Warning: This post is LONG
Every once in a while, the huge, ugly, flatulent elephant-in-the-room of ebook piracy raises its trunk and trumpets, splitting eardrums far and wide, and showering those unfortunate enough to be standing too close in a nearly invisible mist of elephant snot (eww!). And for the last week, there's been a lot of discussion going on about piracy and its effect on readers and writers--not the least of which is Astatalk's startling recent announcement, presumably in reaction to a bombardment of infringement complaints to their ISP, that fiction uploads are now banned from their site. Followed almost immediately by their claims that shutting down pirate sites like Astatalk will do nothing but hurt authors' sales... Hmmm...
This post, by author Tiffany Clare, raised some hackles, that's for sure. Dear Author linked to it, as well as to another, more prosaic post on book piracy by Tobias Buckell, and the umbrage in the comment thread flew fast and thick. A day later, Azteclady put up her own post on piracy--one that expresses for the most part how I feel about things, which is somewhere in between Tiffany Clare's understandably extreme views on the problem, and Tobias Buckell's more moderate, "meh, whatever" stance.
While I'm no longer mired in the futile outrage that plagues most new authors like Ms. Clare (and myself, not so long ago), I don't tend to agree with Buckell that piracy of books is an essentially effect-neutral issue. Though I'm intelligent enough to concede that not every illegal download = a sale lost, and therefore $2 not in my pocket that should be in there, I DO NOT buy into his assertion that all illegal downloaders fall into three basic categories: 1) content collectors who will never read your book, but get a kick out of hoarding tens of thousands of books they have no interest in reading just to say they have them, 2) paying-super-fans-in-the-making, who'll illegally download to sample your work, and who, if they like it, will go on to legally purchase your next book, and your next, and your next, and 3) people in less privileged parts of the world, who through economic disparity between our world and theirs, simply CANNOT legally acquire a book that essentially costs them a week's pay.
In the first case, you haven't lost a sale, because the downloader would never have purchased your book in the first place--hell, he's not even going to read it. In the second, you stand to make MORE sales than you would have otherwise, once those downloaders sample your work for free and discover you're worth their dime. In the third, not only aren't you losing a sale, but the very act of piracy is portrayed as encouraging literacy and is seen as a charitable act toward the less fortunate (and I have to say, this is a category of illegal downloaders I find it very hard to resent).
But I think there are other categories of illegal downloaders:
The Anti-Copyright Freedom Fighter: I've wrangled with this type before. They download illegally, they read what they download, and they view having to pay for it as an injustice of the first order. They see no value in the "gate-keeping" service publishers provide (having never been paid to read slush, one would presume), nor any value in paid-for editing, marketing and distribution. They believe a world without copyright will be a wondrous Utopia filled with beautiful stories that are free for everyone to enjoy--stories that were somehow transformed from raw manuscripts into shining examples of quality fiction through the dogged, though unpaid, labor of enthusiasts who do their part out of the sheer joy of the work.
The problem is, editing, marketing, and distribution ARE work, and often less than joyful. Ask any editor. Hell, ask any self-published author. And no one likes to work for nothing, even when they enjoy what they do. Likewise, writing itself is work, and it's work that for most doesn't even amount to minimum wage.
I'm a single mom. I've been solely financially responsible for myself and my three kids for more than two years. I work 20-30 hours per week waiting tables, and have a half-duplex in BC I rent out for less than market value because the tenant is so reliable. My kids and I live comfortably, though very modestly (IMO, the best way to raise a child is poor, hungry and desperate, lol). The royalties from my four published books represent, on average, a mere 10-15% of my monthly income. I earn five times as much waiting tables in a 20 hour work week as my four books bring me in the same amount of time.
Very few authors are looking to get rich from their writing. Even if it's a dream (OMG, I could quit my job, hire a maid, and get to have an actual, you know...life and stuff, woot!), most of us have at least one toe of one foot planted in the soil of reality, and understand the unlikelihood of us earning a cushy living, let alone millions, from writing fiction.
But here's the thing: We still want to get paid for our work.
