When the web started

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When the web started, I used to get really grumpy with people because they put my poems up. They put my stories up. They put my stuff up on the web. I had this belief, which was completely erroneous, that if people put your stuff up on the web and you didn’t tell them to take it down, you would lose your copyright, which actually, is simply not true.

And I also got very grumpy because I felt like they were pirating my stuff, that it was bad. And then I started to notice that two things seemed much more significant. One of which was… places where I was being pirated, particularly Russia where people were translating my stuff into Russian and spreading around into the world, I was selling more and more books. People were discovering me through being pirated. Then they were going out and buying the real books, and when a new book would come out in Russia, it would sell more and more copies. I thought this was fascinating, and I tried a few experiments. Some of them are quite hard, you know, persuading my publisher for example to take one of my books and put it out for free. We took “American Gods,” a book that was still selling and selling very well, and for a month they put it up completely free on their website. You could read it and you could download it. What happened was sales of my books, through independent bookstores, because that’s all we were measuring it through, went up the following month three hundred percent.

I started to realize that actually, you’re not losing books. You’re not losing sales by having stuff out there. When I give a big talk now on these kinds of subjects and people say, “Well, what about the sales that I’m losing through having stuff copied, through having stuff floating out there?” I started asking audiences to just raise their hands for one question. Which is, I’d say, “Okay, do you have a favorite author?” They’d say, “Yes.” and I’d say, “Good. What I want is for everybody who discovered their favorite author by being lent a book, put up your hands.” And then, “Anybody who discovered your favorite author by walking into a bookstore and buying a book raise your hands.” And it’s probably about five, ten percent of the people who actually discovered an author who’s their favorite author, who is the person who they buy everything of. They buy the hardbacks and they treasure the fact that they got this author. Very few of them bought the book. They were lent it. They were given it. They did not pay for it, and that’s how they found their favorite author. And I thought, “You know, that’s really all this is. It’s people lending books. And you can’t look on that as a loss of sale. It’s not a lost sale, nobody who would have bought your book is not buying it because they can find it for free.”

What you’re actually doing is advertising. You’re reaching more people, you’re raising awareness. Understanding that gave me a whole new idea of the shape of copyright and of what the web was doing. Because the biggest thing the web is doing is allowing people to hear things. Allowing people to read things. Allowing people to see things that they would never have otherwise seen. And I think, basically, that’s an incredibly good thing.

~ Neil Gaiman

35 thoughts on “When the web started”

  1. It gets the word out.

    I understand that guy left on Mars started out as free too – have to wonder if it would have gotten off the ground starting out as a $30 hardback …

    • Here’s the sequence for The Martian:
      1. Andy Weir releases chapters of his story serially (for free) on his website.
      2. Readers start to suggest: “Hey, why don’t you put all those chapters together and upload the story as an ebook to Amazon?”
      3. He does, pricing it at $0.99.
      4. His Kindle ebook sells 35,000 copies in three months, and keeps selling.
      5. Podium buys the audiobook rights.
      5. Crown buys the print rights for the paperback.
      6. Hollywood comes calling.
      7. Matt Damon learns more than he wants to know about potatoes.

      All of this takes several years.
      And it started with free on the web.

  2. I always thought Gaiman was a smart dude. Good to see I was right. 🙂

    Eric Flint made a similar case with *his* sales.
    Putting up a couple books for free in the BAEN FREE LIBRARY not only led to more sales of his other books but also more sales of the same title.

    Paolo Coelho made the same discovery.

    Lots of other are in the same camp; anybody with permafree titles or with a few titles cycling through KU.

    The threat of piracy is greatly overstated.

    • Felix, According to Eric Flint —

      [T]he fact remains that the material damage done to authors by such activity [piracy] is so minimal that it can barely be distinguished from zero—if there’s any material damage at all, which I doubt.

      I am not guessing about this. The reason I initially put up my first novel for free online was because I got fed up reading the hysterical howls of some authors in online discussion groups, shrieking that their livelihood was being mortally threatened.

      To prove that was nonsense, as graphically as I could, I put up one of my own novels for free. “Pirated myself,” if you’ll allow me the absurd expression. That novel, Mother of Demons, has been available online for free for almost seven years now. And…

      It’s still in print, and still keeps selling.

      Soon thereafter, with Jim Baen’s co-operation, we set up the Baen Free Library on Baen Books’ web site, which now has dozens of titles from many authors made available for free to anyone who wants them. (If you’re not familiar with the Library, you can find it by going to Baen Books web site—http://www.baen.com—and selecting “Free Library” from the left side of the menu across the top.)

