25 Thoughts On Book Piracy

Here’s the deal. I want to talk a little about book piracy. I’ve been blabbering about the realities of publishing recently, and this is one of them. It seems easy to assume the post should be as short as, “HEY FUCK THOSE GUYS,” and to a degree, yeah, absolutely. But it’s a sticky wicket, this wocket, and so it deserves a way-too-long-post from yours truly.

(The tl;dr –? I don’t like book piracy but recognize it’s a very complex issue for a lot of reasons.)

Grab and oar and let’s sail the foam-tossed seas, buccaneers.

1. It Stings A Little

We’re all egomaniacs with improbably frail egos, and we all have our little Google Alerts for our names (mine’s easy because who the fuck else is named Wendig?). We see when our books pop up on file-sharing sites or when some forumite somewhere is asking for a free copy of one of our e-books. We see it. And it stings. And it doesn’t sting because we think about lost revenue, exactly — it stings because silly as it may seem it hurts our feelings that you don’t feel our work is worth the same amount of money as an inhaled cloud of dog flatulence. It erodes us, like the ocean eating the shore. We pretend that it’s professional. But sometimes, it feels personal.

2. A Big Mushy Poopy Pile Of Gray

It’s that stung feeling that leads us to get angry about piracy and turn it into a very black and white issue where we talk about pirates as if they are the same scum who pillage villages or punch orphans or whatever. We think of them as dehumanized robbers, evil robot invaders with all the value of a bloated tick clinging to that spot between our shoulder blades we just… can’t… reach. But we have to take a moment to recognize that piracy — like with so many of our modern challenges — is actually a very gray, very smooshy, very non-concrete issue.

3. You’ve Probably “Pirated” Something At Some Point

Ever copy a CD for someone? Or, if you’re a cranky old man like me, have you ever made a mix tape for someone? (The art of the mix-tape is a lost one.) Ever lend a book to someone? Buy or sell a used book? Copy a VHS tape? Give someone your DVD copy of Emmanuelle VIII: Porny French Chick Soft-Core Boning A Bunch Of Moon Colony Astronauts? But here you stammer, “Tha– bluhhh — fnuhhh — that’s different.” And it is in terms of magnitude, but take away magnitude and you still have theoretically lost revenue. (It’s why companies resisted allowing devices that copied content.) It can’t be wrong when someone downloads your book but okay when you copy a cassette tape — that’s like saying, “It’s okay for me to steal five bucks from that guy but not okay for you to steal five bucks from those 1,000 guys.”

4. Except It’s Kinda Not Theft, Exactly

It’s easy to call this stealing, but it’s not. Stealing is the act of taking something that does not belong to you — and here, “taking” implies that the other person does not get to keep it. This isn’t stealing. This is getting water on Gremlins. This is doppelgangering. This is motherfucking multiplication. That’s not to say it’s right or fair or legal, but you cloud the issue every time you call it “stealing.” Yes, it feels like stealing. But this is copying. Illegal duplication.

5. Arrr, Shiver Me Kindle

The “thing” that gets pirated is, from the author-publisher’s perspective, our story. Our, as the phrasing goes, intellectual property. The “thing” that gets pirated from the perspective of pirates is a file. They’re not stealing a book off a shelf. They’re copying an e-book file in the same way you’d copy and transfer a Word doc, a Quicktime movie, an Excel spreadsheet, a filthy animated GIF of Bea Arthur simulating hand-sex. This is important (not Bea Arthur hand-jobs, but rather, the pirate POV) in that it explains how easy it is to do — and how easy it is to justify.

