Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Currency of Democracy

Information is the currency of democracy.
Thomas Jefferson

Last weekend there was a message on one of the discussion lists I belong to directing us all to a post regarding the Ebook Reader’s Bill of Rights -- with the addendum to take our blood pressure medicine. I read the post, and frankly -- although if this surprises you, you don’t know me very well -- I agreed with nearly every point in it. Libraries and librarians are not the enemy, Mssrs. Macmillan and S&S. Far from it. Libraries are a good and valuable thing, both for readers and for writers. I support my local libraries in every way I know -- with monetary donations, with free books, and with my time.

Let me say this again. Libraries and librarians are not the enemy. And the fact that I need to say this indicates to me how truly confused matters have become in the publishing world. Blame it on technology.

The reason I’m not linking to that Ebook Reader’s Bill of Rights post, and that I can’t actively get behind it and support it, all comes down to one small, but I think crucial, passage. It was an afterthought for the author (a librarian --  clearly a thoughtful and conscientious fellow), but it’s kind of an important one for me as someone who makes a living writing fiction.

My primary concern is less about re-selling and more in regard to people being given control over their own reading content. While I’m hesitant to engage in what may be construed as hyperbole, I appeal to you to consider the emotional connections to your own personal libraries and the importance of every book that you have selected to be a part of it. I would implore authors to consider how they would consider outside removals or modifications on your own book collections. Ownership matters, quite frankly, and it is an expression of intellectual pride.

Now the blogger is looking at this as a librarian. That’s not a criticism, he’s not a pirate and it probably hasn’t occurred to him that there’s serious money to be made in illegal third party reselling -- and that it comes at the expense of the author. What I did detect -- what I frequently detect in these discussions -- is a kind of impatience with authors who have problems with being pirated. In fact, the post that I responded to was an additional post directed at writers spelling out for them (in a somewhat chiding tone) why wholesale sharing of their work was actually a great idea.

I think the jury is still out on whether wholesale sharing -- viral sharing -- is a good thing or not. Viral sharing that doesn’t eventually lead to book sales is not a good thing for authors who need to make a living at their writing. The whole argument in favor of allowing libraries and readers to share is supposed to be that it will bring new readers to an author. But if those readers are not -- at some point -- paying for the work, then it doesn’t actually do the author any good.

You see, while authors do write for themselves and for the pleasure of writing, part of the decision to publish -- to put ourselves through the hell of the publishing process -- is to make money at writing. Otherwise we would be content writing for ourselves and a handful of friends. If we are merely writing for the love of writing, there is no need to share our work with the rest of the world. None. I mean, I’ve got as much ego as the next artist, and I love to hear from readers, but I also need to pay the mortgage.

I’ve actually seen discussion threads on torrent sites where irate pirates say things like (apparently with no sense of irony) if authors are just in it for the money, fuck ‘em! There are plenty of other good authors and good books out there.

Yes! Please. Please shower your attention on other good authors and other good books.  Because if all the sharing ultimately leads to more sharing…in the not-so-distant-end, the only people writing books will be amateurs and the independently wealthy.

That’s the part that gets to me. I’m not seeing any long term consideration of what unlimited mass sharing might mean for authors. In fact, it feels like I’m being told to shut up and get back to work. But if it affects authors…hello! It affects readers. Whether you choose to believe it or not, authors are the integral piece of this puzzle. You remove authors from the equation, and all your other concerns become moot.

For a long time I bought into the idea that ebook pirating wasn’t really a problem. And it is true that a large percentage of downloaded books are never read, the goal is simply to share and acquire. But I’ve also seen threads where readers are bewailing the fact that my work has been removed from various torrent sites. As in…my life is over, what will I do now that I can’t get Josh’s books?

No, I’m not kidding. The fact that my books are for sale everywhere was apparently not even a consideration. PAY FOR BOOKS????? Why not just advocate child labor in third world countries and killing baby seals?

I’ve seen my work -- my entire body of work -- carefully scanned and collected in a digital file and sold on different sites. Sold. As in offered multiple times on mirror sites.

I’ve seen and heard people boasting that they never pay for books. Never.

(And that fills them with pride…why?  Since when is stealing from artists a noble act?)

I’m not blaming libraries for any of this, my point is simply that authors have legitimate worries and that those worries need to be addressed, not dismissed as the fantasies of over-inflated egos or paranoid delusions of the misinformed. Just as libraries are not the problem, neither are authors. I think authors and libraries are on the same side, even if they don’t always realize it. But technology has changed a lot of the rules we used to play by, and it’s going to take some rethinking -- and a little imagination -- on everyone’s part to get what we all need to survive in this brave new world.


