19 Comments

Summary:

The story of how a children’s book with an unusual title made it to number one on the Amazon bestsellers’ list before it was even published reinforces a lesson for content publishers of all kinds: sometimes what looks like piracy is actually marketing for your content.

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The book-publishing business has been in a bit of a tizzy recently over the explosive rise of a children’s book up the e-book bestsellers’ list at Amazon. But this isn’t just any children’s book. For one thing, it has an unusual title — it’s called “Go The F**k To Sleep.” But even more interesting is that the book hit No. 1 on the Amazon list, and it hasn’t even been published yet. How it managed to do that reinforces a lesson for content publishers of all kinds, and that lesson is: Sometimes “piracy” can not only be your friend, it can be a crucial tool in building awareness of your content.

The book in question, written by Adam Mansbach, started as a joke — a humorous comment made by the author on Facebook when his young daughter wouldn’t go to sleep. But the response to the joke was so overwhelming that Mansbach, a poet and visiting professor at Rutgers University, decided to turn it into a real book with elegant illustrations by Ricardo Cortes. The book was promoted as a “pre-sale” by Amazon, and was expected to be available in the fall (the publication date has since been moved up to June).

What happened next was fairly predictable. Some of those who had PDF copies of the e-book, whether advance proofs sent to the publisher or review copies, uploaded them to the Internet, just as review versions of movies often find their way onto file-sharing sites within days of a movie’s release. That the book began as a viral joke on Facebook no doubt helped build the buzz about it on social networks, and gradually, pirated copies started to emerge and circulate to fill that demand.

The publisher says it tried everything it could to stamp out these unauthorized copies, but it was unable to stop the flood — and it’s a good thing it couldn’t, since the book rocketed to the No. 1 slot. (It has since fallen to No. 2.) Although it remains to be seen how many books get sold when the official version is available, there’s no question that the publisher and the author have effectively gotten millions of dollars worth of free marketing for their title. (The publisher admits it has spent virtually nothing on marketing so far, but has already boosted the size of the print run.)

What some call “piracy” can actually be free marketing, as noted by some prominent authors. Neil Gaiman, for example, has said he was initially outraged by unauthorized sharing of his books, and tried to help his publisher stop it, but eventually he came to the conclusion that what piracy really amounts to is “people lending books.” As he put it in a video interview earlier this year:

[U]nderstanding that gave me a whole new idea of the shape of copyright and what the web was doing. Because the biggest thing the web was doing is allowing people to hear things, allowing people to read things, allowing people to see things they might never have otherwise seen. And I think, basically, that’s an incredibly good thing.

Another prominent example of this is Brazilian author Paulo Coelho. The well-known fantasy author doesn’t just take piracy in stride — he has actually assisted people in pirating his own books, by uploading copies of them to file-sharing networks (as has Gaiman). In the case of one book, doing this with a Russian translation helped build awareness of his other books in that country, where Coelho now sells millions of copies. He pirated his own works over the protests of his publisher, but the outcome was spectacularly successful.

Obviously, not everyone can benefit from having their works pirated in this way. Coelho and Gaiman could because the unauthorized copies helped to stoke the market for their other titles, whereas a new author might not be able to recoup the potential loss of revenue.

It’s not just books that can benefit from this kind of strategy, however. As Mike Masnick at Techdirt has noted, some of the most popular movies on file-sharing networks have gone on to sell record amounts in their traditional formats as well. In some cases, it seems, the availability of low-quality copies on pirate sites can actually help fuel demand for a better-quality experience in the theater. And video-game makers have also talked about how piracy has effectively helped them to market their work to new audiences.

Piracy isn’t going to work for every content company in every situation. But the experience of “Go The F**k To Sleep” shows it can be a positive thing rather than a negative, and that’s something more companies and content creators should think about, instead of trying to build paywalls and lock up their content. As Tim O’Reilly has said, obscurity is a far bigger problem for many content producers than piracy is.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Paul Sapiano and timetrax23

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  1. The paragraph that starts, “It’s not just books that can benefit from this kind of strategy . . .” is not even analysis. The movie point is unsupported nonsense, and the gaming argument consists of one example by a Swedish Pirate Party supporter.

    clap . . . . clap . . . . clap

    1. Mathew Ingram JD Monday, May 16, 2011

      Thanks for the comment — why would you say that the movie point is unsupported nonsense? Are you saying that the movie wasn’t both the most pirated and did record amounts of box-office revenue? As for the gaming argument, if you’ve paid any attention to the growth of Minecraft, I think it makes a pretty compelling case of how piracy has helped the viral growth of a game.

