Thieves, ID and Piracy

OK, this is a blog post about the tedious side of publishing: money. Where does it come from and where does it go?

The idea for this blog came from an email I had yesterday and another three this week. All were from friends of mine on holiday in the Philippines. Sadly, all of them emailed me “with tears in [their] eyes” to tell me that they’d been robbed, and all their money and cards, as well as their belongings, had been cleared out. Could I send them some money, only a few thousand, to let them get on the next plane and settle their hotel bills?

Clearly these emails did not come from my friends because the return email address was slightly altered. A “u” and an “r” transposed, or a number added, making the email address fictitious – or fraudulent. In any case, the fact that these morons were sending their pleas to an author was indication enough that they knew nothing about me or my profession.

Authors don’t have money like that.

In any case, when I wrote to my friends’ real addresses, they all replied. All were at home.

Still, let’s get the whole author/money thing out of the way, OK?

Authors get loads of money for doing really very little work. They wake up early (say, nine in the morning), with a mild hangover. After a brief calisthenic exercise routine, they do some deep breathing – i.e. they reach for a packet of cigarettes and light the first.

Then it’s downstairs to the kitchen for that essential writing fuel, some black coffee, before commuting to the office to open the lid of the ancient typewriter. Or, ideally, pulling the cap off a fountain pen. Or, still better, sharpening a quill. And they will sit at the table for a couple of hours with utter dedication, writing hard until they have at least one sheet of paper almost full, before wandering off to get dressed so that they can attend an important publishing meeting with an editor (or agent) in a pub, building up to tomorrow’s minor hangover over several bottles of Château Scrivener’s extremely ordinary red.

And for this, as you know, the average author will receive a pittance. A mere half a million pounds or so (for my American friends, you can assume a million or gazillion bucks).

Which is brilliant. And if any of it were true, I’d be far less grumpy than I am.

The fact is, real authors work very hard. Putting down a book onto paper is the least of it. That takes no account of the months staring into space while other people are trying to have a conversation with you; it ignores the missed parties and evenings in restaurants and bars because you’re indoors trying to figure out a plot; most of all, it doesn’t consider the months and months of reworking, editing, copyediting, proofing the same document. Working from home means never being out of the office, never switching off from work.

Also, in these straitened times, authors also have to do other work. Much of it unpaid: marketing, giving talks, writing articles and – dare I say it – blogs!

And of course it doesn’t consider the slowness of making money. Authors are all self-employed. There is no safety net for authors, no monthly pay-cheque, no private medical cover. Authors receive an income (they never know how much in advance) from royalties, paid twice a year.

Authors are not all millionaires. In fact, very few are. The Society of Authors conducted a poll of their membership some years ago, and learned that of all authors in the UK, fewer than five percent earned over £25,000. The number earning good money was vanishingly small. Of all authors, three quarters earned less than the national average wage (then about £21,000). Two thirds earned less than half that; a full half of all authors earned less than £5,000.

So, writing is not a highly paid profession.

But what is interesting, is the impression readers have. So often I will hear people say that it would be a good idea for authors to give away free copies of their books. Naturally this relates to ebooks mostly, but often people are talking about second hand titles too.

It’s an interesting business model. It’s based on the fact, universally accepted, that books are expensive. They cost a small fortune. That is why books are peddled by “pirates”. And why so many people will go to hunt down the free books offered by these pirates, who are breaking down the old, broken capitalist model and providing people with what they want: free books. Free. It has to be good, doesn’t it. If you like books, that is.

Except what it really means is: no books.

For all those books to be in print, publishers need to be paid.

For all those books to be in print, publishers need to be paid.

It’s a wonderful concept. These free-marketeers are stopping the rotten system of big publishers, cutting out the middle-men and providing books free to the reader. The authors, so the logic goes, don’t need the money. They make enough already. The publishers are just nasty vampire-squid capitalists bleeding everyone dry, so cut them out. And the happy reader gets the books for a much more reasonable zero fee.

