Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Last Book You Steal

There's a funny, sad piece of irony I've been seeing lately, which is college grads complaining about how hard it is to find a job in publishing, and then illegally downloading books.

Hmm... you think the two might be related?

The flippant attitude from book pirates (or those who offer books for illegal downloading) is maddening to me.  I'm talking about people who, when you ask them how they justify stealing from an author they like and admire say, "well, I can't afford to buy it, so if I don't download it illegally I won't read it."  Why, I want to know, is it so critical to indulge in culture you aren't willing to pay for?

Some people honestly don't seem to understand how illegally downloading books is taking money out of an author's pocket.  Some will argue that, if not an illegal download, they would buy a used copy, and the author would also get nothing.  This is true, but at least the author was initially paid for that copy; they were never paid for the copy you downloaded.  There is a finite number of used copies, and they wear out, so for every one that is bought, another reader will be that much closer to purchasing a new copy.  Digital copies are infinite. We will never run out of copies to steal.

I've had people say to me, "not all authors are in it for the money."  Fine.  But most authors would like to continue publishing books, and every copy you steal is one less copy that their publisher counts, and so when it comes time to go back to contract and their publisher shakes their head and says, "I'm sorry, you don't have a big enough readership for us to keep publishing you," and that author decides that self publishing isn't worth it, doesn't give him the money upfront that he needs to take time away form his day job, or justify the hours away from their families and friends, ... well the book culture just lost one voice, and that's on you.

Maybe you think that ripping off a Stephen King or a George R.R. Martin novel is no big deal.  Because hey, those guys are rolling in it, right?  They aren't going to miss a $1.75 royalty.  Fine.  Maybe they won't miss the money.  But what about their publisher?  Do you know what publishers do with the money from their big blockbuster books?  A lot of it goes straight back into the author, to pay for publicity and promotion, subsequent advances.  But with some bestselling authors, there is money left over.  And that surplus is the kind of thing that allows publishers to take risks on a new authors, buy a book that is a bit strange or experimental, out of the box in some way, where there aren't many good comps and no one knows if it will make any money.  So when you steal from Harlan Coben maybe you're not screwing Harlan Coben.  You're screwing the next new author who will never get a chance. You're screwing your cousin, who's been trying to sell a novel for years.  Or you're screwing your neighbor, who's become a professional publishing industry intern because no one has enough expendable cash to hire her and pay her properly for all the work she does.

But hey, that's okay with you, right?  Because the alternative, to simply *not read what you can't afford* or even patronize your local library is just unthinkable.  Somehow, culture has become like food and water and shelter - a necessary part of your life. Yet unlike food and water and shelter, you are unwilling to pay for it.

Maybe you are one of those people who think that authors benefit from having their work pirated, or that authors should give their work away for free.  You are not a thief, you are just trying to *help* these poor misguided authors and their short-sighted publishers, stuck in the stone age of running a business!  Most authors do not benefit from giving their work away for free.  You know who does benefit?  Search engines.  Pirate sites. Locker services. Google, who has paid millions of dollars to promote the idea that giving away your intellectual property is good for you.  This is not a grass roots idea - it didn't just emerge out of the zeitgeist.  This idea has some serious money propping it up.

When you illegally download a book you are taking sides.  You are allowing websites to profit at publishers and authors' expense. You are supporting online aggregators instead of authors and publishers.  It's like elevating the delivery van over the item being delivered.  If you keep valuing the messenger more than the message, the quality of the message is going to go down.

The damage you do to book culture by undervaluing or stealing books will effect the quality of what you read for years to come.  If you are okay with only reading books by authors who are privileged enough to write them as a hobby, then okay, go right ahead.  But if you prefer to see a more diverse group of writers contributing to the culture, you're going to have to start paying for it.


This post was heavily influenced by Robert Levine's Free Ride: How Digital Parasites are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back, which I recommend.  It's a close look at how music, news, television and movies, and of course books have moved online.  Pirate it if you must - if you take it seriously, it may be the last book that you steal.