      1. Matthew – your answer is just recursive. The movie point *is* unsupported nonsense. You’ve linked to an blog post that shows that popular movies are popular targets for pirates. It proves nothing about the “benefit” that you’re describing. The extent of the science behind the “benefit” you’re characterizing is an analysis-free rant of an anti-copyright extremist. The positive connection is completely imaginary.

        In fact, Dark Knight’s record-breaking opening weekend came *before* any pirated versions hit the web. I struggle to understand why the massive pre-piracy opening weekend bears no signficance to your argument. Why you don’t find the notoriety of the best opening ever to be relevant at all, but the proliferation of subsequent pirated versions is somehow magically causal.

        As far as the gaming argument you’re identifying, as I said earlier, it consists of one example by a Swedish Pirate Party supporter. It says nothing about the broad future of marketing or piracy.

      2. Matthew. What is this mysterious movie example that you are standing behind so vehemently? I’m guessing it’s either “Wolverine” or “Avatar.” In the former example piracy *did* actually hurt “Wolverine’s” opening weekend: http://bit.ly/StdFt

        And in the latter example, of course the highest-grossing film ever made after “Gone With The Wind” (in adjusted dollars) and “Titanic” in today’s dollars is going to also be the most pirated. . . making it both the highest-grossing film ever made and the most pirated. But as one other commenter on this page pointed out that is circular logic and you should not be using it to back up a flawed point about how piracy = marketing. There is such a thing as pre-screening a film to generate buzz and word-of-mouth and *that* is a legitimate approach but that isn’t allowing rampant piracy to take place and standing by idly as it happens and then trying to shrug and say it was marketing.

        If “Avatar” is the mystery film you are referencing then that is a once-in-a-decade total outlier example that has *nothing* to do with the rest of the film industry’s metrics. If you are citing “Wolverine,” then you are also using flawed logic because the REASON people still went to see that movie after they had seen pirated versions of it was because the early pirated versions of “Wolverine” on BitTorrent did NOT include any of the film’s special effects. So of course, fanboys still went to see the film. But it was by no means a “record.”

        I’d really like to hear what example you’re clinging to but I bet there isn’t one, because you didn’t include it in the article by name, which would have been very easy to do. Shades of Janet Cooke? Name the movie, sir. And back up your assertion with numbers to support it.

        This is another example of the flawed discourse lack of any second-sourcing, “Wikipedia Journalism,” and plain bad reporting that now passes for journalism these days in poorly-edited blog posts, like this one you have written.

  2. Good summary Matthew, as always.

    Typically, unknown talent (or content) will benefit from piracy since the very notion of it needing to be “pirated” makes it seem more valuable and therefore worth the hassle to investigate. Had Mansbach’s publisher simply made “free” copies available, it’s more than likely we wouldn’t be discussing it on your blog. (Reminds me a bit of Miramax’s ploy in the 90s with The Crying Game. If you recall, they pleaded with critics not to review the final act which, as they hoped, became the hook for the film’s marketing momentum. We want what we’re forbidden to have.)

    When your content is in-demand like Gaiman’s, though, piracy is a bit trickier—as you note. Some things you want sampled/pirated since they act as cross-selling tools and lead the reader to more material that they may pay for. And sometimes the thing that’s pirated actually depresses sales. To that extent, piracy is like a new marketing maxim: “I know that 50% of my piracy strategy works. I just don’t know which 50%.”

    Really, the key issue is distribution, not piracy. As the reigning quote about iTunes shows us, “easy beats free.” The problem with media distribution in general is that it’s not easy. The byzantine laws, formats, and EULAs that make it non-trivial to make a purchase make piracy more appealing to consumers—particularly since our friends and families don’t even call it piracy. They call it “sharing.”

