Over at The Center for Digital Ethics & Policy at Loyola University Chicago, Susan Connolly comes at the issue of book piracy from an interesting angle. Rather than directly discuss the business implications, she chooses to explore the perceived ethics of piracy and the relationships between reader and author (or customer and vendor) that these perceptions generate.
Susan interviewed me for this article back in September. Due to the limitations of her word count she feels she hasn’t explored our conversation in as full a manner as she would have liked. There will be further articles, apparently, and I look forward to them, but in the meantime, Susan and her editors at Loyola University have given me permission to post our original interview in its entirety. Here it is:
Do you feel that book pirating is harming authors?
Firstly can I preface anything I might say re piracy and it’s potential effect on both the industry itself and authors in general by pointing out that I live and work in a western European country. When I brought the subject up back in 2010 ( I think it was) the majority of the readers who contacted me on this subject were European, Canadian, American and Australian ( this includes those commentators who called me a ‘bitch’ and asked me how did it feel to have ‘ruined my career’ by asking folks not to pirate my work.) I can only bring this western European perspective to the subject, but I am aware that piracy has different resonances in different parts of the world. Though the western commentators who called me names and sneered at the fact that I should expect to be paid for my work came from the same privilege I do - residing in a portion of the world where they have the option of free delivery from online sources such as The Book Depository, living in countries where, for the most part, they have access to a library system etc - there are many other portions of the world who do not have access to well distributed fairly priced books nor a working library system. I would very much like to hear those voices included in these conversations in a manner that resonates more deeply than some western teenager who lives up the road from a library and just spent a few hundred dollars on the latest gaming equipment co-opting them as an excuse to rip off the latest GRR Martin book.
In so far as I feel in any way qualified to comment on this problem of global distribution (again, I would much prefer to hear from those who are directly affected by it please – can we get those voices included in this conversation?) it seems to me that the longer piracy is used as a Band-Aid for distribution/pricing problems, the longer it will remain the only available solution. Radical change is needed and that can only come about with a large vocal public objection to the problem and then a concerted effort by political and business interests to change the current situation. If the ‘solution’ continues to be the use of pirate copies coupled with business/political apathy then nothing will ever change.
SO – laying that aside and in the knowledge that I am now speaking in general terms which do not address the issue of global distribution, I’ll try and answer your questions as best I can.
Yes, I do think pirating is harming authors, and in ways that I think are more insidious than the obvious (and much disputed) impact on our wallets. When Cat Valente recently made The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making available free for a week(?) online, it sent sales of the actual physical book shooting into the New York Times top ten best sellers list. When my friend Charles Cecil did something similar with free downloads of Broken Sword, sales of legitimate downloads spiked for a good two week period. These kinds of phenomena are often pointed to as being definite proof that piracy is good for artists, the idea seeming to be ‘if you give it away for free, they’ll pay for your next one’ or ‘they’ll buy it later’. I argue that the two things (the public attitude to something that has been given to for free, as opposed to that which has been pirated ) are too disparate to speak for each other. There is a kind of personal contact implicit in the ‘freely given’ work that seems to strengthen the bond between the author and the reader. It seems, for want of a better word, to humanize the author to the reader, to promote a kind of understanding, and so encourages the desire to reward the creator for the work that they’ve put into the project. Piracy, however, seems to do the complete opposite; it seems to push the creator even further into the background to the point where, if they step forward at all they are treated with distrust and hostility. You are no longer ‘Cat Valente who allowed me read her work for free’ but you are ‘that grasping money grubber who wants me to pay for something when I don’t have to.’ In discussions on piracy, authors and publishers are often very quickly reduced to a faceless ’they’… ‘they want me to go to the library when the bus doesn’t run there and the opening hours are shit’ ‘they’re all part of a huge monolithic publishing system which was outdated in the fifties and has no place in the modern world’ ’they only publish rubbish anyway – the really innovative writers are all self-published.’ In the discussion of piracy the publishing world with all its multitudes of different aims, audiences and varying histories is almost invariably reduced to a caricature of a great ignorant beast which deserves all it gets.