6. It’s The Internet’s Fault

The thing we love about the Internet is also the thing that makes piracy craaaaazy easy. The Internet distributes information very quickly and efficiently. And it does so by connecting people quickly and, drum roll please, efficiently. The Internet has increased demand for non-corporeal information delivery, meaning: MP3s and YouTube movies and, of course, e-books. It’s ghosts and vapor. Couple this with the fact that we’re used to a culture of wide open access to a bunch of free shit, (again, YouTube or Pandora or Hulu) and you start to see that piracy is as much about cultural attitude and rapidly-evolving technology as it is about “crime.” The Internet connects people. It offers technology to move lots of data really quick. It provides moist, open access 25/8. It’s no wonder that illegal fire-sharing is the result: that’s like running a marathon and not showering and wondering how a cluster of jock-itch spore-pods decided to grow from beneath your sweat-frothed undercarriage.

7. Broken-Ass Data

We don’t have a lot of great data on book piracy. Some will tell you there is — there ain’t. We have almost no idea what impact it has in a practical sense. We need better — or any — data.

8. Theoretically Lost Revenue Rather Than Actually Lost Revenue

Every stolen e-book is lost revenue in a theoretical sense. If the book costs five Amazon ducats, and the author would’ve made twenty solar chits from that pile of ducats, then when a pirate copies that book without buying it, that equals a small pile of theoretical ducats-and-chits that do not go to the publisher or the author. But from a practical sense, that’s not accurate. It’s not actually lost revenue — I didn’t steal a Blu-Ray player off a truck so that the device can no longer be sold. If you’re thirsty and I pour you a glass of water from my tap (or if I don’t like you I scoop it out of my toilet bowl ENJOY THE TASTE OF A THOUSAND FLUSHES JERKPANTS), then Dasani or Aquafina may say, “That’s lost revenue because that person with the free fucking water isn’t buying our water, that asshole.” You can see where that logic falls apart.

9. DRM Probably Creates More Piracy Than It Deters

Digital Rights Management is when the company that owns or distributes the content places a metaphorical chastity belt on the content itself to ensure it doesn’t go sleeping around with other distributors or wayward devices. It’s also notoriously weak and often annoying. Implementation of DRM is frustrating and frustration will lead to piracy rather than away from piracy. It’s like the old Leia-telling-Tarkin, “The more you tighten your grip, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.”

10. Piracy Helps Some Authors

The “piracy hurts authors” meme is obvious — theoretical or no, it surely represents some lost sales, and further, sometimes the versions of our work that get passed around are incomplete or are early drafts, which only makes us look like amateur hour a-holes. But, you also have to recognize that piracy has helped some authors (Adam Mansbach tells a story about how Go The Fuck To Sleep‘s pages leaked all over the Internet before release, and at first he was pissed off about it — until he realized pre-orders had skyrocketed as a result.) The problem here is, this is not an outcome you can foresee and control: an author can “control” piracy in much the same way you “control” a housecat or a housefire. Or worse, an arsonist housecat who started a housefire to get back at you for that shitty store-brand food you’ve been giving it. Jerk.

11. Pirates Have Their Reasons (Even If Many Of Them Are Crappy)

Pirates don’t appear to illegally share files because they relish being shitheads. They have, like any antagonist in any story, reasons for what they do.

12. Sometimes It’s About Lack Of Access

A reader may be driven to book piracy because that reader lacks access to the book in some way. A reader in a territory where the book has not been released may have no other way to get the book (and this is sometimes why you’ll often find your book on some torrent site in, like, Flarzblargistan). Further, publishers and libraries have not yet become besties-forever on the subject of e-books: so, many digital books (and even print books) are not available through a library service. A book may not even be an e-book yet (cough cough the final Wheel of Time book). Or it may not be platform-agnostic and lives only on, say, the Amazon Kindle, or the B&N Nook, or the Toyota Yaris (that’s an e-reader, right? I’m pretty sure it’s an e-reader).

13. Sometimes It’s About The Cost

The excuse is sometimes that e-books are just too expensive. The hardback is $15, the e-book is mysteriously three dollars more. And there exist plenty of justifications for why that price is as high as it is, just as there are plenty of justifications for why someone thinks that price is too high no matter the excuse. A customer has very little interest in why a price is too high — they only believe, sometimes rationally, sometimes not, that it is. And it’s here that a customer can be turned to the Dark Side of the Capitalist Force and choose instead to seek the book for free. A spurned customer will become an eager pirate if it’s easy enough.