    1. I agree, Mark — it is tricky, which is why it’s difficult to know when or how to do it. But as you note, it’s not that much trickier or more difficult than marketing :-) and the interesting thing I’ve found is that in some cases it works better for unknowns, and sometimes it works better for known authors and creators like Coelho and Gaiman.

      1. Terry
        This is excellent and you r the marketing guru the trail of comments proves this
        Thanks for your original voice helping your followers find their voice.

  3. Mathew: I think you miss the point about piracy:

    It s/b the AUTHOR’s decision whether his or her work is posted online for free download. It should NOT be the decision of some clown who put no work into the effort of creating the book (or software, music, video, etc.).

    If the creator VOLUNTARILY places his or her creation online for free use, then more power to him or her. But just because that model works for some is no argument to MANDATE that ALL creators should post their works for free.

    It really isn’t that hard to understand, is it?

    1. I agree it should be the author (or creator’s) choice — but the reality is that content frequently shows up online whether an author wants it to or not. And no one is mandating that all creators should post their works for free. I’m simply saying that in some cases, even unwanted “piracy” can have benefits for the creator of a work. Thanks for the comment.

      1. Unfortunately, with more columns like this, non-authors will feel even more emboldened to post stuff online that they have no right to post, under the guise that they’re doing creators a “favor” by getting them all this “free publicity”.

  4. This just means piracy has come full circle. Back when the US was still a British colony, we were pissing off England for pirating books, leading to the creation of the Statute of Anne, aka copyright law.

  5. Good summary Matthew, as always.

    Typically, unknown talent (or content) will benefit from piracy since the very notion of it needing to be “pirated” makes it seem more valuable and therefore worth the hassle to investigate. Had Mansbach’s publisher simply made “free” copies available, it’s more than likely we wouldn’t be discussing it on your blog. (Reminds me a bit of Miramax’s ploy in the 90s with The Crying Game. If you recall, they pleaded with critics not to review the final act which, as they hoped, became the hook for the film’s marketing momentum. We want what we’re forbidden to have.)

    When your content is in-demand like Gaiman’s, though, piracy is a bit trickier—as you note. Some things you want sampled/pirated since they act as cross-selling tools and lead the reader to more material that they may pay for. And sometimes the thing that’s pirated actually depresses sales. To that extent, piracy is like a new marketing maxim: “I know that 50% of my piracy strategy works. I just don’t know which 50%.”

    Really, the key issue is distribution, not piracy. As the reigning quote about iTunes shows us, “easy beats free.” The problem with media distribution in general is that it’s not easy. The byzantine laws, formats, and devices that make it non-trivial to make a purchase make piracy more appealing to consumers—particularly since our friends and families don’t even call it piracy. They call it “sharing.”

  6. mmm.. piracy helps in marketing..

  7. Good summary Matthew, as always.

    Typically, unknown talent (or content) will benefit from piracy since the very notion of it needing to be “pirated” makes it seem more valuable and therefore worth the hassle to investigate. Had Mansbach’s publisher simply made “free” copies available, it’s more than likely we wouldn’t be discussing it on your blog. (Reminds me a bit of Miramax’s ploy in the 90s with The Crying Game. If you recall, they pleaded with critics not to review the final act which, as they hoped, became the hook for the film’s marketing momentum. We want what we’re forbidden to have.)

    When your content is in-demand like Gaiman’s, though, piracy is a bit trickier—as you note. Some things you want sampled/pirated since they act as cross-selling tools and lead the reader to more material that they may pay for. And sometimes the thing that’s pirated actually depresses sales. To that extent, piracy is like a new marketing maxim: “I know that 50% of my piracy strategy works. I just don’t know which 50%.”

    Really, the key issue is distribution, not piracy. As the reigning quote about iTunes shows us, “easy beats free.” The problem with media distribution in general is that it’s not easy. The byzantine laws, formats, and EULAs that make it non-trivial to make a purchase make piracy more appealing to consumers—particularly since our friends and families don’t even call it piracy. They call it “sharing.”

  8. I think this article makes some great points; obscurity is an enormous issue for authors, especially new ones or authors testing out new genres or categories. With increasing demands on content creators to blog, tweet, tumblr, facebook, etc., perhaps sharing their existing content would be less time consuming and make more sense for certain authors who are uninterested in social media.

