some of these and do my best to keep ontop of my reading list and get my reviews up. This is one thing that I think is great because its a great way to get those 1st handfulls of reviews up which is essential for new books and authors (not just because I get free books).

    @Marilynn – I buy as many books as I can get, I also am happy to borrow from the libraries and from friends… authors I love I try to collect their back catalogues and read them… authors I don’t….. My library is approaching 4,000 volumes (using the measureing tape method of counting books) and continues to grow… but honestly I have probably not paid for half the books I have read…. Yet i also know that I have inspired dozens of people to read, borrow from the library and buy books (often back catalogues when the lending is too other bookophiles).

    I don’t think its so simple as to say buy every book you read… if I did that I wouldn’t buy nearly so many as I do because of the numbers I borrow off friends and from the library, or read epiracy style (something I only do if I can’t find a book by other means as a rule).

  15. I doubt this is an either/or situation. Gaiman saw an upsurge of print sales after making a book free electronically. What happens to an author who only sells electronically? Not to mention that when making that book free, Gaiman was an extremely well-known best-selling author.

    I suspect that, on the whole, piracy makes little real difference to most authors’ sales. Most of the people who pirate wouldn’t have bought the book legitimately. But I also think that there will be the occasional author, particularly new authors trying to sell their second books, who will be negatively effected in a tangible way. Enough people who would otherwise have bought their books pirated those books, and that meant their sales weren’t quite enough for a publisher to consider it worth buying their second.

    There’ll probably also be the occasional person who gets an up-tick of buzz from people pirating their books.

  16. Interesting. I love the idea that generosity could be the new economy.

  17. The point at which disapproved downloading hurts more than it helps varies greatly from author to author; but largely that line will be crossed when more people have e-books as their preferred form of reading. For now, downloading an e-book (an approved download, e.g. from the publisher such as Small Beer, or Baen, who offer such things cost-free, DRM-free, etc.) can often be sampling to see if the book is something they want to actually read the whole of. If they do, then they buy the printed book and read it. Hooray! More and more people are crossing over to where picking through a few shelves of printed books is the way they sample to find out which e-books they’d like to download, whether approved, or disapproved. I don’t know when that will come for me, for now I’m very, very much a print (and even more so) and audiobook person. I’m sure I could find free downloads of the audiobooks I want, but because I want to see more well-produced audiobooks in future (and because I believe it to be the right thing to do) I buy them. $20 for 20 hours of well-narrated, well-produced audiobook is more than worth it. I hope those nice things don’t go away. I hope readers, authors, and publishers all can figure this stuff out. I want to wake up tomorrow and find the books I want by the authors I admire (and new ones I will though haven’t discovered them yet) still on the shelves. I’m scared that amidst the reality of “information wants to be free” we are forgetting that authors, editors, artists, and narrators, and …, are also people who need to eat, and that 100 copies of a book a week is a really big number in the world of books. Lovers of the written word: we’re in this together. Let’s figure this out, OK?

  18. Can I just say how awesome it is that Douglas Hulick is commenting on this post? I finished “Among Thieves” about a week ago and think it’s the best book I’ve read in a looong time. I just had to mention that. ๐Ÿ™‚

  19. Um…wow.

    Thanks for the kind words, sqt. You just offically made my day. ๐Ÿ™‚

  20. Katherine,

    I’m not sure you can take Saundra’s post as ‘hard numbers.’ As others have pointed out, while it may be true that:

    “If the 800+ downloads a week of my book were only HALF converted into sales, I would earn out in one more month.”

    …it doesn’t necessarily follow that those 800 (or even 400) people would pay for the book if by some magic piracy was wiped out tomorrow. While I don’t know that there’s much data available, my gut would be that only a tiny fraction of those people (>5%) would turn around and pay if they couldn’t download for free.

    Note that I’m not condoning piracy just because authors aren’t really losing ‘sales’ — at the end of the day, people are still taking content that they haven’t paid for. And I agree with others here that while piracy may actually help big-name authors, the jury is still out on the smaller ones. But I think it’s a fallacy to claim that 800 pirated books = 800 lost sales.

    Tobias Buckell covered this at greater detail on his blog last month:


  21. Douglas– I’d have a review up but I wanted to wait until a little closer to the release date so people wouldn’t forget to go out and buy it. Really great book. 

  22. Michael Mullins // March 15, 2011 at 2:00 am //

    If you are a pirate, I take it that I may pirate from you. N’est pas?


    Mais oui! …à votre plaisir.

  23. I think there is just one issue here, GREED.
    Greed on the part of publishing houses, wanting to double their income by charging twice for the same book in paper & Ebook format. The introduction of Ebooks is a very convenient addition to our reading habits but publishers treating it as another revenue stream is very cynical in my opinion. Thieves enjoy getting something for nothing, but what if everyone who bought a “real book” also received a free version in Ebook format. By making ebooks free I believe it would reduce the level of piracy. I am a big supporter of the printed format & what author to see their name in a Ebook ranking rather than see their books in the front window of Waterstone’s or even their local bookstore? I believe if ebooks were all free the demand for the printed version would return.
    If authors decide to release Ebooks directly, we will definitely be able to say the publishing houses (by creating a $ value for ebooks) were the cause of their own demise.

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