14. Sometimes People Are Just Dicks

A lot of the reasons for book piracy amount to: “Because I want it.” It’s not driven by evil, but rather, selfishness. Selfishness is rarely seen as that; it’s often bound up in excuses that make a person feel okay for what they’re doing, but at the end of the day, it boils down to acting upon one’s wants without considering the needs of others. (And here let me wax political: the myth of America is that we’re a troop of hard-working capitalists who pulled ourselves up by our boot-straps, and you can see this in all the talk of our personal liberty, our individual rights, but the reality is, that individualism can sour and become the reason we refuse to ever play advocate for others — couple that with our crass consumerist tendencies and you start to see why I want it so I’m going to take it becomes such an easy decision to make. Further, the door swings both ways, and explains why a publisher will implement high prices and DRM regardless of the market wisdom that suggests it’s a craptastic idea that hurts instead of helps readers.)

15. Downloader As Potential Fan

Consider the possibility that the person who has downloaded your work is not your enemy but rather, your fan. Maybe an old fan, maybe a new one. You may say, “I don’t want that fan, that fan is a thieving fuckswab,” and you are within good reason to say so. (This is definitely the reaction you feel when someone walks up to you and tells you they love your new book and you rock and high-five and oh by the way I downloaded that book for free. Your immediate response feels like it should be, “Oh, cool, well, I downloaded my semen onto your toothbrush for free, you little shit-ferret.”) Just the same, consider the possibility that this person could be an evangelist for your work. Consider that they could be an engine of that most potent of marketing creatures: the slippery eel known as word-of-mouth.

16. Your Pirated Books Might Not Be Your Pirated Books

You will sometimes find your book smeared across the Internet in the gooey handprints of a chocolate-spackled toddler, but be advised, that might not be chocolate. You’ll see a site and it’s like, “OH MY GOD I SEARCHED FOR MY NAME AND THEY HAVE 80 BILLION ITERATIONS OF MY BOOKS AND NOW MY BUTTHOLE HAS TIGHTENED UP WITH SO MUCH ANGER MY BODY IS BEGINNING TO IMPLODE.” But do realize that programmatically some of these sites are there to deliver viruses and spyware: the actual download of your book may just be some shifty, shitty .exe file that is meant to harm the user and doesn’t have a single word you wrote inside its code.

17. The Danger Of Letting Legislation Be The Answer

It’s easy to say that we want the political process to protect us creative-types from this sort of intellectual intrusion, but remember: politicians frequently co-opt causes and use them as Trojan Horses to shepherd other more problematic legislation into existence. You may just want to firm up intellectual property rights, but they want to punish some kid who lip-synced to a Justin Bieber song on fucking YouTube. They want to make it okay to spy on your Internet traffic. They want to lock up the Internet in an AOL-flavored box and hand the key over to a bunch of untrustworthy companies (“THE INTERWEBS: SPONSORED BY THE BLACKWATER-MONSANTO CONGLOMERATE. PLEASE INSERT DNA STICK SO THAT WE MAY SEND AGENTS TO YOUR HOME TO ELIMINATE YOUR WEAKNESS I MEAN WHAT NOTHING.”). They want control and need an excuse to take it. Do not give them that excuse.

18. Our Primary Source Of Revenue Is Our Books And, Oh, By The Way, We’re Fond Of Not Starving And We Also Like Paying Our Mortgages And Feeding Our Kids And Sweet Jeebus This Header Really Got Away From Me Didn’t It?

Artists and authors need to eat. If our books won’t feed us, we’ll stop writing them. Yes, yes, we’re capitalist swine. Just the same: no, really, we need to eat. And pay bills. Which is why we’d like it if you bought our books instead of just, y’know, plucking them out of the ether.

