I think I heart pirates

Today I followed Twitter more closely than I usually do because of
Digital Book World day 2, the Apple iPad unveiling and then the RWA announcement about the changes to their rules concerning eligible publishers.

Now, I’m coming down from a publishing buzz, and gathering some of the links I found while reading today.

First, one of Brian O’Leary’s tweets led me to this article about Chris Anderson’s “latest” idea. I’m almost done with Clay Shirky’s book, and I completely agree with Brian about the similarities between the two guys’ ideas. Can great minds think alike when one of them thought it two years ago?

Then, there was piracy.

Yesterday’s speech by Macmillan president Brian Napack has been making the rounds. Teleread had a summary; PW focused on it in their wrap-up. Napack’s gist seemed to be that piracy is bad. We should stop it however we can.

But there is something in me that can’t fully accept this dictate.

I keep seeing too many stories about free (pirated) books increasing sales. Take this Publishing Perspectives piece, for example. The article is mostly about Amazon’s e-book “exclusives,” but inside there is an interesting side note about The Pirate Coelho. A long clip from the article:

In his keynote speech opening the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2008, Coelho laid out his philosophy quite clearly, describing his decision to create a site, The Pirate Coelho, where he links to free pirated downloads of his books in any language he can find them online:

“Why not share the whole digital content of books for free? Contrary to what common sense tells us — and common sense is not always a good guide, otherwise publishers, booksellers and writers would probably be doing something more profitable — the more you give, the more you gain. I was lucky enough to see this happening to my books in Russia, back in 1999, where I had a very difficult beginning. Given the great distances, my books were very poorly distributed and the sales were very low. Yet, with the appearance of a pirated digital copy of The Alchemist sales took off in an amazing way. In the first year, the sales had jumped from 1,000 copies to 10,000 copies. In the second year they soared to 100,000 copies and the year after I sold a million books. To this day, I have reached the mark of over 10 million books in this territory. The Russian experience stimulated me to create a site: “The Pirate Coelho”.

“The Pirate Coelho” was there for three years, being fed by readers worldwide, and nobody in the industry noticed — because my sales were steadily growing. However, from the moment that I mentioned it at a Technology Conference at the beginning of this year, I started hearing some complaints. However, in the end, my US publishing house, HarperCollins, for example, fully understood the possibilities. So once a month during 2008, I have uploaded one of my titles, unabridged, to be read online. Instead of seeing a drop in sales, I am pleased to say that The Alchemist, one of the first titles to be made available online, by September has completed a full year on the New York Times bestselling list. This is living proof of our industry’s momentum: use the web to promote and you will see the results in the physical world.”

And then @screeny sent me this fantastic in-depth interview with a book pirate. For this guy, piracy equals passion. Not only did he scan physical books–a task I know is annoying based on the many photocopies of old books I used to have to make–he spent up to 40 freakin’ hours editing the design to be more readable. Would it be too audacious to suggest that this “pirate” is really spending numerous unpaid hours building an audience for the authors he loves?

In my head, I know piracy is a bottom-line problem, for publishers and for writers. But in my heart, I am with this guy. I can’t help comparing his urge to find and share books with the many, many ways I myself have gorged on free and cheap books. I get books from work. I share books from work with friends and colleagues. I am a heavy library patron, both Brooklyn Public and New York Public. I was once also a heavy used bookstore patron, turning in one new copy of a Brenda Joyce for four tattered copies of whatever looked good.

(The only reason I’m not such a heavy used bookstore patron today is that NYC doesn’t have the kind of stores I like–filled with romance and eager to make trades on anything I bring in. The Strand is great, but not of the same caliber as my old college haunt, Brant’s Used Books.)

Isn’t electronic piracy really just sharing, at a larger scale? And maybe the increased sharing is what’s needed now that we’re serving a larger, global market. The numbers seem big, yes, but I can’t help thinking about how many used books are sold online every year and how many books are loaned by large library systems. Does all of that sharing count as piracy, too? I’m not convinced an electronically pirated book is actually a lost sale. I’d rather consider it a widely distributed sample.

I know there are a lot of folks who disagree, and the continuing collection of data may eventually prove me wrong. I’ll be watching the debate. Let’s see if it will lead to a change of heart.

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8 Responses to “I think I heart pirates”


  1. 1 Marian Schembari January 28, 2010 at 12:37 am

    I think I heart pirates too. We should compare notes ;-)

    Just wrote a post about this for DBW, so keep your eyes peeled. Though because of the crazy Twitter stream at the conference all our opinions are apparently too late. They’re on to bigger and better things now…

    • 2 Stacy Boyd January 28, 2010 at 8:05 am

      I enjoyed your piece on staying away from publishing stereotypes, so I’ll definitely check out the one on pirates.

