A couple of months back, in a glazed and punch-drunk hour when I could neither force myself to work anymore or muster enough energy to go to bed, I became a pirate.
Just for a little while.
What I did was, I hoisted up a flag- actually I didn’t have a flag at hand so I had to hoist up a custom-made latex Christmas stocking which depicted Cthulhu wearing a Santa hat- and I sallied out to the wide wild Internets to try to steal my books.
Why? I was curious. Like anyone who sells [some] books and makes [some] money from writing, I would like to do more of both. The longing is especially poignant during a hard day at work- and a bad day at my workplace could involve anything from being mauled by Her Majesty the Queen’s attack corgis (this is not true) to being called up for assistance with bomb disposal (this is). Like you, and the person next to you and the person next to that, I still fantasize wistfully from time to time about being able to support myself by writing, spending my days decked out in plaid flannel jim-jams while pecking out stories about killer princesses and beautiful robots.
The reality would be less perfumey than our fantasies paint it- we can all take that for granted. “Writing full time” would actually mean spending a substantial amount of the time marketing one’s books, and marketing is a thing that makes me run wailing and weeping towards a far horizon, a paper bag over my head to hide my shame.
But the fantasy- the writing-for-a-living fantasy- persists nonetheless. It persists even though the percentage of published authors who can live off their royalties is comparable to the percentage of hamsters who have super-strength and x-ray vision. It persists even though a week spent in plaid flannel jammies would rob me of whatever rudimentary social skills I managed to learn in adolescence.
That fantasy is one of the reasons why small-scale writers might get cranky about piracy or illegal downloading.
Now here I want to draw a distinction. When I talk about piracy, I am not talking about plagiarism. People who cut and paste other people’s work without attribution and pass it off as their own? These people we should beat with sticks, even if they don’t make any profit off the deal. We should beat them with mighty metaphorical sticks of sarcasm and wit and toxic exposure until they shrivel up in shame. That is not a moral dilemma for me.
The more complicated thing is plain old getting-without-paying. Lots of authors, including me, choose to make books available online for free, no strings attached. (In my case, it’s beta versions that go up for free; the published books have all-new-never-seen-before-content and have the continuity errors mercilessly expunged.) There’s a fair amount of evidence that it doesn’t actually hurt sales to have books available free online. The Free Library of Baen Books is one data point. Cory Doctorow, in the foreword to Little Brother makes the case that the real enemy is obscurity, and that the people who pirate your works the most relentlessly are also the most likely to throw some money at you in the end. I do believe that I’ve made far more sales by letting readers get comfy with my books on a commitment-free basis than I’ve missed by doing so.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are authors who point out- with perfect justice- that they want to control the distribution of their own work, instead of having their books volunteered for free distribution behind their backs. It’s true that books have been loaned and lent throughout history, but there’s no denying that the scale of borrowing is just a little bit bigger these days, and the ground is going to continue to shift. At the moment, I hear fairly often from people that they “can’t” read a book on a computer- these are the people who might flirt online with the first few chapters of a book, then get serious with a print or Kindle copy. How long will that last, I wonder? My youngest sister- twenty-four this year- spends her life with nose glued to the computer screen. You can only reliably separate the two when she is showering. The next generation may have very little love for print.
My piracy adventure was unsatisfactory, I must say. Not only did my antivirus software spend the entire time screeching at me- it was astonishing how many people wanted money before they would let me illegally download my books. And that did make me cross, so cross that I stopped shouting “Pieces of eight!” and “Yarr, ye scurvy dog!” and started glaring at all the requests for credit card information. The bulk of the sites were scams or malware downloaders; it’s hard to find an honest pirate these days. I would have found my books on some not-malware-infected torrent site eventually, I am sure, but I was getting hungry and my Cthulhu Santa was glaring at me with grim eldritch judgment. I turned off the computer. I ate some crackers.
You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. The illegal downloading ye shall always have with ye. Authors have different takes on it- always have, always will- and I can’t speak for anyone else. But on the off chance that there are any pirates wandering by…for the love of God, don’t pay anyone else so you can illegally download something I wrote. It’s available free already. Fer realsies. If someone asks you to pay for a download, they do not want to give you free books, they want to plant alien eggs in your computer’s belly.
And if you liked it, you could maybe put a ring on it? Either by buying the book, or by letting me know that you liked it, or by leaving a review somewhere, or by telling someone about it. The Internet provides almost as many ways for us to help each other out as to screw with each other- and that helps me think sometimes that there can be some honour among thieves, after all.