Someone’s been selling my ebook and it wasn’t me

Last month, I received a Google Alert letting me know that a rogue ebook version of my parenting book, What’s That, Mom?, was available as a free download off some site that I hadn’t heard of and am not going to name or link to here. I needed to take steps. But which ones? Turns out the advice online about what to do about pirated copies of your book is mixed. Here's what I learned. 

HELP! Someone’s selling my book and it isn’t me

Like many writers, I use Google Alerts to let me know when my name, my blog, or my books are mentioned on the web somewhere other than my own sites. I started this practice years ago after having several of my blog posts scraped up and reposted on someone else’s site without my consent.

Last month, I received a Google Alert letting me know that the ebook version of my parenting book, What’s That, Mom?, was available as a free download off some site that I hadn’t heard of and am not going to name or link to here. This caught my attention because I haven’t released one (I’ll tell you why I decided to skip an ebook for What’s That, Mom? in a future post).


Obviously the ebook on this rogue site is either fake or pirated, so I’m not going to link to it.  But its existence prompted me to do a lot of Googling about what authors should do about piracy, with pretty depressing results.

In general, the advice around pirated books falls into four camps.

Camp 1: Fight piracy tooth and nail because piracy breaks your income stream. 

Put plainly, whether you are a freelance journalist, a business writer, a traditionally published author, or breaking into self-publishing, making a living from your writing requires that you get paid for that writing.

If folks are reading pirated copies of your books instead of either buying them or checking them out of a library, your sales will be affected. If you’re self-published, you will have a harder time covering your costs of production for that book (and by extension, having any profits to live on). If you’re traditionally published, that drop in sales may prompt your publisher to reduce the number of copies they’re planning to print of your next book, call a premature halt to your book series, or drop you altogether. (Maggie Stiefvater did a great job of measuring the effect piracy has on even well-established authors here.)

If you decide to fight the pirates, Melinda Clayton wrote an excellent article for Indies Unlimited about piracy and what writers can do when pirated copies of their books start popping up on the web. Your first step is to send the pirates a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown notice. Clayton describes how to do this in her post, along with a few follow-up steps.

Camp 2: Writers should ignore piracy. It’s too pervasive and there’s almost nothing you can do about it as a lone writer.

There is a ton of writing out there advising writers to ignore pirated copies of their books. This argument boils down to:

  1. There are only so many hours in a day. Time you spend fighting pirates is time you’re not spending writing your next book.
  2. Pirates have a way of multiplying. You could spend your entire life chasing them and still not get them all.

Even Maggie Stiefvater seems to view fighting piracy as a lone writer as a hopeless business. In her post on the real-world costs to authors from piracy, she details some of the steps she took to combat piracy on her own. She writes:

“For awhile, I paid for a service that went through piracy sites and took down illegal pdfs, but it was pointless. There were too many. And as long as even one was left up, that was all that was needed for sharing.”

Camp 3: Embrace piracy as a way to gain name recognition and new readers. 

Reading through articles on piracy, it’s amazing how wedded some people are to the idea that piracy is just something professional writers have to live with. Apparently, as a not-yet-famous writer, I should be grateful that new readers have found me, and not listen too closely when they tell me how.

Instead of wasting my time fighting piracy, these advisors say, I should think of pirated copies of my ebooks as free marketing. These little pirated giveaways could bring me name recognition and new readers.

Camp 4: Accept that piracy will happen, but take steps to minimize its impact on your bottom line.

This line of thinking says that instead of only fighting pirates after publication, I should also spend some time before publication thinking about how to mitigate their effects on my income.

There are three basic categories of things I can do:

  1. Make it harder for pirates to copy and sell my book in the first place.
    Inkwell Editorial has an article outlining 12 steps authors can take to make it harder for pirates to pilfer their ebooks. Some of this stuff would never have occurred to me. Did you know that what you name your ebook file can affect how readily it’s pirated?
  2. Put pirates to work for me. 
    To do this, I need to make sure that every book I publish includes a list of (or if it’s an ebook, links to) my other books, mailing list, and website. This lets readers find my writing on legitimate sites more readily.  (Honestly, this is just a good idea in general.)
  3. Consider setting up alternative sources of financing, so that I’m less dependent on royalties from book sales.
    Many of the writers I follow on social media have set up Patreon and/or ko-fi accounts that fans can subscribe to. These writers use these account to create sustainable income from month to month. Not coincidentally, many of the writers I’ve seen set up these account primarily sell ebooks.I’ve seen other writers use GoFundMe and Kickstarter to fund the development and publication of specific books.  I have also seen suggestions for writers to put “Support My Writing” buttons on their websites so that folks who want to toss a few dollars their way after reading their pirated ebook have a secure way to do so.

    Still others freelance for blogs and magazines, pursue paid speaking gigs, conduct workshops and master classes, and provide editing services for other writers. And of course, there’s a long and time-honored tradition of having an unrelated day job to support your writing habit.

A final note: Many pirated books come with a side of malware

In her article for Indies Unlimited, Melinda Clayton points out that contrary to appearances, many of these pirate sites may not have a copy of your book available at all — just an image of your book cover. The PDF and ebook files lurking behind your book cover aren’t full of your painstakingly crafted words. They’re full of viruses and malware, just waiting to be unleashed when you press the download button to verify whether or not that person really did post an unauthorized copy of Your Best Work To Date.

Other sites use false book fronts to entice readers to sign up for accounts. Naturally, those sites require visitors to hand over their credit card information before they can download any books.

What about you?

Have you been affected by piracy? If so, what did you decide to do about it? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments.

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