Piracy and Independent Authors

A lot of people have been talking recently about the Amazon crackdown on the exclusivity and priority pricing clauses in their online publishing contracts. If you’ve missed this or don’t understand what the big deal is, I wanted to talk about this as both someone who independently publishes my books and a practicing contracts attorney. This issue is also really personal to me since the whole reason I’ve published my novels is because I was pirated BEFORE I ever even put anything on Amazon.

First, I’d like to talk about how I got hooked on Austenesque books. For more than twelve years, I have been reading stories by the other authors represented here on Always Austen, as well as some other well know Austenesque writing groups, and could not have imagined that I would one day become one of them. If you don’t know me, I’m E.M. Storm-Smith. I’m a corporate attorney in Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; mother to a wonderful little guy; wife to the best friend I’ve ever known; and started my publishing journey in 2021! I grew up in a small town in central Indiana, and while I’ve moved around a lot since graduating high school, my family has now settled in the same county of my youth.  Before I became an attorney, I was a Nuclear Engineer civilian consultant for the US Navy. I got to work on nuclear powered submarines and aircraft carriers; designing and running tests of equipment alongside our impressive enlisted and commissioned sailors. Today, I work with large publicly traded companies and nonprofit organizations to help them meet their impact goals and sustainably grow financial assets to ensure longevity.

The biggest question now is how in the world did I come to write Austenesque novels?

It all began with a stolen book.

Specifically, someone tried to steal one of my books off of a free author website where I had been posting stories for like minded Jane Austen fans – Archive of Our Own for those into fandom and online fanfiction. But that’s not really where my writing journey started.

I started writing stories and fan fiction as an outlet after finishing law school. I had been in graduate school for four years, earning a masters degree and a JD, and had been required to read more than 100 pages then write case briefs & memos of upwards of 2,000 words per day.

Every day.

For Four Years.

Then I took the bar exam and it all stopped. The bar exam is in July, my job didn’t start until after Labor Day, and I found myself at home with an 18-month-old baby and NOTHING. TO. DO.

Fan fiction had been the thing I read for myself in between law treatises and SCOTUS cases. Most of the stories I followed (and still follow) were short stories, but a few of the authors on my AO3 feed would get into 50k+ word novels. Often, they would post a chapter or two per week. Just enough to feed my habit but not too much to keep me from sleeping all night. It was a wonderful escape.

So, when I was bored and anxious about whether or not I passed the bar exam, if my baby was healthy, how to lose the baby weight that was still stubbornly stuck to my midsection, and all the other destructive thoughts floating around my brain, I decided to start my own story. The first one was just a whim, but it filled the nap time hours with something stimulating and new.

I was terrible at first. (Maybe I still am, but I think I’ve done pretty well so far and only like 5 people have sent me ridiculous and hurtful emails about how much they hate my writing. We’ll talk review at another time.)

My engineering degree and law school training were not at all helpful for writing fiction prose. My tenses were all over the place. I had a serious telling v. showing problem. Typos, sentence fragments, run-ons, misused phrases and words, overly dramatic character reactions, clichés – you name the writing sin and I committed it.

But I was already hooked. My story was getting good reviews for its concept and gentle nudges regarding the technical writing problems. Each chapter I wrote and posted got better. Eventually, I had over 1,000 likes on my silly little story. The positive feedback was addictive. So, I kept writing the kinds of stories I liked to read and kept posting them for friends and family to find online. This went on for about six years.

Fast forward to March 2021. I sat down for the first time in probably six weeks (I’m not the best or most consistent social media user) and logged onto my author account to check comments and new followers to my stories. What was waiting for me was a torrent of messages from my readers telling me that one of my books had been stolen whole-hog and uploaded to Kindle Unlimited.

Some unknown person just downloaded an EPUB version of my whole work, changed the title, gave it a terrible cover and tried to sell my book on Amazon. I didn’t even know this had happened until about a month after it first went on sale. Thankfully my readers and online friends were quicker than I was. The bootlegged book was taken down from Kindle within a couple of days based on the nearly 100 comments between Amazon and Goodreads tagging it as a copyright infringement.

I probably should have been mad. Maybe one day I will be mad, but what I really felt was flattered.