19. Publishers Need To Eat, Too

Just a reminder through all of this talk: artists need to eat. Further, publishers need to eat, too. Er, not the actual publishing companies themselves, because as it turns out corporations are not actually people so much as they are unthinking entities. No, I’m talking about the people in publishing. The people who love books. Who edit them. Who do awesome covers. Who make phone calls and do marketing and all the crazy shit a book needs that you didn’t realize it needs. It’s frequently the artist and author who, understandably, is seen as the one who suffers here — but a book is the product of a whole ecosystem of people. Some pirates will offer to give the author money directly, but this is why some authors — like Pat Rothfuss — will say, “Fuck no, my publisher is why this book exists and the people there deserve their cut.”

20. That Old Chestnut

Some will say that obscurity is a fate worse than piracy. That may be true. That may not. Like all such pithy sayings, it’s always more complicated than what the pithy saying contains — but it is worth considering, isn’t it? Is a pirated book, at the least, a positive sign that people know of and want that thing you wrote? I mean, it’s not a compliment exactly, but…

21. The Napster Conundrum (Which Is Not The New Dan Brown Novel)

I, like many early intrepid Internet yeomans, once used the services of Napster before it became a paid site — meaning, I used to grab all the free music my poor little hard drive could hold. Here’s the trick, though: that was also a period of my life where I bought more music than ever before. Not saying the same thing is true with book piracy, but it’s worth a mention. (I don’t grab anything off torrents or file-shares anymore; I pay, or I don’t play.)

22. Let Your Publisher Fight The Battle

It’s a tremendous waste of time trying to play the vicious Whack-a-Mole game of finding and calling out every instance of book piracy of your work. Do that and you’ll end up awake for 37 hours straight, twitching, drooling, peeing, seeing thievery in all corners of your life (“I SEE YOU POTTED PLANT, YOU SONOFABITCH. YOU’RE TRYING TO STEAL MY EMAILS WITH YOUR PHOTOSYNTHETIC MIND!”). If you see it, alert your publisher. Don’t fight the battles yourselves. Your time is better spent writing new and awesome things.

23. Combat Piracy By Adding Value

Piracy is predominantly about digital, so bring value to the work beyond the digital. Do not restrict digital, but consider limited edition physical prints, or other deals like, say, “Buy a physical copy, also get a digital copy.” (More publishers need to be doing this, stat.) Or maybe, “Buy a physical version of the book, get a taco.” Because FUCK YEAH TACOS, SON.

24. Fight The Culture Of Piracy Rather Than The Pirates Themselves

The problem with piracy, like most ingrained problems, is not one of crime, but one of culture. It is a tremendous waste of emotional and intellectual energy to combat individual instances of book piracy: you’re better off yelling at the waves rolling in and knocking over some kid’s sandcastle. In fact, to carry that metaphor: you don’t fight the effects of climate change, you fight climate change itself. You don’t fight the symptoms of a disease, you fight the disease. You don’t fight individual bears, you fight the culture of bears. … okay, maybe not that last one.

25. The International “Please Don’t Pirate My Book” Day

Here’s what I’m proposing:

Tomorrow, February 6th, will be Please Don’t Pirate My Book Day. On that day, you writer-types should take time — as little or as much as you can manage — and hop online to talk about piracy. About how it has affected you, or what your thoughts about it are, but most importantly, why you’d like people to pay for your book instead of, say, just taking it.

Speak your mind, whatever that may mean.

So, tomorrow: blog post, Tumblr text, tweet, whatever.

Talk about book piracy and how you feel about it, specifically.

I’ll do it. Won’t you?

(Probably not, and that’s okay. I know that you’re busy. After all, you’re not answering my texts. I’ll just sit here in your shrubs and keep eating these Goldfish crackers while flipping through my iPhone photos of you on the toilet. I LOVE YOU SO MUCH.)