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Ye Olde Myths of Piracy

Karin Kallmaker Book News, Business of Books

Female figure angry

Whenever I’ve seen the issue of ebook piracy raised on a message board there are a slew of reasons for why people find it justifiable, if not for the entire world, certainly for Them.

Let’s run down some of the usual ones:

1) PIRACY IS NOTHING NEW

“It’s the same as a book swap.”
If a reader gives a copy of an ebook to a friend and deletes her own copy, to me that’s the same thing as passing a print book off to a friend after reading it. That’s not what I’m talking about at all. Nor am I talking about copies shared between partners, or copies made that are lawful, like an original on the computer, a copy on the ebook reader and maybe another on the work computer to read, um, during breaks.

The pirate keeps her copy. She replicates it onto a server where every visitor makes yet another illegal copy. In return, most pirates get access to other people’s illegally made copies. Even if she did delete that original, she still made an illegal copy and empowered other people to make more illegal copies.

Open Quote Mark featuring Starry NightIf 100 books are brought to a book swap, 100 books are taken away. Piracy is 100 books brought to the site and 10,000 taken away.

“It’s the same thing as a library.”
Not at all. A library buys a copy of a book or ebook, and lends it to one person at a time. That person returns it and then someone else can read it. This is allowable and lawful use of the book. It also means that most readers who are willing to wait can read almost any book they want for free–and legally. Taxpayers bought that copy so it could be loaned out; as a taxpayer, you paid for the right to borrow it.

“It’s no worse than used books.”
It’s FAR worse than used books. Used books available alongside new ones at Amazon have been a painful revenue loss to swallow in an already small income market, but that is a far cry from Amazon taking one used book and cloning it into hundreds and selling them — and still not paying the author.

2) IT ACTUALLY HELPS THE AUTHOR

“It helps the author because someone tries them for free and then buys all her other books.”
That myth is still a myth. Only the rare (wonderful) reader will eventually pay for a book, and then it may be only for those books that can’t be found free. What actually happens is that most people who get a book for free will go on looking for more books for free. A fraction might tell friends and encourage them to buy copies, but most will tell their friend about the great book they got for free, and show the friend how to get it for free too.

“If the author is popular, it doesn’t really hurt her income that much.”
Book pirates would like to believe that writers in movies represent reality and they don’t. Rowlings and Pattersons are rare. Besides, lesbian fiction writers aren’t depicted in movies. I don’t know any lesfic writers who don’t have day jobs or aren’t now retired from day jobs living on their pension from a lifetime’s labor at something other than writing. If 100 people switch from print books to ebooks, but only 90 of them pay for their ebooks, the author is hurt. Next year only 80 will pay, then 70, if books follow the music industry trends.

“There are lots of books that aren’t available free, especially new writers. Getting some books free means I can encourage new writers by buying their books.”
And it equally encourages veteran writers to give up. It sends the message that all our hard work, years of our lives spent not just writing but getting better, delivering stronger stories, longer books and dependable entertainment–none of that is anything the book pirate is willing to pay us for. Instead, she’s attempting to argue that our hard work should go to the benefit of someone else, if indeed she really does buy books from new writers. The reality is that she saves her money for books she can’t get for free and steals what she can. It’s that simple.

“Some writers say it’s okay to copy their books and spread them around. So it really can’t be that harmful.”
Some writers do indeed give their books away. In that case, making copies is in keeping with the copyright–the author has given the reader the right to copy. In those cases, the writers are taking a calculated risk that readers will like the free book so much they will be willing to pay for other books.

But most writers have contracts with publishers. I hold copyright on my work, but I’ve given the control of that copyright to my publisher. The publisher says who has the right to copy. Since the publisher–not me–has fronted thousands of dollars in expense before receiving any revenue at all for a book, I quite understand the company policy of selling books, not giving them away. When the publisher’s front end expenses aren’t recovered because an increasing number of books are never paid for, that puts a lot of writers in jeopardy.

