Should this even be a question, you may wonder? After all, the very word “piracy” implies theft.
By sharing and reading a book without paying a fee where it is required, you deprive authors of their well-deserved earnings. Writing, after all, is no mean feat.
It takes hours of frustrating, painstaking mental exertion. Hours of writing, rewriting, deleting and editing. Authors write thousands of words and often have to rework them up to second, third or even fourth drafts. There’s also the tension that sets in when the book is finally released, where the author anxiously waits to see how well their work will do.
All of this goes without mentioning the financial commitment of self-published authors releasing physical copies and traditional publishing companies.
As an author, it is maddening to think that after doing so much to bring your ideas to life, someone out there is distributing your books free all over the internet; worse, that some are actually profiting from it.
There’s no hiding it; book piracy is bad! However, is it really bad in all circumstances?
The Cost of Reading Physical Books
We’ve already seen what it costs authors to publish books. Given the financial and mental resources involved, it is no surprise that books are expensive. Rising global inflation rates, the increased costs of physical publishing, and several other factors continue to push the prices of books upwards.
Mass-market paperbacks may be slightly more affordable for readers, but authors and publishers are primarily interested in profit. Enter hardcovers, leatherbound volumes and other special editions. The point is that if you own a physical library of any considerable size, you must have spent a lot of money to acquire the books, especially if you’re a voracious reader.
While reading is a fun hobby for the audience, it is, first and foremost, business for authors and publishers. Readers are urged to not only leave reviews and talk about the titles in public forums like Reddit, Twitter and Goodreads but also shell out the funds to purchase them and subsequently post fancy pictures on Bookstagram. The reason? Publicity.
Publicity drives sales. And we all know that even bad publicity is still publicity.
Paper and ink aren’t cheap. There are editors, agents, artists, and printers to be paid, and every node in the entire physical book supply chain is connected by money. For the cycle to continue and for readers to keep enjoying popping covers, the exotic scents of books fresh from print, and quality storytelling, books must sell.
No writer does it for the culture. Even if they’re somehow incredibly uninterested in physical profits, the agents, artists, editors, printers and publishing companies definitely want to see some cash for their efforts.
A popular Yoruba saying best summarizes the importance of efficient cash flow in the book industry. The best translation has it as “Money is what ferries the good news.”
Money, after all, remains the biggest incentive.
EBooks: A Cheap Alternative
Ebooks are an affordable alternative to physical books. Although the Ebook vs. Physical books debate will rage for eternity, it’s hard to deny that the former has made literature a whole lot more accessible. Instead of burning holes in your pocket for physical books, you can spend less than half the price on the ebook and own it forever.
If you own a Kindle, Kobo or any other eReader, you can quickly access your favourite titles and authors from various stores. Even if you don’t own a dedicated eReader, such as a Kindle Paperwhite, you can still purchase the eBooks online and read them on your smartphone with the appropriate app.
With such a cheap alternative to physical books available for all, there really is no excuse to read pirated books.
Or is there?
The Book Pirates of the World
Book pirates fall into four distinct categories:
This category of book pirates constitutes a large portion of the readership in developing countries. Due to financial hardships of varying severity, these readers turn to the high seas for their favourite titles, pillaging, plundering, and otherwise pilfering their black guts out on the sweat and blood of authors.
The “Partial” Pirates
This category of book pirates resides on both sides of the law. Some of them own shelves of colourful-paged fantasy books but indulge in book piracy for other genres. Still, others in this flock religiously purchase eBooks of their favourite authors from verified online vendors but draw the line at new authors and untested waters. Here, they resort to book piracy.
However, it should be noted that there is no such thing as “partial book piracy”. You’re either a book pirate or you’re not.
The Nonchalant Pirates
Morality is far from a two-edged sword, but this category of readers simply does not care about their deeds. They can afford to purchase ebooks, and sometimes even physical copies, but staunchly refuse to do so. Book piracy is all they know, and they will continue to do so till they die.
This class of book pirates is the worst. They not only distribute pirated ebooks but also go as far as curating hundreds of e-volumes and offering them for sale. It is one thing to distribute an author’s work illicitly, as they’re already losing earnings every time the file is shared. It is quite another thing to peddle what they sweated for and profit off it.
Why Do People Read Pirated Books?
One thing readers must understand is that books are an asset. They represent a writer’s hard work, earnings and intellectual property. Pirating them in any way is to be frowned upon.
