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How Amazon Users Steal Books

This piece was bought by a major publication back in January, but they were too scared to run it.  So I decided to take it back and just run it myself unedited.

How Amazon Users Steal Books




Aaron Goldfarb

The arrest of German-Finnish superhacker (and future Mike-Myers-in-makeup-and-a-fat-suit movie character) Kim Dotcom and the seizure of his website Megaupload has left college kids fuming and me concerned about one very important issue:

How will people continue stealing my books?

Back in 1970 Abbie Hoffman encouraged people to steal his book with a titular directive, but that old-fashioned way of illegally torrenting is not really practical any more.  Mainly because you don’t see bookstores around and even if you do they’re now places for the homeless to hit the loo and wash up.  Ditto with libraries, now mainly for the homeless to check their e-mail and look at porn.  The death of paper is clearly going to have an apocalyptic effect on the homeless lifestyle more than the publishing industry.

Still, there are other ways to get books for free.

Some are legal like, Kindle’s own Lending Library (though you’ll need a $79/year Prime membership), and e-mailing authors with a sob story about how you love reading but can’t scrounge together a few bucks since you were an English major in college and now can’t get a job in this economy and therefore have to shamelessly beg for a free PDF.

Most others are illegal--depending who you ask!--with countless disreputable sites like Pirates Bay, Iso Hunt, and Torrent Room still yet to be shuttered by the U.S. Department of Justice.  Have at it and I hope you (don’t) find the FBI knocking on your door while you’re in flagrante torrenting.

If stealing isn’t your thing yet you still have a total disinterest in spending even a nickle on reading material, you’ll need a little ingenuity and a lot of free time, but you can read entire books on your computer via Amazon’s “Search inside” or Google Books look-through functions.  As a recent Emory grad who brought this method to my attention told me, “No one in college pays for books any more.  We always figure out a way to read stuff for free.”

You say, but doesn’t “Search inside” only allow you to see a few sample pages?  In theory but not function.  When you begin a search, you will typically be allowed to view the cover, copyright info (ha!), table of contents, and a few introductory pages before the pages quit going in numerical order and start randomly jumping ahead.  For my book How to Fail, that jump-ahead occurs after page five, sending you to page nine, and that’s fairly similar to other books.

At this point, you begin typing keyword guesses into the “Search Inside this Book” box on the left sidebar until you locate either the next page sequentially or one close to it.  You have some wiggle room because every time you land on a new page via a keyword search you are afforded the ability to flip back and forth several pages from where you landed.

The key is figuring out words likely to appear on every single page.  Amazon doesn’t index commonplace words like “a” or "the”--though it does allow “this,” “you,” and “I”--so you’ll have to focus on words commonplace to what you’re reading.  A Harry Potter book and you might guess “Hogwarts.”  The Steve Jobs biography and “Apple” or “asshole” might be good.  My book and “failure” should get you all the pages you lack initially.  With a +/- of a few pages granted for each search, for most books you’ll only need one or two keywords to read every single page.  Stealing, sure, but at least you have to think up an “Open sesame!”-like password to gain access.  Though I agree with poker player and author Rafe Furst, who has used this method since 2007, but notes, “Personally, I find it tedious and not that satisfying to read a book (via “Search Inside”) and end up buying the book if I'm at all interested.”

Still, there’s an even more ethically murky way Amazon users steal books that tops all the above.  I discovered it recently when looking at back-end sales totals for Kindle copies of my books, noticing a column marked “Units Refunded.”


I was baffled at first, “Who would possibly return an ebook?!”  Especially ones like mine usually priced less than $5.  But, month after month, around 4.5% of buyers return my books for a refund.  I asked other authors if they were encountering similar numbers.  Ben Nesvig, author of First World Problems:  101 Reasons Why the Terrorists Hate Us, told me he averages about 5% returns for his book.  Another friend, a popular technologies writer, told me likewise, as did nearly all authors I surveyed.  I put a call into Amazon and though they wouldn’t give me any exact data, I’m guessing it would indeed hover at around 5%.

Now a normal person might assume these refunds were from people that accidentally bought a book, then returned it seconds later, like when you forget to ask for extra naan on a SeamlessWeb order and have to quickly edit it before the restaurant has begun fulfillment.  But, I’m no normal person, I’m a money-grubbing author that never wants to have another day job.  So I dug deeper and discovered something shocking:

“Books you purchase from the Kindle Store are eligible for return and refund if we receive your request within seven days of the date of purchase.”

