Fame costs, as the 80’s TV show Fame once claimed, in all its leg-warmer glory. You know what else costs? Illegal downloading of books. They might not cost the person downloading them, or the scumbags who stole the content in the first place, but it costs the one person who should really be rewarded for their work, the author.
Rowan Coleman is the most recent author to raise the issue, with this tweet:
There can hardly be a more disheartening moment for an author, than seeing years of hard work made available for free on the Internet. But what, if anything, can be done about it?
I was scrolling through Rick O’Shea’s Bookclub on Facebook when I came across a post where someone had just bought their first Kindle and was asking how it all worked. People were responding with useful information like how much eBooks cost on average, where to get good deals, bundles and even how to borrow from the library. However, to my absolute horror, someone recommend an illegal downloading site where they get all their books for free. How could anyone who values books, reading and consequently the people who write them, support a system that steals their work?
This followed on from another Facebook post, where the author Louise Jensen revealed how she came across her book on an illegal website (you can read her post on eBook piracy here). I felt her pain. I’ve also discovered my books available via torrent sites and let me tell you, the feeling is absolutely gutting. My overriding sense was one of powerlessness – what could I do to stop this piracy on my own? I shut down the page and just tried to pretend I hadn’t seen it.
In this digital age, there is no escaping the reality that file sharing has become a part of the landscape. But does that mean we shouldn’t try to change the culture and prevent it becoming even more mainstream?
It’s not just about the potential loss of earnings (which is bad enough in itself) but what people don’t realise is that years of work have gone into making that book. The chances of getting published are similar to those of winning the lottery, so most authors spend years writing, submitting, editing, honing, resubmitting, receiving rejection letters, giving up, starting again, writing, writing, writing. If you are lucky enough to get published, or choose the independent route and publish the book yourself, there is still more work (and expense) involved in promoting and getting the finished product to the reader, but all of those long hours are worth it to see your book on the shelf. Even a digital one. So to see someone take all of that hard work, without your permission and make it freely available online… it’s indescribable. It’s theft. Yet, people don’t seem to care, as long as they’re getting a free book.
But there’s always a cost. Most writers are already struggling to make a living out of writing and many have full time jobs outside of writing. We don’t earn a wage; we work for free and hope that someone (many someones!) will buy our book once its published.
If people aren’t prepared to pay for books anymore, what will that mean for the future of writing?
An author’s career depends on sales and if the figures don’t add up, they get dropped. Becoming an author will be relegated to the hobbies and other interests section of your CV. And without fresh new writing voices coming through, our shelves will be dominated by celebrity autobiographies and cookbooks! Of course some people assume that writers are making lots of money already and a couple of free downloads won’t hurt, but nothing could be further from the truth. The average income for authors in Ireland is about €1,000 per year. I can see the logic in thinking that big name authors won’t be affected by a few lost sales. I can see the logic, but I don’t agree with it, because it’s still theft.
Digital publishing has democratised the industry in such a way that the majority of authors now are lower to middle class, ordinary people who one day hope to making a living from selling their books. It can take years to start seeing any kind of income from writing, so to see someone swoop in and profit from your hard earned success, is infuriating. I know money is tight, but as a society, I think we really need to consider the long-term implications of expecting something for nothing. To add insult to injury, eBooks are often priced cheaper than a cup of coffee and yet they still wind up on these sites.
I understand that new releases can be expensive, but there are so many other ways to read cheaply. Join NetGalley. Get free books and in return, leave a review (another way of paying an author for their work). Borrow from the library. Use a subscription service like Amazon Prime. Pick up some second-hand books in a charity shop. Use the ‘Look Inside’ feature on Amazon to get a free preview of the book, if you don’t want to waste your money on a book you won’t like. Just please don’t support these pirate sites and their illegal content.
Don’t make free books the norm.
I have read articles where some authors say they don’t get upset about illegal downloads anymore, because it means people are reading their books. They also argue that it’s not a lost sale because these people would never have paid for their book anyway. Neil Gaiman sees it as the modern equivalent of people lending books and that it’s a good way for readers to discover authors; a kind of reverse marketing strategy. Perhaps they have achieved some kind of quasi-religious detachment that I’ve yet to master, but I can’t see how anyone can be okay with having their work pirated. Maybe it’s more to do with the fact that there doesn’t seem to be anything that can be done to stop it and so they’ve just resigned themselves to the inevitability of it all. I have even see people argue that, if you’re being pirated, you must be doing well. So an author should be flattered at having their work stolen?
So what can be done about it? There are websites and apps out there, similar to Google Alerts, that will let you know if your book has been pirated. But, as an author, do you really want to spend a big chunk of your time and energy chasing down these sites, trying to get your book removed, only to have it reappear a few hours later? Should publishers be doing more or the industry as a whole? Could the removal of DRM (digital rights management) have an impact, freeing up readers from being locked into one format? Or is education the key to preventing readers from downloading books illegally? Whatever your position, it is copyright infringement; it is illegal and it is a crime.