3) MY MONEY MATTERS MORE THAN YOURS

“I can’t afford all the books I want to read.”
I can’t afford to travel all the places I want to visit, either. Yet I don’t expect an airline to fly me for free, or for a bed-and-breakfast owner to let me stay gratis because their establishment is exactly what I want. I can’t afford a Blu-Ray player and Blu-Ray format movies, either. Also, I’m not planning to join forces with dozens of people so we can all steal them. I notice that pirates can afford their hardware and internet connection just fine. The money only seems to run out when they need something to look at, read and enjoy on their hardware.

“Reading devices are expensive.”
Yes, they are. So are Porsches. If I could afford to buy a Porsche I doubt I could also afford the insurance or gas. Porsche isn’t going to pay the insurance company or gas station for me, and the manufacturer of a reading device isn’t paying me when a user reads a stolen copy of my book on it. The choice the pirate made was to pay the corporation with the clout to keep their stuff from being stolen, and steal from the entertainer.

“Most of the lesfic books are crap. I’ll pay for the ones that are worth it.”
I’m not eager to risk my money on an unknown product either. I do research, wait for reviews, learn which reviewers I can trust. It’s also rare when an excerpt isn’t available. A lot of pirates say they only read the first few pages before dumping it–or trading it into a piracy site to get other books for free. Meanwhile, they effusively encourage the person who uploaded it to upload more, so they can become popular with their fellow pirates. As for paying for the ones they really like? Pushed hard, most will admit that means perhaps two or three books a year. Maybe. They read fifty or sixty, but only pay for 5% of their entertainment.

But the reason why 90+ people made a beeline to one illegal easy-to-grab version of my latest book, in a 13-hour period, wasn’t because they were afraid it would be crap. It was because they were pretty sure it wasn’t. Many of those people would have paid for it. Now they know next new book to wait and see if they can get it free within days of the release. The “big fan” who made it so available has effectively taken money right out of my wallet.

“Most of the lesfic books are crap. I only read a little, then I pick something else.”
The sentiment here is that stealing a hamburger is okay if you only take a bite. Pirates accept no responsibility for their participation in large-scale criminal enterprises that are essentially fencing stolen property. Yet, when it comes to lesbian fiction, pirates snap up everything they can. They obviously want stories about lesbians. They’re eager to get entertainment that is practically hand-tailored to them, that means something in their lives they can’t get anywhere else. But they’re not going to pay the women who brought them that story, or the publishers who are in business to keep stories they might like available for them to choose.

“Books are too expensive.”
I think mocha lattes are expensive. Sometimes I’m willing to pay. Sometimes I’m not. When I’m not willing to pay I don’t expect the barista to make one for me anyway. Unlike a book, no matter how long I wait, that mocha is never going to be repackaged so it’s less expensive or even free, legally. So, hard knocks of life, I go without. Pirates don’t want to go without. If they carried their ethics through, if they could steal lattes, they would, right? Yet many balk at the mere suggestion they would do something like that. A latte is real, after all. But my work of thousands of hours poured into a neat, convenient, entertaining format of the reader’s choosing isn’t “real” too?

For something that isn’t “real” they seem to go to great lengths to acquire it.

4) PUBLISHERS ARE EVIL

“Publishers jack up the prices when it costs nothing to make an ebook.”
If ebooks were a brand new stream of income, not a replacement stream for declining sales of print books as readers switch formats, then perhaps this argument might hold water. But for most small publishers, a certain number of sales–in ANY format–is needed to break even on every title.

The only savings the small publisher has is on the actual printing and shipping of the book. A trade paperback, depending on a number of factors, can cost anywhere from $2-$4 to print. My publisher, for example, charges $3 less for ebooks than print books, and of course doesn’t charge for “shipping” an ebook. Regardless of the format the reader buys, however, my publisher paid — up front, as much as a year ahead of ever receiving payment for a copy of the book — a professional, highly qualified concept and copy editor, professional graphic/cover artist and another professional, the typesetter.