(To return and refund, go to Manage Your Kindle, click the actions tab for the title you’d like to return, and select “Return for Refund.”)




Seven days?  Who can’t read a book in seven days?!

There are people buying ebooks, reading them quickly, then returning them for a full refund, like stay-at-home mom Elisabeth Gilbert who told me, “I have literally never spent money on an ebook since getting an iPad.”  Numerous other readers told me likewise.  Though I didn’t ask, I’m sure they also tuck the tags when they buy new clothes for a date, then take them back to Banana Republic in the morning.

“Those are their rules,” explains Jon, a legal professional.  “I don’t feel like I’m stealing anything since Amazon allows this.”

Maybe they shouldn’t.  Maybe Amazon should only allot 24 hours to make a return.  Or not allow a return once you’ve read past page 20 or so, something they have the ability to monitor.

It’s not like this is completely a modern technology problem, though modern technology makes it much easier to beat the system, and makes system-beaters far less guilt-ridden, especially during these tough economic times.  “Why should I feel bad?  I’m not stealing anything real,” is the thought common to serial refunders like a Seton Hall student I spoke to.  There’s always been people who bought hardback books, quickly read them, then returned them, capitalizing on lax 30-day refund policies at most chains.  Barnes & Noble even lowered their return time to 14-days back in 2008, sick of being used as a library.  Bookstores average around a 1% return rate on paper books, but who knows how many of those were people just bummed out they were given Tom Brokaw’s new tome as a Hanukkah present.  (Interestingly, bookstores themselves return anywhere from 25%-50% of unsold books back to the publishers for a full refund.)

Ebooks are returned at five times the rate of physical books, because returning physical books is simply tougher.  A physical book has to stay crisp and clean and it’s a physical object you literally have to drive back to a physical location.  Ebooks are frivolous possession-wise:  a scroll of the mouse, a click of a button, zapped to your Kindle or iPad or iPhone in a matter of seconds, then returned six days later by reversing the steps.  Stealing one isn’t even zero-sum, literally an infinite number exist.

Seth Godin once told me, for a young author like myself, I shouldn’t be worried about sales or even making money, I should be worried about building a “tribe” of fans, not coincidentally also the title of one of his best-selling (selling!) books.  Likewise, Paolo Coehlo is a firm believer in simply getting his books out there electronically, going so far as to pirate his own work, which he feels has greatly contributed to the 65 million sales of The Alchemist alone.  And, Cory Doctorow has famously said:  “For pretty much every writer, the problem isn't piracy, it's obscurity.”

So I suppose I should be thankful I’m building a tribe and becoming a little less obscure through electronic theft.

Having said that, if you truly want to get an author’s book for free, there’s a better way.  Derek Jeter can’t be the only person who gives his paramours personalized parting gifts.

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  2. you puta straw man argument on people who read books without paying.

    You say, “Why should I feel bad? I’m not stealing anything real,”

    The truth is, one who reads a book without paying isn’t stealing anything at all.

    One who reads a book without paying is reading a book without paying.

    One who “downloads a book” is actually “manufacturing a copy of a book”.

    You see, if I manufacture another digital copy of your book, and read it without paying you, you still have your book. This is not the case in the physical world, and all law is based on real estate and “right to exclude” thinking. That way of thinking does not apply to science and technology patents, nor copyrights. Excluding someone from reading “your” intellectual property makes everyone poorer, and letting someone read or use “your” intellectual property in NO WAY prevents you from using it the way you want.

    Why real property laws are this way:
    You own some acres. You chop down wood and make paper, because it is the “highest use” of your land. Some college kids take your wood, turn it into lumber for houses, and sell it.

    In this case, you are losing your wood, and the economy suffers, because lumber for houses was a less efficient use for the wood than making paper.

    If that same real property worked like intellectual property:
    The college kids like your property, so they make copies of the trees on your property and use these copies to make lumber for houses. You use copies of your trees to make paper. The economy benefits. No “theft” occurred.

    • Boy, your reading comprehension sucks.

    • Okay, so this is a late response to Tom. But I simply have to say this. Tom, your interpretation of the law is ridiculous. You are simply rationalizing outright theft with obscure reasoning. In other words – you’re full of shit. And that’s coming from an author who makes a living “creating and selling books.”

      • Nonsense. The effect of someone reading your ebook without paying for it, and just not reading it at all is exactly the same to you, you just don’t get any money. If someone steals a physical copy, you have actually lost out on something, that physical copy of the book. So if the effect of “stealing” your ebook and simply not reading it are exactly the same, then do you propose that people be punished for not reading your book?

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