December 17, 2009

Readers, Writers, and Pirates

Recently, there was a brouhaha (isn't that a fabulous word?) over people sharing ebooks and Kindles. I missed most of it, and I don't really want to know the gorey details, honestly. What I don't get about the pirates' reactions is this... With old books, paper books, vintage books, if you lent one to a friend, you no longer had it. Right? If you wanted to read it again, you had to get it back from your friend. If your friend lost your book, or gave it away, you had to buy another one. But if you make an illegal copy of a file and give it to a friend (or 1,000 friends), you have the book, and so do your friends. And the author and publisher never received payment for the additional books. Here is an actual email I received from one of our authors who was horrified to see her book for free online:

My latest book is on the internet with the cover and the entire book to download or copy. How can that be? I just found it last week and wanted to talk to you before I tried to track it down. This is a mystery and does not seem fair to you or me.

What some readers do not understand, I think, is how little writers actually make from a book. I refer you to my 93% for me post, which is actually about how little publishers make. But as a writer, if I have a 7% royalty on a $14.95 book, I make $1.07 a copy. If I am an editor, all my expenses come out of the advance or the $1.07.

What I would really like to ask the readers who steal books—if you work, how would you feel if your boss said, "Times are rough. I'm only going to pay you for 1/10th of the work you do. Or, I'm going to trade you out to a few thousand companies, and I'm not going to pay you any extra."

I believe people think they are simply taking a little bit from a huge corporation. I'm not a huge corporation. I have not drawn salary since February. No lie. Our warehouse right now costs more than the sales we bring in. So clearly I'm biased.

Of course, I have no problem with people sharing print books. And I am not against libraries. (That was in a comment I read on one blog from a pirate. "You can borrow a book from a library. How is that different from sending an e-file to all of your friends?" Um.) What I am against is someone taking a book or a story that is saved electronically and sending out this file to multiple people. Some of the reasons I read about readers trading books rang false to me. "How will I know if I like an author if I haven't stolen her work first?" (I'm paraphrasing.) For me, I try to give away a lot of stories so people can get a taste before they buy. But this brings up a good question someone sent me this week:

if I want to "give" one or more of your stories for a gift how the fuck do I do that? LOL is it possible even? A regular book I can buy a copy of and give it as a gift - wrap it all pretty and stuff. But how to do that with PDFs? (ethically). I'm not sure I've ever seen this brought up in any of the discussions about electronic publishing. Have you ever thought about it?

Ethically, you'd buy a PDF and email the file to a friend. If you wanted to give several friends the same book, you'd buy several PDFs the same way you would if you wanted to give several friends copies of Saskia Walker's fabulous new collection Unleashed. You couldn't buy one hard copy and give the sizzling collection to 20 friends. You'd have to buy 20 copies.

What's also strange to me is that books are treated differently from other objects. You can't make a copy of shoes you like, or a dress you adore, or a bottle of wine you just bought. But a book—oh, that's something else entirely.

I'm interested in your thoughts on the situation, readers, writers, and, yes, pirates alike.


P.S. Punk, goth, pirate pin is available here.


neve black said...

I wasn't aware of the recent brouhaha, Alison. I often find it's best if I'm not always in the "know" if you know what I mean.
But thank you for posting this, because it's important.

I certainly don't fly straight sometimes...God knows, but I will say, I don't think it's right to steal, and especially from artists. Let's be honest, there's good reason for the term, "starving artist".

I have such a deep respect for the arts and try to support other artists efforts, of all genres, anyway that I can. It breaks my heart when I hear about pirating. It's so disrespectful and shameful, really. How's that for a straight to the point answer? I won't watch a pirated movie. I pay for my annual museum and art house movie memberships. I buy art from artists and gallery owners that I know and respect. I don't burn music. And I wouldn't consider reading another artist's work without asking first, or buying the work.

Finally, I think there are few people in the world that don't know the difference between what's right and what's wrong. Most people know the difference. I say this because I think most people know when they're stealiing and they know that isn't right.

I do believe the universe rights the wrong. It may not be today. It may not be tomorrow. But what goes around certainly does come back around.

Don't hesitate to let us me or others know how we can help ban the pirates. Maybe tee-shirts or pins? I'm just saying.... :-)


Jeremy Edwards said...

I've stumbled on pirated copies of my work (and that of other writers I know) at one particular document-upload site. That site is good about taking things down when alerted.

I'm not a big fan of the capitalist system ... but it's the system we exist in. Meaning that, unless we are some kind of subsidized public program or volunteer organization, we generally have to charge money for our work. And, yes, I suspect that the people who defend piracy on anarchist grounds—who tell themselves they're bucking the big, bad system by not paying for things—sing a not-so-anarchistic tune where their own paychecks are concerned.

Tangent: I've long advocated (to anyone who will listen) a royalty system for used books and library books that would work loosely along the lines of the music-performance royalty system, whereby the people who own rights to music recordings have traditionally earned income for their songs being played on the radio, at clubs, etc. Why not have a system in place whereby every time a library book circulated or a used book was resold, a royalty went to the author? I'm not suggesting people should pay to borrow library books, of course; I'm thinking libraries and bookstores would pay into a kitty via dues, which would then be distributed, as happens for songwriters. The libraries should be subsidized for this by the government, imo.

Right now, of course, I realize that nobody has the money for this: not the government, certainly not the used book dealers ... no one except the super-rich individuals and corporations that the government is so shy about taxing appropriately.