There’s also the ongoing costs of running the house: salaries, rent, phones, taxes, high speed servers and connections to deliver ebooks on demand and so on, that are paid each month whether a single book is sold. For most small publishers, expenses and income are perilously close. The idea of an owner’s “draw” — the original investor taking some kind of payment beyond a minimal salary — is usually out of the question. A publisher who primarily releases books only in ebook formats may not have the same front end risk and ongoing expenses, but there are still real expenses that have to be paid whether books are purchased or not.

So far, I don’t think publishers are adding the cost of theft to their goods. Department stores do it routinely to make up for shoplifting. It was relatively rare to have print books stolen directly from the publisher, though sometimes booksellers go out of business without paying their bills or returning books they had. Now, when a publisher can estimate that 10-30% of her sales will be lost to theft, the price of an ebook may have to reflect that. No concern of the pirates, however, but adding fuel to their “what a rip off ebook prices are” argument. When a publisher makes a concerted effort to hold down the price (as my publisher does) it’s particularly worrisome.

Publisher Markups Are Huge; Readers Are Ripped Off
A large online bookseller helps fuel this myth as if all publishers are created equal. I’m not vouching for any model in the publishing industry but lesbian fiction. No one involved in it is getting rich and most are operating on a razor thin margin of profit per unit sold; nothing is left for advertising budgets, cute jingles and celebrity endorsements. Besides, if high markup was a reason to steal, then I guess that means book pirates also walk into jewelry stores routinely and help themselves to diamonds.

The “high markup makes it okay to steal” argument is a pretty rich sentiment coming from someone with a $500 eReader in one hand, who happily forked over big dollars for the latest gadget to a huge corporation making the kinds of profits that support advertising budgets, cute jingles and celebrity endorsements. No questions about why the price is so high when the manufacturing cost was under $20. Instead, pirates will boast that they upgraded to yet another new device to make it easier to steal books, movies and music.

“If there was a way to pay just the writer, I would.”
So what I should do is put a Tip Jar on my web site, and allow myself to be paid and cut my publisher–who fronts the expense of the design, edit and typeset which lead to the digital file and print book–out of the picture? Not only is accepting payment that is essentially for books someone is stealing from my publisher a violation of the letter and spirit of my contract, it also encourages piracy as some would drop in a few quarters in my jar to assuage their guilt and go on making illegal copies for themselves and others of dozens of different writers’ books. I might be one of the two or three people they actually paid when they read fifty or sixty different writers. What a pirate says they’ll pay for and what they actually pay for are two different things.

5) WRITERS ARE WHINERS

“Writers are lucky that people even read their books. But all they do is whine about money.”
I’ll paraphrase myself from Lacking in Graciousness and Generosity:

Open Quote Mark featuring Starry NightWhy am I the one being crass about money when the book pirate is exclusively focused on saving her own money?

Not only that, I’ll sign my name to my whine about money and risk the good opinion of those who read it. But a pirate won’t give her real name. In fact, she goes to lengths to hide it. If there really is nothing wrong with it and pirates have reason to be proud of their activity, why the secrecy? If that copy of an ebook on that sharing site is just fine, why is it titled “0ne De9ree of Seþarati0n by Kärin Käl1m@ker”?
P.S. I haven’t whined about money since last October. I was due.

“If your books were good, people would pay for them.”
It’s precisely because my books are worth the time to read and enjoyable entertainment that people are so eager to steal them within days of release.

“Writers need to rethink their paradigm. Rock bands give their music away for free these days, and make money on T-shirts and concerts instead.”
The music industry solution some artists have been able to use to replace the income lost to piracy simply doesn’t translate to most writers. I can’t sell tickets like the Red Hot Chili Peppers. As it is, the only activity I’m paid for is writing books. Every other kind of entertaining I do is free (the exceptions are rare, and sometimes very generous people cover expenses) in the hope of selling books. The non-monetary rewards–meeting readers and spending time with great women–are the real payoffs. Unfortunately, I can’t trade that kind of soul food for, well, soul food.