  1. Let me just say this. I love my job. I love it. It's rarely a hassle for me to get out of bed and come to work. That being said, I want to get paid a fair wage for that work. I deserve it. Why do artists deserve less? I want you to make enough money to live on, because I love reading your books. I want you to be able to devote that time to it without having to worry about your mortgage. I've never understood the whole "well it's on the internet so it must be free" business. Stealing is stealing. We don't do it with music, we don't do it with books. What can you possibly say to yourself to make that ok? This is kinda one of my hot buttons. Stealing is wrong. Wrong. The end. It's not a right. It's a choice. Anyway...

  2. I don't understand the piracy thing either. I've yet to hear reasoning that isn't childish rationalization for doing what you want at someone else's expense.

    The puzzling part is that some of these people do honestly love the books and even kid themselves that they're somehow helping authors -- yet the concept of killing the goose that laid the golden egg is apparently not one they can grasp.

    Libraries help authors.

    Piracy -- the wholesale giving away of books that leads only to more wholesale giving away of books or the selling of someone else's work without their permission -- is a dead end.

  3. This is a terrific post, Josh. You possess a reasoned vision which covers all bases, & it comes from an author with a hugely impressive output.

    As a writer myself of a book which has had three years or more of intense scribbling & rewrites behind it, coupled with the acquisition of an expensive research library to get my facts right, I find to discover that my work is available as an unauthorized freebie from several pirate sites is dismaying to say the least. Yet even from its authorized ebook sellers (Amazon, iBookstore, Lulu, et al) my book's sales will never make me a rich man.

    Nevertheless it is no consolation to discover how at least two of the sites known to me are phishing exercises. One will drop a Trojan on an unsuspecting, unsecured visitor once the Download button is clicked without delivering the promised ebook, while another seems to be a cagy harvester of email or credit card info without providing the freebie ebook download. I happen to know because I apparently triggered both responses.

    George Gardiner

  4. Thanks, George. I think what confuses the issue for some pirates is that, while I sincerely doubt many writers go into this biz for the dough, we do want -- need -- to be paid for our hard work.

    There's an attitude that the true artist should be above the whole filthy lucre thing. We should be glad simply to have our words read and loved. And I *do* want my words read and loved, but unless someone out there is willing to become my patron and support me so I can pen elegant words without having to live in terror of having my house repossessed, I also have to be concerned with being paid a fair wage.

    I mean if it was just about money -- meaning if we start breaking it down by dollars per hours -- we'd all give up and go work in an office.

  5. Great post!!! And it makes me very proud, in an odd sort of way, that I have always bought your books, the PHYSICAL books, because of my desire to have them sitting on my bookshelf. And, of course, my weird, prehistoric preference for the physical books over the e-versions. lol! I totally understand where you're coming from, too. You work hard to write these wonderful stories, and as such, should be compensated accordingly. To think that someone would be OK with getting your works for free (even worse, bragging about it!) just makes me shake my head in wonder. As to "never paying for a book", that's just ridiculous! Yes, I borrow a lot of what I read from the library, which makes sense - that IS where I work, and as such, I need to support it. But there will always be titles that I can't find there, either because they don't fit our collection criteria or because some "bad" patron has absconded with the work. (don't get me started....) I've got an Amazon account, and it gets used quite a bit!

    I think that's what bothers me the most - that each entity sees itself as separate and somehow better than the others. Why can't libraries and bookstores and physical works and eworks all exist together? Why can't they all just get along? lol!

  6. Thanks, Tracy!

    I think that's what bothers me the most - that each entity sees itself as separate and somehow better than the others. Why can't libraries and bookstores and physical works and eworks all exist together? Why can't they all just get along? lol!

    The thing that troubles me in all this is that libraries already face severe cuts in funding. Our local libraries have severely reduced hours and staff.

    Add to that, the fact that libraries are sometimes the only source -- neutral source -- of literature, and they already have to contend with pressure from different sides over the books that they make available. The left objects to copies of Mein Kampf. The right objects to Heather Has Two Mommies.

    I refuse to believe we can't support libraries without destroying the publishing industry. We can send a man to the moon but we can't figure out a realistic way to limit ebook downloads?

    By the way, thanks very much for buying my books!