      The DBW Twitter stream nearly kicked my ass. I kept getting distracted by articles about pirates. Oh, and work. What are some of the bigger and better things?

      • 3 Marian Schembari January 28, 2010 at 10:46 am

        Haha, to that I have no answer. Only that I feel after twittering for two days straight I’m late on the uptake when writing about the conference. I mean, I’m just starting to write blog posts about the various panels, but people who followed the stream already know that stuff! Kind of like newspapers vs blogs in terms of speed of delivery. Now it’s blogs vs Twitter. But I digress ;-)

        Still, I very much enjoyed this post!

  2. 4 Peachy girl January 28, 2010 at 11:25 am

    “Isn’t electronic piracy really just sharing, at a larger scale?”

    Girl, not only no, but hell to the no, as Whitney once said. The word piracy alone brings to mind bandits. Bandits who steal my ishnit are NOT my fans. I’m published from ehouses, as well as traditional NY. Thing is, for the books that are only available through electronic, if someone steals my work, I get nada for it. There is a big difference between “sharing” a beloved treasured book, and down right stealing. I don’t think you can honestly compare the two, Stacy. To take the time to scan all those pages, as you said, to “share” with others makes me want to hurt somebody. Bad. And, coming from my background before writing as a clinical mental health therapist, this is not normal behavior.

    You love the book, great. If it’s a physical book, go ahead and share it, give it to the library for others to read, go to used book stores and buy more, that’s all well and good. But, you love it SOOO much you feel the need to scan hundreds of pages, upload it, and sell or ‘give’ it to people you don’t even know? Aww, hell no! Something is wrong with you if you do that. You have issues that require deep psychological assessment. For a fee. That pirate won’t be able to ‘pirate’ his/her way out of paying my fee to counsel their crazy behind, believe that.

    If this book is only available through electronic means, versus print and/or electronic, the author gets absolutely nothing from it. We work too damn hard, sacrifice too much, to even THINK this might be okay, cuz they just luuuve’s my work so much! I can do without that kind of love. I have bills to pay. It makes most authors I know, myself included, want to do, as Jasmine Sullivan sang, and ‘bust the windows out your car.’ I have a kid’s tuition to pay, a mortgage, car note, etc, etc, just like everyone else. This is stealing and it’s wrong.

    The music industry took a stand, authors should do no less. People often have this notion that it’s JUST a book, what’s the big deal if I copy it and sell/give it away. It is a BIG deal. What if I came to your job and told you that you had to work 15-20 minutes each day, without pay, clocked you out and everything and said, keep on working, you got most of the day’s wages, what’s the biggie? I mean it’s only 15 minutes…know what I’m sayin’?

    • 5 Stacy Boyd January 28, 2010 at 10:43 pm

      Peachy Girl,

      I wish I could be as certain as you. My ambiguity around piracy comes from two ideas:

      1) I feel wishy-washy about defining “stealing” when it comes to intellectual property. It’s copyright infringement and illegal, but file sharing is different from the theft of a physical item.

      Thing is, for the books that are only available through electronic, if someone steals my work, I get nada for it.

      Just because you are not compensated doesn’t mean it is stealing. When someone reads your work only at the library, only at used bookstores, only from friends, they are reading the work you published, and you get nothing for it. Before I began thinking about the effects of e-piracy, I just assumed those free- and cheap-book outlets worked because they led readers to find authors they wanted to buy new. Maybe those outlets work only because they have become a part of the traditional publishing system, accepted as a cost of the business.

      When I think about piracy from a reader’s perspective, it seems very similar to borrowed books. A pirate can try the author for free (just like at the library), and buy if she likes the author. In The Millions’ interview, it seemed that the pirate was an avid reader and book buyer, as well as a file-sharer. His buying-plus-stealing tendencies don’t prove me right, but they do make me think about how avid reading in other formats is similar to electronic piracy.

      2) Because those other forms of sharing have always been accepted as an unchangeable fact–not much you can do about who reads a book once it is out of the warehouse–I am beginning to think open file sharing may become a new unchangeable fact of the business. There’s not much you can do about who reads an e-book once the file has been shared with the public, for sale or for free.

      The music industry took a stand, authors should do no less.

      The music industry did take a stand, but it hasn’t really done much good in saving the way they used to do business (album/CD sales). They’ve had to rethink things (live performance sales, sales of singles), and they are still working through it.

      Book publishing as we know it is changing. That is a fact, determined by the widespread access of publication and printing tools by pretty much everyone who wants them. This new open access to what used to be a gated community means that publishers have a lot to think about in the next few years. Electronic piracy will be one of those things.

      Authors deserve some financial support for their work. Writing books and stories is damn hard work, writing them well is even harder. But I don’t think anyone in publishing gets the money they deserve for all of the grand and engaging ideas they help usher into the world. Author advances and royalties have traditionally been low; publishing salaries are low.

