Posts belonging to Category digital piracy



So what’s it worth to you? What’s it worth to me? Some thoughts on the ebook price debate.

Price is the final debate to be had over ebooks. I really do have a great deal of sympathy with those readers who resent the notion of having to pay a second time for an electronic version of a book which they’ve already bought in hard copy. I wouldn’t want to do that myself, no matter how much I might prefer the convenience of having all my favourite titles to hand on an ereader when I’m travelling. The sooner the publishing industry takes heed from recent initiatives in music and video products and starts bundling electronic versions or a licence to get one with the physical product, the better.

Where I don’t have much sympathy is when I’ve heard people muttering that it’s somehow reprehensible/selfish/greedy for authors to profit putting from their backlist into ebook when they’ve already been paid for the original publication and hey, the books are still in the shops, so they’re still earning their cut that way. Why aren’t the ebooks free? Since they should be, why not find a free download?

As with so much in life, I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Personally, one reason I’m epublishing my backlist is to try and recover some of the losses I’ve sustained over the past five years as hard copy sales of my early series have fallen off a cliff. Not only for me and not because people have stopped enjoying our books. Because these days, backlist titles by the majority of authors are simply not in the shops for a browsing reader to find and buy.

That was always a crucial element of the traditional publishing model; the way in which writers acquire new readers and any writer constantly needs to attract new readers because no series of books keeps all the people happy all of the time. Online retailing is simply not the same; it’s great when you know what you’re looking for but no amount of ‘other customers also bought’ and ‘look inside’ features replicate that browsing experience.

But some years ago, publishers stopped sending backlist books to shops on a sale or return basis, hoping to reduce both their costs and losses in an increasingly hostile economy. Booksellers responded by no longer stocking backlists, using their shelf space and promotions tables instead for the frontlist and best-seller titles, piling them high and selling them at a punishing discount for all concerned, hoping to retain some of the market share which the supermarkets were taking away.

And of course, there are far fewer bookshops for people actually go and browse in, especially after the demise of Borders. The cumulative effect of this for me and many other writers has been a significant loss of income. The past few years of financial turmoil have also had a significant impact on the foreign rights markets, where translation deals for midlist books are now increasingly hard to come by, once more reducing authorial incomes by noteworthy amounts.

Don’t mistake me. This isn’t whining or special pleading. The world doesn’t owe me or any other writer a living. This is just the way things are now. So if writers are to be able to afford to continue writing, we need to adapt. One such strategy is making money through epublishing backlist titles. That means not selling our titles for stupidly low prices, purely for the egoboost of being ‘An Amazon Top-100 Seller!’. At 99 cents a copy, that’s not such a big deal. Remember what I said about 100% of not-very-much still being not-very-much.

It’s also not in anyone’s interests to see the ebook price become fixed at an unsustainably low level. Apart from those shareholders in Amazon who don’t actually care about books or indeed any of their other product lines but who are only interested in gaining market share through predatory pricing, looking to cash out and retire with no great concern about the decline of a healthy market economy.

But I’m not interested in those people. I’m concerned about books and readers’ interests, since I was a reader before I was ever a writer and I’ll continue being a reader whatever the ups and downs of my writing career.

We’re in a period of transition and just at the moment, yes, it can reasonably be said that most of the income is profit for a publisher putting out an ebook for a backlist title that has long since earned out its advance. All the up-front costs, the author’s initial advance, the editing, copy-editing, proofing and production have been covered. Well, yes, and that would be the same for paper editions of that book, less the ongoing expense of printing and shipping the physical books. This is how publishing has always worked, with the publisher bearing those initial costs and hoping that enough of their titles earn out that advance payment and head into significant profit to cover those titles which don’t.

Bear in mind that most books take years to turn a profit, including in all likelihood titles here and there by a good many of your favourite authors, especially if your tastes are for writing somewhere off to either side of the mainstream bell curve. It’s the mega-sellers at the central peak of that bell curve which bring in the bulk of the revenue which gives the publishers the leeway to allow their editors to cut a writer some slack if a particular title hits the market at a really bad time or some other factor entirely beyond their control affects sales.

Why is this relevant to ebook pricing? Because books are books are books, whether you’re reading them by way of pixels, paperbacks or hand-illuminated parchment. There are up-front costs in producing them. Beyond the core of established best-sellers, there are no guarantees that the publishers will make their money back. If you as a reader want to continue to see a broad range of books for all tastes, well-edited, accurately proof-read and competently produced for ereaders and other platforms, the ebook price needs to become fixed at a point where doing all those things remains economically viable for publishers. Then publishers can support a broad midlist, where those writers who will emerge as future best-sellers learn their craft and build their readership through word of mouth recommendation, in person and online.

