3 Reasons Authors Shouldn’t Worry About Piracy but How to Protect Yourself Anyway

Guest blog by Joanna Penn

New authors worry about piracy, especially in this age of digital publishing and online marketing.

Yes, piracy happens, but here’s why you shouldn’t let fear keep you from putting your words out into the world.

1. Serious readers prefer to buy books rather than download stolen copies

Most of the reading public are book lovers, law-abiding (usually) citizens, and want to compensate you for your creative work. Trust your readers.

A Personal Example

I noticed a customer had bought two copies of the same ebook from my website. I emailed her, assuming that she must have clicked twice by mistake, and I wanted to refund her. She explained that she had bought a copy for herself and one for a friend. I was thrilled, of course, because she could have just shared the file.

Hugh Howey, the bestselling sci-fi author of WOOL, shares on his site that one reader downloaded his book through a pirate site, then sent him money later in recognition of a good book.

Most readers want to help authors, not harm them. Those who download from pirate sites are not likely to be your target market anyway.

2. Some authors use piracy as a marketing strategy

Paulo Coelho, author of the worldwide hit The Alchemist, deliberately leaked his ebooks in Russia on piracy networks . His sales went from 1,000 per year to over 1 million, because those free books gave him more visibility in a hard-to-reach market. He says of piracy, “It’s a medal to any writer who understands that there is no better reward than being read.”

Self-help writer, Tim Ferriss, used Bit Torrent file sharing site for the launch of his New York Times bestseller, The Four Hour Chef, and generated hundreds of thousands of sales from free downloads.

Fantasy writer, Neil Gaiman, talks about piracy as a modern-day version of lending a physical book. Broader distribution means a broader audience and a broader audience means more sales. After all, the most pirated books in the world are by the most successful authors, like JK Rowling or George RR Martin.

Tim O’Reilly says, “For a typical author, obscurity is a far greater threat than piracy.”

So, is it better to be pirated and have your book read or have your unseen manuscript sit in a drawer?

3. What are you really afraid of?

If you’re not writing or publishing because you’re afraid someone will pirate your books or your ideas, you might need to consider other issues.

Steven Pressfield talks about creative resistance in his book, The War of Art. Stopping writing because you fear piracy is a form of resistance. It’s something your lizard brain—that primal part that tries to keep you safe—can distract you with, when really you need to get your butt in the chair and finish your book.

It’s scary to put your words out into the world. You might be judged. You might fail. You might get a one-star review. Maybe no one will even notice your book. Such fears are part of the creative process we all go through. Don’t let the pirates stop you from fulfilling your goals.

How Can You Protect Yourself?

  • Register your copyright so you have proof if you need to challenge anyone. This is not technically necessary, as you automatically copyright a work when you create it. But I’ve found it useful when challenged by Amazon to prove my ownership because someone tried to publish a duplicate book.
  • Make sure your book is available in all formats and in all countries at the same time. If your ebook is not available in the UK when your US publisher launches it, don’t be surprised if an avid fan gets a bootleg copy because they just can’t wait. If your book is available only in print, why be surprised if it is scanned and uploaded as an ebook? Plenty of people (myself included) read only ebooks now, and you will lose a sale anyway if it’s not available in digital format.
  • If you’re an indie author (self-published), you can release your books globally on the same day. If you’re traditionally published in one territory, consider self-publishing in other countries. Basically, if your book is available when and how a reader wants it, they are less likely to look for a pirated version.
  • Set up an alert with a free service like Google Alerts. Use a couple of unique lines from your book so you will be notified if the text appears anywhere on pirate sites.
  • If you use digital ARCs (Advance Reader Copies), consider a service like BookFunnel.com to deliver them. They can include a digital watermark and track who downloads the book.
  • If your work has been pirated, email the site and ask for the material to be taken down. If they don’t comply, issue a DCMA takedown notice. You can also notify the various search engines of infringement. For more detail on this, check out A step-by-step guide to dealing with content theft from attorney Helen Sedwick.
Joanna Penn is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of supernatural thrillers as J.F.Penn. She also writes inspirational non-fiction and is an award-winning entrepreneur and speaker. Her site, TheCreativePenn.com is regularly voted one of the top 10 sites for writers and self-publishers. Connect on twitter @thecreativepenn

In comments, pose any questions or share your experience with literary piracy.

Related Posts:

How to Write a Book: Everything You Need to Know in 20 Steps

How to Write a Memoir: A 3-Step Guide

How to Write a Short Story That Captivates Your Reader

  • In this digital age, it’s good to have a balanced view of piracy, as this post suggests. I can’t imagine going out of my way to encourage piracy like some of the authors mentioned, but I’ve also stopped worrying too much about it. I’ve tried the DCMA takedown notice on a couple of websites that had pirated copies of some of my books, but frankly, that felt like a lesson in futility. I’ve pretty much given up that fight and settled for accepting the piracy of my books as a combination of free publicity/sales that wouldn’t have happened anyway.

  • Dianne Davidson

    Flat out plagerism is a worse experience than idenity theft. Combine that with denial of legal process and you have someone thrice burned and twice shy.

  • “There is no better reward than being read.” Love that quote.

    Of course, getting paid for your words makes “writing to get read” feasible. Cheaters sure can put a damper on the joy of writing when they strip our ability to get paid, either monetarily or through proper attribution. Thanks for the reminder to press on cheerily regardless. “The wrong shall fail, the right prevail…”

  • Lori Altebaumer

    Thank you for this perspective on piracy. I agree with you that serious readers will typically want to be supportive and honest with the author. And who knows, for those who write in the Christian or inspirational market, maybe someone who purchases a pirated copy of your work may feel conviction as they read your words. It reminds me of the saying “you may be the only bible they ever read”…even if it is pirated ;)

  • Frances Wilson

    This post challenges me. I have high-tech phobia, and I desire to reach as many as possible through what I write. We live in challenging times, including piracy. It is easier to say like Paul, regarding preaching the Gospel, that as long as people are reading and being encouraged, it does not matter. Becoming a victim, however, is a different story. This post was must-see for me, and as usual, I must begin to apply it. Thanks for the blessings of these helps.

