The OF Blog: The ethics of "free" e-books

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The ethics of "free" e-books

I rarely read e-books if I can help it, mostly because I've yet to plunk down the money to buy a portable reader (large as my 19" widescreen monitor is, it isn't conducive for reading PDFs for more than 10-15 minutes at a time). However, I recently did a search and found a "free" .zip file e-book. It was for the Spanish translation of Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski's Blood of Elves, called Sangre de los Elfos. I had just placed an international order (setting me back almost $50) for the Spanish translation of its sequel, Tiempo de Odio, as I wanted to have the sequel on hand when the English translation comes out in the UK in September.

I very rarely am tempted in the days of Itunes and other music services to go the "bootleg" route; I like the idea of cheaper payments that do at least put some money into the artists' hands. Same goes with books, as excerpts and the occasional full "free" e-book made available by the authors themselves usually leads me to buy the physical copy once it is available. This certainly shall be the case with the Sapkowski, as I like his first two collections (The Last Wish in English, La espada del destino in Spanish) enough to consider paying hefty import fees for owning the entire Witcher saga first in Spanish, then later in English.

Of course there is that twinge of guilt associated with finding this in bootleg format, even though in two months I'll have bought the English translation. But part of me also thinks that as an evaluation tool (and yes, what I've read so far confirms my high expectations) it is a cheap, reliable way of allowing readers to judge for themselves, in lieu of the actual thumbing through the book in the bookstore option, just how valuable the book may or may not be for them.

Recently, there have been postings by a few authors about how e-book availability of their books for various promotions (Tor's just-concluded Watch the Skies program and the one Neil Gaiman had for American Gods) has affected their sales. I am curious, however, about the reader impact. Are the majority of readers of e-books purchasing them or getting them for free in either a legal or bootleg fashion? If they get it for free, do they read the entire book in lieu of purchasing the novel, or is it used (as in my case) as an evaluative tool that then often leads to a purchase of a physical copy?

Just curious, as always.


Dark Wolf said...

I usually run like hell from e-books. With all the sincerity I don't like them. I'm spending too much time in front of the PC without them anyway.
And since when I discovered reading in my childhood I couldn't match the feeling of opening a book, going through her pages, reading it. E-books are so soulless, they don't give me any feelings, beside disconfort. I add to this the fact that when I finish reading paper books I get feelings toward the book itself, rather than a relief that escaped from the monitor screen.
And as for portable reader I never been fond to gadgets, beside a walkman I didn't buy any :)

Larry said...

Well, I'm hesitant to read them except as a last recourse due to eye strain, etc., but in this particular case, I did so only so I could be ready to launch into the next book in the sequence when it arrives and also be familiar with the story when the English translation is published. Otherwise, I'd wait a few years before attempting any other e-book reads because of the eye strain factor.

Vanin said...

As someone who recently finally started reading e-books, instead of simply collecting them, I have to admit that majority of those I have are pirate versions.

Having said that, I also must admit that it's been months and months since I last downloaded an illegal copy of ebook.
My attitude changed probably a year or so ago and now, I only download legally available versions from publishers websites (luckily for me, more and more of them decide to make them available for free). I try to be as honest as possible - even though it would be very easy for me to enter false data and receive Eos free ebooks, I decided not to. Just because I believe it would be morally wrong.

In general, I tend to collect them for quick reference purposes, which means I have a real copy on my bookshelf.
After reading Watt's 'Blindsight' I decided to buy a copy of a book (translated into Polish). After the first dozens of pages of Tor's free 'Old Man's War', I seriously consider buying my own copy, same for 'Spin'.

With the ever increasing number of free ebooks and short stories available online, pirating no longer makes sense, IMO. Especially since I have the decreasing amount of free time I can allocate for reading.

Cheryl said...

I very much doubt that the majority of ebook readers are paying for them, but I'm not sure that's the right question to be asking. Given that anyone who is sufficiently determined can probably get a pirate copy, the question ought to be, "are enough people paying for ebooks (or buying paper copies afterwards) for the authors to make a living?"

Liviu said...

Ebooks are tricky to discuss for many reasons - considering that now you can buy any book used for a lot less than new - after a while but not that long - I do not see that big an economic impact from ebooks as opposed to used books when discussing author's income and such. Actually ebooks properly handled - and basically only Baen and several smaller outfits knows how to handle them - add income in a way or another, otherwise I would say they are just a missed opportunity for now.

Hard to say what the future holds, but Eric Flint is the one whose thoughts expressed in The Salvos Against Big Brothers columns are most pertinent in my opinion.

Ebooks are just another way of reading books and I sometimes read them, sometimes read print, sometimes both. I do not like the current dedicated devices, just use my Nokia 770 Internet tablet or my iTouch

Larry said...


I know the feeling. This is the first time for me and probably the last, because I know the profit margins are much narrower on books and in my case, it's an out-of-market book that I'm sampling in advance of the release here in a different format.


That is a good question, one that I wished I could have remembered to ask last night when I wrote this post.


Good point about the used books. I do buy some used books, but usually of books that are hard to find new in the first place, again for reasons that include providing the author his her/his $1-2 of royalties (although I think most publishers don't recoup their advances on many of those books).

Jen said...

I'm a pirate, I confess. Well, I used to be more of one than I am now, but since I still have the e-books I guess I still qualify for the title. And I'm not sorry. When my alternative was reading a pirated copy or not reading a book at all, I'd go for the e-version.

Do I buy them afterwards? No, I usually don't, unless I feel I'll reread them. One of the first (series of) e-books I read was the Amber chronicles, and when the opportunity came I jumped and got the omnibus (which is still one of my favorite books). This was back when Amazon had a ban on Romania, not shipping anything here because of credit card fraud, so it was a pretty complicated process that took 6 months after they managed to lose the package on the way.