Still, people indulge in book piracy for different reasons. While it’s hard to justify reading a pirated book when you have the money to afford it, it’s quite another thing when you don’t have the funds to buy it.
The Unique Case of the African Readership
The dire economic plight of many African countries is no secret. The phrase “developing countries” barely masks the underlying realities in places like Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Ghana, and South Africa. A combination of poor economic policies, corrupt governments, and neo-colonialism means that a significant chunk of the African reading populace struggles to afford ebooks.
Only a privileged few can afford to stock shelves ceiling-high with their favourite paperbacks and hardcovers. For fans of foreign literature, the sheer cost of purchasing their preferred books with the world’s reserve currency and shipping them over is math that does not logically add up.
As a result, readers are left with just two options. They can stick to reading exclusively African Literature, which is locally published and consequently cheaper, or opt for one of the thousands of affordable charity John Grisham, Danielle Steele, Harlequin, Mills & Boon and non-fiction titles that are mass-shipped into the continent annually.
That’s not a lot of options for a bibliophile.
However, even African Literature itself is being plagiarised at an alarming rate. So, it’s clearly not a matter of book piracy being limited to foreign literature.
A careful examination reveals that the main cause of book piracy among many African readers is not accessibility. Instead, it is financial incapacity.
A Necessary Evil
In the case of the bulk of the African readership, as well as in other developing countries around the world, book piracy is a necessary evil. It is the ugly sackcloth that many authors and publishers pretend not to see.
While the point of book publishing is, first and foremost, to make a profit, the dissemination of knowledge comes a close second. Writers want to make money. But they also want you to read their works and be engrossed in them. They’re interested in your thoughts and your reviews.
They love to see you show off pictures of the books you bought on TikTok and Instagram. However, they rarely, if ever, ask you how you got the book. This isn’t to say that writers are fools. They are well aware that their works are distributed for free over the internet, and they know who the biggest beneficiaries of book piracy are.
What Can You Do Better?
Book piracy is a topic so multi-dimensional that one article cannot touch upon all its finer points. However, one thing is certain. Many people are book pirates. Some do it full-time, unapologetically, while others only do it to varying extents.
If you do not engage in book piracy, congratulations! By legally purchasing books, you’re supporting the authors who devote so much time and effort to creating those worthy masterpieces.
However, if you engage in book piracy, here’s what you can do to limit the damage.
1. Stop Book Piracy
The best way to become clean is to renounce book piracy in all forms. This will always be the most recommended course of action for all literary highwaymen. Only if this option cannot be executed for various reasons should the subsequent courses of action be taken.
2. Write Book Reviews
One way to support the author is to leave reviews of the book on book blogs, Goodreads and Amazon. Reviews spur interest in books, and authors are more keen on reading them than they actually let on. They may not reply directly, but be assured that they’re grateful (if the review is a positive one).
3. Explore Other Options
Goodreads sweepstakes, Netgalley review copies and author giveaways on Twitter and Instagram are great opportunities for you to reduce or even totally cut out your dependency on book piracy. Look out for free books by your favourite authors online, and you might get lucky.
4. Don’t Flaunt It
The second-worst thing you can do as a book pirate is to flaunt it, especially to the author’s face. Avoid sharing illicit epubs in public spaces out of respect for the author.
5. Never Sell It
The worst thing you can do as a book pirate is to set up an online store and sell ebooks you didn’t publish or profit indirectly from the resulting online traffic of the illicit peddlers. That’s asking for trouble, and if you keep at it, you’ll surely get what’s coming for you.
6. Save Up Slowly
If you love reading so much, you can spare some funds and save up, albeit slowly, to purchase your favourite titles. It may be hard, but it’s definitely one way of supporting your beloved authors.
7. Work Hard and Get Rich
It is unfortunate that for many, reading their preferred books is a luxury. It should not be so. Reading is essential to the intellectual development of every population. Unfortunately, poverty has put quality literature out of the reach of the masses in different parts of the world.
So, as you strive daily to make ends meet, in the hope that you will one day be able to afford expensive wines and yacht cruises and attend World Cup finals, the desire to flaunt special edition volumes of your favourite authors should likewise motivate your hustle.
Can there be any excuse for stealing? It is punishable by law and, therefore, illegal. However, nothing in this world is ever truly black and white. It does not take a lot for one to realize that people and their life choices reflect varying shades of grey.
This is not to justify book piracy, though. It is only to say that things aren’t always the way they seem. Book piracy, while a crime, cannot always be prosecuted as it should be.
Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.