Seanan McGuire (seanan_mcguire) wrote,
Seanan McGuire

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"As to hanging, it is no great hardship...": Internet Piracy, and Who It Hurts.

I am about to preach to the choir, because I have no idea what else to do, and frankly, I am at a loss for other options.

I am a professional author. I have worked a very long time to reach a place in my life where I could make that statement and not feel like a fake. I have written books; publishers have judged them commercially viable and worthy of publication; my books can thus be purchased from bookstores and online retailers everywhere. Please note the word "purchased." My books, which cost me time and sanity, and cost my publisher time and money, can be purchased from bookstores and online retailers everywhere.

Or, if you'd prefer, they can be illegally downloaded from the Internet. Mind you, this will eventually lead to my being unable to justify the time it takes me to write them, since an author who cannot make a living through writing must make a living through other means. My cats don't understand "Mommy can't feed you because people don't believe she should be compensated for her work." They also don't understand "People say they like the things I write, but they'd rather steal them than make sure I can keep writing."

To be honest, I don't understand it either.

"See! Piracy is a serious problem." —Penny Arcade.

When I first started publishing, I had no real clue how big the book piracy problem was becoming (and it's continued to grow since then; the number of available torrents increases every day). I was honestly stunned when I got the first Google alert notifying me of an illegal download of Rosemary and Rue. Now, it's a rare day—and for "rare" read "non-existent," now that I have four books in print—that doesn't come with at least one torrent notification. Normally, it's more like four or five, and sometimes more, when some new site discovers my work and gets excited about the possibility of stealing it. Yes, stealing it.

Look: when you calculate the average author's royalties on a mass-market paperback, it comes to approximately fifty cents per copy. Let's assume I got paid $5,000 for Rosemary and Rue. I didn't just pull that figure out of my ass—that's the standard first advance for a genre novel, although very few people will get that exact number. Still, it's nice and round. Now, part of the standard publishing model says that I won't get any additional money for the book until it has managed to earn back the advance, which is done solely from the percentage of the cover price that "belongs" to me. So an author with a $5,000 advance must sell ten thousand copies of their book before they "earn out" and start making additional money. Authors who regularly fail to "earn out" will find themselves with decreasing advances, until the day that the number hits zero, and the party is over.

"Internet piracy isn't that big a deal," people say. "It can't hurt your sales that badly." Oh, really? Well, if I get one notification of an illegal torrent per day...let's assume that each torrent is downloaded three times at most. Okay? One torrent per day is 365 torrents per year, or 1,095 illegal downloads per book per year. This is a conservative estimate of downloads; most torrents will be downloaded more like ten times each. Gosh, I feel popular now! Or maybe violated, it's hard to say.

Returning to our $5,000 advance, I must sell—actually sell, from actual stores—10,000 books before my publisher realizes a profit and says "Yeah, okay, let's keep buying your stuff." Let's assume, this time optimistically, that all 1,095 people who illegally downloaded my book were originally planning to buy it new, before they found this awesome new way to save money and get the book magically delivered to their computer. So unless my book was guaranteed to appeal to 11,095 people, I may have just dipped below the magical 10,000 person mark. Goodie for me.

"Dear person online begging someone to upload an illegal copy of my book because you LOVE me SO MUCH: you don't love me. You love stealing." —Ally Carter, author of Heist Society.

I made the following statement in a relatively recent post:

"Why do book series end in the middle? Because not enough people bought the books. Sometimes they can live on, as with Tim Pratt's online serialization of his fabulous Marla Mason stories, but for the majority of authors, if the sales aren't there, the story's over. Why do midlist authors disappear? Because their sales weren't good enough to justify their continued publication. Why are TV shows canceled? Because not enough people gave money to their advertisers. All entertainment is profit-driven. We pay to play, and when we stop paying, they stop playing."

Several people promptly told me that I was wrong, and that authors who really want to continue their series can do so whether they have a publisher or not. My addiction to professional editing services and distribution is clearly a personal failing, and I should embrace this brave new world of working forty hours a week to pay for cat food, and then going home and working forty hours a week to Stick It To The Man by continuing my canceled series. Sadly, this isn't going to work. When I'm writing books for money, I go through a rigorous internal editing and proofreading process before anyone sees my work. When not writing books for money, I write for my own pleasure, and if there are a few typos or logical failings, whatever. That doesn't pay my bills.

I love my books. I love my art. If I were only in it for the money, I would be doing something else for a living, like selling my kidneys. But at the end of the day, if a series can't pay, I can't afford the hundreds of hours required to write the average book. It's just not feasible. Note the number of unpublished "first in series" books I have sitting around. Until they sell, I can't afford to write the sequels. No matter how much I want to.

"People will spend fifteen bucks on an ironic shirt." —Penny Arcade.

A paperback book costs ten dollars, retail, and less if bought at a discount or with a coupon. This is about the same as a ticket to the movies. Even if you read fast, it will probably take you a minimum of three hours to finish said paperback, and then it's yours to keep. The movie is over faster, and also not yours at the end of the evening. (This is not to say that people don't pirate movies, and that said piracy isn't a huge concern. They do, and it is. But that isn't my department, as yet. Believe me, I'll start researching film piracy the day that Feed is optioned for the big screen.) People are constantly willing to pay for things that are more transitory than books, yet seem to blank out when asked why stealing books is still theft.

"I'll buy it later." Really? "I just want to see if I like it." Okay, how about you download the free chapters from the author's website, and then go to a bookstore? "I want to see if the author has improved since the last one." See above. "I disagree with the author's moral or ethical stance, so I'm voting with my dollars." Okay. You're also voting through theft. Why not get the book from a library or support your local used bookstore instead? It would be a lot less sketchy.

I know plenty of people who would never dream of walking into my house and stealing a book off my shelf, but have talked themselves around to the point where downloading books illegally is just not the same thing, not the same thing at all. It's the same thing. Don't believe me? Ask Paul Cornell (taken from Twitter):

"Just saw download site with 2356 illegal downloads of Knight and Squire. You have no idea how angry that makes me. Bloody thieves."
"Thanks everyone who's said they're buying it. No thanks to: 'well, if it was legally downloadable...' Like they're forced to steal it."
"Just heard: average number of illegal downloads = four times legal sales. That's why your favorite title got canceled. No margin left."

The margin is what makes it profitable for publishers to keep publishing. The margin keeps their lights on, and keeps the creators receiving royalty checks, and now we're back to feeding my cats, which is a topic I think about a great deal. The cats don't give me a choice.

I leave you with this grim thought. Yesterday, I was sitting around, minding my own business, when a friend of mine (name redacted as it was a private conversation) messaged me with:

"Somebody went to the trouble to photocopy all of [upcoming, not yet released book] and put it up online."

This sort of thing tightens control over ARCs, which reduces their distribution to book bloggers, which makes it harder for you to find well-informed early reviews. It potentially hurts my friend's sales, which may result, long-term, in her being dropped from her publisher, which means no more books for her fans. So who does Internet piracy hurt?

It hurts you.
Tags: contemplation, cranky blonde is cranky, technology

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