Musing on ebook piracy and free downloads yesterday at Alan Baxter’s blog, I made a passing comparison between the digital distribution of books, whether legally or illegally, and the sale of second-hand hardcopies. In both instances, neither author nor publisher makes money on the transaction, but whereas the former practice is almost invariably viewed as foolhardiness where legal and theft where not, the latter is viewed as a benevolent, even positive, parallel economy – and the more I think about this distinction, the more arbitrary it seems. If publishers and authors are concerned about losing revenue to piracy - that is to say, to the free transmission of their products and to reduced-price sales made by unrelated third parties in a digital context – then surely the natural system with which to draw comparisons is the physical second-hand market? Throw in data regarding library usage and loans between friends, and you’re basically looking at the real-world equivalent of the digital DL ecosystem, viz: instances in which a single first-hand copy is read by multiple people, only one of whom pays money to the publisher.
This being so, if the mass availability of free or cut-price digital books is causing authors and publishers to lose out on revenue, then you’d expect that the combined presence of friendly loans, libraries and the second-hand market would be seen as having an identical (or at least similar) effect. After all, humans are quite a mercenary species: if we can have something cheaper or for free, then why would we pay full price? Or, put another way: if I can buy all my books second-hand, grab them at the library or borrow them from my friends, then why would I ever pay full price for the same product? Why would anyone?And yet the indisputable fact is that people – and I’d even go so far as to say a majority of people – do.
Here’s an important question: how did you first discover your favourite authors? Did you stumble on them by accident, or pick them up cold in the bookshop? Did you read a good review and decide to check them out? Did a friend spruik their work or lend you a copy? Did you see their opus discounted or for second-hand sale and give them a try? Did you find them at the library? Did you follow their blog or Twitter and decide to read their books? Take a long, hard moment to think about it, because unless my own experiences are very much anomalous, the chances are that the first time you read a new author’s work, you didn’t pay full price for it. In fact, you may not even have paid at all. Going through my own bookshelves, I can vouch for the fact that almost every single author whose work I now collect or have ever bought religiously – Kate Elliott, Katharine Kerr, Terry Pratchett, Tamora Pierce, Robin Hobb, Sara Douglass, Anne McCaffrey, Neal Stephenson, Neil Gaiman, Richelle Mead, Naomi Novik, Libba Bray and George R. R. Martin, to name but a few – first entered my awareness through free, loaned, library or second-hand copies. Douglass, Bray and Pierce all came from libraries; I bought second-hand editions of their early works, then expanded to buying first-hand when I could afford it. Elliott, Kerr, Pratchett, Hobb, Martin and Novik all started as second-handers. Stephenson was a loaned to me – in fact, I’m currently reading a friend’s copy of Anathem – while I won my first Mead book in a contest. My first McCaffrey was a gift, and followed by much second-handing before I ever bought her works new.
But Gaiman is arguably the most interesting test case, not only because of his favourable stance on piracy and free books, but because his is the instance that links us back to the digital world. Because when I turned eighteen, a friend’s birthday gift to me was a CD containing an illegal, ripped version of the complete Sandman, which I read voraciously and loved in my first year of college. As a direct result of this, not only do I now own all of Gaiman’s novels, but whereas the pirate CD has long since vanished down the back of a couch, I have since acquired the complete Sandman in brilliant, first-hand hardcopy – the same way that I’ve bought or been given all his other books.
So why, in all these instances, did I switch to paying full price? There were – and are – a number of reasons. Some, as you might expect, are mercenary when taken in isolation: for instance, though it was easy to find older books second-hand, it was simply more expedient to buy later volumes new than wait for used copies to hit the market. Aesthetically, too, a new copy tends be better looking and sturdier than a second-hand equivalent, and, in the case of Sandman, preferable in terms of both quality and physicality to a digital rip. But those are all pragmatic concerns: what changed - what mattered – is that I loved the stories, and therefore wanted the best possible copies as quickly as possible. I wanted to support the authors, because I wanted them to keep writing, and because there was no longer any question that their books might not be worth the money.
But wait! I hear you cry. That doesn’t apply to the digital realm at all! Is there really so much of a difference between a ripped PDF and an official ebook that readers would pay for a better edition? If the accessibility problem is the same – if it’s a choice between clicking one button for free, and one to pay, for essentially the same product – then what advantage does a first-hand copy have?
To which I say:
Firstly, if there’s no difference between a ripped PDF and an official ebook, then possibly there should be. The onus is on publishers to make their product unique – to reward digital first-hand purchasers with pretty content the same way that gorgeous hardcopies do. What about the addition of features that only work on one or a limited number of devices, so that a ripped version would be less special than an original? What about ease of use, where legitimate acquisitions are easier to make – and certainly available more quickly – than their illegal equivalents? What about digital bundling with hardcopy editions? These are all considerations that the industry is actively investigating, and while there will always be people who don’t care or can’t afford the full price – just as there are people who aren’t fussed about the condition of second-hand copies or can’t afford new books – it seems alarmist and inaccurate to suggest that there’s no meaningful difference between official ebooks and rips.