Know what piracy in the music industry has also done? A lot of women, folk, bluegrass and jazz musicians and artists who compose and perform music for small audiences simply don’t record anymore.

They do only live performances, if they are still performing at all. Their voices have gone silent for all the rest of us who would love to hear the music. For lesbians, piracy gutted and splintered the womyn’s music industry.

Regardless, just because a pirate thinks I could make money another way, that doesn’t mean they then should steal my work just because they believe I should get someone else to pay. I think cruise lines could make money by selling ocean water to penguins, but jail is where I’d end up if I got on a cruise without paying.

FINAL MESSAGE: “There’s nothing you can do about it, so why bother?”

I can write this blog.
I could print the names of pirates and their email addresses. And I can stop writing and come up with some other way to enjoy life. I can certainly find a way to make money.
One thing I won’t do is say nothing.

Comments 12

  1. Pingback: Pirates Avast! | Kallmaker.com

  2. Pingback: Pirates Avast! | Romance and Chocolate

  3. Pingback: Lesbian Fiction Fans — to the Rescue? | Romance and Chocolate

  4. Other than not participating in piracy activities (uploading, downloading, etc.), is there anything a reader can do to make this better? I'd love to know what you think would be the most helpful so I can do it!

  5. I've been reading about piracy on your blog, and the concept makes me sad. I'm a freelancer who has only recently begun to venture into commercial fiction, and learning how common piracy is makes me want to stop and reconsider. Thank you for speaking up.

  6. Karen,
    I am glad that you publish what you write and I hope you can persevere through these troubling times. I can't think of another time in history when criminal behavior became such a pervasive a cultural norm and when legal enforcement was so ineffective. I don't envy your professional journey but I will continue to purchase what you write.

  7. Thank you Karin, for a well thought-out, well written, and timely post. I somewhat agree with Ruth, that taking a hammer to a pirate's computer is not a bad idea. Folks don't want the hassle of DRM on their downloads, but the blatant stealing of work and money from authors will make it inevitable that some form of control will be developed.
    And to the pirates: you are thieves, plain and simple. Sugar coating what you do doesn't change that fact. Please stop doing it, as I, for one, do not want to see one author stop writing.
    If they do, YOU are responsible for that sad occurrence.
    Your greed and selfishness will kill off what you claim to love so much. Stop it.
    MKW

  8. Caught this on the Amazon Kindle forum. The three posts are excellent, though it's so very painful that you have to go to these lengths to tear down each single “excuse” the pirates use to steal. I mean, over 1k worth of words to debunk the glaring evidence that pirates are doing something illegal and morally wrong… something's not right with the world, I'm telling you.

    I wish some folks would get a conscience, but in all likelihood they’d have to steal that, too. Hang in there, I hope you can, and thanks for these great reads –and all others!

  9. You've given us three excellent posts on the topic of piracy, Karin. As a long-time fan, I can't believe people steal your work in this way. Frankly, I am stunned that anyone thinks this is an acceptable behavior. And, as a wanna-be writer, I'm just sickened by this.

    Send me a list of the names and addresses of pirates in my local area and I'll visit them with my hammer. If their computers are smashed and their fingers broken, they can't upload stolen copies of your work. The schmucks!

  10. Wow! I read all 3 posts. I must live a really sheltered life or just very busy. I did not know what was going on. In my “book” when someone purposely does something they know is wrong or illegal, they not only lack morals but are criminal too. It's hard to swallow that so many in our community are like that. It sets us back in so many other areas as well.

    I think all of us are struggling in this economy. I know I wait longer to purchase books because of my temporary pay cut that I got last March( that's 2009 March), but it never crossed my mind that I would mess with someone else's income because someone messed with mine. I know how that feels. And I know how hard I work to make less money than I did before. It really is that simple, isn't it?

  11. It would be painful. I would find other options for creative outlet. After 20 years spent polishing my skills!

  12. Good post Karen!

    One small correction though. Quit writing and find something else you find enjoyable? Really? A writer not writing? It's just beyond anything I could imagine.

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