Hello Dear Readers - welcome to Tuesday. Today I have some thinky thoughts to share about readers and book piracy. I strongly suspect that I am about to be controversial, or at least that some people will think I am, but you know me - when the train to crazytown pulls into the station, I can just never resist hopping aboard. Anyway, I'm not handing down pronouncements from on high or anything. I'm just working out what I think about stuff through writing about it. So here goes.
In the last week I've read a few of pieces that talked about this stuff from different viewpoints. First there was MaryJanice Davidson's defence of fellow author Charlaine Harris, who was apparently receiving an online battering from some fans for not giving them the ending that they wanted/expected/demanded in the final Sookie Stackhouse book. Then there was this post about how authors are increasingly being expected to happily offer their work for free (usually by people who are getting paid for *their* work - and apparently have no sense of irony). And this in turn made me think about Neil Gaiman's notorious post on entitlement in which he uses that now famous phrase: G.R.R. Martin is not your bitch (which is also referenced in the first post I've linked, by Mary Janice Davidson). Finally there was this post by Cassandra Clare in which she responded to a reader who was indignant at being asked to pay to read The Bane Chronicles.
There's a theme to these posts, and the theme seems to be... a lot of readers don't seem to like writers all that much these days. So what's up with that?
On every kind of social media now there's a level of interaction between readers and writers that would have been unthinkable ten or even five years ago. When I was a kid, if you screwed up the courage to write a letter to your favourite author (on paper, of course) you never expected in your wildest dreams that you would get a reply. And unless you were a mega-bestselling author you frankly didn't expect to ever get much in the way of response from readers about what you wrote, either. Today, readers have countless outlets which allow them to respond to and discuss books, and they contact writers all the time - on Twitter, Tumblr, on blogs and websites - in expectation of a response.
But the internet has wrought more changes than increased contact. I think it's fundamentally changed the way that readers - all people who consume entertainment, really - expect to access content that they enjoy. Entertainment downloads have gotten us used to instant gratification. If I want to own a book or a song or a TV show I expect to be able to have it NOW. And most of the time, I can. Which is why the times I *can't* surprise and frustrate me.
Then there's the rise of fanfic. I love fanfiction. Adore it. Some of the best stuff I've read over the last two or three years has been fanfiction, offered up freely online by its creators for no more reward than being able to share their love of writing with others who care about the same characters they do. And this, along with the two other factors above, has encouraged many traditionally and self-published writers to offer up free content that allows them to connect with and reward their readers - blogs like this one, Tumblrs, Pinterest boards for their books, deleted scenes and short stories, book trailers.
So now we have a literary scene - and this applies particularly to YA - where readers can generally expect discussion and interaction with writers (whether traditionally published, self-published or fanfic), where they expect to get stuff they want quickly - instantly in a lot of cases - and where a lot of that stuff is free. And all this is great.
Until it's not.
Like sometimes when I'm reading fanfic the writer will add an author's note responding to reviews. All too often they are begging forgiveness for the delay in an update and asking people not to get angry at them. Or they'll mention reviews which accuse them of 'hoarding' chapters or being a 'review whore'. Or they'll request people not to flame them for the twist that just happened, or apologise to those who are disappointed with the lack of a certain character in this scene, or respond to people who've told them their last chapter was sucky.
This makes me blink every time. These guys are writing amazing stuff for us in their spare time for free, and they also respond to reviews and make themselves available to us to discuss their work - and the response to that is to bitch them out if they didn't give out the free stuff exactly when people wanted it? Call them a review whore because they don't give *enough* free stuff? Abuse them because they wrote about character A when you wanted character B instead? How can anyone think THAT will encourage these writers to continue to update after a long hard day at school or work, when they just don't feel like writing? Many fanfiction writers do want constructive criticism, but apparently some readers are so blinded by their entitlement issues that they can't tell the difference between concrit and just being a jerk.
