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Piracy: It’s the Creative Ecosystem that Matters

Friday, November 10th, 2017 | Posted by M Harold Page


Jack Campbell: “…a few hundred more of less sales can mean the difference between a new contract and being cut loose.”


“Oh, you streamed it, did you? Well #### you, sir. #### you.”

“Who has the new album?” asks the lead singer of Finntroll, a rather wonderful Viking Metal band (*).

One of the fans yells out something incomprehensible.

“Oh, you streamed it, did you?” responds the singer. “Well #### you, sir. #### you.”

Which seems fitting, because when you pirate an artist’s work, it feels like you’re saying a big, “#### you!” to the artist.

For that reason alone, can I suggest that you click through to and sign the petition to ask Google to do something about ebook piracy. If Google can hide results for legal reasons (*), then it can also start hiding the pirate sites.

Of course, my plea opens a can of worms.

Whenever ebook piracy comes up, people leap in to provide (self) justifications ranging from pseudo economic or political victim-blaming through to rhetorical sleight of hand. The same arguments could be used to justify, for example, blatant commercial cultural apparition, big players pirating indy jewelry designs, and the hacking and passing around of the very private pictures of celebs. It’s a pointless debate because really there’s an underlying unspoken, “‘#### you”. (Feel free to discuss this in the comments, but count me out.)

Usually, the pro-piracy advocate then appends, “Besides, anyway, it doesn’t do any harm.” That’s what I want to talk about here, because in all the kerfuffle about ethics, people tend to lose track of the effect on the creative ecosystem.

A post by Joanna Penn spells two arguments:  Serious readers prefer to buy books rather than download stolen copies, and some authors use piracy as a marketing strategy. I’ve also heard on good authority that most pirated books aren’t actually lost sales because they are never read – there’s a culture of… odd people hoarding and sharing.

However, Jack Campbell (top MilSF author) says:

The problem with analyses like those in that article are that they focus on a few success stories. How many other authors have had their chance of success cut off at the knees because too many books were stolen rather than bought? For a mid-list writer, a few hundred more of less sales can mean the difference between a new contract and being cut loose. But there aren’t any figures for that and no one has the means to quantify the damage done. It’s just like the lottery highlighting the winner of the big prize, and not mentioning the many, many more people whose losses went into paying for that prize and reaping profits for the lottery. (Quoted with permission).

There are certainly examples of this. A  few years ago a high-profile Spanish literary novelist even gave up writing as a career(*). Recently, a best selling their got cancelled due to piracy (which is what sparked off the current flurry of interest):

Stiefvater, author of the Shiver and Raven Cycle series, raised the issue after she was contacted on Twitter by a reader who told her: “I never bought ur books I read them online pirated.” On her website, Stiefvater later explained that, when ebook sales for the third book in the Raven CycleBlue Lily, Lily Blue – “dropped precipitously,” her publisher decided to cut the print run of the next book in the series to less than half of its predecessors (from the Guardian).

You could, if you wish, argue that this is an exceptional or exaggerated case, that things aren’t so bad right now. If so, it’s hard to prove you wrong because as Jack says, we just don’t have the figures.

Sky Pirates of Callisto-small

Ebook pirates aren’t this cool.

However, the situation keeps changing. Once upon a time — before cheap ereaders  — giving away ebooks was a sure fire way of getting people to buy your hard copy. Good luck with that these days, unless you are already a top author!

In the long term, there’s a plausible future in which piracy has broken the ecosystem supporting long form fiction. Ebooks are instantly pirated and passed around for free (often via websites that earn money from advertising, by the way), and hard copies are quickly “ripped” to ebook and go the same way.

In this broken ecosystem, almost nobody can make money from selling books.

“So what?” you say. “Mumble mumble buggy whip manufacturers. Ouch! Stop punching me. There are alternative economic models.”

Yes, there are alternative economic models. All of them suck in their own way:

Public Lending Rights Model: Internet Service Providers pay a tax. An official organisation monitors downloading streams and hands out royalties to authors.

On the face of it, this is a super rational and reasonable solution.

Honestly, to me it screams, “Danger Will Robinson! Danger”. Implementing and administrating this will be a nightmare, and ISPs will find cunning ways to evade it. It’ll either be uneven in its coverage, entirely missing some niche books, or else raise massive privacy concerns.

Assuming it can be made to happen, it will then be a single point of failure that’s part political football, part pork barrel. There’s no way that politicians will be able to resist the temptation to censor by cash flow, or redistribute according to policy.

Corporate Sponsorship Model: A corporation pays the author to write books that will be used in marketing campaigns.

Pirates Of Penzance

Pirates! (I’ve no idea why BG has this picture on file)

Sure, I’d love to do this. Show me the money! Unfortunately, this means books have to pass through committees whose main concern is corporate branding.  Let’s not do this!

The next two models have share similar issues:

Secondary Earnings Model: The author makes no money off books, but recoups the money via things like public appearances.

Crowd Funding Model: What it says. Books or the author themselves are crowd-funded. (People already do this).

