I've been wanting to write something about the issue of book piracy for months now. Ignorance, and a lack of time, have always stopped me. However, since starting Smash Dragons I have found myself mulling over the issue more and more. It has become common for me to stumble (in my many online searches) across websites offering digital copies of the latest speculative releases. And I won't lie... I have been tempted.
When websites can offer me a swathe of the latest speculative releases in exchange for nothing but some download quota than naturally my first inclination is to click... and click often! Thankfully, I resisted. But it raised some interesting and pressing questions for me.
Firstly, is piracy a plague upon authors and the publishing industry? Or is it, as Neil Gaiman and others suggest, a new form of advertising that actually benefits authors? And secondly, is the issue as black and white as many people (politicians and media especially) seem to think it is?
The pro-piracy movement and their philosophy are not new, they have been around for years. Their position can basically be summarised as follows:
- Book piracy is a free form of advertising... your book gets exposure and it will bring new fans.
- Your overall sales will increase due to this exposure.
- Obscurity is a far greater threat than piracy.
- Smart and successful writers will embrace the digital marketplace and create opportunity from a problem like file sharing.
- It is counterproductive to threaten legal action and sue... this will actually damage your sales.
- The digital economy operates on the model of the long tail... copying and file sharing are the internet's word of mouth... and word of mouth will increase sales.
Pitted against this is the anti-piracy movement and their (often moralistic) philosophy:
- Book piracy is against the law... you are a criminal if you illegally download and/or share books.
- You are hurting the writer financially... every download is potentially lost income.
- Book piracy is immoral... plain and simple.
- The publishing industry is on its knees due to book piracy.
Now there are passionate advocates for both sides of the field. And the battle between them is a fiery one. My initial inclination is to side with the anti-piracy movement. I don't feel comfortable, morally, stealing from an author. As a reader, writer, and blogger I have also come to appreciate just how much time, effort, and creativity goes into producing a story or book. To just steal a book, with no financial kickback to the creator, feels very wrong to me. But this brings me back to my initial question. Am I missing the point? Am I actually doing a disservice to my favourite writers by NOT pirating their work?
Authors like Gaiman certainly believe piracy boosted their exposure and sales, but can he, and his status as a writer be used as the archetype for all other writers? I don't think so. For Gaiman, who is in that top stratosphere of writers who make a decent amount of money, piracy holds no real threat. He is able to easily shrug off any lost sales initially, and wait for the kickback in exposure and royalties further on. For most authors though this is not an option. Piracy is a direct threat, and every sale counts. Now I am not disagreeing with some of the principle philosophies of the piracy movement. I do believe exposure is incredibly important to authors and their sales. I can also see the value in embracing the digital marketplace in all of its forms, but I also don't believe authors should release their control over their work in order to do this (Gaiman himself seems to concede this point, and now offers free stories and the occasional book on his website for download).
For a new author, or someone whose sales are fair to middle range, every illegal download represents lost royalties that can impact on their career severely. Some authors will never publish again because of this, and it pains me to think about the many talented writers whose careers have gone by the wayside due the piracy. Suing and closing down pirates is also only an option for authors in that upper echelon of earners. Litigation is expensive. There is a reason why authors and publishers simply don't just go after them. In the long run it just isn't worth it. So whilst piracy probably does benefit some authors in terms of exposure and future sales, I also believe it hurts more than the pro-piracy movement will admit.
This brings me to my second question. Is the issue as black and white as it is portrayed in the media and by politicians? God no, it is a very grey and murky area! Book piracy is a complicated issue, and unfortunately it doesn't look like it will be solved in the near future. Torrent sites will continue to have new books available for illegal download within hours of their release, and the battle will rage on. On a positive note though writers seem to be getting smarter. They are embracing the digital market more so now than ever before, and are making stories and excerpts available for free download.
My stand against piracy is admittedly a moral one. I make no apologies for that. I personally know some of the authors that I read. They have children to take care of, bills to pay, and everyday financial problems just like you and me. They are not Neil Gaiman, Hugh Howey, or GRRM. They can't just shrug off lost initial sales and hope their is a spike further on from all the file sharing. Most of them need every single cent that their royalties bring just to keep on writing in the future. So you know what, don't be a dick and pirate. Support them by buying their work. Download their work when they offer it for free (and most of them do these days in some shape or form!). And pay their generosity forward by telling your friends about it.
Note - My thoughts are still evolving in relation to this issue... I would love to hear from all of you about what you think... am very open to a calm and peaceful discussion.