In Mumbai, Following the Pirates

A colleague from NY who prefers to be anonymous sends me this email: Sitting stuck in traffic on way to Mumbai airport. Various peddlers offering flowers, newspapers, etc knock on the car window. And here's one with pirated books. My, the world certainly is flat I think looking at…


A colleague from NY who prefers to be anonymous sends me this email:

Sitting stuck in traffic on way to Mumbai airport. Various peddlers offering flowers, newspapers, etc knock on the car window. And here’s one with pirated books. My, the world certainly is flat I think looking at friedman’s samizdat cover. And then I look down the pile — and there is your book. It won’t put food on your table, but you should be happy to know that the guys who rely on one or two sales a day and can only carry a few books have put you on their bestseller list.

First, amazing that he can send me that note while in traffic in one of the most perilous places on earth (at least, last week it was). Second, how cool is it that The Search is a street bestseller in Mumbai?! Do I care about the piracy? No. No, no no. I care that someone in Mumbai cared enough to rip it off, and that someone there might be reading my stuff. That is just cool. Commercial markets always follow the free, or, well, the pirates in this case. Always.

20 thoughts on “In Mumbai, Following the Pirates”

  1. I don’t know… a culture of thieves sometimes just stays a culture of thieves for a long time. The comm mkt may “always” follow. But, I’m going out on a limb to suggest some places are going to take a LOT longer to come round.

    In any case, congrats on the best seller in the streets of Mumbai. It IS a great read.

  2. I appreciate your attitude towards it. I mean, capitalism works and all that but to get your book read in a remote part of a world by a person who’s won’t know you are and by a seller who by selling your book puts food on the table; that must be a exhilirating experience.

  3. When you look at the books that are on sale on the streets, you really begin to think if these are the books that people in the city are reading then the quality of mids in the place must be pretty high.Blink, Freaknomics, The World is Flat, HBR on Leadership, etc…

    One of the ironies of the trade is the easy availability of How Opal Mehta Got Kissed… The book got hammered for plagiarisim, but knock off artists are making hay out here in India

  4. John, yes, it’s great for those like you who desire pirates to spread their book and endorse it — but then it isn’t really piracy, as you’ve basically sanctioned it. (In which case, an author might as well just make it legal, via a CreativeCommons license or whatnot.)

    The thing is, it’s not acceptable to those who don’t endorse it…

    Whether it’s good for them or not, it’s their wish not to be pirated, so their wishes (and legal rights) should be respected.

    A heart transplant may be good for you, but that doesn’t give anyone the right to hijack you and give you one on the street corner. 🙂

  5. Books in India are very expensive. They are 2/3rd the cost of books in the US, and the income levels are not anywhere in that ballpark. Libraries are poorly stocked. Textbooks are available in cheaper, special ‘India’ versions. But not so with regular books – bestsellers or otherwise. We really don’t have a choice but to read pirated versions.

    John, can you not ask your publisher to do a cheaper, India-specific version for your next book? Will be a win-win-win for everyone.

  6. I got here through a link of some libertarian writer at who thinks this article is super cool, cause copyright is just evil. While being libertarian myself I don’t agree.

    Fact is my friend in Germany got plagiarized with an essay available for free on the web once, by a guy stealing all kinds of essays and putting them for sale as “various practical tips” on his German web site… yet his business was based in hungary(!).

    My friend’s essay was ranked top hit of all his stuff, as a consolation for us…we didn’t think it was too cool though. Eventually, the site went down. The guy had other kinds of trouble too because of fax spam…

    Artistic copyright is different than patent, from the philosophy. It partly defrauds you of your identity when someone infringes on that intellectual property… even if no money is involved. Sure now, men are much more similar to each other than they always pretend to be. I truly believe the right to dream to be a unique individual in society should be written in every constitution though.