Ah but, I’ve heard it said, market forces will see best-sellers naturally emerge from the brave new world of independent epublishing, free of the dead hand of the past. Really? Like the Fifty Shades of Grey books? I have no opinion on the literary merits or otherwise of those particular titles because I have no intention of reading them, having no interest in that particular genre. I have no interest in quite a few things that are tremendously popular. I have never watched any of the X-Factor type talent shows or ‘reality’ TV (beyond a very few historical re-enactment things). Cookery, home-makeover or real-life-struggle programmes bore me rigid. I’d rather read a good book.

I have friends and family who love some or all of the above TV shows and that’s fine; I don’t pass any moral judgement on them, any more than they do on me for watching the SF and crime series which they would loathe. Fortunately there is still a sufficiently broad range of viewing for us all to enjoy the telly. As a reader I want to live in a world with a similarly broad choice of reading, where publishing professionals can offer me books to my taste, rather than being faced with a narrowing selection of titles determined by mob rule.

This is not to say that things should just stay the same, with ebooks simply priced like paperbacks. Not when the publisher is most definitely making a saving on warehousing, transportation and the other costs associated with physical books. The reader should see that reflected in the new economic model – and speaking personally, I’d like to see the authors’ share of revenues adjusted upwards as well.

Ebooks also offer publishers potential for using pricing intelligently to everyone’s advantage, their own as well as the readers’, with special offers, introductory discounts and so on. Although as some independent authors have already discovered, the dumb automated price-matching algorithms used by the likes of Amazon can cost them dearly, literally. An author offering an ebook directly at a lower cost, even temporarily, will see their Amazon prices cut, sometimes to zero, and it can take a long time for Amazon to put that price back up, if they ever do. As I said, Amazon are not interested in books. They’re interested in market share.

Then there is the problem of pricing for different markets where purchasing power is very different. Let’s not forget that half the world lives on less than $2.50 a day. That makes even a 99-cent ebook a non-trivial purchase. Especially if Amazon adds a surcharge for buying some ebooks depending on where the purchaser’s credit card is registered – or simply refuses to sell the ebook to that particular customer in the first place. For more on this, do read Charles Tan’s highly informative blog post

This used to be covered by the different rights and territories granted in publishing contracts, ensuring that publishers could set prices suited to local conditions and no one else could come in and undercut them. That worked reasonably well, at least from a First World Publisher point of view, when books were physical objects, and is still one of the arguments advanced for Digital Rights Management. Alas, that particular argument, and indeed that particular traditional publishing model, now only stands for as long as it takes for someone to crack a book’s DRM and these days, that’s measured in hours.

On the wider issues of DRM, incidentally, you cannot do better than read this post by Charles Stross (and the earlier post on Amazon which he references is well worth a read as well).

To return to the question of price, this becomes an area where questions of piracy definitely become complicated. I remain vehemently opposed to elooters – the likes of Pirate Bay who steal other people’s intellectual property and offer it up solely to enrich themselves.

But what about people in the 3rd World for whom ebooks could be a game-changer in terms of the education and access to information that they so urgently need to improve their own conditions? I’m not talking about access to the latest crime or SF best-sellers. I’m talking about textbooks and academic papers and journals and the like. Isn’t insisting that they pay American or Western European prices as morally indefensible as insisting they buy life-saving medicines at similarly unrealistic prices for local purchasing power? But a realistic price for a text book in West Africa or Indonesia would be an economically unsustainable price for that same product in the US or UK, if author and/or publisher are to stay in business.

As I say, it’s complicated. I don’t know what the answers are but answers need to be found, in everyone’s interests, readers, writers and publishers alike – and a free-for-all is not the solution.

For the moment, thankfully, finding those answers is not down to me. What I need to decide is a realistic price for my own ebooks, to see me and my business partners rewarded for our work without gouging readers. Then it’s up to the reader to choose whether or not to buy. In that sense, the unspoken contract between story teller and audience remains the same as it has always been.

On piracy and copyright and file sharing and free speech

Home taping is killing live music. Isn’t that what those old adverts used to say? The ones supposed to shame those of us with a drawer full of bootleg cassettes in our student rooms? I don’t recall such campaigns doing much good. But I also remember why we had those cassettes and why such small-scale, furtive illegality bears no comparison with the massive digital piracy that’s now going on and which so many people seem to think is somehow acceptable or excusable.

We copied those tapes because we were broke. I was, in 1983, and I am not talking about not having the cash to buy everything that I might want. I am talking about not having the money to buy the essential necessities of life. After paying my hall fees out of my student grant (which included daily breakfast and six other meals a week), I had £17.30 a week to live on, by which I mean buy clothes, food, books and everything else I might need. At the time, unemployment benefit was £25.40. And that was just in term time. Outside term, I worked in supermarkets, pubs, hotels and old folks’ homes, often two jobs at a time, as well as studying for the upcoming term. So no, I couldn’t afford legitimate music.