Nowadays, I mostly get books if I'm very eager to read them (and I'll probably buy the dead tree version too - i.e. the latest book in a series) or books that I'm unsure I'll like. For "I'm sure I'll like it but I don't have to read it *now*" I just wait for a discount or drop helpful hints to my friends :D I don't like buying books I might not enjoy, so I try to go through the friends route and, if that fails, e-books.

Now... my reasons for going more or less legal are more available books and laziness.

More available books = friends coming from the US/UK (no shipping tax on the books - I haaate paying as much money on taxes as on the books), and a large number of unread (mostly) second hand books acquired over the years.

Laziness = I have an ebook reader but I am too lazy to transfer books to it (yeah, *that* lazy), plus the inability to tear myself away from the internet to enjoy a book on my computer. (I read A LOT on the computer for 2-3 years, with no problem, and it doesn't bother me/my eyes one bit... but I had a dial-up connection back then and nothing better to do with my PC.)

As for the argument that you shouldn't read illegal e-books because publishing companies offer them for free... puh-lease. I've seen one interesting book offered this year (Karen Traviss - available only for US residents, thankyouverymuch) and a couple of "maybe I'll read someday" from Tor. I prefer to read books I'm *interested* in, not what some publishing house decides it's going to promote.

Bottom line: if I like an e-book, free or pirated, enough to think I'll re-read it, I'll buy the dead tree. If not, I won't.

I also regularly download pirated copies of books I own for one simple reason: Ctrl+F, also known as "find". Computers rock my world, I used to flip through pages for hours until I found a half-remembered passage.

Perhaps I'll change my mind when I earn more money, but that's the situation at the moment.
(Maybe someone with a lot of spare time could make a comparison of the sums available for leisure and culture in different countries? I'm sure that people with more money to spend on such things actually buy more books.)

This was a long comment that probably got me on the wrong side of many people, but oh well. One shouldn't be ashamed of one's roots and all.

Larry said...

CTRL-F is indeed an advantage for having e-books, I'll agree. As for the other reasons, understandable as well, which is closely related to my own rationale for getting a pirated e-book of the Spanish translation of Sapkowski - it just isn't available here in regular stores or even on Amazon. And Lord knows I understand how having a fast internet connection can be a deterrent in regards to reading e-books on a computer screen :P

Liviu said...

The big advantages for ebooks are portability and instant availability; there are quite a few e-books that got released at 12 am in a particular day and I stayed late to buy and read some at least.

On my system I have one monitor out of five dedicated to reading so doing other stuff is not a problem.

But I love print books too and overall I probably read 70% print these days.

As mentioned, regarding piracy and stuff, this is something that should be viewed in the whole context of author compensation and there are no simple answers. I've been reading thousands of books for free or bought used before I even heard of ebooks since I am a big library user and I used to check out any used book stores all the time where I lived before the net made book buying trivial, and of course even the chains have the bargain rack on which authors get no royalties, but I also buy tons of new print books as well as ebooks too...

Larry said...

I agree it's a difficult issue when considered at length. On occasion, I've been known to buy extra copies of books for friends of mine who live overseas who would have to spend a huge fortune to sample the books I get as free review copies, for example. But other times, it's the used route because a book is out of print or much more expensive than the used alternative. In cases like that, e-books can make for a more affordable way of sampling an author's work and in gauging if it'll later be worth $30 or so to buy a hardcover edition of the next book in the series.

Jen said...

Truth be told, as bad as it sounds, I don't give a damn about an author's money. It's my money I'm concerned about, and if buying an used copy or pirating will save me some... When I do buy books is because *I* want to - they have pretty covers, or interesting illustrations/layout (i.e. City of Saints and Madmen would lose half its appeal on my e-reader), or I like the idea of having it available without having to go through a computer.

I do like buying books at launches or signings - it's more personal and I know the author will like to see people appreciate him.

Larry said...

Agreed about the personal bit. I think I've bought about a half-dozen or more limited, signed editions this year alone, since for some odd reason most SF authors don't come to the third largest city in the US for publishing firms.

gav (nextread) said...

There are e-books and there are e-books. The difference are the ones that I'll buy and the ones that I won't. The ones I'll buy are non-fiction, usually on very small niche or by a writer who's ideas I really really want to read more of like Zen to Done, or Todoodlist but if it's a novel forget it. They might be good tasters but if I want to read an author I'm going to buy it or get a review copy and I must buy at least 40 or 50 books a year.

I think I'm in heavy user category as most people only buy that book, whatever it is, so they have something to read on the beach, train, plane etc.

I might change my mind as the Sony Reader is coming to the UK, but I seriously doubt it. But then at 30 I'm not 100% web connected so maybe it appeals to those who are younger and spend most of their time connected?

Maica said...

Okay, I confess I've been reading ebooks for a year now and wow, all I can say is that I'm very grateful for it. I've discovered authors I would never have read if it were not for the free albeit illegal ebooks available on the net. I've been an avid reader since I was 8 years old and I've just turned 22 this year. I've been reading English books since I was ten. Throughout those years, all books I've read I've paid for, or borrowed from friend which was very rare, my friends don't read books for fun. We don't have public libraries so as you can imagine that it was a very expensive hobby for a poor family like mine. So ebooks for me are God send. But still, always at the back of my mind, is my conscience troubling me and that which urged me to buy the physical copy when I had enough money, which I must admit gets harder to come by as times goes by.
Well, to make it short, I will save money to buy a book I like but those I don't like will have to suffer. I won't stop reading ebooks because the alternative is to not read at all. But I am making an effort to support the industry.

Hope I made sense. ^^;

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