    • TheCreativePenn

      I’m glad it was useful :)

  • Marley

    “If you’re not writing or publishing because you’re afraid someone will
    pirate your books or your ideas, you might need to consider other issues.” — so true! One area I used to have fear was the academic research realm of writing. I went to conferences when I was a graduate student and had people ask for copies of my paper and I would give the person a copy, but panic inside. To me, those papers represented works in progress to a bigger goal: getting a PhD in literature. I went the teaching route though, so my fears weren’t justified. Plus, I used psychology and music to interpret past literary works, and those were my creative footprint. I really should have been more open to sharing and less fearful. I was starting a conversation about works of literature.

  • Michael Tolulope Emmanuel

    Exactly the topic my mind sought clarity on. Piracy.
    I have a question. Suppose a book was published in the States alone, how can an author secure copyrights in another country without releasing the book in that country?

    • TheCreativePenn

      I’m not an IP attorney, so this is just my opinion :) But there are international copyright treaties that protect across various countries, like the Berne convention. You can google for more info. If you’re worried about a particular country, you can register copyright there, e.g. I had a book that went to Indian agents for potential film rights and registered my copyright in India specifically for that situation.

  • Karen Crider

    I think piracy goes on. But not so much, if your writing isn’t up to standard. So there are advantages of being a not so good– not so practiced writer. And if you are not published, maybe that’s not as bad as having it stolen. Reminds me of that application of one who steals your purse– you know that line, he who steals my purse steals trash. Writers have lots of excuse why they don’t write. Fear o f piracy is the best one yet. And It’s true, imitation is the greatest form of flattery. So, is literary theft a minor form of compliment? And if the thief gets it published, and you find out, does it also lend validation of your writing? Plus, secure you a new outlet for your work? I see humor here. But on a serous note, to have your work stolen has to leave a writer empty and angry. So I guess it pays to register it in some form, and hope it’s not so good as to tempt someone to do wrong on count of it. Sounds like a luxurious fear.

  • Carolyn

    Thank you for putting a silver lining on a dark situation.

  • Big Shirl

    Great info. I have nothing to add to you post or to the comments below. Thank you.

  • Robert Murphy

    Thanks for the post, I hadn’t put much thought of this aspect of writing or how to protect myself once it hits the market. I do have one question though. What’s the best way of making my manuscript available to beta readers? I was planning on sharing it to certain people through Google Drive, but would it be better to go through a digital ARC for Reviewers?

  • marita

    I understand copyright and I think I get trademarks. But what it you have a different way to put a book together? How do you protect that process? For example, journaling Bibles are very hot right now. Did the inventor patent that idea? Is it considered intellectual property? What about pop-up books? How does a writer protect this physical process from being stolen?

    • Tammy Koschnitzke

      I think you said it: an invention with a patent, if it is a unique process.

    • TheCreativePenn

      You’d need to talk to an intellectual property attorney about more detailed things, but they can often protect many forms of expression

  • Glenda

    Thanks, Joanna for this encouraging post! From moving past panic to best practices protection, you covered all the bases. Back to the WIP. :)

    • TheCreativePenn

      Great :) Don’t let worry distract you from writing!

  • Thank you for the article! Love the information and yes, I shared.

  • Jimmy Necktie

    It appears that people are worried about the fear of lack or loss. On the one hand we are berated that piracy has to be stamped out, do this, do that to “protect” yourself etc. etc. Yet on the other hand the likes of Paolo Cohello deliberately put his work on pirate sites. And I don’t think his bank account went down because of that tactic. Plus, it is glaringly apparent, writers who spend hours every day, beseeching people to “protect their writing” have obviously never heard of the black market and pirate sites in Russia. They make Machievelli look like Quasimodo.
    Get over it. Write…if you must!

  • Pardoz

    “Make sure your book is available in all formats and in all countries at the same time.”

    I can’t stress the importance of this enough. Don’t complain about people not buying your book if you refuse to sell it to them.

  • Robin

    I hope people do pirate my stuff! Especially the Russians and the Chinese. It’s a great compliment that they’d want to do that. Besides, I might even get famous for being the most pirated writer. Great. I might even meet one of those famous Ukraine that make me sing and shout, they leave the west behind. Way to go baby!
    I think if people focus on paranoia, fear and lack, that’s what they’ll get.

    And Pardoz (below) is correct, make the confounded thing “available”!!!

  • nocountry:(

    I am a book leecher aka the one downloading the pirated books and not ever uploading any. Most downloads happen in 3rd world countries. I live in Zimbabwe, we have been going through horrible economic times. Most bookshops are empty except for some obscure titles from 20 years ago. Libraries cannot get new books unless donated and to read a new book from up-to-date authors would mean importing it, this will add up to close to 50.00Us dollars for me on one paperback. Added to that that our banking system is very outdated and insecure. Only this year are we getting swipe machines at points of sale. When I can use that 50 bucks to get internet for a month a get books that I have no chance of ever getting unless friends travelling or living in the diaspora to bring them for me. I was never a targeter audience but many authors have gained readers here through piracy. Best bet would be for authors to band together and open Sa sharing forum targeting 3rd world readers.
    Same problem with movies too.
    We do try to get people to buy and bring over books as often as we can get have swap meets withn my community. Please forgive us our hiw trespass.