But here’s the thing back then, and it was the same for everyone I knew. As soon as we could afford to, we did buy legitimate copies of the music we loved. Being able to do that was almost a rite of passage and definitely a cause for celebration. Not least because the quality was so much better but also because we knew what we were doing was morally suspect, if not outright wrong. When we didn’t need to do it, we stopped.

In more recent decades, I’ve known pals with computer hard-drives loaded with illegal copies of UK and US TV programmes and films. This was because they had no legitimate way of seeing them; their local TV stations and cinemas weren’t showing them and at the time, because Amazon seemed convinced that the Balkans were still a war zone, they couldn’t buy anything online for local delivery. Once again, these friends worked very hard to get hold of legitimate copies, unhappy with the necessity of dodgy downloads. I’ve bought boxsets and books here in the UK and shipped them overseas. As soon as local conditions allow, those friends make legitimate purchases because they all understand that supporting the creative minds behind the things they loved would mean more of the same in the future.

That’s what copyright does. As Katherine Kerr says in her blog post which I urge you to read in full

The Founding Fathers established copyright protections with a short term to encourage writers and artists to create works ultimately for “the public good.”
… I doubt if it ever occurred to them that poor people might write books and thus need the money from the sale of those books to fund the next project. Fortunately, other legislators did realize it.
…Copyright frees the writer, in particular, from dependence on the patronage of the rich. …Books that would appeal to those “lower orders” were in short supply as well — until copyright. Books by and for women were most definitely in short supply …

This is not to say that copyright law is all wonderful. It’s highly complex, nationally and internationally and has been badly skewed by successive interventions by powerful special interests. I absolutely agree that it needs reform and I wish those campaigning for change every success. Mind you, I’m not convinced we’ll see much change until legislators at the highest levels really understand the need for change and are also prepared to take on those powerful interests, like, oh, for example, Disney. I’m not holding my breath, given those Rules for Life that include ‘Never start a land war in Asia’ also include ‘Don’t mess with the Mouse’.

Anyway, what has that got to do with the immorality of someone offering someone else an illegal digital copy of an author’s book, depriving that author and their publisher of at least the chance of legitimate revenue?

Deciding that a whole body of law has serious flaws is not an excuse for ignoring those aspects of it which are clear and straightforward, especially not when ignoring it is for one’s own personal gain. I object on both practical and moral grounds to the damage done to the UK dairy industry by the monopolistic practises and buying power of the big supermarkets. This does not entitle me to take a pint of milk from Tesco’s without paying for it. That is still theft. Or to give a technological example, for the benefit of those arguing with me on their iPads and iPhones – disapproving of the conditions in Apple’s Chinese factories doesn’t entitle me to help myself from the nearest Apple Store.

Ah but copyright law restricts free speech, I have recently been told. It is certainly true that restrictive regimes have used and abused various copyright laws to restrict and muzzle opposition. Yes, thanks, I know all about the history of samizdat publishing.

Once again, I ask, what’s the relevance of this entirely separate and yes, necessary debate, to the question at hand? How does how protecting my legitimate right to stop others illegally using my work for their own personal profit restricts anyone else’s free speech?

Since I’ve yet to get any satisfactory answer to that, let’s consider another entirely irrelevant argument that keeps being made. The file transferring technology that we now have offers so many varied and valid uses, not least enabling those under repressive regimes to share their thoughts and organise dissent. So do those undoubted benefits mean we have to tolerate the flood of digital piracy as a regrettable but inevitable consequence?

In what other sphere are abuses of technology ignored for the sake of its legitimate uses? I live in rural England where farmers and others have many and varied, legal uses for shotguns. I’ve yet to see any thug using a sawn-off to rob a bank given a free pass by the police.

Because what we are talking about here is illegality. And I am thoroughly sick of the supposed defence that file-sharing sites aren’t actually hosting the illegal files, they’re just putting the people who want to share them in touch with each other. Right, and pimps don’t prostitute their own bodies and fences disposing of stolen goods don’t actually go housebreaking. That doesn’t make what they do any less morally and legally reprehensible.

No, I am not in favour of SOPA or PIPA or similar. These are all fundamentally flawed attempts at legislation made by people with no real understanding of the complexities and realities involved. It’s on a par with the UK government’s response to the last outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease here; when the slaughter-and-cremate policy they insisted on was so outdated that procedures included instructions on requisitioning wooden sleepers and coal from local railway marshalling yards to build pyres. Yes, really. They were relying on plans made in the age of steam trains. But I digress.

Once there is the will, there must surely be a way to do something to address this very real and growing problem. Law courts can generally distinguish between those innocently caught up in handling stolen property and those who make a career out of knowingly engaging with organised and wholesale theft. Why can we not see those behind these file-sharing sites, claiming their hands are so clean, in court being asked to explain on what basis they imagined the latest John Grisham best-seller wouldn’t be subject to copyright and thus showing people where to find a digital copy for free was all so fine and dandy?