Secondly: believe it or not, the internet has not suddenly caused the entire world to turn into bastards. As I said in the Baxter piece, some of us – a lot of us, in fact – are more than willing to balance out our free or reduced-price consumption of things by paying to support the content we like. If the only conceivable advantage of a paid-for book was that it generated revenue and thereby allowed the author to keep writing, that would be reason enough for most of us. The webcomics arena, for instance, provides innumerable examples of this, and while I’m not so naive as to start touting the generosity, altruism and selflessness of humankind as proof positive that such a system should work flawlessly, I’d humbly suggest that any author who thinks that the majority of their readership is made up of selfish, thieving assholes should probably stop to wonder why they ever thought such people would give them money in the first place. As radical and terrifying a thought as it may seem, authors have to trust that most of their readers are actually decent human beings, at least where books are concerned, because the alternative is to start thinking the worst of the people you want to support you – and that way lies madness.
And thirdly, because it bears repeating: ebooks are not replacing hardcopies. What they represent is an increase in the number of ways that people can access stories, and while ereaders and their ilk are definitely still a new arena, that doesn’t mean the problem of free content – or, more specifically, of multiple readers accessing a story that has only been paid for once – is exclusively a digital problem. Digital music didn’t kill radio, and it certainly didn’t kill the industry; neither DVDs nor VHS before it have ever come close to threatening movies, nor has online streaming overly dented Hollywood; similarly, home recording, Tivo and boxed sets haven’t changed the balance of free vs paid TV. And if libraries didn’t kill bookshops, then I have a hard time believing that ebooks will either destroy publishing as we know it or replace hardcopies, because if there’s two things human beings – and, by extension, the market – like, it’s variety and complementary systems.
Returning to the concept that the provision of free content ultimately leads to more sales, consider how the internet has changed the way we read. I buy books now, not just because they appeal to me, but because I read the authors’ blogs or Twitter and think they have something interesting to say; because innumerable book blogs and sites like Goodreads get readers invested in the ideas behind new releases while holding contests for the distribution of free early copies and ARCs that are no longer the sole purview of professional reviewers or one-off promotions in dead tree media; because there are free short stories, character bios, Easter eggs, wallpapers, maps and worldbuilding data available online, all designed to draw the reader deeper into the world. All of which is another way of saying: we rarely buy books cold any more (assuming we ever did). Bookstores and libraries are no longer our only – or even our main – source of information on upcoming releases, new authors, related titles and literary events; and that means that when we finally do front up to a first-hand store, whether virtual or physical, there’s a much greater chance that we’ll already know what we actually want – because somehow, somewhere, we have already been provided with free content.
Ultimately, I feel that the debate about ebook piracy has been stymied by the same sort of fearmongering that usually characterises debates about welfare cheats. Yes, some people will always abuse the system, and it’s only right that we have mechanisms in place to deal with them. But simplifying the whole issue as one of lazy, selfish thieves taking advantage of the charity and resources of better people is always going to be deeply problematic, because of the extent to which it hinges on notions of deservedness. By which I mean: books are technically a luxury item, non-essential to daily living while simultaneously constituting an irrevocable, significant and active portion of our popular culture; but literacy is essential, and books are a big part of that. This is why so many government programs are obsessed with making sure children, and particularly disadvantaged children, have access to books – because of all the positive links between fostering a love of reading early on and later educational success. And yet, when it comes to the legitimate reasons why many people pirate ebooks, or rely heavily on libraries, or only buy second-hand – that is to say, because of reasons of disability, disadvantage, poverty and accessibility - we have a tendency to assume the worst of them, as we so often do of people (the same people?) who live on welfare: that they should be grateful for what they have, and that they are stealing from us by aspiring to possession of things whose full cost they haven’t personally paid, and therefore don’t deserve.
It’s true of every necessity – food, shelter, medicine, education, childcare – that there will always some people who can’t afford them. The solution in these instances is not to throw up our hands and say that if everything were free, the system would break, and that such people must therefore fend for themselves; rather, it’s to expect that those who can pay, do – through taxation, through donation, through the support of relevant economies – so that those who genuinely can’t don’t have to. And this might seem like a radical, even socialist notion (egads! hide!), but I genuinely do believe that books are an educational, a social, a cultural necessity, and that if the primary upshot of ebook piracy is to get more people reading – by providing books to people who can’t afford or access them otherwise; by introducing new authors to people who would otherwise restrict their reading out of uncertainty; by granting greater access to the books we already own but can’t buy in legal digital form because of region restrictions – then, as with the example of welfare, I’m quite willing to risk that the 10% of cheating, thieving assholes go unpunished in order that the other 90% actually get to read.
But maybe that’s just me.