12/23/2010

A Modest Proposal (regarding ebooks)

I would like to make 'a modest proposal' concerning the ebook market, given that I agree fully that authors should get paid for their work. I should know, I'm one of them, and yet according to some we are about to be inundated by a vast wave of piracy that will see artists and creators of all types rendered destitute.

Now I must confess some of my sins.

I am forced to admit that at least one third of the paper books on my shelves are - according to the definitions employed by those concerned that the wide availability of ebooks will lead to the collapse of the industry through piracy - pirated. To be precise, a substantial number of them were acquired from shops that pay a few pence for used copies and then sell them for profit to people too lazy, corrupt or poor to either want or be prepared to buy them from Waterstones. These dens of illicit literary corruption - from which not one penny is returned to authors - are known in the trade as 'second hand bookshops' or occasionally as 'charity shops'. If you agree that authors should always be paid for their work, I'll help you paint the protest signs and we can start picketing the local Oxfam shops, who are clearly Pirates in Disguise.

I have also read books for which I didn't pay anything. This is part of a nefarious back-street system called 'loaning'. I know! It sounds so innocuous, and worse, there are people who 'loan' these books to children, the despicable fiends, deliberately getting them hooked on stories. And does the author get a penny from this back-hand trade? Not one. Does it matter if they then go on to become dedicated readers who fill their homes with books that profit my career and that of others? Of course not, and I have now learned the error of my foolish ways. Fortunately, most ebooks are virtually impossible to loan, nipping this one in the bud.

This system has become so institutionalised that it is now state-supported in dens of thievery called 'libraries'. In the UK and a few other countries, they actually give you a few pence per loan of a book, and I mean just a few pence. Clearly this is a sop to modern morality. But in other countries, such as the US, the author gets nothing. Diddly squat. Us authors are forced to sit around while complete strangers wander in and out of these 'libraries', reading our books. For free!

Of course, as we all know, this library/second-hand/loaning system brought the publishing trade crashing to its knees decades ago. Why, it's just the other day I was out on the streets next to Charlie Stross and Hal Duncan, begging for loose change, and discussing how this terrible state of affairs came about. Some people actually tried to suggest to us that, having read books for free in libraries or from getting them from friends, that people might actually then go and buy the rest of our work for the full price from regular bookshops! Clearly this is nonsense, since as we all know that once someone knows they can get one for free, then they can get them all for free, so why bother ever paying anything at all when the local Oxfam or library is often just a few blocks away for most of us? And even if they're willing to pay a few measly quid in a second-hand shop for one of our books, do we get anything back from that? No!

And to think some people point to Baen.com, which gives away enormous quantities of ebooks for free and without DRM, yet still claims to make a profit by massive sales of just-published books by those same authors whose previous works they have given away. Clearly they must be mad, insane or lying.

But I stand erect in my new-found moral fortitude. I will cease 'loaning' books to kids that I think might like those works, and accept that, having learned to get things for free, they will never go on to buy their own in the way that I did. I will also cease loaning to friends and stiffly inform them, should they enquire after a particular volume on my shelves, that they would be stealing from that author if they did not go out henceforth and buy their own copy. Fortunately, anti-piracy restrictions on my own purchased ebooks make it completely impossible for me to loan ebooks to friends in this way. Thank goodness Amazon had the same moral fortitude and saved me from myself!

As for DRM, well, clearly it's for our own good. Just because we legally purchased a book doesn't mean we can be trusted with it, after all. And if you can't trust the people who actually spend their money on ebooks, well, who can you trust? No one, obviously! Therefore it's only right that, unlike those who pirate, we should be forced to struggle to get our books to run on our chosen ereaders, or suffer the risk that future legal, political or social changes might result in those same purchases being deleted from our machines (http://nyti.ms/i8jinH). Sure, that regionally restricted ebook is easily available anywhere in the world, frequently postage-free, dirt cheap, second hand or new in its paper form (abebooks.com, bookdepository.com), but that's not the point, is it? Who ever said reading ebooks should be easy?

Amazon and all the rest are therefore quite right to make it extremely difficult for me to read my books on anything but my Kindle, and only those ebooks 'available' in the UK (but still completely available as paper books, entirely regardless of their point of origin). And if it breaks, or Amazon go out of business, or if for any reason decide I shouldn't be able to read my ebooks anymore, then it's my own damn fault for engaging in this silly ebook business. And if I want to get another machine that turns out not to be able to read the hundreds of ebooks I've already bought, well, if I can shell out for an ebook reader, surely I can afford to throw away all those locked and drm-ed ebooks I've spent hundreds of pounds on and buy them all over again on the new device. Which will also be regionally restricted and locked with DRM to that device. Of course, regional restrictions on ebooks are necessary, even though - as I pointed out - we can easily purchase those exact same books. in paper, from just about anywhere in the world, and in vastly greater quantities than ebooks are currently selling.

 Now, I could break the encryption on those ebooks in approximately five seconds using drag and drop freeware that requires zero programming skills but, stiff upper lip and moral rectitude, as they say. Yes: I will embrace an experience of the new age of ebooks far, far inferior to that of those who still prefer to read paper books because it's the moral, legal thing to do.

But it may be too late! Even our legal systems are crumbling in the face of this anarchy. A foolish judge in the US court system has gone so far as to say that illegal downloads cannot be equated to lost purchases! The only way we can correct this terrible imbalance is by making the ebooks at least as or more expensive than their paper equivalent to rake back all those lost sales from downloading, loaning and buying second-hand and ignore those poor deluded fools who claim to have rushed out to buy copies of books by an author one of whose works they just read for free as an ebook. 

Clearly the world has gone mad. To the barricades!

Some references that may be of interest to those reading this blog: The Problem is Legal Scarcity not Illegal Greed, Cory Doctorow on why you should download his books, Author condemns piracy, outed as pirate, Charlie Stross on Ebooks, Ebooks: Neither E Nor Books.
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