Piracy 2: the pirates strike back
January 30th 2012
(Hell’s teeth, Morden – you’re such a nerd)
Well, that was interesting. Having fumed righteously against piracy in all its forms, I was contacted by a real live pirate (arrrr!) who put his side of the story. And I’m such a bleeding heart liberal, I not only took the time and trouble to read what he had to say, but also think seriously about the points he made.
And surprisingly (to me, at least) I am partly convinced: it’s certainly more nuanced than I allowed for. So I’ll try and go through some of the issues raised again, but this time with my special They Live glasses on. And yes, I do have plenty of gum.
Do I own the copyright to my work? Yes. Yes I do. And yes, my ability to charge for my art depends on me being able to assert that right. As the original creator of a piece of fiction, I can choose to do one of several things with it: I can give it away for free (under a Creative Commons licence) like I have done with Thy Kingdom Come, for example. This way, the work can be distributed freely without alteration, but also without allowing anyone else to attach their name to that work. I’m happy to do that with older pieces of work – and one of the things I have to think about next is whether I do the same thing with Heart. I can also release excerpts of my work as ‘tasters’ (or advertising, if you like). If you like what you’ve read so far, you can then continue to read when you purchase a copy.
Do I need paying for my work? Again, need is relative. Which is something I’ll touch on later. But for the moment, I live in a scarcity-driven capitalist economy. The future is not going to come and save me, supplying me and my family with fabbers and a Mr Fusion for all my energy needs. Likewise, I cannot eat a good reputation. One day I will. I have worked in a Gift Economy before, when I was a research scientist at a university. I provided not just my employers (the Natural Environment Research Council) with original research, but the whole world. In return, I was given enough money to live on: for the length of my contract, it didn’t matter if I produced one paper in a peer-reviewed journal, or half a dozen, but whether my contract was renewed at the end of it did depend on the quality of what I’d done already, that is to say, my reputation. I believe this is also a workable model for artists. But we’re not there yet.
Do publishers actually do anything? Or, why is your royalty rate so low? Publishers do lots. Editors improve a manuscript, sometimes immeasurably so. Copy editors, likewise. I’ve had my arse saved by good copy editors too many times to either dismiss the work they do or to think they’re not worth paying. They, like me, have to eat. Then there is the layout, the cover art (hi, Lauren!), the publicity, the mailing room even. All of that happens so that you know the book exists, and that it’s of a minimum standard of quality. Someone other than the author has read it. It makes some sort of sense. It’s written in a language as it’s meant to be written. The publisher has put their reputation behind it. And that’s part of the immutable cost of books. I’ve said nothing at all about printing, which is almost, but not quite, pennies in the pound. The way a publisher recoups these up-front costs (they haven’t made a single dime until the book sells), which includes the author’s advance, is by charging for the product. I know there’s a lot of kvetching about the cost of ebooks, but the cost of a professionally edited and designed ebook isn’t much different from the same book in dead tree form.
When they first started, Penguin paperbacks were cheaply priced, mass produced, but not, and this was the point, not pulp. They were good books, keenly priced, and I think that industry-published ebooks need to go the same way, and soon. I have no control over the pricing of either print or electronic versions, but it seems entirely possible that there would be more profit, not less, on an ebook as a whole if it was substantially cheaper. But not free. Not free. See above regards to quality.
Piracy does not equal lost sales. This is where things start to get fuzzy. I would agree that not every pirated copy of my book is a lost sale. Some most certainly are, but not 100%. We’re arguing about proportions here – what ratio of pirated copies would have turned into sales, all things being equal? It’s a fruitless question, because there’s no definitive answer. We’ll stick with the ‘some’ value. But anecdotally, it can be significant. Lucia Etxebarria found that value too great, and has vowed her next book may well be never.
“Literature is not a profit-making job, but a passion,” said Kelly Sánchez, one of the least vitriolic critics. “If you had a real vocation then you wouldn’t stop writing.”
You could argue, that having won a couple of really very well paid literary prizes, Ms Etxebarria doesn’t need any more cash. But what Sanchez is saying is “work for free”. Not many employees would work a second month if at the end of the first month, their boss told them that their job should be a passion, and they didn’t need paying. And Etxebarria’s book in question wasn’t published as an ebook – it was scanned and pdf’d. See above, regarding the publishing model. But again, if every book was 100% pirated, only a very few writers would pay for their words to be professionally edited. Only a very few independently-wealthy writers would write full-time. The quantity of quality books would not only decrease (and dramatically so), but the demographic of writers would change (and dramatically so). Neither is healthy. An individual download is a drop, but mass piracy is a flood. Writers can probably afford an umbrella, but that’s not going to be much use when the twenty-foot wave tears up the whole town.
I cannot afford your book. Here the rubber hits the road. I spent most of my teens with my head buried in a book. I often read late into the night because I couldn’t put the book in question down. And to a very great extent, I hadn’t bought those books at the bookstore. They were either library copies, or second-hand (those, I still have most of them), gleaned for tens of pennies from jumble sales and second-hand book shops. Quite literally, I could not afford to buy all the books I read. I couldn’t afford to buy so much as a tenth of them. My pirate contact – I shall call him The Captain – says this (and English is not his first language, but I’ll quote verbatim):
To me reading is like breathing. I suffocate without books, information etc. … And since the book trip is really some 4-6 hours depending on number of pages .. well I have to breathe books the other 29 days
The Captain can’t afford to buy all the books he needs. Not wants. Needs. He lives in a place which, without giving too much away, was recently a war zone, and civil society struggles to provide health care, let alone an abundance of second-hand books. Now, I grew up in rural Berkshire in the seventies and eighties, but I recognise myself in him. Far too much. “I have to breathe,” he says. Ouch. The stricter reader of this may well say, “Of course he should pay. I had to. It’s still stealing.” So it is, but, but… I’ll have to think about what to do about this. It would be brilliant if I could give away electronic versions of my books to those people who genuinely couldn’t afford them, or at least heavily discount them, while asking those who could to pay more, or even full price. But I can’t. There’s no mechanism to do so. If anyone’s got any bright ideas, please do comment, or email me on the Contact page.
Is there a solution? Probably. I’ll let you know when I work it out.