These only work for authors who either (a) already established, and/or (b) splendid self publicists and performers.  That doesn’t make their books bad, but it does rule out income for introverts, recluses, or those who steal their writing time from family life. They are unlikely to stay the course. Do we really want to still these voices?

Hobby Model: Author writes for the love of it and expects to make no money from fiction.

But who would write prolifically, rather than squeeze out  a hobby novel every decade or so? Basically obsessives and rich dabblers.

Sure, some very good writers were a little odd (cough Lovecraft cough Poe), and some of the greatest literature came from people who didn’t have to worry about money. However, this is not an ecosystem that would support, say, a David Gemmel. And it certainly rules out writers from less privileged backgrounds.

So, in  a nutshell, without copyright protection, the novels of the future will reflect a limited range of experiences and tastes. The novel will either belong to the grey corporate or governmental gatekeepers, or else the adept self publicist, the rich dilettante, or the lonely obsessive.

That’s not a future many of us would enjoy. So let’s not go there. Imagine I’m a tattered time traveller from a decade hence who’s come back to plead with you: please click through and sign the petition.

M Harold Page is the Scottish author of works such as Swords vs Tanks (Charles Stross: “Holy ****!”) NOW AVAILABLE IN OMNIBUS EDITION! For his take on writing, read Storyteller Tools: Outline from vision to finished novel without losing the magic(Ken MacLeod: “…very useful in getting from ideas etc to plot and story.” Hannu Rajaniemi: “…find myself to coming back to [this] book in the early stages.”)


  1. The pirates (music, games, books etc) I have spoken to always have some sort of justification, like “the artist doesn’t get money anyway, it’s just the record company, by pirating I am sticking it to the man.” absurd really because the same people would scream blue murder if something happened within their vocation that caused them to lose money. I suppose it’s almost a sort of social blindness, “if I do it I am harming no one, if someone else does it they are criminals”.

    On a more practical side, specifically with regards eBooks. If I buy a paperback, read it and then on sell it that’s okay. But if I do the same with an eBook does the same ruleset apply I wonder?

    Comment by Tiberius - November 11, 2017 5:09 am

  2. > If I buy a paperback, read it and then on sell it that’s okay. But if I do the same with an eBook does the same ruleset apply I wonder?

    An paperback degrades, and to a certain extent the price of used paperbacks must prop up the price of new ones – avid readers buy and sell.

    I know the EU was pondering some… special pedantic law allowing resale of ebooks. I’m not sure what happened with it, but even contemplating the idea it makes me see infra red.

    Comment by M Harold Page - November 11, 2017 8:38 am

  3. Hi Harold, thanks for discussing this.
    Given the parallel with the music market, I guess that the rise of ebooks will unavoidably bring massive unchecked piracy and this will have the consequence to squeeze the market for midlist author. There is no way back I fear. And I can offer my own example. I know a guy who buys a fair amount of books (average 3-5 books at least for months, more than he can read usually, plus the occasional ebook), but he still illegally downloads a few ebooks, usually 1) ebooks that are copies of physical books he possesses but not at his current abode, 2) non-fiction ebooks that he is not planning to read as a whole. Many of the latter he gets from the University libraries and then proceeds stripping off the encryptions to upload them on his kindle device. Both of these operations are thefts and he is not deluded on that, still the risk is almost non-existent and no immediate perception of damage, so from time to time the urge to get a digital copies of a book and save some cash does not refrain him. And then he realizes that it might be really easy just a matter of seconds to download entire bibliographies, that would take a year at least to be read (consider S. King for instance). He understands this is wrong, and crazy in a sense, but still he could do it, everything is just there and really easy to find at least for popular authors. And this is even crazier than for music, I think. Still once you start there is a huge risk to go that road. Luckily to avoid that he reads 80% of his stuff from physical books.
    I suspect that the digital world is just so much worse (and still better for those who manage to sell) because it is much easier to accumulate stuff that in the analog one, so you end up buying or stealing compulsively, which is not healthy either for you and for the ecosystem. Still being Man what (s)he is it will just go that way, so new models will come out unavoidably. I guess a mix of AmazonUnlimited, Patreon et similia, and people who as you said will write as a hobby. Will this squeeze the market? There will be less money I guess. Fewer works? I am not sure, as people write for a creative urge, but it might be.
    For sure, midlist authors from the traditional market seem to be the species most at risk. I read a few days ago an article that was however forecasting a new golden age for pulp authors who could adapt to the new models…not sure where that was if I find it I might share that.
    I agree that reselling ebooks make no sense…you can sell it and just keep 1 or 1000 (DRM-free) copies of it on your many devices and hard drives.
    Sorry not sure if what I wrote was very coherent, I was just interested in the subject

    Comment by MorgonMax - November 12, 2017 6:42 pm

  4. […] Internet Notes for the month: – Lisa discovered a series on YouTube called Lessons from the Screenplay. She said that the series analyzes scripts, but the lessons and storytelling tips are applicable to any creative writing: – A pair of timely articles about piracy (and not the yo-ho-ho kind): – […]

    Pingback by Notes from the November, 2017 Tamale Hut Café Writers Group meeting | Tamale Hut Café Writers Group - November 18, 2017 4:06 pm

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