First, writing costs money. You need a computer (the days of tapping away on a second-hand Smith-Corona are long gone). You (arguably) need a website, and that requires hosting, which costs. You need an internet connection. Even if you're self-publishing, you'd be advised to have a professional editor look over your manuscript...unless you're perfect, like me, and your words are pure gold the moment they materialize on the screen, heh.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, writing costs time. Time with your butt in chair, hands on keyboard. Time I could be putting toward any number of other things--cleaning my bathroom, playing cards with my kids, cutting the grass, or earning $20-30/hour at my day job. Time I could be spending in the pursuit of leisure activities, like watching movies, reading other people's books, mooching dinner and beers off my parents, going out to play pool, or just sitting on my ass, staring into the middle distance and thinking back on the good old days before I had kids and a house and bills to pay, that long-ago time when being bored was a BAD thing, rather than a rare and beautiful occasion when, holy shit, there's nothing that requires my immediate attention for the next ten minutes.
I'm a creative person at heart. I will always make up stories. I started in my early teens, in the twenty minutes every night before I fell asleep--imagining characters of my own creation acting out scenes behind my closed eyelids. Daydreaming. But if it hadn't been for the possibility of eventual publication (and money), I might never, at age 15, have started writing those stories down. And once I got married and had kids, and a house to look after, and a job, and bills to pay...well, everyone has to prioritize, right? We have to decide what's most important to us, and what's least, and what falls in between. And if there'd been no potential to ever earn anything from my writing, well, writing would have been at the very, very, very bottom of my list of priorities. I'd have gone back to daydreaming, enacting my stories in my own head, and forgoing the time and effort involved in putting them on paper.
And my responsibilities and burdens have only increased since I split with my ex-husband. It's hard to find the time and energy to even daydream, let alone write. Today, the mere potential of eventual earnings wouldn't be enough to convince me to invest any time in it. If I wasn't already earning money from my writing, if it hadn't already been demonstrated that I can write a publishable novel and sell it to a publisher and make some dough, well...
Writing is something I will always enjoy doing. But it's something I can and do spend time on only because I can earn money from it. And for my publisher, publishing my books is something they do because they can earn money from it. My editor picks through manuscripts until they're as close to perfect as she can get them, because she can earn money from it. Everyone involved in the process is motivated by money to some degree or another, no matter how much they enjoy what they do.
The Anti-Copyright Freedom Fighter will insist that in the brave new world of no intellectual property rights, there will still be tons of great stories out there, even if no one makes any money on them. But none of those stories would be mine, because I'd rather be a financially comfortable full-time waitress than a starving part-time waitress/writer. Most authors are regular people with regular jobs and bills to pay and a few little people who look like them depending on their income for things like diapers and school supplies and braces. And yeah, maybe some would keep writing if there was no earning potential in it--but they'd write less, because they'd have less time to write. And some of those would write one or two books for the personal validation and feedback they'd get out of doing it, and then get distracted by all the other things they could be and should be investing their time in, rather than this silly writing business that doesn't and won't ever earn them anything but a feeling of accomplishment and a pat on the back.
The Anti-Copyright Freedom Fighter will insist that in this brave new Utopia, there would be other ways authors could monetize their work--like merchandising or movie rights. But those alternate revenue steams are also dependent on copyright. Without copyright, anyone could profit off exploiting my story or characters in any way they wanted, and wouldn't have to pay me one dime. The Anti-Copyright Freedom Fighter will insist that a "tip jar" on an author's website would bring in plenty of money, the way an open guitar case attracts coins for a busker from passersby. But there's something very different about standing and enjoying a few songs on a street corner, and then walking away while the musician watches without throwing in a coin, and downloading a book for free. An author can't SEE you reading and enjoying his book. An author can't SEE you not throwing in those few quarters. And frankly, for many people, as long as no one SEES them behaving like a turd-ass, they feel perfectly fine in doing so. There are lots of people who would "tip" an author whose work they'd enjoyed. But there are also lots and lots and lots of people who wouldn't.