Because writers and artists are being deprived of their legitimate income. No, I don’t equate every illegal download with a lost sale but a percentage surely are. No, I don’t blame digital piracy for the way writers’ incomes have plummeted in this past decade. This is down to a perfect storm of changes in retailing and short-sighted moves by individual publishers and legislators resulting in a slew of unintended, destructive consequences. No, I won’t digress on all that here. If you want to know more, find me at a convention some time but be warned, you will end up feeling that the Wedding Guest collared by The Ancient Mariner got off lightly.

We have to deal with the situation we’re now in and the cold, hard facts are writers’ incomes are now under such pressure and publishers’ margins have been trimmed so finely, that even a small drop in sales lost to digital piracy can make the difference between contracts being renewed or writers being dropped. Forget the money for a moment. The current situation is bad for readers and the wider world of literature. Great writers are made, not born. Enduring and important works of literature emerge once authors have learned their craft and honed their skills in exploring and conveying the essential truths of the human condition. No one can do that if their writing career is cut off at the knees after two books.

Actually, no, let’s not forget the money. Because whether or not you care if any writers earn a living wage or not, let’s consider who is really raking in the cash from illegal piracy. Individuals like Kim Dotcom, who’s apparently made millions out of Megaupload, after his earlier convictions for computer fraud and insider trading. Then there’s the student facing extradition from the UK to the US over his website offering links to pirated TV shows and films, which was earning him £15,000 a month in advertising revenue. Okay, let’s say a book site wouldn’t get the same traffic. Reduce that by a factor of ten. That’s still £1500 a month for such a parasite abusing other people’s creativity.

How about the latest massive ebook piracy operation; a very slickly deceptive site from a cabal of thieving scum, offering unlimited downloads for a monthly subscription of $14.95, ‘just like Netflix’. No, not like Neflix (and I do hope their lawyers are aware of this) because not a penny of those revenues was going to authors or publishers and all those links were to wholly illegal downloads.

This operation has enraged me more than any other in recent times, because I can so easily see innocent new owners of a kindle/nook/kobo/whatever, with little Net savvy or understanding of publishing being duped. People like my Dad who’s contemplating an ereader on account of aging eyesight, a book lover who would never dream of actively seeking out illegal downloads. Someone like him could easily think this was an entirely legitimate site, just like Netflix, not least because he was honestly paying his monthly fee and the way such sites mouth pious platitudes about observing the Digital Millenium Copyright Act and here’s how to notify them of unintended infringement. Right, infringement of that brand new Patrician Cornwell bestseller which they had no reason to believe was under copyright.

Granted, such sites comply with DMCA takedown notices. Yes, they do, because it’s no skin off their nose if the people they’ve duped into handing over their cash can’t actually find the books they want next week. But why should the onus be on publishers and authors to police this theft of their intellectual property and then to laboriously issue those DMCA notices, a separate one for each of the separate formats in which any individual title is offered. This now takes up entire working days for editorial and legal departments, adding still more to a publisher’s losses.

And since we’re talking money, let’s consider how hard up someone must be to need to find illegal downloads, in the same way that we poverty-stricken students would club together to buy a pack of C90 cassette tapes. If you are able to afford to buy an ereader, still an non-trivial and discretionary expense, surely you cannot be that hard up. Okay, some people will get them as gifts who might struggle to find the price of a fancy coffee to spend on a new book. Then there are no end of free and entirely legitimate downloads available. Not just copyright-expired material though Project Gutenberg but offers and promotions from the publishers themselves.

I am no enemy of ‘free’. I choose to offer some of my own writing without expecting payment. Head on over to the Solaris blog for a copy of ‘The Wizard’s Coming’ if you like. Yes, this sort of thing is excellent advertising and a valuable promotional tool, more than ever in this digital age. The difference is, I have chosen to do this. My rights to earn a legitimate return from my own work have not been illegally and immorally ignored by someone out to line their own pockets.

I am a great fan and a lifelong user of libraries and while I value my Public Lending Right money from the UK, Irish and other European governments, I would donate my own books to libraries without any such recompense. I never mind seeing my own books in second-hand shops, even though I won’t earn a penny from resale. I see that as another way for my work to gain greater currency and circulation. The difference is libraries, physical or digital, are regulated and second hand copies of physical books are always going to be limited in number. Digital piracy downloads can add up to tens of thousands within hours.

Forget debates on cultural differences and history behind copyright or whether or not authors should write for art or money or the uses and abuses of technology. How is the current situation when amoral third parties can profit so massively from wholly illegal behaviour in any way acceptable? Answer me that and I’ll give you a free book.