  9. The point about free can actually help sales is, of course, right. Think the free preview, the sample, etc. Whether piracy of a pre-release movie enhanced revenue or not is unproved (i.e., it doesn’t follow that the movie did better because of the pre-release – only that it generated revenue, but Masnick doesn’t necessarily follow strict rules of proof when making arguments that support his ideology). The controversy in the comments is that people are reacting to things not in your article – because folks like Masnick use these arguments to rationalize theft as in “i know better than, say, Sony pictures, whether prerelease free distribution is good for a movie.”

  10. This article has it totally wrong. First of all, correlation does not imply causation. But as Matthew Ingram states: “. . . some of the most popular movies on file-sharing networks have gone on to sell record amounts in their traditional formats as well.”

    Is anyone editing these pieces or are they just unfiltered blog posts? Whatever film Ingram is referencing (“Avatar?”) did not go on to sell record amounts in traditional formats *because* of piracy. That is such a simplistic connection. It is more likely that the film’s popularity in theaters and anticipation for its release led to its huge piracy, not the other way around. Are you seriously saying that a film’s illicit viewing has some connection with record sales? Tell it to film director Seth Gordon, who will tell you that rampant piracy of his beloved documentary about Steve Wiebe, “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters,” cost the film at least $1 million if not much more in theaters and in lost DVD sales. Piracy devastated that film’s ability to play in more theaters nationwide because of its poor theatrical performance that was directly tied to rampant piracy and Torrenting. Who needs to see a film if they have seen it at home on an 50-inch high-def TV already. Not as many people as this misguided article by Ingram would have you believe.

    As Ingram also writes: “In some cases, it seems, the availability of low-quality copies on pirate sites can actually help fuel demand for a better-quality experience in the theater.”

    REALLY? NAME ONE EXAMPLE, MATTHEW. What, “Iron Man?” Are you referencing the 2009 “Wolverine?” Newsflash: the early pirated versions of that film didn’t include any of the special effects, which is why people who may have seen the pirated version still went to the theater but the piracy still hurt that film’s box office grosses, which were weaker than expected. Again, one thing has nothing to do with another — correlation does not imply causation — and how the editor of this piece allowed this flawed logic to make it into the published post is shameful.

    Hey, how about a second source for journalistic clarity or isn’t there enough time?

    Adam Mansbach’s publisher should have had SALABLE digital copies ready to go on Amazon and other sites and moved up the release date (or released the print copies in stores “day-and-date” with an earlier digital release) once they realized the .PDF versions were gaining traction. Sure, the free copies may have stoked sales but this article does not offer a back-of-the-envelope calculation of how much money was lost as a result of digital piracy of Mansbach’s book. It just offers a convenient excuse: “Oh, it’s a good thing those free pirated copies were out there floating around! That’s what made the book #1 on Amazon!” instead of speaking to the incompetence of the publisher for not getting its act together to realize that it had a hit book on its hands and do something to serve that demand.

    This article is poorly written since it lacks any second-sourcing and assumes that it was the rush on free copies that built word-of-mouth and made the book a hit rather than the quality of the book. As the article itself states, there was already huge interest in the authors *tweet* so why wouldn’t there be huge interest in the book. By Ingram’s own logic it wouldn’t have required free .PDF versions floating around online to stoke that interest.

    This argument is akin to saying that Barnes & Noble should allow shoplifters to go crazy in their stores and that B&N should try to sell them brownies on the way out the door. “Hey! It’s a great way for B&N to sell brownies and increase awareness of its stores’ location!” I have never heard of a more ridiculous post-gaffe justification than this article.

    The truth is, Mansbach’s publisher dropped the ball, was caught slipping. . . asleep at the switch. . . flat-footed. . . whatever you want to call it, and probably lost tens of thousands of dollars in retail sales for not having a dynamic strategy to SELL ACTUAL BOOKS or to offer a viable alternative to downloading the free .PDF file, instead of what they did which was to stand back to watch rampant piracy erode sales and then label it “marketing” (or probably even have this article “placed”) to hide its own incompetence.

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