The Anti-Copyright Freedom Fighter is loathe to acknowledge the role profit plays in any creative endeavor, from the invention of the light bulb, to the creation of software programs like Windows, to writing fiction. The Anti-Copyright Freedom Fighter believes rightly that necessity is the mother of invention, but he refuses to acknowledge that potential wealth is its semen-providing father. The Anti-Copyright Freedom Fighter believes that fame and social status are enough to keep creative types creating and putting their work out there--and for some that may be true. There's a reason why, when my guy talks about me to his friends, he tells them I'm an author or a writer or a novelist, rather than a waitress, even though I spend way more time and earn way more money serving food than I do writing books. It's social cred, for sure. But social cred doesn't pay your phone bill, does it?
There's nothing that will convince The Anti-Copyright Freedom Fighter that his vision of a copyright-free paradise is misguided in any way. Even if his wish came true--copyright was abolished--and all that resulted was one giant, hideous pile of slush rather than sunshine, lollipops and high-quality, cost-free fiction galore, he'd insist that unforeseen forces had interfered with what would otherwise have been a golden age of fiction. So debating copyright with him is about as amusing as talking socio-economics with a gang of upper-middle-class born, teenage, quasi-communist, wannabe-street-kid, preach-socialism-from-the-cradle-of-privilege activists. Talking to people who base their philosophy on a world they wished existed but never can, rather than a better permutation of the world that is, well, it's essentially like talking to a brick wall.
So since there's nothing that will convince The Anti-Copyright Freedom Fighter to change his ways, we'll move onto the next category of illegal downloaders I've encountered.
The Super-Fan Who Still Won't Pay: She loves your books. She gushes about them to all who'll listen. She read your first and second titles and was so impressed, she's been lauding you all over the forum. Then she posts her request: "Hey guys! I adore this author! You should read her, she's fantastic! But I can't find her third book on the torrent site where I got her first two--anyone here have it to upload?"
This downloader stumbled on a pirate site one day, saw craploads of books she wanted to read, all available for nothing, and never looked back. Her very first post went along the lines of, "OMG, you have Nora Roberts' latest??!! So cool! I've been wanting that one for months! And to think I used to actually PAY for her books! I'm so grateful to have found you guys!"
The community felt warm and welcoming. And she got some serious warm fuzzies from uploading books from her own computer, and "sharing" all her favorite reads with her new friends. She believes them when they tell her it isn't stealing. And they're right--it isn't stealing.
But it isn't sharing, either. Sharing requires that you give up something in order to give something to someone else. When you share a cookie with someone, you no longer get to eat the whole cookie, do you? When you share a physical book, you have to hand it over to the other person and trust that they'll give it back when they're done. What she's doing isn't sharing--it's copying and distributing. Illegally. She doesn't have to give up one damn thing in order to get the good feeling of providing something of value to others. She didn't put in any of the work needed to create the book (hell, she might not have even paid for it), she doesn't own the rights to distribute the work, but she'll happily give it away to 4000 of her closest buddies, soak up their praise and gratitude, and in doing so, cut the content producer right out of the equation. She's trampled on the authors' right to decide where and how to make their books available to readers. She's taken something of value that someone else owns, given it away for nothing, and gets a shit-ton of backslapping in return. She's become the hero, and the author is forgotten. And no matter how much she adores your writing, she won't pay you one thin dime for it.
She understands that it's illegal to do what she's doing. She may even understand that it hurts authors--emotionally if not fiscally. But she doesn't care, as long as she gets what she wants...for free.
But there may be a way to reach some of these downloaders. A year or more ago, I stumbled into a blog discussion on the "feminization" of science fiction. The guy who wrote the OP insisted it was part of a feminist political agenda to girly-up everything that used to be just for the boys. A commenter--one known for his penchant for wearing only designer clothes, so presumably not on his last nickel--chimed in to say the latest Star Trek was an awesome movie. He'd ripped it off the net and watched it three times. Shit, why don't they make more movies like THAT? To which I replied, "Well, boys, you have your answer right there. Young men like those movies, but young men don't like to, you know, actually pay to watch them. They rip stuff off the net instead. So movie studios make sure that all their films will appeal to the ladies in some way or another--because women drag their boyfriends to the damn theater, and that's the only way studios have a hope in hell of earning back their $300 million in production costs. Want more movies made just for you? PAY for the movies you want to watch."