Let’s think about that. First, is it true that books are hideously overpriced?

If you buy a book from a shop, that shop owner will make, maybe, 40-50% of the cover price. But he or she has had to buy the books in, has to pay rent and rates, has to give him or herself a salary, and probably pay staff as well. There are reasons for the costs involved.

But still, let’s think about the cost of a book. A paperback now is about £9.00, a hardback nearer £20. Except you’ll get either of them with a hefty discount, usually.

So, let’s assume the hardback is a more reasonable £15. What can you do for that sort of money?

Well, here in the UK, you can go and have one meal, perhaps. Not including wine. It’ll last you an hour, maybe two. Or you could go to the cinema. For the money you’d get, maybe, two tickets to a cheaper film. You could, of course, buy a DVD for £10. Or maybe buy three beers in a pub in London (as I learned a couple of weeks ago to my horror. But they were good beers!).

Each of those will last a couple of hours. Whereas a book for the same money will last you days.

Books are not expensive. In terms of the effort put in to produce them, they are incredibly cheap, but also in terms of the entertainment value too. They last longer than any equivalent entertainment for that money.

It is not that books are overpriced or expensive. These are not reasons for piracy. They are only attempts to rationalise, to justify the theft. It is like a criminal trying to invent a justification for breaking into your house.

A little over the top as a metaphor? Think again. When you take a free book, you are supporting international criminal gangs.

Let me quickly say that most people do accept that authors should be rewarded, just as plumbers, builders, chefs and underwater basketweavers should. And the nicest thing is, most younger folks pay for books and ebooks without quibbling. All the researches have shown that the worst offenders, when it comes to piracy, are baby-boomers. Why that should be, I do not know.

But what these offenders don’t seem to realise is, they are putting their own bank accounts at risk.

The sites need money to fund them. They need computers, programmers, telecomms lines, websites. And all this costs money. Does anyone seriously think they can support all this without income?

Pirate sites are not charities. They exist to make money for their proprietors. Of course, these owners are all nice, fluffy characters who exist to help other people and look after their mothers.


Most of these sites are based in strange countries like Uzbekistan and the Ukraine for a reason, and the reason is, they are safe there. If they pay, there is no interest shown in them by their authorities, and the chances of the FBI or the Metropolitan Police nabbing them are remote in the extreme.

The proprietors of firms dedicated to providing free material have several income streams: advertising (often from pornography sites) and theft.

Their adverts are an eclectic mix. There are some pleasant ones from major brands such as Tesco and Marks and Spencer – but if the major brands discover they’re on such sites, they pull their ads immediately. They don’t want to be associated with the sites because pirate sites do not exist for their adverts (and certainly not to give away free material) – they are money-making ventures. They make much more money from scams and frauds than from ads. The ads are only there to give them a spurious respectability.

How does it work?

Well, most of these sites apparently ask for credit card or Paypal details when you log on. Not so they can take your money, you understand, but so that they can identify you when you log-in in the future.

In the old days it was easy to spot a nefarious person with a bad disguise. Modern pirates are more subtle.

In the old days it was easy to spot a nefarious person with a bad disguise. Modern pirates are more subtle.

They will ask for credit card numbers, for the secret card numbers on the reverse of the cars, for names, dates of birth, towns of residence. And enthusiastic pursuers of free books (or films or pornographic material) will give these details gleefully. Everyone gives up their details on the internet nowadays. Nothing is private, after all, is it? They feel safe giving up their data.

For some time, the readers will consume books. And then, one day in the future, their bank account will be emptied.

Because that is how the companies make their money.

It is the same as the firms who write and offer to reward the reader with money because they’ve won a lottery for which they never bought a ticket; or a vast grant from the UN although it was never applied for; or the sum of $18 million dollars in a Lagos bank which was left unclaimed after Mr Jackson died and you can have 50% if you let the corrupt bank manager use your bank account to export the money; or the percentage of every deal sent through your account if you only allow a series of deals to be traded (ignore the money-laundering aspect of both these last two) – and the many other frauds and scams promoted on the web.