  7. John, while it is true that so many books are pirated on the streets of Mumbai, there is a sizable population there who do pay for their books. An example in case is how I came across your book. On my trip to India, I visited a friend and found the book on his bookshelf. It was not a pirated copy and if the price being in UK pounds is an indicator, then it must have been the UK edition of the book. However, perhaps it is true that pirates will hijack only that what is really valuable, and your book undoubtedly falls in that category.

  8. In Mumbai, the street kids do sell legal books. I have seen them selling Tommy Friedman’s book “World is flat” hardcover at 1000 Rs. I haven’t yet seen pirated books being sold at Mumbai’s signals, and I am living here for 7 years. I think John’s contact in Mumbai is possibly mistaken. Just because a book is sold in unsusal manner at a traffic signal doesn mean it is a pirated one. I wonder what made him think it was a pirated book?
    Who pirates books these days? it is not worth the trouble if the sales are not guranteed. Computer Programming books I can understand, but the reader class of John’s book is totally different. They would just buy it off the various websites and get it delivered on the same day, (in mumbai). Or they will buy the book if they have heard about it, and someone pushes the book in their window at a traffic signal.

  9. It’s bigger than you think, John – I’ve seen the pirated copy on not just the odd stall, but on almost every stall outside a Mumbai railway station. There’s the usual self-help trash, there’s Blink, there’s Shantaram, there’s The Argumentative Indian, and there are a couple of Google-related titles available, one of them being yours.

    No, I didn’t fill it, but I was watching it spill over 😉

  10. Hi John

    There are tons of books that are available on the streets.Books such as The Google Story , Blink, Turning Point, Undercover Economist, The world is Flat,etc are very popular.Some of them are ofcourse pirated.I was gifted your book by a customer for a job well done and I really cherish it.

    FYI discounted copies of latest Wired magazines are also available at certain points in Mumbai.On rare occasions, even before the latest edition is reflected on the website.

  11. Ok. Firstly, Samir said a good thing to you about arranging for a local Indian publisher to do a cheap print run there.

    But I’m writing cause I’m slightly mad at you calling my home town the most perilous place on earth. Did you think of saying that about Madrid, London, or New York? It sounded like a cheap crack at exoticising where your book is being sold. Great that its being sold in Mumbai – i’m excited for you as well. But, its a city, like many others. Its vibrant, its cosmopolitan, on the resilience scale its possibly number 1, and between the lebanese, sudanese, israelies, iraqis, afghans, they could probably list out a heck of a lot more places that fit your description than that.

    So, (Given that I haven’t posted a comment to a blog in years…) there!


  12. John,
    My understanding is that you get IT. I think its very smart of you to realize that piracy is one of the best tools for dissemination of your work and that also its an acknowledgement of the value of it. That you are bold enough to recognize and bring out the basic goodness in fellow humans by saying sharing is good and people who can buy the book will buy it ( that people are not thieves by default )
    Thanks for turning conventional ‘wisdom’ on its head.

  13. the key to making the purchase is to haggle. Normally 20% of the actual asking price is a good number.. also if you are paying more than 100 rs, you are paying too much.. I once had a conversation with a 15 year old I guess who was selling books(pirated ofcourse) on the traffic signal. I offered him 50Rs, just wanted to see his reaction.. he said he will buy the same book for 50 from me, if I could get it for him.. Life is tough for these kids and these kids are street smart. Living on the streets is survival of the fittest.. you wont learn better survival skills, than on the streets of mumbai.

  14. I agree with smz. I bet it was a legit copy, UK imprint. There’s money to be made selling bestsellers at traffic lights because many people have drivers and may be looking for something to read while stuck in traffic on the way to the Mumbai airport.

  15. I agree that the cost of books in India is so expensive that a common middle class manager can not afford it a regular/ routing purchase.
    It would be good if book companies think of economy edition to drive out piracy.

    I also agree that not all books sold on the streets are pirated versions. Guys make a living out of selling original stuff. Its a innovative marketing.

    Bangalore, India.

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