Marsha Canham's Blog

December 4, 2010

Pirates on land

Filed under: Uncategorized — marshacanham @ 5:03 pm

There has been an ongoing discussion on one of the group loops I’m on concerning piracy.  Online book piracy, movie piracy, music piracy…all three are causing headaches for the respective artists who work long, hard hours to present a finished product, only to find copies of it distributed free through the many sites begun by *clever* people or *generous* people who post the books, movies, music for free to anyone who finds their site.  I say clever because they probably think hah, they ripped me off for my 2.99, but I’ll show them.  Generous because they probably think gee, I had to pay 2.99 but I’ll save all my friends and their friends the enormous cost and I’ll post it up for free.  To some it’s even a challenge.  Like hackers who break into a site and think its fun to hide a trojan or change all the links or just leave a message so you know they’ve broken in.  Let’s get all the books we can and post them up for free.

The flip side of this is the people who go looking for stuff for free.  Some of the official sites–and I’ll use books from now on because that’s what I’m most familiar with–like Smashwords and Amazon, will offer books and short stories for free, but that’s with the author’s approval because either they are in a generous mood, or they are trying to get established and want to introduce readers to their work.  You can go to and download a hundred books and short stories for free.  The Kindle boards ( has a whole section for authors to list their free books, so that covers hundreds more.  Point being, readers looking for free stuff can find it on official sites.  If it’s not an official site, then the person offering it, the person downloading it, and the person who has written it knows that, basically, it’s theft. those *generous* people who just want to share, or to the *clever* person out there, who sends out free copies just because they resent the fact *they* had to pay for it, so why should anyone else–this covers the hackers and the ones who think its a challenge to find and post as much free stuff as they can as a nyah nyah to paid sites–I would ask:  Do you work?  Do you have a job? Do you need that job to put food on the table and a roof over your head?  Do you work to pay off your mortgage, or to cover your rent?  Because I do.  My work is my writing.  It takes me a year, roughly, to write a book.  That includes the initial research, which usually involves weeks of pouring through dull and boring naval manuals, for example, to plot out a sea battle and get all the terminology right.  Then the actual writing of the first draft, which can take months of being locked away in my office for 8, 10 hours a day, weekends included.  There is a break in there somewhere, usually around the halfway mark, where I stand back and look at what I’ve written so far and think it’s crap.  So I’ll start again, from the beginning, and work through *the wall* until I get a draft I’m reasonably happy and thankful for.  Then starts the editing and revising, the fleshing out with more hours of research for the finicky details that I don’t worry about during the first draft, like describing the room the characters are standing in, or what they’re wearing, or how many times, really, on one page can someone use the word “said”.  Then it gets set aside for a week or two, when I try not to look at it or think about it so I can have a clear brain when I do the final revision.

For a print book, this is the stage where you send it to the editor, who has been harassing you on the phone for the past month reminding you that you’ve missed your first deadline and do you plan to meet the second one.  I should backtrack here briefly to point out that when the initial contract for the book was signed, the author received one third of the payment for the agreed advance for the book.  Using round figures, we’ll quote something that sounds impressive when you hear an author say, “Oh, I got a $75,000.00 advance for my last book!  Woo hoo!”  This does not mean the publisher wrote them a cheque for $75,000.00.   What they really mean is, they were quoted 75K, which gets broken down into installments. Usually a third (25K) on signing the contract, another 25K for delivering the manuscript, and the final 25K when the book is released.  The same holds true for an author just starting out in the business, who is thrilled to get $5000.00 advance on their book, which is pretty standard.  The 5K gets broken down the same way…a third on signing, a third on delivering the finished manuscript, a third when the book hits the bookstores.

So for the sake of those *generous* pirates out there who want to share their bounty with others, and the readers who search out those sites to find free books, let’s use the $75K author (only because you would expect me to use the 5K one for more dramatic effect LOL)  So Mz Penelope Pen signs the contract and receives her 25K.  If she’s like me, it can take anywhere up to a year before that finished manuscript goes into the editor, another two, three months before the editor is happy enough with the book and the revisions she’s asked for, before the second payment comes down the shute.  So.  Mz Pen, who, again for example, is a single parent with two children, has had to live for the past 15 months on 25K.  Could you do it?  Probably not.  Neither could she, so it’s most likely that even though she got a whopping 75K for the book, she needs to have a second job just to pay for everyday things like food, clothes, rent, car, gas etc etc etc.  Imagine now, the author who only got the 5K advance.

Fast forward through the process of editing, copy editing, cover design etc etc, to transform the manuscript into a book and have that book appear on the store shelves.  That could take anywhere from six months to a year AFTER the author has handed in the finished manuscript.  So now we’re two years from the first day the author sat down and wrote the first word for that book.  The third installment on the advance comes, which means Mz Pen has her full 75K, but it really only breaks down to 37.5K/year.  For the 5K author, it works out to 2.5K annual salary.