The fact is, all these scams are run by organised crime. If you agree and swallow their bait, you will end up giving them all your bank and ID details. And you will find that one day in the future, your bank will be cleaned out. Worse, you may find that your identity has been used and you can be arrested for being guilty of a crime in India, even though you were living in Walsall at the time.

I had a nice one once. I had a letter from my credit card company telling me that my account was over the limit, and I must pay £7,500 immediately.

I didn’t panic. In fact, I laughed. Because that credit card was not being used and never had been. I could prove that the PIN number had not been used, because it was still sealed in its envelope. I’d never looked at it.

That card I had bought solely as a spare in case of emergency and, as I told the bank, it had never even been activated. As they could tell from their records.

They didn’t bluster or argue, to their credit. But only because they didn’t want the embarrassment. Because the only way that my credit card number could have got out and been used, was by a member of the bank’s staff selling it. Personal details are regularly traded in foreign countries. It’s easy. If you have low paid members of staff in a call-centre in Pakistan or India, it’s hardly surprising that for the cost of a MacDonald’s in New York, a team member will look up and sell fifty names and addresses so she can feed her children for a week.

But that is a digression.

The main thing is, pirate sites are not there as charitable organisations trying to break the mould of an outmoded business practice, in other words, getting rid of copyright and allowing instant, free access to books by all to the masses. They are criminal organisations which exist to steal your identity and bank details so that they can rob you. Their bait to get you to give them your details is the offer of someone else’s products, free of charge, that they have stolen.

The fact that at the same time they are helping to destroy the incomes of authors, and forcing many to stop writing, doesn’t really worry them too much. That would be like a thief breaking into your house and feeling guilt for taking your jewels or your TV.

Do you think that’s likely?

The latest book from my lovely publisher, Simon and Schuster

The latest book from my lovely publisher, Simon and Schuster

3 Responses to “Thieves, ID and Piracy”
  1. Old Trooper says:

    I must confess that it is frustrating to see folks be so self absorbed that they naively support criminals but won’t promote the author(s) that they claim to love so much. As friends a bit north of you would say, Uff da!


  2. knotrune says:

    I would never use a pirate site. It is theft, quite apart from the risks you describe. But I think piracy is a world away from legitimate second hand book sales. My favourite bookshop is a hybrid new and 2nd hand, and I buy both types of books from there, even paying more for a new book there than using Amazon because I want to support the shop. I only mentioned piracy in my previous comment because I read an article which suggested it did less damage to the creators of the pirated material than would be supposed. I am a bit shocked about it being baby boomers who do this most!

    As for your comment that books are not expensive compared to other forms of entertainment, that is quite true. But, especially with austerity, many of us cannot afford those kinds of entertainment either! Or only rarely as a treat. Just like we might read from a mix of libraries, second hand books, free or paid ebooks and occasionally as a treat and to support a favourite author, a new book. There are plenty of people who can afford to buy all new, and perhaps they should. But I do feel it is a bit unfair of you to vilify those who might genuinely be unable to afford to read your books all new. Or who may be at a stage in their life where they cannot currently afford it but may do in the future, like students for example. Have you never bought second hand books?

    And what about out of print books? Surely it is not morally wrong to trade those second hand, and many books go out of print by the time they end up in a charity or 2nd hand shop. I think this will happen less now we have ebooks, but there are still loads of books not available new.


  3. Let’s just kill the motherf*ckers! We could do it, Mike.

    BTW, I had to retrieve your blog email from my spam folder, possibly because of the title, and yet all the begging letters from Manila get through, as did an email from my golf club captain’s wife, offering to sell me Viagra. Internet security is a bit of a joke; time it was addressed at Governmental level, internationally.


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