Paul said...

Alison, I read your short short, The Hardest Part, last night, I really enjoyed it, certainly hit the spot.
Old fashioned piracy may be romantic, modern piracy is just low down theft and should be punished.
Unfortunately I don't have a solution.
Warm hugs,

Emerald said...

"I believe people think they are simply taking a little bit from a huge corporation. I'm not a huge corporation."

Yeah, I have had that impression on occasion too. I remember several years ago when Napster was still operating and there was talk of introducing a system in which people could download single songs for a set price (see iTunes), I was having a conversation with some peers in which I expressed regret about the idea of rampantly downloading music for free because it cheated the artists. Another participant in the conversation said, "I don't feel sorry about it. The giant music companies don't need any more money. They already fuck artists and customers over enough."

Now in the case of the music industry, I understand this perspective. But it doesn't seem to me that stealing music is the answer, because that still doesn't benefit the artist. Plus, even if it is "just" stealing from big companies, it doesn't seem cool to me.

But what struck me as really funny about this conversation is that this individual was a fellow writer/artist. I felt especially surprised that he felt that way given the direct possibility that something he produced could someday be treated similarly. (Obviously I didn't even know about Kindle and such then — I just mean theoretically in terms of his producing something creative that was somehow copied and distributed without compensation to him.)

Like Neve, I feel very sad about the pirating of others' work the way you describe. And in response to the idea of people saying they can't afford the books they want to read too — I understand, and in a capitalistic system (as Jeremy alludes to), that tends to mean that right now/until you can afford to buy them, you don't get to have them. I agree that it seems interesting that books in this way seem to be seen differently from other commodities, Alison.

For example, your "How will I know if I like an author if I haven't stolen her work first?" paraphrased comment seems to indicate a bit of a sense of entitlement to me. At a restaurant you don't get to ask to sample a whole serving of something on the menu before you order it to see if you like it. Ironically, one of the advantages of hard copy books may be that in the store one may flip through them and perhaps get a sense as such! Many online venues, of course, offer this kind of option as well. (And as you said, you yourself have entire stories available for free.)

Well, I guess that's enough rambling from me on the topic for now. :) Namaste.

Erobintica said...

I'm the one that asked the "gift" question by the way (I'm not afraid to look stupid)

so okay, stupid question of the day (watch as I expose my ignorance folks!)-

if you buy a PDF, it goes onto your computer, right? and if you then send it to a friend as a gift, don't you still have it on your computer? So you have a copy and then they have a copy. Obviously I don't send lots of PDFs. Please correct me if I"m wrong.

and what about something I've already bought? If I buy another copy to give to a friend, then I have two copies.

I'm very sympathetic to people who work in the world of publishing because my husband does and he's watching his industry disappear (which makes us very nervous) - so, I don't want to do something inadvertently that ethically I don't approve of (stealing the work of artists of any stripe).

Thanks for this post Alison - I'll be very interested in seeing what folks have to say.

ste said...

If I ever get an e-book reader (which is not actually all that) then I would want one that allowed lending, because having paid for an e-book I'd want to be able to lend it in the same way that I could lend a paper version. The Barnes & Noble Nook has a lending feature that takes care of one of your concerns, Alison - if I lend an e-title to a friend, then I can't access it while they have it. And that's fair enough. But then you notice the restrictions, like the lending period only being 14 days. And only some titles can be loaned in the first place. That doesn't seem right. Partly because some of my friends are slow readers, but mainly because there's no time limit on a friend keeping a paperback I lend them, and I get to choose what I lend. Why should this be any different? Restrictions like that seem arbitrary and unreasonable. But at least B&N have made a start by allowing it at all.

Erobintica - you raise a good point about the gift PDFs - for that to work, you'd have to delete the original file from your computer after you email it (and even then it would be retrievable). But in attaching it to an email in the first place, you've made a copy - which is a presumably a breach of copyright even if you don't keep the original.

This is sort of off-topic, but I feel the urge to point out that file sharing is not (necessarily) piracy. Often in discussions on this sort of thing - especially concerning the music industry - "file sharing" is often conflated with "illegal downloading", when there is nothing illegal or immoral about the act or technology of file sharing itself. Sharing things that you don't have the permissions or rights to share, is of course different.

Cora Zane said...

I don't know all the fine details about the Kindle brouhaha, but from what I *did* pick up from it, it sounded a lot to me like people taking advantage of a glitch. I don't know for sure, but there it is.

On another note.... As far as I'm concerned, ebook pirates can eat shit and die.

What it basically boils down to is pirates are cheap assholes who don't want to buy a book, don't want to support an author, and are basically worth less than the crap scraped off the bottom of my hiking boots. Of course as authors - as "artists" - we should "appreciate" that they would want to read us enough to pirate us.

If I could pick the karma of my choice for those kind of arrogant jerks, it would be public anal hemorrhage.

I've had copies of my werewolf books downloaded to a sum of well over over $120,000. Everytime I catch the books up somewhere, I report that site to and the IC3 site - I have have no idea what good it does, but I do it anyway.

If I EVER made 120k in pure royalties, I could pay off all my debts, put my son through community college next year, pay off my parent's house, and still have money left to sink into my bank account. No kidding. At times I feel like getting a lawyer to send these pirate sites a collection notice. A bill for goods taken but not paid for.

I used to kill myself trying to take my books down from the sites, but they are back up within a week, so what's the point?

I think Shiloh Walker says it best on her website. She covers all the bases here: