The Writers Walk the Plank

pirate computer

Ahoy Matey! Prepare for a curmudgeonly post!

You know, I really don’t know how pirates came by their cute, fun, and harmless image. Little kids (boys, especially) seem to love all things pirate these days. Just check out the toy aisle of your local Target or WalMart. But there’s nothing cute about piracy. Not on the high seas, and not on the Internet.

If you’re a writer, you probably know that your ability to make a living–never a sure thing to begin with–has taken some blows in recent years. Publishing is changing so quickly it’s impossible to keep up. Copyrights are under seige. Customers can buy your latest release for a buck used on Amazon. New authors hungry to be published are tempted by vanity presses operating under a variety of guises. E-book royalties are all over the map.  But one change is particularly galling because it is both illegal and almost impossible to stop: the piracy of e-books.

An article by Jim Milliot in the January 14th issue of Publishers Weekly addresses the extent of the problem. He states that Attibutor Inc, a company that monitors the Internet for illegally posted content, tracked 913 books in the last quarter of 2009 and estimated that over 9 million copies were illegally downloaded, and that was only from the  25 sites it was monitoring.  The cost to publishers and authors from piracy is staggering.

At this time, fiction titles are not the the biggest target of pirates; the majority of the downloaded books are professional or technical. Attributor did report finding nearly 8,000 illegal downloads of Angels and Demons, however. And the numbers are growing–rapidly.

What’s an author to do? At first, my published friends and I searched for our titles on piracy sites and requested that they be removed from the online “catalogs.” Often they were. But now, the sites are so many that it’s become impossible to keep up. On one of my writers’ loops, an author reported having her assistant take over the job of finding her books on the piracy sites, but the assistant was quickly overwhelmed by the task and had no choice but to give up.

There is so little authors have control over. We are responsible for what goes between the covers of the book and that’s about it. We want that content to reach our readers, of course. That’s why we write. But we also deserve to be paid for our work, no matter how much a labor of love that work may be.

I don’t know how the publishing business is going to shake down in the next decade. It will be interesting to see. The one thing that seems very clear, though, is that the author is not going to come out a winner. It makes me wonder if, in ten years, there will be anything left to pirate.


  1. Lindsay on January 14, 2010 at 9:50 pm

    I’ve mentioned before that I used to write and put my writings on an internet website-fictionpress. I haven’t updated in a very long time and had removed my favourite writing. Since I stopped updating though, a lot of the ‘big’ (read by many many people) writers on the site discovered their works were being plagarized all over. They all removed their works and now post some stuff on a closed livejournal blog community. They’re very strict with who they let into this community.

    It’s not foolproof for them, but it’s a lot safer than a completely open site where you can’t monitor activity at all.

    I know kindle is a big thing now, and yes it’s handy but I love to collect books so I don’t know if I’ll ever give in to that form of owning a novel. I know I would never illegally read an author’s work for just this reason (my love of owning books).

    Side note: I just started Sarah’s Key! I know a lot of people here have read and loved it. Recently I finished Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffennegger and Half broke horses from jeanette walls. HFS was good, but I found the last 100 pages quite weird and didn’t quite like where the story went. LOVED Halfbroke horses. Very impressed. I think I may have like it even more than her debut effort (the glass castle)

  2. Diane Chamberlain on January 15, 2010 at 12:54 pm

    Hi Lindsay, Yes this stealing–and that’s what it is–of authors’ work is a huge problem. But it’s so understandable, because we are so used to getting things for free on the web. Think YouTube, as just one example. Another problem area is photos, which I may not even have thought of if I didn’t live with a photographer. People I know–intelligent, honest people–steal photographs all over the web to use for their own purposes. It seems harmless and doesn’t feel like stealing to them. I understand that. Would educating them make a difference? I doubt it. (The photos I use on the blog, unless taken by me or John or a friend and used with permission, are from sites like istock-dot-com, and I pay for them.) I don’t know the solution. Not sure there is one.

    I haven’t yet read HFS. Time Traveler’s Wife was one of my alltime favorite books and I just don’t want to be disappointed in her new one. Thanks for the good news on Halfbroke Horses. I’m looking forward to it. I hope you enjoy Sarah’s Key. Good book, tough in places, especially since I have a ‘little brother’. (I can’t imagine the pain Sarah went through in that regard.) I’m listening now to The Book Thief. Reserving judgment till I finish it.

  3. brenda on January 15, 2010 at 6:11 pm

    I liked Halfbroke Horses, but not as much as GLASS CASTLE…I own both books…my students-honors-did Glass castle for summer reading-loved it…as to the piracy-who knows the answer…books-that is unbelievable…however, with the photos-we continue to warn students-if it is on INTERNET-any one can get it. I don’t think that problem is leaving soon.

  4. Denise on January 15, 2010 at 9:46 pm

    I think it’s horrible that this is being done, and I wonder why authors and publishers can not do something about it legally. I did not realize there were so many sites for it! I guess it could almost be a full-time job to catch them all but I think I’d go after them one-by-one simply for the self-satisfaction that I caught them. Is there any way to compile a list of the pirates and perhaps combine it with that of other authors in order to go after all of them?

    Lindsay, I loved Sarah’s Key. If you like the subject matter, you might also try ‘Skeletons at the Feast” by Chris Bohjalian and ‘Those Who Save Us’ by Jenna Blum.

  5. Shelby Dupree on January 17, 2010 at 3:35 pm

    it is disturbing.. but what is there to do.. evolve I guess. cope. branch out. sulk. all the above. times – they are a’changin’.


  6. Chelsey on January 18, 2010 at 12:54 am

    well all music and tv shows are pirated and they are still around =)

    I hope authors still exist

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