(exclamation points, on the other hand…)
There’s a conversation I’ve had before. In terms of authors I fall on the weak end of the “Boo, Piracy!” side, and I especially fall on the extremely strong end of “Boo, DRM!” The basic gist of the conversation was something like this: “Well, you might not think it’s a big deal now, but wait until you see your book on the piracy sites, with all those downloads listed.” Well. Okay. I’ve waited. Now here I am. I am officially a published author. I officially have to worry about whether my sales numbers will be good enough, and whether they’ll justify another contract. I have, in fact, lost sleep over this.
You know what makes my head hurt when I worry about sales numbers and contract renewals? The fact that one of my local Borders didn’t get their shipment of my books in for two weeks, and worrying that this might be more than just a local error. You know what will make people buy my books, faster and with greater likelihood, than if I spent 20 hours a week filing takedown notices? Their finding my book in Target where they stopped by to get lightbulbs.
My guess is that maybe, maybe, 1% of the people who download my book will actually read it, and maybe, maybe, 1% of the ones who actually read it would have purchased it. I absolutely despise these “estimates” of the cost of piracy that just take the number of downloads and multiply it by the cost of the book, because that has no basis in reality.
The most recent such estimate has hit the twitter/authorosphere by means of Publisher’s Weekly, in which Attributor estimates that piracy costs the industry “as much as” $3 billion in lost sales. Already, this has been turned into “pirates cost the industry $3 billion!” Sugar plums dance in heads, as people imagine what their sales would be like with another 6 zeroes attached to the end.
But the study (you can read the whole thing here) isn’t worth the paper it isn’t printed on, and its findings have been lied about by the very people who ran the study. It is so egregious, that I am angry just thinking about it.
So let’s start with first things first: Note the source. Attributor is not a scientific outfit. They are not economists who have been trained to determine this sort of thing. What “Attributor” is, is a fee-charging service that tries to stamp out piracy for you. This means that Attributor has an incentive–a financial one–to convince authors and publishers that there is money to be made in stamping out piracy. Beware anyone with murky motivations.
Now let’s move on to the methodology.
Attributor estimated the cost of piracy at $3 billion dollars using the following methodology:
- It used the titles that it was tracking–that is, the titles where people had paid it money to hunt down and remove illegal copies. These titles are not listed in its methodology, but Publisher’s Weekly listed them as titles like, “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and “Angels and Demons.” Not precisely representative of book downloads in general.
- Somehow, it figured out what “market share” each potential hosting site represented. The methodology does not explain how it figured that.
- Four of those sites show how many “downloads” a title has. Using the estimated market share in part 2, Attributor stated that these sites represented 36.4% of all downloads. So it figured out the number of downloads by taking the number of downloads from those four sites, and dividing that number by 0.364. This gave them 9 million copies of books sold.
- Attributor looked up prices for these books, and multiplied price by downloads. This gave them a figure of $380 million.
- It then estimated that the 913 titles it was tracking represented 13.5% of the book publishing market. Again, no explanation is given as to how they measured this. By number of titles? (not possible; there are more than 10,000 books available for purchase). By percentage of books sold, per BookScan? I don’t really know where they get this number, but it’s pretty clear that the titles listed by Publisher’s Weekly represent very, very popular titles, and I’m not sure it’s fair to extrapolate from one set of books to the other, especially since their own findings demonstrated that there was variability in download rate for different types of books. In any event, they took $380 million and divided it by 0.135, which gave them $2.8 billion.
- They added $200,000,000 to the number to make it nice and round. No, I’m not joking. That gives you an idea about precisely how scientifically accurate this study is.
These numbers are useless. In the study’s methodology, it acknowledges that these numbers cannot even attempt to estimate financial loss:
(study here; page 5).
Which, of course, is why, Attributor, in announcing its findings, announced it thusly:
You know what I call that?
I call that dishonesty. The numbers themselves are drawn from nowhere, are unexplained, and use estimates that the survey methodology itself acknowledges render it useless for the determination of loss. But Attributor–who makes its money from publishers scared of piracy–has itself used those numbers to claim something that they can’t actually claim, and those numbers are now being disseminated around the web by people who call this fact.
Piracy is bad. But you know what? So is a dishonest representation of those findings, especially when those findings then become part of the debate about what should be done about piracy.
I am firmly opposed to piracy. But I am also firmly opposed to lies about piracy, and this is a lie, both in the “damned statistics” meaning of the word, and in the “knowing misstatement of the truth” sense of the word.
Shame on you, Attributor, for your misleading press release, and for your blog post stating in certain terms what you, yourself, internally said you hadn’t even attempted to estimate.