A couple of days ago I was linked to an article in The Economist suggesting that soon people will stop using shelves for books and adorn them exclusively with knick knacks, much like that old lady you used to know who kept a faux-mahogany sitting room for special occasions (like drinking chintz out of the posh tea set).  The blame for this lies squarely at the feet of ePublishing and the kindle and will lead to seven plagues and the death of literacy.  Or something.

The article touches on the matter of eBook piracy, which is a very touchy subject and is often tagged onto the End of Publishing debate without much explanation.  I’ve read articles by a few authors saying it is A Very Bad Thing, and still more articles by different authors saying that actually it can raise your profile and boost sales.  A summary googling of the topic came up with piracy articles dating back over several years, which I shall now bullet point for your indifference:

One of the main things that comes up over and over again is the idea that eBook piracy will destroy the publishing industry as it has done the music industry. 

Because of course there is no new music anymore, is there?  Simon Cowell and his entourage are penniless and live in a shoe, whilst artists with any inclination to play their own instruments repress those feelings and work in McDonalds.  When music went digital people certainly didn’t adapt to the times, realise that the old label model was dying on its arse, and start making records themselves on a smaller scale.  Fife’s Fence Collective, and sites like Ten Tracks that have tried to come up with new business models for distributing and selling music, and the various bloggers who have set up their own wee labels (Song By Toad, Olive Grove), and the 8 million independent labels (Armellodie, SL Records, Instictive Racoon)… well, those are all in my imagination, aren’t they.

You may be able to tell from my tone that I don’t hold with the notion that internet piracy killed the music industry.  It did a lot of damage to the existing structure and made it much harder for people to make squillions of dollars, but that is not the same thing as killing it.  People are still making music and writing books, and as long as there are human relationships and tragedies and questionable politics in the world, artists will continue to rail against them.

Further to this, I can’t help thinking that the death throes of the music industry in its current form were or are due to the larger labels’ refusal to think creatively.  As Rod Jones pointed out when I interviewed him for Ten Tracks last month, people have always pinched music – whether they tape  it off the radio or download it from the internet, there’s no way to stop it entirely.  What you have to do as an artist or label now is create something that folk want to pay for, which hard going in a world where you can get almost anything for free – but surely not impossible when you’ve got the clout of a multinational corporation.  Instead, the music industry elected to panic.   They had a go at stopping people from downloading stuff on an individual basis, which belied a total lack of understanding of how the WORLD WIDE WEB operates.   Rather than making the digital revolution their own, say by using free downloads to promote artists whilst concentrating on making revenue from merch and gigs, they opted to stop signing new bands and to spend their remaining years trying to squeeze cash out of the old system.  Innovative business model fail, guys.

Amazon’s eBook market dominance is surely at least in part because they watched and learned from those mistakes.  They also recognised a lot of people are still happy to pay for books, and so they tempt them with the first few chapters free, and give them the rest of the book at a much lower price than they’d pay in a bookshop.  If the music industry had been willing to jettison record stores in the same way, how different things might have been.

However, Amazon have not come up with a way to crush piracy utterly.  They had a bash at encoding eBooks, but that didn’t work.  So their main hope seems to be that the makeup of the book reading population is more affluent and more moral than the illegal music downloading demographic.

This might be true up to a point, because let’s be honest, reading is more of an elite activity than listening to Justin Bieber CDs – but that doesn’t mean readers have no use for piracy.  For instance, this guy began pirating because the stuff he and his pals wanted to read wasn’t actually available in a digital format.  He started out scanning in physical books to upload, which is more practical than posting them all over the place for people to borrow – but this was cause he bought them and wanted to share them.  Like many people, he reads eBooks in addition to the 1600 paper books in his house rather than in place of them.

However, there are those who fear eBook piracy is becoming much less of a niche activity.

The author Tess Gerritsen came out against it last year in this blogpost, where she said:

“To assess just how much illegal downloading is hurting me personally, I went [ on one download site ] and checked out how many Tess Gerritsen books were available for free downloading. I found over ninety files available, in a variety of languages, including the entire Jane Rizzoli series. The site tells you how many times the files have been downloaded, and at least 4,000 copies in English have been downloaded. That’s 4,000 book sales I never made.”

Not necessarily.  Some of those 4k people might have found you in public libraries or through friends and still not got you any sales, whilst still others might never have bothered to read you at all.  There is no real way to quantify this.  I appreciate it is phenomenally irritating that you put this work in and aren’t being paid for it – I’ve been there myself and so have hundreds of other unpaid interns… but it’s not as black and white as 4k downloads = missing out on 4k sales.  The chances that amongst those 4k downloads, 1000 folk read one of your books and went wow, this is awesome; then bought your entire back catalogue and recommended it to their friends, who went and bought it too.  And you’d never know, cause even if you met them at a book signing or something they’d be too embarrassed to admit they first got into you because they read a pirate version of The Bone Garden.

Interestingly in some cases, authors have come out and said e-piracy has helped them – Lord Neil of Gaiman is probably the most prominent example, having said earlier this year that people downloading the books spread the word about them and boosted his sales.  Obviously this doesn’t happen for every author, but since when was publishing an exact science?  If people are pirating your books someone is reading them, and if you are any good they will be inclined to read more, potentially for cash – isn’t that a good thing? 

Well no, in actual fact book pirating will drive authors to stop writing, claimed this article in the Times in 2008. That seems to rather contravene the oft heard authors’ mantra that writing is a compulsion rather than a choice.  If you can’t make a living out of it then you’re going to give up, argue The Society of Authors.  But without any figures being mentioned I find it quite hard to know what that means.  Technically I can live in Edinburgh on £12,000 a year, although I can’t do a lot other than that (for instance I don’t run a car, or buy as much fresh veg as I’d like, or put the heating on till there’s ice inside the windows of the flat…).  So what do the SoA mean by making a living?  Enough to support children?  Enough to pay a mortgage?  Enough to live in London?  At the moment I’d be pretty ecstatic if writing earned me upwards of 15k, but I don’t actually think piracy is the thing stopping me.

Whilst book pirating and eBooks in general have changed the cash flow situation in publishing, writing has never given me the impression of being a massively lucrative profession.  I certainly don’t think that you can exclusively blame them for the decline of the book.  If anything they are keeping the format alive by giving people wider access for less money.  I think the publishing industry needs to accept that and try to work with it, rather than panicking like a cat on fire.  And I also think they need to separate the piracy issue from the growing popularity of eBooks – a kindle owner does not a pirate make.

In fact the real criteria for piracy can be found here, if you’re interested: