What authors really earn: the problem with book piracy


I was shocked when an advertising friend sent me an unsolicited pirated PDF of Jacques Pauw’s new book, The President’s Keepers (Tafelberg, 2017).

When a second friend sent it to me thinking she was doing me a favour, I was horrified. And by the time a filmmaker I know dropped it in my inbox, I was just disappointed.

I know it’s not fair, but in my mind it’s somehow easier to forgive a real-estate agent or tax accountant for literary piracy than it is to forgive a book lover or creative person.

Look, nobody should steal anything; we all learnt that when we were two. We also learnt we shouldn’t call people names, but I guess not everything we learn sticks.

I hold creatives to a deeper understanding.

... your average traditionally published author only makes around 12% of the WHOLESALE price of the book

I have a friend who stumbled across her writing blatantly reposted word-for-word under another bloggers name. And an artist friend found his painting on a book cover, without permission or payment.

I’m also reminded of Khaya Dlanga, whose amazing memoir, To Quote Myself (Pan Macmillan, 2015) was stolen so often when it launched, that booksellers started keeping it behind the counter.

And now Fred Khumalo is having the same problem with his latest novel, Dancing The Death Drill (Umuzi, 2017), which is dancing right off shelves and into sticky fingers.

And then there’s my friend, the book-pirating filmmaker, I wonder how he’d feel if someone nicked his work?

Not every author earns as much as JK Rowling does, especially local authors

The truth is the author put in a lot of hard work, endangered his life to bring out this book and doesn’t deserve to be ripped off. Not again anyway.

After all, your average traditionally published author only makes around 12% of the WHOLESALE price of the book. If Jacques’ book retails for R287, the wholesale price is anything from 40% to 65% less. (Bookshops, distributers, warehouses and publishers all need their slice of the pie too.)

So an author only earns around R8 - R12 per copy sold.

Now consider that most books take anywhere from six months to ten years to write, sell, craft and publish, and gradually reduce R10 a copy over that period to see an author’s monthly salary. Craft beer and cronut-living it is not.

So it’s bad enough a flawed industry is ripping off authors, let’s not have the public do it too.

And beyond that, there’s the irony that many have pointed out on Twitter, of a book about corruption being so thoroughly stolen.

The average novel costs around R60 000 to publish.

So those are the obvious reasons not to illegally share or read a book, but if those aren’t convincing enough, here are another sixty thousand reasons.

READ MORE: EXTRACT: The President's Keepers - how the Guptas tried to capture Johan Booysen

How much does it cost to publish a book

The average novel costs around R60 000 to publish. That’s the sum of professional editing, typesetting, cover design, proof reading, paper costs, printing, marketing and distribution, as well as formatting and proofing for digital release.

Non-fiction can cost double that due to rewrite fees, photo research, permissions and of course lawyers.

Some publishers cut costs with economies of scale or by bringing processes in-house, so this is a rough thumbsuck that doesn’t take into account the rare author’s advance, salaries or the other hard costs involved in operating a publishing business.  

So publishing a book requires a really risky investment upfront.

It’s risky because not every book gets a cease and desist order or gets held up in parliament by the opposition leader, makes newspaper headlines, gets sold out, gets threatened with banning, and then proceeds to go to reprint on day two.

A book like Pauws only comes around once every five years, if that.

Not just in terms of it’s searing journalistic value and the importance of the veil it lifts on corruption and the impact it will have on bringing those guilty of corruption to book, but in financial terms too.

The man on the street is unlikely to fork out for it once they already have it for free.

A runaway success like The President’s Keepers gives the publishers a rare healthy profit margin, which they can reinvest into bringing out new authors.

It’s where the next Jacques Pauw or Khaya Dlanga or name you don’t even know you don’t even know yet will come from.

It’s potentially the starting point for the author of the next big thing in five year’s time, that sells out on day one and changes the face of publishing forever.

So how many of Jacques Pauw’s book sales do we think have been lost to piracy?

“Impossible to say but I'd think not many.

This was a social media political protest in defence of freedom of expression, and I'd say that many of the people who forwarded or received the file will buy the book anyway.”  Says Jeremy Boraine, head of publishing at Jonathan Ball Publishers. (Who didn’t publish this book, but has published many like it.)

Khaya Dlanga agrees, “I think it's impossible to say how many he will lose if he will, in fact lose any, because the losses are mainly digital.

On the contrary, I think readers or buyers of books who have the PDF sent to them will want to buy the book because reading it on your phone or laptop can be tiresome.

I think it will arouse curiosity.”

I don’t agree with Jeremy or Khaya but I hope they’re right. Just say 5000 combined paperback and Kindle sales are lost to piracy in the lifespan of this book.

Even just 3000, which is my estimate based on the global virality of the PDF shares I’ve seen and the fact that this is only the beginning of this book’s massive journey.

I also believe only a small percentage of dedicated bookie folk will really download the pirated version and buy the book down the line when it’s restocked.

The man on the street is unlikely to fork out for it once they already have it for free.

So say 3000 - 5000 sales are lost, that’s somewhere in the region of eight hundred thousand to one point four million rand.

There have to be at least two or three potential new bestselling authors who could have been discovered with that.

Paige Nick is an author, columnist and advertising copywriter. Some of her novels include A Million Miles from Normal, This Way Up, Pens Behaving Badly, Death by Carbs and her latest, Unpresidented

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