      The titles are not only made available for free, they are completely unencrypted—in fact, we’ll provide you free of charge with whatever software you’d prefer to download the texts. We make them available in five different formats.


      The sky did not fall. To the contrary, many of those books have remained in print and continued to be profitable for the publishers and paying royalties to the authors. For years, now, in some cases. Included among them is my own most popular title, 1632. I put that novel up in the Baen Library back in 2001—six years ago. At the time, the novel had sold about 30,000 copies in paperback.

      Today, six years after I “pirated” myself , the novel has sold over 100,000 copies.

      Full article at Salvos against Big Brother. Warning! The thread is exceedingly long. To get to the meat, search for ‘mother of demons’ and take the second entry returned. To get to the statistics that support Flint’s argument, take the sixth entry returned. Warning, warning! (Danger, Will Robinson!) The table is difficult to read. Two figures are of interest. When Flint began his ‘self piracy’ experiment, his sales of Mother of Demons totaled 9,394 (as of June 1999); after seven years of ‘self piracy’, Flint’s sales of Mother of Demons totaled 21,934 (as of December 2006). In other words, 57% of Flint’s sales of Mother of Demons occurred after he made it FREE!

      Piracy is a benefit.

      It is not logical, but it is often true. –Spock

        • Good one.
          The one I remembered was his Prime Palaver editorial.
          It was the one where he also referred to piracy as petty shoplifting and a cost of doing business. And that DRM was treating customers as expected thieves.

          My own personal take is that the biggest crusaders against piracy “just happen” to be vendors of “anti-piracy solutions”.

          Makes me just a wee bit skeptical.

          • Either vendors of “anti-piracy solutions” or authors whose publishers and/or agents are stealing from them, like we saw with Chuck Palahniuk.

      • And after Mother of Demons was available for free for 20 years, Baen released a leatherbound hardcover collectors edition which sold very well

  3. Giving away one’s book(s) might or might not increase one’s overall book sales, but if I decide to distribute a book for free, it should be my decision and only my decision to do so, not some pirate who does not have my interests at heart. Control is the essence of the concept of copyright.

    • Oh, agreed and I do share my books on a couple of sites.

      But chasing pirates and using DRM is normally a waste of time. Catching someone selling your book on Amazon can be stopped, but often it not that easy to track/stop someone sharing. And DRM only hurts those that actually buy your book – it doesn’t even slow a copier/pirate down.


        • Even less care.
          But those that care care a lot. And loudly.
          Since DRM is also ineffective at what it pretends to do it isn’t worth the trouble on books for sale. Rented ebooks and library ebooks? Different story.

          • I’ve always figured DRM was designed to prevent emailing of books from becoming a socially accepted practice. It’s security achieved by social engineering.

            Suppliers didn’t want Aunt Agnes emailing the latest killer romance to her sorority email list. After all, they all shared books back in college, and now they can share with all 3,263 girls on the list.

            Activists tell us DRM is aimed at pirates and any nine-year-old can crack it. Could be, but it’s not aimed at nine-year-olds. It’s aimed at Aunt Agnes.

    • Do you feel that way about a group of friends passing around a physical copy of your book? If not, what’s the difference? Why is it alright for some people who would never pay for your physical book to read it for free, but not others who would never pay for your ebook to read it for free?

      The logic behind this stance has never made sense.

      • If at least one person in a circle of friends purchases my book and shares it among his friends, he is behaving like a librarian. At least one copy of one of the two wonderful books I have created has sold. Someone who purchases a print copy of my book can do anything he wants with it after purchasing it, but he has to compensate me in order to do so.

        If someone wants a print copy of one of my delightful books is unwilling to spend their money to own it, they can try their local library or used bookstore, but there still has to be a first sale.

        The ebook situation is different. Someone can purchase the Kindle edition of one of my fabulous books, strip the DM, and then ask Amazon for a refund, and resd the book without compensating me or my publisher for the privilege. You can also upload it to file sharing sites, further depriving me of compensating. When authors and publishers don’t get paid for creating books, they go away.

        Your position that you are not harming me by pirating my book because you would never buy it anyway is simply a justification for being a parasitical cheapskate. Because you say that you would never buy something I’m not being harmed by your theft. Imagine if you took your attitude to a car dealer and told them that they should give you a new car because you would never buy one from them anyway. That’s patently ridiculous when applied to material goods. You either pay for the car or go without it. Unfortunately, with the digitization of information, you can enjoy the information you are unwilling to pay for.

      • If somebody wants to share a physical edition of one of my wonderful books with their friends, they have to purchase at least one copy of it first, so I have benefitted.