I suppose it shouldn't be a surprise that if there are people who are willing to be this mean and unappreciative of writers who are giving them stuff for free, there will also be those who are just as unpleasant - if not more so! - to writers who are actually asking to be paid for their work. For instance, not long ago a certain writer's new book was shipped early from some retailers, but the ebook version wasn't available until the official release date. The response to this from some readers was to send this author messages in which they not only swore at, insulted and abused this author for the fact that they couldn't get her ebook RIGHT NOW... they threatened her with physical harm.
All of this leads into my thoughts about the piracy problem the publishing industry is facing right now. Clearly, people who will send an email to an author threatening to do unspeakable things to her just because they have to wait for a week to read her book will not care about fairly compensating her for her work. In fact, if I remember correctly, the author mentioned that several of the threatening messages made it clear that they would be illegally downloading the book as another way of punishing her for (in their eyes) daring to thwart them.
But it's not just those extreme types who think that it is OK to take an author's work without their consent and without paying. It's just so goshdarned easy to get books (or music or TV shows) for free now that among quite a lot of people it's considered gauche and naive to actually pay for stuff. Like, why would you do such a quaint, backward thing?
I've heard the argument that piracy doesn't harm professional writers. In a polite debate on Twitter, Neil Gaiman himself told me that he was certain that his publisher giving away copies of his books for free online had only helped his sales. I'm sure he's right. But a publisher giving away books for free is entirely different from people pirating those books, because a) the publisher could track the downloads and get an idea of how popular the book was was and b) Mr Gaiman and publisher had agreed to give the books away for free. The income from sales had not been stolen from him without his consent and in such a way that it would damage his standing with his publisher.
My first book, The Swan Kingdom, sold around 20,000 copies. It hasn't, as far as I can tell, been pirated at all. Perhaps because it tends towards the younger end of the YA market. Perhaps because it came out in 2007 and didn't have an ebook version until 2011. But in any case, because my advance was small, this level of sales was considered quite a success by my publisher. However, almost immediately after my second book Daughter of the Flames, was released, I started getting Google alerts from websites where the book was available for illegal download.
When I investigated those sites, I was able to work out that my second novel had been downloaded approximately 30,000 times (this was in 2008-2009 - it's probably been downloaded a lot more by now). 30,000 sales would have earned me back my advance AND considerably impressed my publisher. In fact, if even half those people had paid for the book, I would have gotten my very first royalty check. But they didn't. And because they didn't, that book was and is considered a sales failure by my publisher even though apparently more people read it than my first book.
I've got to tell you, guys - that doesn't feel good.
Very successful mainstream authors can look upon 30,000 illegal downloads as a drop in the bucket. But for newbies and midlisters like me, that many lost sales makes the difference between being seen as a good risk for a new contract and getting dropped by the publisher (it can also make the difference between a royalty check that would pay the electricity bill, and never earning the advance back at all). There are a lot of newbies and midlisters out there who will probably never sell more than a few thousand copies of their books - but their books deserve to be published nonetheless. They deserve a chance. If those books - books with fresh new voices, unconventional stories, different and diverse characters - stop being viable for publishers because illegal downloads are so rife that only mega-bestselling books now make a profit for them, then our bookshelves will be a barren - and boring - place indeed, in a few years time.
A blogger that I otherwise respect once made the argument that illegally downloading things (music or books or whatever) wasn't stealing because you weren't actually taking anything away from anyone. He compared it to taking a Mars Bar from a shop in which there was an infinite supply of Mars Bars which could never run out. This couldn't possibly harm the shopkeeper, right? But the very impossibility of that scenario - neverending Mars Bars that constantly replicate no matter how many you take - ought to have made it clear that his analogy was flawed. Let's follow this flawed analogy to the end, shall we?
Because now that you have a your Mars Bar, no one ever needs to go to the shop again. Your stolen Mars Bar keeps replicating infinitely, allowing everyone that you know to eat Mars Bars forever more without ever compensating the shopkeeper or the Mars Bar factory. The shop closes and the shopkeeper is out of a job, the Mars Bar factory closes, all the Mars Bars workers are out of a job, and no new Mars Bars are ever manufactored, meaning that the copies of your stolen Mars Bar are all that's available to anyone now. Does that sound like a good outcome?
