Sunday, 4 October 2009

Pirates Ahoy! Why the media just DOESN'T GET the ebook piracy issue

OK, not ALL the media necessarily, but I came across this terribly written article yesterday, and it's representative of most I've seen on the issue of the ills of Ebook piracy

Let me outline the gist (but please don't take it from me - I AM biased, I may have distorted it) of Randall Stross' article "Will books be Napsterised". As a result of file-sharing the music industry lost vast revenue streams. As Ebooks take an increasing share of the book market, the same will happen there. The problem lies with file-sharing sites like Rapidshare. Sites like RapidShare allow anyone to upload files and then post the URL for others to download them. Whilst they will remove copyright-infinging files on the request of the copyright owner, these files are not policed upon upload. RapidShare talked to Mr Stross, urging publishers and authors to learn from rent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails and use free downloads as part of their business model. Stross ends with a retort to this suggestion:

"I will forward the suggestion along, as soon as authors can pack arenas full and pirated e-books can serve as concert fliers."

Now, there is so little analysis and so much fabulation in this article I couldn't deal with it all (apparently e-book hardware is "on the verge of going mainstream", for example, whatever that means (I didn't see a single reference to the Kindle or the Tablet, and nary a mention of teh phone vs reader debate, by the way)).

OK, it's time for my disclaimer. I hate plagiarism. It sucks, and sucks major. In fact, any form of copyright violation sucks. And it's NOT a victimless crime. But. But, but. But, but BUT. The way to beat pirating is, I'm afraid, as RapidShare's spokesperson say, to incorporate free downloads into your business plan. That's not giving in, it's not kowtowing. It's the way it is.

The obvious way to do that is, as suggested, to study the successful musicians. I've been talking about gigging and merching for authors ever since I got into the blogging business, and I stand by what I've always said. Culture is culture. It inspires communal events, it inspires fans to desire souvenirs, to desire contact. These things aren't unique to music. And as an advocate of the "freemium" model, I'd have to say I think content itself can be charged for in different formats - the special edition, the regular paperback even.

What we need, as authors, is to work - collectively and individually - on ways to adapt to the file-sharing world. I DO have a problem with exploiting fans. I don't like the idea that some people pay for my stuff and others don't pay for the same thing - so for me, ebooks have to be either free or not free (or it jas to be transparent which is which). I DO think, though, that we need to loko for soemthing slightly more exciting than "free".

Part of the thing about file-sharing is the fact that it creates communities - where has the industry's sense of history gone? Do they not REMEMBER the Warehouse and Rave scene? The buzz of these things is that they're outside the usual channels - an anonymmous URL on a bulletin board, a phone box on the M25. It's the same thing. These are communities that exist and get their energy from being on the outside. Bring them inside and they instantly use their energy. So "free" isn't the only answer - that would be like having your parents sit down to watch Debbie Does Dallas with you on your 18th birthday.

As authors we DO need to use free, but we also need to be clever how we do so (but not, as I say, so clever we pretend our ebokos are for sale to try and make it seem a thrill to pirate them - that just exploits our fans). I'm not 100% sure what all the answers are (but Kevin Kelly's 1,000 true fans is part of the answer). But THAT's the interesting debate - not whingeing when we left the sweet shop open that someone took our candy canes. And I never thought I'd say this, but the places we need to be looking are those semi-legal communities that use bulletin boards and chatrooms - the modern equivalent of rave culture - be it the BDSM scene, or the dogging networks, or the secretive supper clubs I saw on the news the other day. Come on, guys - we're meant to be creatives, aren't we?!

A further piece of logic that niggles at me. Until now, when I've talked about authors following the music model, and "doing a Trent", I've been told - as Stross concludes - that the two types of fan are fundamentally different, so it won't work. If they're so diffeernt, why worry about "Napsterisation" (other than for the rather unprofessional sake of using an emotive word)? Surely if books ARE "Napsterised", that's just one more piece of evidence for those of us who maintan culture is, fundamentally, culture; and fans are, fundamentally, fans. And if they download stuff, they'll pay for things they like.

A final point, Mr Stross. You complain that the group the file-sharing sites never mention are authors and publishers. And HERE, I'm afraid, you give yourself away. Stop speaking on my behalf, please. As a writer, I'm more than happy to embrace file-sharing. It's not the people who file-share my work I lose sleep over. It's the people who DON'T. The people who will lose out in the new landscape are the publishers. Please stop bundling our fate as writers in with theirs.


  1. Books have always been different to music anyway - they're issued in standardised print, which means that they bear no distinguishing mark of the author. They are, therefore, intrinsically rip-offable, because you can just retype the same words, and they will be of exactly the same quality as those words typed by the original author. Compare this to a song: if I re-performed a song I particularly admired, it wouldn't sound half as good.

    The piracy argument is not about protecting authors. Except for a very tiny elite, most authors don't make a living wage from their work, and so piracy would make little difference to them. It's about protecting publishers' profits. Maybe this is actually the beginning of a power-shift, in which those who produce the content actually feel the financial benefits of their work.

  2. "Maybe this is actually the beginning of a power-shift, in which those who produce the content actually feel the financial benefits of their work."

    Wouldn't that be wonderful. I must say, I know a lot of up and coming bands, and NONE of them has ever had a bad word to say about piracy. For tehm it's just not an issue. What they do talk about is how great it is to have access to listeners, and how they feel in control of what they're doing.

    I think that's how I feel now - we have more control over our work than ever before. And when the money side of the equation settles down, I think there is a genuine chance THAT too will be part of the direct conversation between readers and writers. Readers will pay less for the product; and writers will take home a larger proportion of the ticket price.

    It's a discussion we so need to have. But we need to think outside the box (jargon alert!) the publishers have convinced us we're in. Which isn't in any way to say there's no place for publishers - rather I'd like to see them admitting their fate is tied up with ours, rather than repeating to us that our fate is tied up with theirs. A subtle difference. But a big one

  3. Not really on message, but having worked in music industry, the record companies had it coming to them. For years they hammered new bands through the method of recharging all the development costs and tour costs against sales, so that bands perceived tour support was coming from the labels, when actually it was coming from their profits. Now the bands are taking control for themselves and the labels cannot cope and have seen their profits slashed.

    I never think about piracy cos let's face it, you'd have to be a pirate with patches over both eyes to want to pillage mine.

  4. Yeah, I've heard some horror stories about how tours were financed. I know you think the parallels are limited, but I think this much is true: the people with most to worry about are the guys in the middle. And that's got to be a good thing

  5. Absolutely. Middle children who needs 'em? The first born is always the apple of the parents' eye, the baby is well the baby of the family. Oh no wait...