Producers get paid to produce. Consumers pay to consume. That's the way commerce works--even when that commerce involves creative content. And if readers want books they like--especially ones that are not quite mainstream--they need to pay for them if they want more of that sweet, sweet content.
Authors' careers are made by the sales they make, and they're likewise broken by the sales they DON'T make. Sometimes the difference between a second contract and the effective end of a career is as little as a few thousand copies. And no amount of pointing to a pirate site and saying, "I have a readership in the tens of thousands who adore my books--look at them discussing me all over the forum and singing my praises!" will do an author any good. Because just as there's no way to prove that those readers AREN'T members of Buckell's second category of downloaders--those paying-super-fans-in-the-making--there's no way to prove to your publisher that any of them ARE. All the publisher sees is a reader base that would rather illegally download your book than pay for it.
Which brings me to the downloaders I feel can be turned around, if only everyone can just stay calm, state their case, and try not to sling mud or be judgmental.
The I Didn't Realize: Believe it or not, there are people out there who simply have no idea how publishing even works, who have no notion of how squeaky the profit margins in the industry are. Who just don't realize that if you're not Stephen King of Nora Roberts or JK Rowling, chances are you don't earn--and might never earn--a comfortable living from your books. I encounter these people all the time--customers and coworkers and acquaintances who express astonishment that, "What the heck? You have four books published? What are you doing still slinging hash?"
Movies like "Stranger than Fiction" portray authors as some mythical upper/outer economic class of people who are so financially valuable to publishers that they have "handlers" and "assistants" who are paid to babysit them while they work. People envision things like book tours, which are pretty much non-existent unless you're one of Oprah's darlings. The common assumption is that books are big money, when in reality, 80% of traditionally published books already LOSE money for the publisher, and are subsidized by the profits earned through the big name workhorses in the stable. The prevailing wisdom is that artists often starve, even after they've been discovered, but writers stop starving the moment they get a contract.
The general sentiment is that publishers have bottomless pockets, and their wallets can take any number of hits and none of it will ever trickle down to the lowest person on the profit totem pole--the newb or midlist author. But a little time on Holly Lisle's website certainly cured me of any ideas of getting filthy rich off my books. She's a successful, midlist author who had 14 books in print and earning steadily for her before she felt it was safe to quit her day job. And the digital publishing industry is so unstable--between fly-by-night publishers, piracy, and the big industry boys stirring up the waters and fucking with everything--that I don't know if I'd ever feel safe to quit mine.
And when you consider that profits from authors like Nora Roberts are what allow big publishers to take chances on untried newbs, and keep taking chances on them even after their first attempts didn't do as well as projected...well, all of a sudden piracy doesn't feel so harmless, even if you're only illegally downloading one of LaNora's books, does it?
The I Didn't Realize has no idea that most authors have to forcibly wedge time to write in between the job that gives them a stable income, household chores, kids and a million other things their mother-in-law thinks would be a better use of their time. Like dusting the tops of doors and making the beds and stuff. And because the I Didn't Realize isn't actually stealing, and because the I Didn't Realize doesn't realize how tenuous an author's career can be, it's hard to see that illegally downloading does any real damage.
Illegal downloading is not the same as theft. It's less obviously harmful, but more insidious in its potential to do lasting damage, because it ISN'T theft. It's like jumping the turnstile and riding the subway for free. People can justify it so easily because the subway is going that way anyway, and as long as they're not taking a seat away from a paying rider, what's the problem? Except that on the digital subway, there's an unlimited number of seats, so no matter how many people ride for free they're never taking a seat from someone who's paid their fare. Until, of course, there are no seats at all, because hardly anyone's been paying for the ride, and the transit authority can no longer justify the conductor's salary or the price of fuel.
This is the very real fear authors have regarding piracy. Because the more people do it, and justify it, the easier it is for others to rationalize joining in. Especially when so many people out there are I Didn't Realizes.
