Book Pirates Buy More Books, and Other Unintuitive Book Piracy Facts

If you’ve been on book Twitter or BookTube or the bookish internet in general long enough, you know there are some perennial discussions. Can you separate the artist from the art? How should you address diversity in your reading life? And, of course, what are the ethics of book piracy (illegally downloading books)? These are all complicated questions — which are usually reduced to screaming matches on Twitter.

Generally, when it comes to book piracy, you get roughly three camps:

  1. People who argue that pirating a book is theft, that you’re taking money from authors, and that authors suffer because of it. Piracy means a loss of a sale, and those sales not only affect an author’s income (which is usually low, so it’s noticeable), but also whether they’re able to secure future publishing contracts.
  2. People arguing that piracy is wrong if you can afford the book or have access to it at the library, but that there are times when it’s the only option. This camp usually talks about the many places in the world where libraries aren’t fully funded or accessible. Their country may also not have foreign rights to those titles, making them impossible to buy legally. Those readers who can’t afford the book and don’t have library or legal access, they argue, should be able to pirate the book.
  3. A much smaller faction of people argue that information should always be free, anyone should be able to pirate a book guilt-free, and also that authors either don’t need the money (patently untrue for most) or that authors shouldn’t care about money (yikes).

In this back and forth about book piracy, there seems to be one central concern that is rarely addressed directly: how many pirated books represent lost sales? Many in the first camp make it seem like close to 100%, while pro-piracy arguments can frame it as if it’s closer to zero. Obviously, neither of those are likely to be correct — but what is the answer? This is, of course, a difficult question to answer, because it’s a statistic that’s likely impossible to ascertain. Recently, though, we have gotten some real numbers about book piracy that could add nuance to this conversation.

Immersive Media & Books 2020 is a survey of more than 4,000 U.S. Americans funded in part by the American Library Association. It is comprised entirely of people who have engaged with a book in some way in the last year, either by reading it, gifting it, buying it, using it for research, etc. This survey ended up with tons of fascinating information that is well worth diving into, but I wanted to direct your attention to a section that immediately got my antennae up titled “Pirates Buy More Books Than the General Survey Population.”

“Surprisingly, pirates avidly buy books,” the survey shares. 14.4% of respondents admitted to engaging in book piracy. They are younger than the average survey population and more of them are men and people of color, but the most unifying trait they have is that book pirates are avid readers — and they buy more books than the average respondent: “Compared to the general survey population, a higher percentage of book pirates during COVID are buying more ebooks (38.7%), audiobooks (27.1%) and print books (33.7%).” They’re also much more likely than general survey respondents to buy books in multiple formats: 41.5% do! During the pandemic, book pirates also increased their purchasing of newspaper and magazine subscriptions.

They also are more likely to be library power users. 77.2% own a library card, and they borrow more than the average survey population, including ebooks (30.1%), audiobooks (31.6%), and print books (28.5%). Book pirates often use the library for discovering books that they go on to purchase: “58.4% of pirates bought a book at the bookstore that they first discovered at a library. 54.3% of pirates bought a book online that they first found in a library (compared to 35.9% of the general survey population).” Many turn to pirating books when they aren’t available at the library, especially Gen Z respondents.

Book pirates are almost twice as likely to read or download free books for marketing promotions, and they’re also more likely to post a book review on social media (59.9%) and more than twice as likely to read fan fiction (27.4% do, as compared to 12.2% of the general survey population). This suggests that book pirates are some of the most passionate readers online, actively promoting titles and fandoms.

This isn’t the first survey to suggest that piracy isn’t a simple case of lost sales. In fact, a €360,000 ($430,000) study by the European Union in 2013 found that outside of new blockbuster movie releases, there was “no robust statistical evidence of displacement of sales by online piracy,” including across books, video games, and movies. In fact, they found it might even help video game sales.

One writer did some back of the napkin math that suggested that piracy can help boost his books’ sales, though that is if several assumptions hold true. Regardless, the idea that book piracy is singlehandedly dooming the publishing industry doesn’t hold up against any of the studies that I could find that actually look at pirate and consumer behavior — but if you know of conflicting studies, I’d love to read them!

Interestingly, this depiction of book pirates doesn’t match with any of the main camps’ models. This took place in U.S., so the arguments about book piracy being justified in the global south in communities without access to other means of reading books don’t apply here. These are also people who, for the most part, don’t lack access to a library: they use them frequently. They’re also not impoverished: they often buy books in multiple formats, and they buy more books than the average reader. On the other hand, that also means they’re not thieves who refuse to ever give publishers money. The survey suggests that book pirates are absolutely willing to purchase if they believe the value is worth it.

Immersive Media & Books 2020 provides a radical suggestion to publishers that they should use pirates to their advantage by offering free downloads of books that come equipped with tracking software, so that they can gather data: How far are people reading in the book? Where do they stop reading? How many people actually open the book? (Etc.) I’m not sure I can see that taking off, but I hope that this survey helps to add some depth and clarity to discussions about book pirates. It turns out, they’re passionate readers who regularly use the library, buy subscriptions to media, and purchase more books than the average reader.

So next time you stumble into an argument about book piracy on Twitter, see if you can sprinkle some facts into the discussion. It may not stop the screaming match, but it just might add some nuance.