It happened in a moment of weakness—even though I knew better—but late one night earlier this month, I read the Amazon reviews for my book. Alternatively inflating and torturing my ego, I went through negative and the positive reviews. Amid the praise (and intense dislike), I caught a strange comment: Someone mentioned that they liked the book but wanted to alert readers to the fact that they could find the audiobook for free on YouTube.
What? Assuming it was a mistake, I moved on. Then another person mentioned it. So I looked. They were right. A quick search on YouTube uncovered the audiobooks of my last two books, streamable in their entirety on YouTube, uploaded by a random user. One video for The Obstacle is the Way, a book I released in 2014, had more than 16,000 listens. It might not seem like a ton but the book had sold about 50,000 copies in audio—an additional 30% of that figure pirated it through a single video?
Make no mistake, this is straight piracy. The video was nothing less than the raw 6 hour audio file I recorded in The Block House studios in Austin for publication by Tim Ferriss Audio, accompanied by a thumbnail of the book’s cover. There weren’t any pre-roll ads in front of the video but there were certainly regular YouTube banners and sponsored videos displayed against the book. Thousands of people had watched (or as I imagine, listened with the tab open on their browser while they worked) my book instead of buying it.
YouTube’s suggestion algorithm made it clear that I wasn’t the only author affected. In fact, a cursory look found audiobooks from authors Tim Ferriss, Robert Greene, Richard Branson, James Patterson and Stephen King—some with as many as 162,000+ views and 120+ comments. (Just look at this YouTube search for the phrase “full audiobook”). On forums, I found comments from authors like Diana Gabaldon, best known for her Outlander series, who complained about seeing her books pop up in pirated form on YouTube. I even saw an instance on reddit of a user reporting to see pirated audiobooks where instead of the author narrating, the fan (or whomever) had just recorded a computer program reading the entire book and uploaded that.
There’s also clearly a rampant amount of podcast piracy going on. Even though many podcasts are given away for free on iTunes or on the podcaster’s website, users are not entitled to re-post them on YouTube and capture advertising revenue from them. You can find an episode from Dan Carlin’s popular Hardcore History that has nearly 10,000 views. One user remarked in the comments that you actually have to pay for it on Dan’s website. A quick look on reddit shows that Dan has dealt with similar situations in the past with channels and videos being taken down for copyright infringements. There are episodes from Joe Rogan, another podcast heavyweight, with several videos hitting 600,000+ views. But at least for many of these shows, the podcaster is able to embed ads inside the audiofile and thus partially profit from this form of consumption.
Audiobooks have no such advantage. Given that audiobooks typically retail for between $15 and $30, this amounts to millions of dollars of lost revenue for authors and publishers. In an industry that has been repeatedly disrupted in the last decade—with bookstore closings, the rise of self-publishing, ebooks and a vast explosion of alternative forms of entertainment—this is revenue that few authors (and traditional publishers) can afford to lose.
So what’s going on? It’s clear to me that the recent rapid rise of audiobooks has dramatically outpaced the ability of publishers big and small to stay ahead of the piracy. I mean, who would have thought that anyone would want to pirate 8 hours of someone reading something out loud? Having signed several rights deals for audiobooks with multiple companies, I can tell you that none of the contracts even mentions streaming rights or advertising revenue. They mention the sales of physical CDs and audiocassettes still, but not a hint about potentially being included on Spotify someday.
What that means is that YouTube’s current piracy protections are woefully inadequate for authors and book publishers. In 2007, YouTube brought out something called ContentID which scrapes all uploaded videos to YouTube against massive copyright libraries which rights holders have created. It was a brilliant innovation. If I upload a video featuring a Taylor Swift song, YouTube recognizes it and gives rights holders the option to either block me from doing so or receive their portion of revenue from any advertising. The same goes for pirated television and movie clips. It’s not so simple with audiobooks—and even if it was, most contracts make no stipulations for streaming rights. Nor, by the way, would many publishers quality for YouTube’s standards to use ContentID which state that “to be approved, [you] must own exclusive rights to a substantial body of original material that is frequently uploaded by the YouTube user community.” YouTube says it will reject you if it thinks its manual tools are more appropriate.
In my experience, book publishing is a business that is slow to adapt to change. Many in the industry still think their business model includes charging for excerpts on media outlets (these are called “serial rights”), the way they used to get paid when F. Scott Fitzgerald would run a couple chapters from The Great Gatsby in The Saturday Evening Post or some other newspaper. (In fact, Observer just had an author who asked about running a short article adapted from their book…only to have their publisher butt in and ask for money. Thankfully cooler heads prevailed). Worse, audiobook rights are not always handled by the big houses whose names you might be familiar with—Penguin, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, etc—instead, the rights are sold off to smaller audiobook publishers almost exactly the way that Bulgarian translation rights would be. Many big name authors—and this is true for many pirated books I found on YouTube—are represented by a much smaller company in audio than they are in print and ebook.
