Book Piracy Can Actually Boost Your Book’s Sales
I did the math
My plan is to start publishing my short stories and my novels soon. When that time comes, I honestly hope they are downloaded illegally as much as possible. I’ve done the math, and it works out. More pirate downloads of an e-book may actually bring the author more income. I’ll share all the calculations with you in a minute.
I am against piracy
But first, let me make one thing clear. I’m 100% against piracy of any kind. I’m not implying that illegal downloading is a good thing, nor am I encouraging anyone to download books, movies, or anything else outside of the proper channels. Book piracy is obviously illegal and must be punished.
However, illegal downloading websites do exist, in the same way that pickpockets or burglars live among us. You may get mugged. You don’t like it and you don’t want it to happen, but it’s a possibility. It happens all the time. Similarly, art that is sold online, whether it be books, movies, music or of any other type, unavoidably becomes available for potential downloading and sharing without paying. We’re doing our best to eliminate this phenomenon but, as long as it’s there, we have to live with it.
So, our e-books will unavoidably be downloaded illegally, at least to some extent. I used to get frustrated in the idea, but not any more. Let me explain why.
Pirates are usually not potential paying customers
I’m pretty sure that most people who download books from torrent websites or other illegal sources will rarely pay for titles if they can get them for free. They’re after the free stuff and that will most probably never change. The same way I make it a point to always buy my books. They don’t.
There’s much speculation as to whether pirate book downloads translate into lost sales, but no solid proof that they actually do. This EU study, for example, found “no robust statistical evidence of displacement of sales by online piracy.”
What this means for you or me, is that an illegal download that we may prevent is unlikely to become a purchase. The person who can’t find a torrent of your book is much more likely to look for another title they can get for free rather than pay to buy yours. So, the chances are that only a tiny fraction of illegal downloads of your book will automatically result in lost sales.
Reporting pirate websites isn’t worth my time
Instead of spending hours or even days looking for torrents of my book and reporting pirate websites, I’d rather invest my time in more productive activities. Writing is an option that springs to mind. No matter how many pirate links we report, more will always appear elsewhere. If your book is any good, it will happen. So, if you’re considering going into this pirate hunting business, I suggest you take a moment and think if the whole process is worth your time and effort.
I get more eyeballs on my material
The more people read my work, the more people will love it and will talk about it to their friends. And I need that.
How often do you buy a book without a recommendation from someone you trust? All of my online book purchases have been encouraged by some form of endorsement. If it’s not a recommendation by a friend, it’s definitely online reviews. That’s human nature, we need someone else’s opinion before we decide to pay for a book — or any other product, for that matter. Recommendations introduce a certain level of trust between you and the book that wasn’t there before, thus reducing the risk of wasting your money. Humans need endorsements before they make up their mind.
Illegal downloads of my book will result in extra sets of eyes reading it and extra mouths talking about it. Now, one wonders whether more eyeballs who read my stuff for free are better than less eyeballs who pay.
Which leads us to the part where the numbers make more sense.
The math — simplified
Considering the above facts, I couldn’t help but wonder if having my e-book downloaded illegally would eventually bring more actual sales because of the additional word of mouth caused by satisfied pirate readers.
I’ve been playing around with numbers but the whole thing became too complicated, so I ended up using a spreadsheet. Although it’s by no means a complete and thorough analysis of the matter, it helped me draw some useful conclusions. I have linked to the spreadsheet here, for your entertainment.
To make this example more straightforward, I’ve made a few assumptions.
- For every 100 people who read my book, one person really loves it and becomes a hardcore fan of my work.
- In his lifetime, a hardcore fan will bring 3 extra purchases by talking to his friends about my book. I think this is a rather conservative hypothesis, by the way.
- My e-book costs $2.
Now, let’s assume I’ve published an e-book that’s moderately popular with readers in a particular niche and sells 500 copies.
Based on a few simple calculations (please refer to the spreadsheet for details), I estimated the extra revenue that might potentially be caused by pirate readers who spread the word. I also had to assume that my sales are unavoidably affected by piracy, so I investigated two different scenarios, losing 20% and 50% of my potential sales.
Both percentages are completely arbitrary, as I had no indication of real world statistics on this issue. Again, I believe these scenarios are quite pessimistic, but I prefer to have results that are biased towards the pessimistic end of the spectrum.
If we take all these assumptions into account (and if, in theory, there were no illegal downloads) 500 purchases of my imaginary $2 book will bring me $1000 in revenue, and 5 hardcore fans. These people will cause 15 extra sales by recommending the book to their friends, which will bring me an extra $30. Total revenue: $1030
Now, if piracy costs me 20% of my initial 500 sales, I have $202 less revenue, calculating lost sales and lost word of mouth revenue. From this point onward, it all depends on the number of pirate downloads I expect my book to have.
With 500 illegal downloads, I have $30 in extra sales because of the extra word of mouth. This makes my total revenue $828, which is less than the $1030 that I would have made without piracy damaging my sales ($1000-$200-$2+$30=$828).
However, things get interesting at 4000 pirate downloads. They bring $240 of additional revenue, and the total goes to $1038 — 8 dollars more than the non-pirate scenario. Even if 50% of the initial 500 sales were lost, word of mouth caused by 20,000 pirate downloads takes the total revenue to $1695, significantly more than the original.
It becomes clear that the more pirate downloads my book has, the more additional revenue I will earn. With 5000 copies sold (third tab in the spreadsheet), you still have 23% more revenue if your book is downloaded illegally 40,000 times, than if there were no pirate downloads at all. I think this is an amazing discovery. In my mind, this means there’s one very specific thing you should be doing as a writer.
What you can do to make piracy work for you
The formula I’m using is somewhat simplistic, of course, because you can’t possibly expect to accurately interpret complex human behavior by using simple mathematics. But still, this is a model that can be used to gain some basic understanding of how the number of pirate downloads may affect your revenue.
From this experiment it becomes apparent that book piracy isn’t always good for you as an author. It only starts to bring you more revenue when your book has a significant number of pirate downloads, which I think is the most important finding.
And the only factor that affects how much your book is downloaded, legally or illegally, is whether people want to read it in the first place. This is good news for you, because it’s the only thing you control. Because, for people to want to read what you write, there is only one prerequisite. You need to write a great story.
That’s when people get excited about your work and talk about it passionately, and that’s when everything else starts working in your favor. A good story is bulletproof, nothing can stand in its way. Not even a few bad reviews, an economic recession, or a pandemic. Not even book piracy.
Now, let’s get back to work. I’ve got a few interesting stories to write.