Someone thought my story was good enough to try and make money off of it. Maybe I could do the same. Maybe I have what it takes to actually do this thing for real. Funny enough, what I was most mad about was the zero effort put into the bootlegged book. They just changed the title to something trite and used an ugly photo for the cover that had nothing to do with the story at all. I felt like my baby, which had taken the better part of two years to write, deserved better!

So, I decided to take the plunge and publish myself.

In my day job as a corporate attorney, I had actually once helped a client and good friend set up her own publishing company to self-publish her books (check out the Calculated Series by K.T. Lee available at all major ebook retailers – https://ktleeauthor.com/ ). I was already familiar with the contracts for most of the major online book retailers and ebook distributors. Plus, I have the background in intellectual property and copyright law needed to file for my own IP protection. I am tenacious (stubborn), detail orientated (perfectionist), hard working (obsessed), and like a new challenge (has a hard time doing the same task twice).

I could do this!!

Spoiler alert – it was so much harder than I expected, but still really worth it.

Now, fast forward to 2023. I’ve launched my debut novel and am working on finishing and publishing the second. I still write for my AO3 community and have been watching those same authors who inspired me so many years ago to start writing myself get caught in the Amazon Indie Author crackdown.

See, much like someone was able to take my novel published on a free website and change the format then try and sell it on Amazon, those same pirates take novels off of Amazon and upload them to other websites, some free some subscription paid services. For authors who publish in Kindle Unlimited (“KU”), this is a huge problem because the contract with Amazon demand absolute exclusivity, meaning if they find your work (or a substantially similar version) ANYWHERE on the internet, Amazon will take down your work and block your author account from uploading any more works.

Even for authors who aren’t part of KU, the ebook publishing contract with Amazon demands that Amazon gets the BEST retail pricing available anywhere. So, you cannot have your Amazon published ebook for free somewhere else, and if you post a sale at Kobo and Apple Books, you better have the same sale price on Amazon for those same days. They really aren’t joking about this and it makes it VERY hard to keep track of your sales.

Amazon’s response to the rampant piracy is not to try and help independent authors and small publishers combat the piracy websites, instead they are taking down the authors and de-platforming the books which have been victims of piracy. Destroying those authors’ income streams.

And before you tell me to just no put my books on Amazon, move to a new platform, that’s a hugely unrealistic expectation. Personally, 98.7% of all my sales have been on Amazon. I’m a former engineer, I’ve got the spreadsheet showing every single sale I’ve ever had and done the math. The reality is that Amazon has a huge Monopoly on e-book sales, downloads, and page-reads. For small publishers and independent authors, there is no replacement for Amazon’s reach and income. So we have to push through this issue and try and force Amazon to change their business model related to catching piracy and distinguishing legitimate authors from fraudsters.

Good luck, right!?

Well, there is some hope. The Authors Guild of America has been aggressively going after piracy sites and has managed to get some of the oldest, biggest ones taken down, or their domains restricted in the US. Unfortunately, though, the damages awarded, in one case totaling over $7M, are pretty judgement proof. The operators of these sites are often oversees in countries without judgement treaties with the US, meaning that a US judgement cannot be enforced where the defendants have actual monetary assets.

Also, for every major site that gets taken down, 5 more pop-up. Just go to Instagram or TikTok and there is a whole segment dedicated to teaching people where to get books for free on these piracy sites.

Now, I want to say this exactly once – I am aware and sympathetic to the fact that not everyone can afford to purchase all of their books new. If you cannot afford books and you want to read voraciously, I support the best of all the governmental institutions in the whole world – LIBRARIES!! Please go get a FREE library card from your local library and get access to their online ebook listings as well as all the other amazing free offerings from the amazing libraries around the US. Librarians are some of the best of all people, up there with elementary school teachers and pediatric oncologists. And every independent author I personally know supports their books being available in Libraries for free to the user. Disclaimer – my novel is not available from US libraries yet because I have not yet gone through the verification process and gotten a Library author number. It’s on the to-do-list. Is this hypocritical? Maybe. My only excuse is that being an independent author means I’ve had to navigate all these different systems by myself and I do still have a full time job and kids under 10.