        Not so with an ebook. They can purchase the Kindle edition, strip the copy protection from it, get a refund, and then distribute that file to as many people as they wish. I have definitely lost one sale and potentially an unlimited number of copies sold.

        Your position, that you are not harming me by pirating my books because you are unwilling to pay for the privilege is just your justification for being a parasitic cheapskate. Try it in the world of material goods. Tell a car dealer that they should give you a new car because you would never buy one anyway but want the benefit of owning one. Sadly, for creators, the digitization of information has made it possible for people to benefit from the creations of artists without anyone except for the first pirate paying for a file.

      • Why is it alright for some people who would never pay for your physical book to read it for free, but not others who would never pay for your ebook to read it for free?

        The willingness to pay has nothing to do with he issue. The reader’s situation doesn’t matter.

        It’s OK for people to pass around a paper book because it can only be used by one person at a time. This is codified in the first sale doctrine. Also, replicating it is very difficult. That means the scarcity of the paper book is not affected, and has no bearing on subsequent market value.

        It’s not OK to replicate digital books because that makes a new, independent copy of the book. Each copy of the book can then be replicated thousands of times. Unlike paper, first sale doctrine does not apply. Also, unlike paper, the digital copy is not sold. It is licensed, and the license prohibits copying the book for subsequent distribution.

        However, there is a striking similarity between paper and digital in this matter. It’s fine to pass around a Kindle with an eBook for people to read. They can pass the Kindle unit from one person to another just like they do with the long established practice of passing around paper. The folks who would never pay for a book are free to use this method as much as they like.

        The motivations and utility gained by the reader isn’t important, and isn’t a decision variable. He doesn’t matter.

  4. This author claims the exact opposite…

    I’ve decided to tell you guys a story about piracy.

    BLLB’s e-arc escaped the site, made it to the internet, and began circulating busily among fans long before the book had even hit shelves. Piracy is a thing authors have been told to live with, it’s not hurting you, it’s like the mites in your pillow, and so I didn’t think too hard about it until I got that royalty statement with BLLB’s e-sales cut in half.


    BLLB = Blue Lily, Lily Blue

    • Unfortunately, with situations like these piracy is a symptom, not the disease. She’s published by Scholastic, and her latest book in the series is still $11.99 two years after publication. This book she’s talking about was published in 2014, which is right in the period where indie publishing was rapidly loosing it’s stigma with readers, and readers were getting increasingly price conscious.

      So if the book launched anywhere close to $11.99, and readers were able to find a free copy, then the underlying blame for the drop in royalties should be laid at the feet of Scholastic’s pricing policies.

      It’s awful for her, and I see how she would blame piracy, but study after study has shown that cost and availability are the driving forces behind widespread piracy, and making good widely available and a reasonable price is the best defense.

      Blaming piracy in these situations is like not being able to walk and blaming it on the pain, not the broken leg.

      • “So if the book launched anywhere close to $11.99, and readers were able to find a free copy, then the underlying blame for the drop in royalties should be laid at the feet of Scholastic’s pricing policies.”

        The blame for the drop in sales rests squarely with the parasitical thieves who download pirated copies of an e-book because they feel entitled to take something without paying for it. If Scholastic priced the book at $4.99, there would still be people who would steal it from torrent sites because they can.

        If you could fill your carriage full of groceries and leave the supermarket without paying for them without the store’s permission yet no possibility of being arrested for theft, there would be plenty of people who would do it.

        The publisher or manufacturer is entitled to charge whatever the market will bear. If you don’t like that don’t buy it. That doesn’t justify stealing it.

        • “That doesn’t justify stealing it.”

          Of course not – but was it really stolen? Are you missing a copy? One you can no longer sell to someone else? The one to take a copy obviously didn’t think it worth the offered price and wasn’t going to pay that for it …

          Words have power, using the wrong word steals away the power the word might have had.

          You sound like the music industry, trying to claim every copy as a lost sale. In far too many cases they aren’t. There are price-points where people will take risks with work they haven’t seen/heard/read before, Amazon proved it before the qig5 invoked agency to stop them.

          Yes, there will be always be copyright infringement, and you can’t stop it. The only way to win is to make it not worth the effort of those that would bother breaking your DRM so they can read it cheaper/for free. And once they’ve made it easy to read there’s no reason in their eyes not to share it with their friends/the rest of the world.

          A lock slows/stops a mostly honest man. So does knowing what’s behind the lock can be gotten for less money/effort than getting past the lock – and at less risk.

          Pick your battles carefully, many aren’t worth winning if you lose even more by fighting in the first place.

        • If you could fill your carriage full of groceries and leave the supermarket without paying, and the supermarket still had exactly the same goods in stock as it did before, would that even be theft?

