A reminder why book pirates are a writer’s only friend

There are 7 billion people on planet Earth. 7,000,000,000. That’s a vast audience that in the digital age is only really limited by language and literacy barriers. But let’s be really tight, and say that the operational potential upper audience for your book is 1 billion people. 1,000,000,000.

The best selling novels of all time like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter top out at between 100-200 million copies sold. That’s 10-20% of our arbitrary 1 billion. Sell 10 million books and you’ll easily enter the ranks of all time bestselling authors. But that’s far more than you’ll need to get on the New York Times bestseller list, which are often around 10,000 sales in a week. And a writer can penetrate the Amazon top 100 with only 1000 books sold. That’s right, you can become a bestselling author by reaching only 0.0001% of your potential audience.

If your goal is to be a bestseller, lack of people is not the problem.

“Your enemy is not piracy, but obscurity.” It doesn’t seem to matter how often this famous statement by Tim O’Reilly is quoted, authors and the publishing industry that represents them don’t seem to take it on board. That’s partly a matter of emotion – success as a writer is hard fought and for anyone who doesn’t find it, piracy is a convenient lightning rod for negative emotions. But I suspect the wider cause is that many writers have miscast the basic nature of their problem.

Obscurity is your problem. Obscurity of the kind a snowflake faces in a snowstorm, or a scream faces in hell. There are 7 billion people in the world and almost all of them are selling something on the internet. And so, as a writer with the goal of becoming a bestseller, are you. Engineers use a term called “signal to noise” to talk about the challenge of getting a desired signal through the background noise around it. The signal to noise ratio of the internet is immeasurably huge.

But the irony is that you may be better off penetrating it as a indie published writer than with the backing of a major publisher. Because in the unfolding era of digital publishing, major publishers aren’t demonstrating a single clue about how to overcome that staggering signal to noise challenge. I’m watching hundreds of mainstream published debut authors plunge in to the abyss, while all the new names I see establishing themselves in the imaginations of readers are either indie publishing or building their own marketing platforms on blogs and podcasts. Why is this?

Could it be that the hysterical response of publishers to piracy is emblematic of why? Faced with the titanic struggle to penetrate the signal of a new writer through the noise of the internet marketing apocalypse, what do publishers do when they identify small pockets of people who are actually interested in reading that authors book? They waste their time issuing DMCA take down notices (because legal threats are always a great way to solidify a reader / writer relationship) when they should be taking a leaf out of the indie writer playbook and doing everything they can to befriend the book pirates. Because while pirates aren’t your best friends, as a debut author they may well be your only friends.

6 thoughts on “A reminder why book pirates are a writer’s only friend”

  1. I agree that the main issue facing writers these days is discovery; but we can’t presuppose that every book will appeal to an audience simply on that discovery. The reality of the market is that there is a hard core readership for most books, but it isn’t huge and the typical sales figures for most books, I believe, is in the thousands. Only a very few titles break clear of the ‘entrenched reader market’ and appeal to the wider populace – creating sales in the millions or even tens of millions. Even the ‘rule of free’ (whether because you’ve set the price at zero, or because somebody has stolen the book by pirating it) won’t guarantee sales for this reason. Or even discovery – simply because, if the title doesn’t appeal, the potential reader won’t bother with it, whether free or not. So while I agree with you generally, I think that to this calculation has to be added the expected audience – the people who will read your genre fiction, or your non-fiction, or whatever you’ve written, because it appeals to them. This will be a subset of the potential maximum audience. And the hard part, as you say, is getting them to find you through the ‘noise’.

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    1. The discovery issue needs to be turned on its head to work. We tend to use it as “how can I get readers to discover my book” when the actual issue of discovery is “how do readers discover the books relevant to their interests”. From that direction it becomes clearer what people are really doing with piracy – they’re filtering out books and media which are marketed to them but don’t actually meet their market. That’s particularly clear in non-fiction, where readers are faced with hundreds of watered down versions of original information sources, but I think the same effect happens in literary genres as well. The sad reality is that books that are damaged by piracy are the 2nd and 3rd rank books that simply don’t have a lot of value for readers.

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  2. Off to meet some pirates! I never enabled DRM on my books, but I’ve got much to learn about how “readers discover the books relevant to their interests”.

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  3. I am reader of books all my life. I have a Kindle and it has been eye opener for me. There are a lot of good out there that never get a chance. Some of my new favorite authors I got one of their books free.
    Recent example: I had $25.00 to buy books. If I brought a couple of leading authors for$15.00 each
    My Library will have these books before long. I brought 7 books of lessor authors and will post reviews on them.

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