It's the I Didn't Realizes who need to be educated and encouraged to support their favorite authors, to vote with their wallets, to reward the people who produce the books they love so writers can keep writing them, and publishers will keep publishing them. Because that's what we all want, isn't it? For the authors we love to keep giving us great books to read. And for me as a reader, my part in that equation is to purchase those books as much as I can, or get them from a library that purchased them, or buy a used copy that will fall apart eventually and have to be--you guessed it--purchased again at some point if it's to be read again.
As I've said elsewhere, creative work is not the same as "regular" work, even when that regular work requires skill and training. Writing fiction, or designing buildings, furniture or clothes, or painting, or sculpting, or writing/performing songs is not the same as being a pilot, or a receptionist, or a waitress, or a nurse, or a mechanic, or a drywaller, or a crane operator, or an accountant, or the guy who screws caps on tubes of toothpaste in a factory. Creative work has--or should have--a different perceived value than other kinds of labor, both to the creator and to the consumer. Because any mechanic can adjust your timing chain, but nobody but me can write MY books. Every book, every song, every painting, every sculpture ever produced is something unique that was generated essentially out of nothing, through the determination, imagination, and craft of the people involved. If I quit my day job, they'd just hire another waitress. Ribs and drinks would be delivered to customers, dirty dishes would get cleared away. But if I don't write my books, no one else will ever write them, because no one else can. They just won't exist, because they're my creations.
Because of this, the 10-15% of my income that I earn through writing means much more to me than the other 85-90% I get from other sources. That 10-15% is HUGE, because I earned it producing something no one else in the world could ever, or will ever, produce--books that came out of my imagination, books where every single sentence was of my creation. And this is why I feel it's so difficult for most authors to do as Buckell advises and simply divorce emotion from a cold, logical analysis of the economic effects of piracy. Because though there's no reliable way to quantify what pirating may or may not cost me, there's no escaping the feeling that it costs me something, even if that something is essentially unknowable. Even if that something is only control over how and where and for how much my work is distributed. Even if that something is just the right to say, "My book is worth $4, and if you want to read it you should pay that, or get it from the library, or get it second hand so that I know someone, at some point, paid for that copy of it."
People who pirate my books are in essence demonstrating to me that my work is worth nothing to them, even when they enjoy reading it, even when they rave about it. They're telling me that I should not have a say in how my work is distributed. Their constant congratulating of each other is like telling me that their role--as uploaders of my books--is as worthy of recognition among their peers as, or more worthy than, my role as the person who actually wrote them.
And that...well, it's discouraging. And it's also discouraging to realize that the number of downloads of one of my books from a single pirate site is often greater than the number of copies of ALL my books that have ever been legally purchased.
I have excerpts posted on my website to give readers a taste of my style, and there are reviews of my books that are easily found around the internet. Anyone who wants to sample my writing can do so legally, and if they decide that the size and quality of that sample isn't enough to justify them risking the price of a Starbucks latte on the actual book...well, I suppose that's fair enough. I've heard lots of downloaders insist what Buckell insists--that most of them are paying-super-fans-in-the-making--but I've seen plenty of evidence that even people who've read and adored my books, hell, who are panting for them, are often unwilling to pay for the next one if they can get it for free.
I've heard the DRM argument, and the geographical restrictions argument, and the price-point argument--all of which are valid, but none of which can be applied to my publisher's books, which are DRM-free from their own storefront, available to purchasers worldwide, downloadable infinitely and in multiple formats for one price, and priced more than reasonably. Those are some of the reasons I chose the publisher I did--I wanted to make it as easy and inexpensive as possible for people to purchase and enjoy my books. And yet people still pirate them. Lots of people. Not just citizens of Third World countries who couldn't otherwise afford them, but people from North America and Europe who easily can. Not just people who tried me out and said, "meh," but people who think I'm the cat's pajamas.
So I don't know what's to be done to fix the problem. I just know that for an author, it's very, very hard not to take it personally. And the only tactic I think will have any bearing on anyone is to calmly and clearly state our positions, as authors who want more time to devote to writing, not less, and more opportunities to convince publishers to take on our work and get it out there, not fewer.
Anyway, that's my take on the subject. :)