      I appreciate your attempt to draw a parallell with my extra 15 minutes a day–

      People often have this notion that it’s JUST a book, what’s the big deal if I copy it and sell/give it away. It is a BIG deal. What if I came to your job and told you that you had to work 15-20 minutes each day, without pay, clocked you out and everything and said, keep on working, you got most of the day’s wages, what’s the biggie? I mean it’s only 15 minutes…know what I’m sayin’?

      –but I end up putting in a lot more than 15 minutes a day of unpaid work, if things are tallied up. :-)

      • 6 Peachy girl January 29, 2010 at 11:09 am

        I’m just not seeing how this can be seen as an okay thing to do. There are absolutely no gray areas in my mind. There is no justification for this type of stealing. I do believe people have likened what these pirates are doing to a type of library situation. No, it’s not the same. Particularly when the book being pirated is available in ebook only, and many of the authors they are stealing from possibly have only one or two other books out. How in the world is this helping this author? I have over 15 books published, mostly NY published, with a few in ebook when I started out. A friend found a site where they had ALL of my backlist. All of them. Three of the books had been downloaded over 1000 times in the two days the books went up on the site before my agent could send out a cease and desist letter. Yeah, tell me how that helps me.

        “Maybe those outlets work only because they have become a part of the traditional publishing system, accepted as a cost of the business”

        I believe it is more of this, than leading scores of readers who’ve stolen your work to then go out and buy it. I’m not saying they don’t go out and buy after reading a couple of books of yours they’ve stolen, however, the two don’t necessarily go hand in hand.

        And if those taking the books from these sites don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, that is another issue. I wrote about the music industry for a reason. Not that it really brought about major changes, but it was a stand. Sometimes you have to let people know what they are doing is wrong. There are those who think there’s nothing wrong with downloading books, music, etc. At least the music industry took a stand. That’s all I’m saying. Authors who think this is wrong (and I’m not saying all do. I only know how I feel, and most of my gal pal’s about piracy.)

        “Authors deserve some financial support for their work. Writing books and stories is damn hard work, writing them well is even harder. But I don’t think anyone in publishing gets the money they deserve”

        No, we don’t. And that’s the problem. Working like a one-armed slave, in an industry where most of us, from author, to editor, to line editor, etc are underpaid for all of our long hours and hard work, makes pirates, again, make me want the bust the windows out their car. It’s the principal of the matter. I guess it’s troubling for me as an author to read you as an editor say you heart pirates. I hate their slimy asses.

        In addition to busting their windows, I want to jab them repeatedly between the eyebrows with a long, pointy, jagged knife. And then invite all of my author pals to do the same. To share the love of giving as the pirate has shared the love of giving away my book….Just this peachy gal’s opinion, Stacy ;)

      • 7 Stacy Boyd January 29, 2010 at 2:59 pm

        Thanks for continuing the discussion even though pirates make you want to do violent things. :-)

        I guess it’s troubling for me as an author to read you as an editor say you heart pirates. I hate their slimy asses.

        I work as an editor in a traditional (versus “new,” “digital,” “independent,” etc.) publishing house. The old model of doing things benefits me personally. And it’s kind of scary to contemplate how quickly and irrevocably the industry seems to be changing, especially when it comes to making content free (legally or illegally). My livelihood rests on making money from books just as yours does.

        But the publishing space is changing. To not fully consider all sides of the piracy issue–as well as other issues like book and ebook pricing, distribution, printing models, workflow models, reading experiences and many other issues–would be counterproductive. Like burying my head in the sand as the tide comes in.

        It is simply a fact that ebooks are easy to copy, DRM or no, and easy to share. Taking down illegal copies is the only way to handle piracy right now, but it might not be the best way. Are there better ways to deal with it? We in the industry may need to work together to find new streams of revenue for authors (and publishers, too, I hope).

        Right now, I think I heart pirates because of the potential that seems to be in these booklovers’ habits. (Based on the results of what I’ve been reading and hearing lately, such as the Doctorow experiments in PW, the Coelho feature in Publishing Perspectives, and the very introductory discussion of the new data on O’Reilly titles by Magellan.) Would these avid readers be willing to pay for future books, print books or some other “item” we haven’t come up with yet?

        My data is admittedly limited, but it does show that there is some possibility piracy benefits the author (and hence the editor), in certain situations. Can it be beneficial to all authors, even those that are not well-known or whose only sales come from ebooks? I don’t know yet. I don’t think anyone does. But I am excited that people, even pirates, continue to love books. This love is something we can build on. If we can figure out how.


  1. 1 Motivation Monday | Solelyfictional Trackback on February 1, 2010 at 6:21 am

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