“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 Change.org 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 Cycle – Blue 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.
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.
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.”)