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.


Orin Thomas said...

Hi Gary,

Just a counter-thought. I write IT textbooks and, off and on, do IT training for a living. Last month my most recent book was published. I was teaching a class and two of my students remarked that they'd already downloaded my new book from various sites. I hadn't even received my author copies yet.

When asked why they did it they said "well we didn't want to pay for the books" (though they did admit to marginal guilt when telling the author this)

gary gibson said...

My point is that the piracy issue is confused by the fact that there are many means to acquire a text, movie or cd that funnel no funds back to the creator, yet are widely accepted and even encouraged. Don't think I'm saying what your students did was right - really, it wasn't - but to be honest, when I was at college, I used to buy most of my textbooks whenever possible from a local second-hand shop that specialised in college texts since the cost of those books was otherwise usurious. None of the money from those sales went to the authors.

Also, I'd share textbooks to reduce the cost, back in the late Eighties, or borrow books and photocopy relevant chapters from them. The only time I bought them new was when I had absolutely no choice. While I genuinely feel your pain, I suspect that things haven't changed quite as much as you might think.

Neal Asher said...

That's a good take on it all, Gary. The more I think about e-books the more reluctant I am to venture an opinion. Of course we want to make money on our books and don't want then pirated, but...

Orin Thomas said...

With the second hand textbooks you used, the publishers still got the money from the first sale ;-) - same with the sharing of texts between friends - there was a built in limit to the number of people it was feasible to share the book with (you can share a single book with 5 classmates, but not 500). The author always got at least one sale out of it, even if it was sold second hand 3 more times.

The greater problem for textbook publishers today is that one person can share an essentially infinite number of copies. This is the biggest difference between then and now - the scale of the sharing.

In essence, the textbook model was able to work in the past given the limited sort of sharing that was going on - it is probably terminal now that obtaining a copy has become vastly easier (especially as students are notoriously reluctant to part with money that could better be spent on beer ;-)

I suspect that non-fiction works vastly differently to fiction - the Doctorow/Baen model (give for free and enough people convert to paid hardcopy) certainly doesn't apply to non-fiction texts ;-).

Anyway my main thought about your post was the "second hand shop" ecosystem, whilst not directly compensating authors, wasn't as much of a problem because the ratio of first sales to total sales and borrowings wasn't too far out of whack. Today it's increasingly getting out of whack. When it get so far out of whack that there is no way that the publisher can earn back the cost of putting together the book in the first place, things will get interesting ;-)

littleredreviewer said...

that was a brilliant article.

I'm not in the e-book market for multiple unreasonable reasons, but I do ocassionally feel bad taking stacks of books out of the library, or buying them for 50 cents at charity shops and yard sales. Is this how I show my favorite authors how much I love them? by paying pennies on the dollar for their works?

if it counts for anything, well loved library books do get purchased at full price from my local indie bookseller.

Nerine Dorman said...

As an author published both in print and electronically, I'm oddly flattered people will make my book available for free download. It suggests that they like my writing enough to share it with their friends.

Like my friends who openly admit they borrowed my book to read from another mutual friend and that they really enjoyed it.

But you know what? Nowadays I take pride in buying my ebooks so I can say thank you to my favourite authors for all the hard work. I've extended this to my favourite living musicians, the guys who're out in the trenches, so to speak.

Shortlink said...

DRM denies the owner of the satification of buying as Nerine commented, since they will likely lose it through device corruption, lost accounts or passcodes, or a number of failures that may occur over time with electronic equipment. I would agree that I would enjoy "owning" an ebook if I truely owned it and was not just a user.

oldmangamer said...

I must whole-heartedly agree with Ms. Dorman. I just downloaded Dominic Green's Smallworld ; after reading five pages, I immediately purchased the e-book version from The publisher, Fingerpress Ltd., London. This happens much more often that I would have predicted.
As for music, I'm such a sound-snob that I only buy CDs. I (think) I can hear the difference.

Orin Thomas said...

I tend to take a very pragmatic approach to DRM in that if there are clients that work across multiple platforms, I don't worry much about it. Content from Audible uses rights management. Also, everything you buy from Audible stays in your library. I purchased stuff on and off from Audible back as far as 1999 and got a regular subscription in about 2006. Everything I've purchased is available to be re-downloaded and I must have redownloaded my entire library from scratch for at least six different devices. It works. It is awesome when I lose my device. No faffing about hoping that I've taken a backup. Load client. Redownload library. Done.

Kindle seems to work on the same principle (then again, the both are run by Amazon). Load client on new machine. Redownload library.

However, I've purchased stuff from other online stores that are still in existence that isn't DRM protected. Delete the file from your device and you're on your own. File becomes corrupted and your are on your own - you have to purchase it again if you want to download it again. DRM free seems to mean "the onus is on the purchaser to ensure that they've backed it up properly, DRM loaded seems to mean (with the services I mentioned earlier) that you can reaccess your content at any time in future)

Given a choice between having stuff that I can download as often as I want to new devices even if it has DRM or being able to download within a certain short span if it doesn't have DRM (and I realize that the choice isn't binary, but boy a lot of the non-DRM'd stuff seems to only allow limited duration download) I'd go with the Kindle/Audible model. If I lose my laptop I can replace all the Kindle/Audible stuff very simply - but essentially impossible to replace all the DRM free content I've obtained from other stores unless I'm diligent about backup.

It is as though the choice to remove DRM is more a "stuff customer service" (well you lost the file sir, you could have backed it up) than it is about anyone's "freedoms".

Of course from a certain perspective all of this may be moot as I'm guessing future services will store all your stuff in the cloud on the store's servers rather than your own device and if you want to switch devices you'll have to install a separate client for your new device and reconnect to the cloud.

JulesLt said...

That's one of the beauties of physical books - you can often sell them for 70% or so of the purchase price if you read them quickly - and ownership is easy to establish.

I await with interest the emergence of a site selling second hand MP3 and ebook files.

The other thing with lending is that you do it to people you know, personally. There are hidden 'playground rules' (you would always lend to people who couldn't afford stuff. The posh kid who could afford things, but never never lent anything back, but purely leached, would be socially ostracised. The anonymity of the internet removes that natural mechanism - other than the fact that eventually they'll cease to have any impact, culturally.