So where does this leave us? If you are a reader who loves the independent stories that get passed over by major publishing houses for being too niche, please take a moment to make sure that you’re getting your books from legitimate sources. And if you cannot afford your book reading habit by purchasing all your titles new from a book retailer, look for which ones you can get from libraries to reduce the harm to your pocketbook. Maybe advocate for supporting independent authors and artists if your friends, family, or other people in your sphere of influence talk about using “free ebook sites” that are piracy sites.

Anyway, that’s all from me for this month. Maybe I’ll get that second book finished sometime in this century and actually sent off to my distributor 🙂

Come find me in all the regular places!

8 responses to “Piracy and Independent Authors”

  1. Buturot Avatar

    This is very enlightening.Thank you for sharing. That is really sad Amazon has that policy. (Since they had monopolized the market …one would think they would do more).

    1. EM Storm-Smith Avatar
      EM Storm-Smith

      Because they have a monopoly, they don’t HAVE to do more. I’ve written whole papers on why Amazon is in violation of the US Antitrust laws with how they act towards independent sellers. If there was any competition in this space, the distributors would have financial interest and pressure to be part of the solution.

  2. Glynis Avatar

    I can only imagine just how frustrating and annoying it must be trying to fight your way through all these obstacles! At one time I assumed you just sat there, wrote a story and published it. Hmmmm! Editing, formatting, finding a cover, preventing theft of said story, dealing with unfair rules! You really have to be dedicated to deal with it all. I get so angry when people think they have a right to steal someone else’s hard work instead of earning money for themselves. I’m not an author myself (I don’t have the imagination or the determination) but I do appreciate the efforts you go to to share your work. Thank you.

    1. EM Storm-Smith Avatar
      EM Storm-Smith

      I’m quite sure you have the imagination and a story we’d all love! but there is quite a bit of stubbornness involved in getting to the end of the process 🙂

  3. Alice McVeigh Avatar

    What I’ve heard is, you’re going to be pirated and not even Amazon can begin to keep up. So I googled one of my Austenesque books and yep, I’d been pirated. So I looked online for advice and did what Jane Friedman, as I recall, advised. First, I paid to have all my books copyrighted at the Library of Congress (cost: £60 each or so, took three months before they did it though). And second, I instantly got a neighbour/lawyer to write a ‘cease and desist’ notice to the two sites for free (she’s lovely).

    But her kindness did me no good because, last time I checked, my book was still pirated. 🙁

    So, my question is, since you’re a lawyer and a brainbox, have I wasted my time/money with the Library of Congress? Because Friedman – I’m sure it was Friedman – and she knows a LOT – says, if it comes to the law, even though nobody of course HAS to register their book’s copyright, registering it can help. And if there’s any compensation going when these disgusting sites get closed down, authors who bothered are likelier to be compensated etc. Not that I’m expecting compensation… or, as you sagely remark, all these mushrooming sites to be taken down, either!! XXAlice

    1. EM Storm-Smith Avatar
      EM Storm-Smith

      I’m so sorry your work has been pirated! These websites are not at all concerned with the US or EU copyright laws and only major enforcement from international authors organizations like the Alliance of Independent Authors will make any real headway on the problem of piracy.

      The question of whether it’s a waste of money to register with either the USPTO or the US Library of Congress, that’s something every lawyer and author has a different opinion on. For me, from the perspective of protecting yourself against someone trying to claim your work in the future and keeping you from being able to distribute, sell, reproduce, or control your art (at least control against people who care about acting inside the bounds of legal society), I think registration is a good thing.

      I’ve spent the $60 and registered all my finished works with the USPTO to get a copyright registration. If you ever do get into an argument with Amazon or another distributor about your books, you can send them the copyright registration, which contains a copy of the actual book, and prove that you own the right to that book. It might still be considered a breach of their contract to have it up for free on these sites, but there’s a place to start with on the argument that you are the victim of a crime.

      1. Alice McVeigh Avatar
        Alice McVeigh

        THANKS for your expert, lawyer’s, opinion. I’m really grateful. XXAlice

  4. cindie snyder Avatar
    cindie snyder

    Wow! I didn’t know that kind of thing happened with books! Some people just have no respect at all! Hopefully all will go well for got from now on. You certainly have an active life! Can’t wait for your second book hopefully it comes along for you.

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