Thanks to the Kindle and Nook readers, electronic books have come into prominence in the last few years, though eBooks have been around much longer – for more than a decade. I have been fortunate to witness the birth of the contemporary eBook publishing industry as an author, editor, and publisher, and am amazed by its growth. Many people I know who wouldn’t touch a book I wrote because it was only available in eBook format now ask me where they can purchase it for their digital readers. While I’m happy to benefit from this change in mindset, though, I’ve noticed many fellow authors currently suffer certain downsides to the ease of electronic publishing, namely piracy.

Thanks to social media, people can share content easily and more quickly. In seconds I can post a video to my Facebook wall or Twitter feed and send that information to thousands of potential viewers. Through an arrangement with author and publishers, retailers like Barnes and Noble and Amazon allow customers to “lend” digital books to friends, too, and libraries are coming to adopt methods of lending eBooks to registered patrons. While some authors support these practices in hopes of attracting large readership, the discovery of a book uploaded to a torrent site or other type of content database is likely to inspire a stronger, more negative reaction. Sharing content legitimately through a controlled environment can benefit an author, but taking somebody’s copyrighted material without their permission and uploading to a site where people can access it without compensating the author amounts to piracy, which is illegal.

A person who willingly takes a digital book – be it from a known author like Stephen King or somebody just starting out in publishing – and makes it available for mass download may think there’s no harm in doing this. The author got paid for the work already, right? Publishers are pretty solvent, too, so a few downloads isn’t going to hurt business.

Not exactly.

It is true some authors are paid advances on royalties when they sign book contracts. However, authors with smaller publishers receive no money up front and therefore receive only their royalties on a monthly, quarterly, or even yearly basis. There are authors who work regular jobs in order to pay bills, while a small percentage can actually live on the money they earn from sales. The money, naturally, is paid out by publishers, and when piracy becomes too rampant it could disturb this order.

Let’s say you upload an eBook that normally retails for $4.99, and the author receives forty percent of each sale. the course of a week, five thousand people download the book. The author has potentially lost several thousand dollars in income. To a person who needs to pay bills, that’s a lot of money! I’ve personally known writers hit hard enough by piracy that they chose to quit writing altogether, and that robs all readers of books they hope to one day enjoy.

Now, let’s say you are an author and you discover your book on a site that is not authorized to sell your book, or perhaps it has your book as a free download. As the copyright holder, you must contact the website immediately with a take-down notice, informing the owners that they have violated the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Some database sites may have a procedure for copyright holders to follow, so be sure to follow the instructions so that your books are removed as soon as possible. If you are not certain that your work has been pirated, you will want to check your name and book titles regularly in search engines. Adding words like “torrent” to the search may refine the results.

Digital piracy may never go away entirely, but as people learn how piracy directly affects people who create the content that is shared hopefully we can find a better solution that benefits everybody.

Kathryn Lively is a freelance writer specializing in articles on book publishers and Virginia web design. She is also an award-winning mystery author.