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Far From Flatbush

The Book-Piracy Pandemic

In 2013, best-selling author and then president of The Authors Guild Scott Turow published a major op-ed in The New York Times titled "The Slow Death of the American Author." In it, he said that on the three most popular search engines, of the first 28 listings in a search for "Scott Turow free e-books," 24 of them were pirate sites, all with paid ads appearing in the margins.

He compared this to a man standing on a street corner telling people where to buy stolen goods and collecting a small fee for his services, and also noted that piracy had virtually destroyed book publishing in Russia, where it "goes almost completely unpoliced."

In the two years since Turow’s essay appeared, the situation has grown significantly worse—it’s an epidemic that’s become a pandemic. I became aware of this about two months ago, when a flurry of publicity about Beaver Street led not to a modest uptick in sales (as might have been the case a year ago) but to an avalanche of e-mail “alerts” for sites offering free downloads of my books, one of which, Nowhere Man, isn’t even available as a legitimate e-book. At least one new pirate site sprang up every day—sometimes two-dozen new ones appeared in a single week.

Often, I’d click on a site just to see what it looked like, and many of them looked as slick as Amazon. One site, based in Russia, offered a forum where people could request pirated editions of specific titles, some of which they were willing to pay for! And though I am curious to see how good the pirated editions of my books are, I’ve never downloaded one, as this seems like an excellent way to get a computer virus.

In fact, I no longer click on the alerts, as the last time I did so, the link brought me to an attack site that uploaded malware to my computer.

As if book publishing weren’t discouraging enough on its own demerits, the piracy pandemic and the associated erosion of income has left me wondering why I should spend years writing another book, when, even if I’m lucky enough to get it published, it’ll be pirated—instantaneously if it’s popular enough.

What’s especially infuriating is that while U.K. Internet providers have blocked all “adult” sites, most of which are completely legal (you have to ask your IP to give you access), and search engine companies have made it harder to find certain adult sites, they claim there’s nothing they can do about piracy—that it’s a “whack-a-mole” proposition.

Which is true. But pirate sites are easy to recognize. They always contain such terms as “download,” “free,” “e-book,” and “pdf,” and often have “ru” (Russia) in the URL. Why a search engine can’t block these sites is beyond my comprehension. I can only assume they have no interest in doing so—because they continue to make money, unlike the authors whom they’re slowly driving out of business, just as Turow predicted.
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