The book-publishing business has been in a bit of a tizzy recently over the explosive rise of a children's book on's (AMZN) list of bestselling e-books. This isn't just any children's book. For one thing, it has an unusual title—Go The F**k To Sleep. Of greater interest is that the book hit No. 1 on Amazon's list, though it has yet to be published. How it managed to do this reinforces a lesson for content publishers of all kinds: 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 posted 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 "presale" by Amazon and was expected to be available in the fall. (Publication has since been moved up to June.)

What happened next was fairly predictable. Some of those who had PDF copies of the e-book—advance proofs sent to the publisher or review copies—uploaded them to the Internet, much the way 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. Gradually pirated copies started to circulate to fill that demand.

No Marketing Expenditures Yet

The publisher says it tried everything it could to stamp out these unauthorized copies, but was unable to stop the flood. It's a good thing, too, because the unreleased book rocketed to the No. 1 slot, lapsing to No. 2 at times. 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, while boosting the size of the print run.)

What some call piracy can actually amount to free marketing, as noted by some prominent authors. Neil Gaiman, for example, has said he was initially outraged by unauthorized sharing of his books. He tried to help his publisher thwart it but eventually concluded that piracy really is just "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.

Pirating Your Own Books for Profit

Another prominent example of this is Brazilian author Paulo Coelho. The well-known fantasy author doesn't just take piracy in stride. Coelho has actually assisted people in pirating his books by uploading copies of them to file-sharing networks (as has Gaiman). Pirating a Russian translation of one Coelho book helped build awareness of his other works 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.

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

Not only books can benefit from this kind of strategy. As Mike Masnick at Techdirt has noted, some of the most popular movies on file-sharing networks have gone on to sell record quantities in 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. Videogame makers have also talked about how piracy has effectively helped them market their work to new audiences.

Piracy isn't going to work for every content company in each situation. The experience of Mansbach's book shows that it can be a positive rather than a negative. Companies and content creators should think about this instead of merely 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.

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