Wednesday 4 January 2012

The "citizen-journalist" and the e-book piracy fallacy (then turns into: patronage)

Today Publishers Weekly tweeted an article from that rather amusing, very mixed bag of a "news source", HuffPo.

It's an opinion piece by Harry Freedman, entitled "Why I'm Not Worried by E-Book Piracy".

I'd say it's worth checking out, only is isn't. The author conflates, in a tangle of derailed logical thinking, several debates: the indie vs trad. publishing debate; the pricing debate; the quality debate; and then tops it all off with the rather lurid hope that continued piracy will make authors "angry" enough so they will turn away from pricing their books at $0.99 - and because it'll make authors angry, e-book piracy isn't really harmful, so Freedman's "not worried". (How much of that is whistling in the woods is open for debate.)

Wow, talk about an intellectual fallacy, naivety and a lack of research (possibly due to a lack of data and experience. According to his blog, Freedman is a relative newcomer to e-publishing, so he might be forgiven).

This is especially lurid in the face of this news item: Piracy Drives One Noted Author to Early Retirement.

So, it's clearly working, Harry, isn't it?

I can state, knowing my own sales, that my sales have stayed essentially flat in the last 18 months. Or, to run some other numbers, I've sold something like 300-350 copies of one story, which is extremely widely pirated. I'd estimate that around 20,000 illegal downloads were made (this number doesn't include torrents, which are very hard to track, and it doesn't include what I call casual sharing, the "here, I bought this, you gotta read it, so I'm sending you the PDF" sharing between friends).

Now, not every pirated copy is a lost sale, I get that. Let's assume that 5% of those downloaders might have bought the book. That's 1,000 people - three times what I actually DID sell. And, no, the $300 total royalties I got from that story doesn't really pay for the (many) hundreds of hours of work that went into making it. And those are peak sales - after the first quarter, sales always drop dramatically - always. Chances are, those $300 are most of the money I'll ever make from the book.

That for a book that has very high ratings on Amazon and Goodreads and ranks amongst the best I've done. Am I worried?

Am I worried that in a growing genre, my sales are completely flat? Am I worried that if you type my name into a search engine, the first links are links to pirated copies of my books? Am I worried that I now have to spend prime writing time on sending takedown notes to websites?

It means less time for writing, no hope ever to be anything but full-time employed, and it also means not only fighting the Muse all the time and my own fears, but the sense of entitlement.

There's a strongly Darwinian streak in this debate, which runs like this: "If you can't make a living off writing even while being pirated, then you're clearly not good enough. If you drop out of writing, you just lost Darwin's race. It's not like there's a shortage of writers - ten more will take your place."

Yeah, at which point, art will return to the palaces of the rich. Every author will have to find himself/herself a patron. Thing is, much of that art was locked away - patrons very often didn't share it with the wider population until way after their deaths. Imagine how many paintings and sculptures we'll never get to see in our lifetimes because they are in "private collections".

Thing is, my genre isn't something that a patron would be interested in. So I'm considering every paying customer my patron, who can all pop a couple bucks into the kitty and in return, I'll do my best to be fun and entertaining (and hot. I'm not forgetting hot).


  1. I'd buy your stuff even without the 'hot'. :) A good story is a good story, thus worth paying for.

    I admit, I once downloaded books. My excuses? - didn't have money and didn't know better. Then, when I did have some $$, I bought the books I loved. Now I know better and don't download anymore - there's plenty of free stories for me to read (and books to win), and those that aren't - I buy.

  2. I think there are multiple arguments in both directions. I would never have heard of you if a friend hadn't said 'you have to read this' and sent me a pdf of Lion of Kent. Of course I'm immensely glad they did, and since then I've bought my own copy legally, because I like to support authors whose work i enjoy.

  3. Aija - I do think that's absolutely fine, and actually one of the cases where piracy doesn't hurt authors. People actually going out and buying things later. While it's not legal, I'd be okay with it personally. It's when people resell my books that I get really angry (plenty people on ebay selling ebooks that they burned on CD), or "sharing" my books with a few thousand of their "closest" friends.

    Anon - I agree. The piracy debate is huge and complex, and I've listened to both sides. Naturally, as a content creator hoping to draw income from writing, I'm leaning towards one end of the spectrum. Generally speaking, I have absolutely no issues with a friend handing over a copy of the PDF with "you gotta read this". That's no different to me than lending your hardcopy to a friend, or at least not *very* different. It's when people put them up on torrents and "free ebook" websites (which then make big moolah with advertising) that I get upset about it. It's just not very nice to read "I love Voinov's books, can you upload everything he's done this year?" And then see that request promptly fulfilled - and the compilation being downloaded like seven or eight hundred times. It's hard to feel "loved" when people share stuff I worked on pretty damned hard for months with a few thousand of their closest friends.