          Intellectual property is not the same kind of thing as physical property, and analogies between the two generally fail.

        • Justify downloading?
          People rationalize far worse things.
          And the behavior of the publisher and/or author feeds into it more often than many realize.

          BAEN ebooks have traditionally had very low levels of piracy because of their pricing, format support, and DRM-free format. They’re the “good guys”.

          On the opposite extreme, scan-and-ocr uploaders went to extremes to produce pixel-perfect replicas of the Harry Potter books because of Rowling’s very vocal refusal to allow digital editions, pre-Pottermore.

          Humans are really good at rationalizing “logical” reasons to excuse emotion driven actions.

          • Humans are really good at rationalizing “logical” reasons to excuse emotion driven actions.

            The feelings of the perpetrator, and the validity of his feelings, are most important. His/her/its life experience, personal truths, and the experiences of all 128 great great great great great grandparents have to be considered.

            • Pirates are going to pirate.
              But they also choose who to pirate.
              And somewhere along the way, somebody paid for a “seed” copy, either a pbook to be scanned or an ebook to be cracked. And piracy rings treat content as currency. Microcurrency but currency nonetheless. Even bulk pirates are selective.

              Whatever the source, economic rules apply; somebody had to choose to pirate one book and not another. They can’t afford to pirate the entire Kindle ebook store. Prominent authors get pirated as a matter of course. The Pattersons and Kings. Other books get pirated for notoriety. Make the news, become an object of curiosity, and the likelihood of getting pirated increases. And, of course, price and availability factors in. The pirate “value” of a top selling expensive title will be higher than one selling at modest cost. Less “seed investment” means less trade value.

              So yes, the pirate’s motivations matter.
              The human factor is always present.

              • So yes, the pirate’s motivations matter.

                Motivations don’t matter in justifying the copying of ebooks. Of course they matter in the choice to copy.

                • Which is what I said in a more long-winded form.
                  Pirates are going to pirate anyway.
                  What they rationalize is who/what they target.

      • The blame for the bank robbery rests squarely with the people who put their money in the bank. If it wasn’t for them, the robbery would never have happened, and the three people killed would still be alive.

        • Hardly, it’s more like leaving the door of your house wide open while going on holiday, and returning to find everything has been stolen.
          The thief is obviously to blame, but you can also take some responsibility for leaving the door open in the first place, it’s possible that the burglary would’ve happened regardless but by your action, increased the chance exponentially.
          If authors choose to make the price of their e-books high, that decision has consequences, one of which is the increased threat of piracy.
          I’m not saying it’s right, but it’s a choice everyone makes, and in most cases, the author has done a cost benefit analysis and determined that the high price point is what is best for them.

  5. The biggest single fallacy about book piracy is the idea that every pirate listing, every downloaded copy, is a lost sale.
    Demonstrably false.

    These days, pirate ebooks most often are used as malware bait for parsimonious readers so again. Somebody searching for info on a given book might find a listing for a free copy and get drawn to a flyby malware site that doesn’t even carry the book. Try it. But use a disposable computer with no data that can be totally wiped afterwards. It’ll be infected within a handful of searches.

    Another popular piracy distribution channel are bulk torrents. “2500 kindle ebooks!” Those appeal to hoarders who simply grab them because they’re available. They might read a handful out of the whole batch. If that.

    At that point it becomes a statistical risk more than a real one. Odds that a hoarder, who got the book in a flood of content, will pick the one book out of 2500, or 10,000 or 30,000 (there are massive torrents out there; they are easy to find and most listings come with content lists so you don’t have to download them to know what’s out there).

    And, of course, people willing to get ebooks via those channels were never going to buy their content anyway.

    In legal terms they aren’t part of the relevant market.

    Where the “marketing” aspect of piracy comes into play is that bulk torrents are time-frozen slices of content from a specific point in time. The hoarder who hears the Gaiman name, might check their stash, see one of his books and read it. They might like it enough to want more and be willing to pay for it. Low odds but it does happen.

    The main point here is that piracy is going to happen anyway–it’s a cost of doing business–but that fighting it is more trouble (and cost) than it’s worth for the vast majority of writers, both tradpub and Indie.

    More, whatever actual losses (if any) incurred will be proportional to your visibility and success. Patterson gets pirated like crazy but he won’t even notice it. Gaiman gets pirated less but he a good enough writer and active enough that it ends up helping his bottom line. Big gains go to active midlist writers with regular releases. Activity makes a difference.

    The people who really get hurt big are the one hit wonders.
    One book, very prominent, no followup to benefit from discovery by piracy.
    Not many of those outliers out there, though.

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