Ahh, you say, but the author makes a percentage royalty on every book sold in the store or online.

True.  We do.  But….

We have to earn out that 75K or that 5K first.  Using myself as an example, I was at a 10% royalty rate, and my books were selling for $7.99…so…quick math…I was getting on average .79 per book sold.  I say on average, because *foreign* sales are a different rate, and even though I’m Canadian, Canadian sales are considered *foreign* to an American publisher, so that dropped my rate per book to around .30.

But even at .79 per sale…it would take roughly 95,000 sales to make up the advance, which, unless the author is very well known and the book is a *hot* property, does not happen overnight.  It could take five years, literally, for a midlist author to sell 95,000 copies of a book.  That’s why they are called midlist.  They sell consistently, but slowly.  They don’t make a huge splash, but they have a loyal following.

So back to Mz Pen, who has been paid 75K over two years…she will likely not see another cent from that book for five, maybe ten years, maybe never if it fizzles and fades away on the shelves.  Which raises another point of shelf life.  The shelf life for a new book by a midlist author is one month.  The majority of sales take place in that first month because after that, the book is replaced by a new *just released* author trying to hit the market.  So if the book doesn’t reach its audience in that crucial first month, it either fades away or, if lucky, might sit for a few more months in the fiction section, but with the spine out so the reader has to really look for it to find it.

With the advent of Ebooks, that shelf life has been happily extended, and, as in my case, has even given a second life to books that vanished off the shelves after a few months never to be seen again outside of used book stores.

Using myself as an example, and The Wind and the Sea…  I was initially paid an advance of 10K for TWATS…and I was thrilled to get it.  It was my third book.  I had been paid 2500 for China Rose, 5K for Bound by the Heart, so 10K was a huge leap.  It still took those two years to get the full payment, so really I was working day and night, month after month for an annual wage of 5K.  My son was young and I only had the one job…writing…but I loved it, and my (spit) husband supported my desire to write, so we lived rather frugally but happy.  The unthinkable happened long before TWATS even had a chance to earn out the advance. (the cover price, btw, was $3.95 and my royalty rate at the time was 6%)  The publisher went bankrupt.  The book vanished, never to be seen in print again…until now.  With the growing popularity of Ebooks and Ereaders, a lot of books that vanished from the shelves have found a second wind…however…ebooks, as convenient and easy as they are to download, they are equally easy to pirate and download for free.

I read a blog the other day that posed a simple, but logical question:  Do you walk into a bookstore and take a book off the shelf, tuck it under your jacket and walk out without paying?  Of course not.  That would be shoplifting.  Theft.  So why do people think it’s any different downloading a book off the internet without paying? I refer back to that author who sells her book for $5K, who has to wait the two years before the full amount is paid, who only earns 6%-8% royalties, which have to be fully earned out before another cent comes her way.  That is her job.  That is what she does to earn a living, to pay the mortgage, to buy food and clothes.  If she’s lucky she can write two or three books a year and, over time can manage to have enough books out there to be earning something more substantial than just the 5k for the one book.  However.  Print authors only get paid twice a year.  Could most people trying to support a household get by on two paycheques a year?  Ebooks pay monthly, which is better, but since the amount is unknown, one can hardly budget for X number of dollars.

Piracy hurts.  It’s theft, plain and simple, and while we all know there isn’t much we can do about it other than write blogs and kick small objects across the room, it’s still a problem searching for a solution.



  1. Terrific presentation of the facts, Marsha. Writers work hard and certainly don’t lead glamorous lives. We deserve to be paid for our hard work.

    Comment by Phoebe Conn — December 4, 2010 @ 6:06 pm | Reply

  2. Excellent arguments! My son is a musician and I know how piracy hurts artists. People think that downloading music or a book illegaly is “cool” and they justify it saying “they don’t work so hard” or” they have a lot of money” and they feel that on the Internet they can do these things anonymously. Anonymity is the great silent partner of these crimes.

    Comment by Susana — December 4, 2010 @ 7:13 pm | Reply

  3. On the piracy issue, the industry is ignoring one way to combat it or offset the ill effects of the piracy. There should be a royalty taked onto every Ipod, Ipad, cd/dvd burner, kindle, nook, and so forth. This would then be shared with the authors. It is what the govt did when cassette tapes first came on the market. For every cassette player and every cassette, there was a royalty tacked onto it. The publishing industry should be fighting for its authors.

    Comment by darkhorsebooks — December 4, 2010 @ 11:46 pm | Reply

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