Piracy on the Pixel Sea: Ebook Piracy

Piracy on the Pixel Sea: Ebook Piracy

When I decided to make my short story free to read on my website, I had a whole rosary of things I worried over nightly. I’m new enough to publishing that I should worry about getting anyone to read my work. But mostly I worry about piracy.

For example, Maggie Stiefvater’s experience.

Stiefvater, author of the Shiver and Raven Cycle series, raised the issue after she was contacted on Twitter by a reader who told her: “I never bought ur books I read them online pirated.” On her website, Stiefvater later explained that, when ebook sales for the third book in the Raven Cycle – Blue Lily, Lily Blue – “dropped precipitously”, her publisher decided to cut the print run of the next book in the series to less than half of its predecessors.

[. . .] Stiefvater, who had seen fans sharing pdfs online and was “intent on proving that piracy had affected the Raven Cycle”. So she and her brother created a pdf of The Raven King, which consisted of just the first four chapters, repeated, and a message explaining how piracy affected books.

[. . .] The effects were instant. The forums and sites exploded with bewildered activity. Fans asked if anyone had managed to find a link to a legit pdf. Dozens of posts appeared saying that since they hadn’t been able to find a pdf, they’d been forced to hit up Amazon and buy the book. And we sold out of the first printing in two days.”

Stiefvater revealed that she is now writing three more books set in the Raven Cycle world, but that the new trilogy “nearly didn’t exist because of piracy”.

That a reader would admit to the author that they pirated her book rankles me. The brazenness of pirating I believe started with Gabe Newell’s idea that piracy is a service problem. He meant that people pirate because they want the product but there are no convenient, quality, legal methods to purchase it. In Stiefvater’s case, there were multiple options offered to fans and potential buyers. It’s not like the publisher and bookstore were selling gold bricks. Her experiment proves that readers didn’t pirate because they couldn’t legally and quickly acquire quality copies of her books. It proves that people could afford to buy the books, but didn’t because they could pirate.

I’m a hypocrite. I am a huge fan of scanlated manga, which is fan translated Japanese comics uploaded to websites devoted to offering them. I’ve finished hundreds of series, mostly free, online. Most of these had no English translation. Most still don’t. The ones that have really struck me, have left me awed and shaken at the human experience, the possibilities of life and death, etc, have mostly been translated into English and could mostly be bought on Amazon, new or used. With a few clicks, I could buy the manga and directly support the author.

Why I don’t:

  1. I can read it for free.
  2. The fan-translated version is often better than the official version (legal reasons can sterilize language).
  3. The amount that goes to the author is negligible.

I could just buy the manga and continue to read the scanlated version, if I only wanted to support the author. I could just mail the author five dollars, or however much I think their work is worth. I could just stop reading scanlated manga altogether and only buy the author’s officially published work.  Either way, the author is supported directly.

But of course, there are problems with this too. By continuing to read scanlated manga, I’m benefitting from the mangaka’s work without them benefiting and indirectly creating a need for scanlated work. If I just mail the author five dollars, I’m withholding money from the publisher. However greedy or unfair they are to authors, the publisher did put in the time and effort to bring the manga to fruition, and they should be paid too. The author is only the start. Also, there’s something off about the reader being able to choose how much the author deserves to get for their work— that the author or the publisher should not be allowed to decide the costs, they who put in all the work and who presumably records the cost of ink, paper, electricity, printing, binding, editing, etc and can more accurately calculate, unsentimentally, how much a volume of the work is worth. Some fans would point out that the popularity of certain scanlated works has provided proof for manga publishers to publish English-versions of the comics in the West. I argue that it’s only the popular ones that do so, and besides, even if their work isn’t popular, shouldn’t all managaka’s be paid for their work?

Okay, but that’s Japanese comics. What about English published books? And what about used bookstores and libraries? Libraries buy the books, you know. And even if used bookstores didn’t buy the books themselves— maybe offered trade credit or chump change for a title— used books were mostly likely bought by the person who is turning them in. Each book in a library or a used bookstore was bought at least once, and they were bought in order to be circulated, to be passed on, to new readers, learners, and lovers. By lowering the price barrier, used bookstores and libraries democratize reading which is not only a pleasure, but a necessity.

There will always be people who will pirate, just as there are people who will steal even when they can afford it. The challenge for publishers, especially self-publishers, will be to price low enough, on multiple platforms, in multiple formats, to eliminate the possibility that people will pirate the work because it’s pricey or not accessible enough. Authors and publishers could possible mitigate it with protection policies like stores do to prevent theft IRL. The akido Stiefvater showed towards making piracy work for her is an intriguing possibility. I’m curious to see the true impact of piracy on author earnings, or even pirated video games and movies and the bottom line.

Ultimately, when I think about piracy, I think about that Simpsons episode with Itchy, Scratchy, and Poochie and how the watchers of the Itchy and Scratchy cartoons hated an episode starring Poochie.

Bart: “Hey, I know it wasn’t great, but what right do you have to complain?”

Comic Book Guy: “As a loyal viewer, I feel they owe me.”

Bart: “For what? They’re giving you thousands of hours for entertainment for free. If anything, you owe them.”

Comic Book Guy: “Worst episode ever.”

Which is why the short story, and hopefully my future stories will be free, with options to support me directly. So I hope there won’t be anyone bitching about it not being accessible because of a price barrier. And don’t tell me that you’ve read an torrented ebook that someone else made by copying and pasting from my website, because while Without Magic will always be free directly on my website, I will charge for the ebooks and audiobooks, for my services, etc, because the art is already there, free and open to anyone with a computer or a library card.

In the era of free content, all artists and authors online have become buskers hoping someone will be touched enough to drop change in their guitar case. I worry that by making my stuff free that I’m perpetuating the idea that nobody should have to pay for my work and thus I will never be able to move out of my parents’ house. But I’ve seen evidence to the contrary with authors like Wildbow and Kameron Hurley, who post their work online free and somehow can pay all their bills, buy good whiskey, and have a little left over for emergencies, despite piracy. I have hope that I’ll be able to do this too, eventually.

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