I imagine that’s why when I emailed several agents and book publishers for responses for this story, almost all of them refused to reply. A number of them seemed to have no idea what I was talking about. The Authors Guild? They didn’t reply either—they’re probably too busy waging pointless battles against Amazon and Google Books (which by the way, actually make lots of money for authors and help make their lives easier).
One agent I emailed did reply—mine (he was, directly affected by this piracy, after all). I asked him what we should do. At the very least, he suggested, we could file a copyright claim with YouTube directly. So manually, using YouTube’s form (seen here), I filed claims against all of the videos infringing on my books. Within a few days, I got a response: They were coming down. But having read about the travails of other authors, I know that they will soon be back up. I will need to file these claims over and over again. I can continue to file these claims as the author but since I’m not a major publisher with a “substantial body of original material,” I can’t participate in YouTube’s ContentID personally.
Which means that the people being pirated are the ones who have to do all the work—while the platforms and the users benefit. James Tonn, one of the smartest minds in audio publishing whose audiobook publishing house Podium, (which published books like The Martian, Fear The Sky, The Last Tribe and Invasion), describes the situation thusly:
“In short: we play whack-a-mole. It’s like NYC’s graffiti policy: quick removal decreases interest. We monitor YouTube weekly and report the users who are then banned and the content removed quickly.”
It’s a sad state of affairs for this industry in 2016. In the middle of writing this article, where I originally planned to commend YouTube for its hasty removal of my book after my claim, I found another copy of The Obstacle Is The Way, uploaded by a different user and had to take a break from writing to file another claim. As for the lost sales? There’s nowhere on the form to reclaim that revenue. And if there was, who would it go to? The publisher? Me?
I grew up with internet piracy. I remember the day in 7th grade when a friend called us over to the computer in science class and showed us this cool new thing called “Napster.” A good portion of the music on my iPhone was pirated over the years from the ever evolving parade of services which arose post-Napster: Audiogalaxy, Morpheus, Kazaa,, DC++, eMule, BitTorrent. There was even one in college called ourTunes which let you download the iTunes library of everyone in your dorm. As I got older, I realized this was stupid and wrong (and a poor use of time) and I began to buy all the music and movies I consumed. I understand that piracy serves a function of discovery, especially for young people. Half the bands I’ve seen in concert or bought t-shirts from, I discovered this way.
That’s not my point. I am not making some self-indulgent complaint about piracy now that it suddenly impacts my wallet. From a marketing perspective, I’ve always held that word of mouth is a powerful driver—so powerful that it won’t always stick to legal means. Hell, that’s precisely why I partnered with BitTorrent to promote Tim Ferriss’s book The 4 Hour Chef when it was banned by Barnes & Noble. I’ve even given away chunks of my own stuff there.
I also respect the fact that forward thinking authors like Paulo Coehlo have actually pirated their own books and seen massive sales spikes because of it. Coehlo not only uploaded his own books to torrent sites in Russia—a move that drove significant foreign sales—but he’s even run ads that contain the entire text of his novels (piracy requiring a magnifying glass I guess). But, there is a difference between free exposure on the underbelly of the internet and one of the biggest sites in the world giving your work away without your permission. Piracy isn’t the biggest threat facing authors, but it is good to make sure it’s not rampant and that bootleg copies aren’t easier to access than forms of paid consumption.
The publishing industry has to adjust and deal with this. We are entering a streaming world—and contracts are going to need to be updated. They’re going to need to accommodate for ad-revenue models and if they don’t, then people will pirate. Legal departments are also going to have to work harder and a lot faster. For its part, YouTube needs to get its act together and offer tools directly to publishers and authors. Audiobook piracy is real and clearly growing. The idea that songs and television and films all deserve protections from ContentID but authors don’t is absurd.
ContentID is nearly 10 years old. YouTube is a multi-billion dollar company owned by an even bigger multi-billion dollar company. Audiobooks are not only here to stay, they will become an increasingly large percentage of income for authors. The Authors Guild, agents, authors and publishers as well as platforms are going to need to get it together. Or they’re going to find another green sprout for the industry trampled out by poor strategy and slow uptake.
Ryan Holiday is the best-selling author of Ego is the Enemy and The Obstacle is the Way. He is an editor-at-large for the Observer, and his monthly reading recommendations, received by 60,000 people are found here (you can also subscribe to his posts via email). He lives in Austin, Texas.