At the bottom of that caricature – stuck down on the monster’s bum somewhere – are the authors. Whether you like to admit it or not, authors are the only members of the industry who don’t work for a wage (we depend on those advances, we depend on those royalty checks) We are the only ones who do the majority of our work for free (it can take from six months to two years to write a decent book – for most of us that is six months to two years of working on spec.) We do so hoping that - when we do finally get the book finished – someone somewhere might pay us for the time it took us to work on it. We are (for the most part) the only ones who are dropped - often never to work again – when our sales don’t reach expectations. When you are a writer there is one thing and one thing only that keeps bread on the table, and editors coming back for more, and that is sales. That’s the bare truth of it. There is nothing anyone can say or do to change that – small press, cool indie, big four, self published, it doesn’t matter how you get your work out there, when you are an author sales are the only things that can keep you going. Having our work pirated is not the same as making a sale. It is not the same.
Speaking of the smaller publisher and the less mainstream writer: it’s a sad truth that the smaller you are, the more vulnerable you are to fluctuations in profit margin. This means that the more challenging work, the quirkier work, the less mainstream work, is in much more danger of sinking due to lack of sales, as are the small press publishers who give that kind of work a chance. Piracy is often touted as being a great source of ’word of mouth’ recommendations for such work ( ironically often by the same sources who claim that the pirates ‘never really read the books they download.’) But if these recommendations are not backed up by sales then that author may never again get the chance to produce a work worth reading. They either won’t have time because they’ll be too busy earning their bread some other way, or they’ll simply never get another publisher to pick up their work.
Do you see an ethical difference between use of a library or borrowing books from friends and book pirating? If so, could you explain this difference?
Yes I do. In terms of the library (and, again, please see my qualifications at the beginning of this interview) many countries have a system whereby records are kept of what books are taken out, when and how often. These reports are sometimes used to calculate a small payment to the author themselves ( here in Ireland it is called the Library Remuneration Scheme) or to the translator, should that book be a translation from another language. Even if this remuneration isn’t accepted by the author (and goes back into the library system) or doesn’t exist in the first place, library loans are a concrete way of proving the popularity of a title – in other words they add to the author’s reputation. (unlike piracy figures were it is generally assumed that pirates download and share in bulk and don’t really care what it is they are distributing )
Libraries are also a wonderful support system for authors, often giving so much back in terms of arranged readings, coordinating school visits, facilitating book clubs etc etc. They are a genuine source of word of mouth recommendation and a wonderful resource, I am a huge supporter of the library system.
Borrowing books from friends, and more importantly loaning books to friends is also another genuine source of word of mouth recommendation. Unlike a piracy site where (as is often pointed out) hundreds and thousands of titles maybe downloaded at once, for no other reason than they are available, a friend will only give you a book that they have seriously liked. There is a connection between them and the work, and as a consequence a respect for the creator, which they are then passing on to you. It is, in a way, an echo of the feelings engendered by the free downloads I spoke of earlier. Handing a book to a friend and saying, ‘I hope you like this, I felt it worth sharing,’ is an act far more intimate and telling than any amount of carelessly uploaded files. It brings the author closer, it turns them into more than an abstract argument over marketing. Loaning a book to a friend is all about the book itself, and what that book meant to you and how badly you want to share it for its own sake, because it spoke to you – not just because you happen to have a computer and it was available at the time.
Why do you think people pirate books?
I’m certain there are many legitimate reasons why some folks do (again, see my preface to the beginning of this interview) What I can’t understand is why those of us with spare cash in our pockets and ready access to legit copies would chose to.
Do you feel that ‘fan fiction’ and the free availability of other fan-generated content has affected how people view book pirating?
Only in the most positive ways. The creators of fanfiction and other fan generated content tend to identify very closely with the original creator, they are usually very loyal, very supportive and very respectful of authors as individuals and of the author’s rights as creators. They provide not only wonderful word of mouth recommendations but are often very vocal against piracy and its effect. Fanfiction writers in particular are quite prone to piracy themselves and so are more intimately aware than most, of its effects on the creator.
By Susan Connolly
The ethical and legal issues surrounding the illegal downloading of music and film have been exhaustively played out in the media, court and public opinion. And yet, people continue to pirate media. An often overlooked area of media piracy—at least in comparison to that of music, film and television—is the pirating of books. The rise of “ebooks” – digital versions of publications that can be read on computers or special electronic devices – has made book piracy much more viable. However, scanned PDFs have been a problem for some time. Author Stephanie Meyer abandoned her ‘Twilight’ saga novel Midnight Sun due to leaked online drafts. Despite differences between books and other media, ethical debate over book pirating often simply runs in accordance with the principles laid down in the existing, lively ethical discussion over music, film and television piracy.
Thanks again to Susan Connolly for engaging with this subject in such a rounded and thoughtful manner, and for inviting my participation in such a fascinating conversation.