Illegally downloading a piece of entertainment is not like taking a Mars
Bar from a shop. It's like going to the cash register and taking the
price of that Mars Bar out of the til. And every copy that is made from your copy takes more and more money from the til, until the til is empty.
Does this sound drastic? Well, it is - but that's what happens when an industry collapses from the bottom down. Imagine how the furniture business or the stationary business or the fashion business would work if people simply stopped paying for their sofas, pens and trousers. Publishing is no different than those industries.
When you pirate books or other media, you *are* taking something away from someone. At the very base level, you are depriving a creative person of the income that they are legally and morally entitled to from their work, and you are depriving them of the ability to show their publisher/record company/production company that there is a demand for their work.
But you're not stealing from the creative person! You're stealing from faceless corporations that are only taking advantage of the creative people AND the customers anyway! It's all their fault for making it hard or expensive to get hold of the stuff that you want! If it weren't for those darn corporations we could come up with new - cost free! better! - ways of sharing entertainment and everyone would be happy and singing and dancing through fields of daisies!
Um, no. There may indeed be issues with those faceless corporations, but nevertheless they are still acting on behalf of the creative person. Regardless of what kind of artistic product is being produced - paintings, TV shows, sculpture, music, art - it is always the perogative of the person who does the work to decide how they want to distribute it and what they want to charge for it. In the case of traditionally published writers, they appoint a body (the publisher) who does so on their behalf, but this is still THEIR choice. Not the customer's. The customer doesn't get to decide the price for someone else's work. They don't get to decide how the work should be distributed or when. It's not their work.
The customer has the right to refuse to pay for books, TV shows and music if they don't want to, or if they disapprove of the distribution method. But they don't have the right to refuse to pay for these things and still get them anyway.
This isn't groundbreaking stuff, right? I mean, if you really want the latest iPod but can't afford it and think it's overpriced, as well as disapproving of Apple's business practises, you don't expect to register your protest at this state of affairs by walking out of the shop with it without paying.
But the fact that huge numbers of people are willing to steal income from writers whose work they actually enjoy isn't as shocking to me as the fact that the people who do the stealing act as if they're on some moral high ground. As if the writers are backwards barbarians who haven't caught onto 'the new paradigm' and who ought to be ashamed - yes, ashamed! - of themselves for expecting to actually get paid for their work. They should want to give their stories to the world for FREE like the fanfic authors do! Authors who try to make a living from writing deserve to be stolen from and get dropped by their publisher. So there.
That is not only a self-serving argument, it's a cruel one.
As readers we invest a huge amount of ourselves - our feelings, thoughts and time - in the books we love. Those characters can sometimes feel more real to us than people we actually know. But though we cringe and cry and laugh and fall in love with them throughout the pages of a book, those people aren't actually real. The only person in that book who is real? Is the writer. The one who put their own feelings and thoughts and time into making it something that touches you. If you would despise a character who brought harm to the fictional people in the story, then you should think twice about harming the REAL person who brought those characters to life.
Writers are not faceless word machines cranking out pages to meet demand. Try to remember that. Try to remember that writers are people. People who can be damaged, by your actions. I know it's hard to wait for the books you want, to have to save up or ask for them at the library and hope they come into stock. I know because I have to do all that stuff myself. But the feeling of having to wait for that book isn't nearly as bad as the feeling that a writer gets when they realise half the people who have read their book stole it from them without remorse, and that this has probably damaged their career. Trust me on that, too.
I hope that readers and writers will continue to find new ways to connect and develop relationships online as my career goes on. But my most fervent hope is that by the time I pass on to the great Writing Cave in the sky, we've passed into a place where readers and writers like each other a bit more.
(With thanks, smooches and snuggles to my own beloved Dear Readers, of course, whom I adore and respect more than words can say).
P.S. For my thoughts on the relationship between writers and bloggers/reviewers, you can click here. In fact, you might want to before you start flaming me for hating readers, or you'll just end up looking silly.