If you can afford this, you can afford that

So today Chuck Wendig posted a thing about piracy and why he won’t put out a tip jar, which I’m not interested in arguing with. What I am interested in arguing with is this whole idea in the comments that if you’re reading ebooks, you must have an ereader, therefore you must be able to afford ebooks. Which is complete crap, guys, I can’t even tell you. Here’s some examples of what’s been said — it’s been said in public, so I think it’s fair to copy/paste:

My thoughts on the “but I can’t afford it!” argument are thus –

1. You can’t afford a $5 e-book, but you can afford monthly internet? My internet bill (whether via my computer line or smart phone) is roughly thirty times my cost for an average e-book. Granted, that’s an average. I buy a lot of low-cost author-pubbed items at 99c to level out the $6-10 fare. Still, internet costs a lot more than an e-book.
2. You can’t afford a $5 e-book, but you can afford something to read that it on? Whether it’s a computer, smart phone, tablet, or e-reader, these things out-cost the average e-book by at least 5 times if not more. Yes, the e-reader, etc, could be a gift, but seriously? If I was so broke I couldn’t afford a $5 e-book (or the internet service to download it), then getting an e-reader is pretty crappy and mean-spirited unless they were showering me with gift cards throughout the year. It’s like buying someone a saddle when they can’t afford the pony.

And:

So wait…. this guy ‘can’t afford’ to buy all the ebooks he wants (I know that feeling – I can’t afford to buy all the designer dresses I want either… so sad…) but he CAN afford to have bought whatever ebook reader-thingy he reads his pirated books on? Strange, I thought compared to ebooks those things were WAY more expensive… I had to save up for three years to get mine…

So yeah, the first quote is roughly correct, even given my £25 ereader: let’s say an average retail ebook is £5, going by, say, Angry Robot (who publish, among many others, Chuck Wendig). That comes out about right: my reader cost five times the book. But it’s a window to many, many more books, including free books from a range of sources (Project Gutenberg, Smashwords, my local library, Baen, Netgalley, Edelweiss, publishers, authors) and cheap books. It’s easily worth it.

What really gets me is the sniffy judgement going on here. “You don’t spend your money the way I approve of, how dare you pay for internet and an ereader instead of books” — in fact, phrased like that, it’s downright snobbish. I get that it’s not fair authors aren’t getting paid, and some authors and series have suffered from it. But you don’t know what’s going on in someone’s life.

Like hey, let me paint you a picture: me, a year ago. I live with my grandmother; my mother pays her some rent for me. I had no job, and I didn’t go on benefits, so I lived entirely on the kindness of my family. Depressing enough to start with, right? And then there was my grandfather’s death, and my spiral into depression and anxiety that had been going on and getting worse since my second year of university. Guess what I clung onto when I was too depressed and scared to get out of bed?

Yup. Since you’re reading this blog, I’m gonna assume you’ve figured it out: books, and the internet.* I was too damn scared to leave the house some days. Going to the library where there were people, and germs, and possibly the need to communicate with people I don’t know — gah. Buying books in a store? Well, like I said, any money I had was my mother’s. So my ereader was a lifeline, and my grandmother paid for the internet, so it was easy enough to download books from Netgalley, the library, etc, etc.

Those are not the only reasons that scraping together £25 for an ereader instead of five books (or rather, three, given UK pricing for dead tree books, or less than five trips to my nearest library last year) might be more cost effective for someone. You just don’t know. So please stop making these assumptions and trying to police how people spend their money, and go back to making the very fair argument that authors deserve to be paid.

(Not to mention the sensible point someone else is making that you don’t need a dedicated ereader to read ebooks. Your most basic smartphone can do it, your computer can do it, my five year old iPod can do it…)

ETA: Since I’ve been accused of piracy/theft in the comments, I will just point out that every method of obtaining books mentioned in this post is both legal and moral. It’s not an argument for piracy, it’s an argument for getting your nose the fuck out of other people’s financial decisions.

 

*Me: Here’s a thing. Imagine the prospect of me without an ereader, especially during the worst times in the last two years. Is there a quotable quote of your reaction to that idea?
Partner: A damn wreck? You’d have been a wreck going in circles, driving yourself insane.
(Pretty fair assessment.)

Victimless crime: piracy

“Piracy is not a victimless crime.”

This was the warning on the Pacific Rim blu-ray my partner and I watched, which couldn’t be skipped, etc. As usual with these DVDs, even though the fact that you’re seeing that makes it pretty damn likely you bought the damn DVD. But it’s not really about DVDs — at least with the music and film industries, the reaction to piracy is more or less taken as read. There’s still a debate, though, in the book industry. With the availability of ebooks, suddenly everyone is afraid of piracy, everyone has an axe to grind — or some people (Cory Doctorow, mainly, Neil Gaiman to some extent, etc) embrace the genre, though there is some serious wrongheadedness on that side of things about the nature of an ebook.

(For my thoughts on the “dead tree books are the be-all and end-all” issue, please see an early post on this blog, RIP print?)

Look. The thing is… piracy is a victimless crime. It can’t be put on the same level as theft, because with theft there is a finite amount of an item which has cost money to produce, and the theft of that item means it can’t be sold for profit. If a shirt is stolen, it can’t also be sold to someone else at the same time. If a book is stolen, you’re out a copy of a book, and can’t sell it. But with ebooks… it’s a whole different ballgame. Okay, you’re being done out of a sale you might have made, but you aren’t losing a finite resource. The bits of code that make up your book aren’t unique. Even if someone takes off the DRM, copies it and sticks it on a torrent site, that does not stop you making a sale in the same way at all.

In fact, as many people who practise piracy will tell you, they use piracy as a way to sample media. Then if they enjoy it, they’ll probably buy it. I’m gonna ‘fess up: I loved Avengers so much that I got a cam of it the minute one was up so I could watch it over and over. I did the same with the first Sherlock Holmes movie with Robert Downey Jr. The day the DVDs came out, I bought them. The blu-rays, even. Heck, I bought my blu-ray player so I could see Avengers in blu-ray, and I got the special edition pack with all the MCU movies in blu-ray at once.

Did I mention I also saw Avengers three or four times in the cinema? Same with Sherlock Holmes.

(If they made digital downloads available simultaneously with the theater release, I’d see a lot more films. As it is, pretty much only Marvel and The Hunger Games get my money before the DVD releases. I don’t do illegal downloads unless I’ve already been to the theater an ungodly number of times, but I’d be a heck of a lot more interested in a digital download or even streaming or… Anyway. Yeah. Not about the movie industry.)

I can understand the arguments against about intellectual value and ebooks not being free to produce, I really can, but it puts my back up when people talk about it being theft. Most people who pirate stuff would never buy it if they had to pay for it and couldn’t get it free. Most people who pirate a lot of stuff don’t ever view most of it.

I’m not sure I agree with the idea that piracy equals exposure and any exposure is good exposure. I can get why a bunch of hypothetical sales don’t look like much when it’d be a favour just to get a couple of purchases now. Working for free is never fun. But I do think we need to think carefully about how we define our terms: when it’s just a file full of code that’s been “stolen”, an infinite resource, “theft” seems very much like the wrong word — and accusing people of theft for doing something “everybody does” (which is, I know, not an excuse) isn’t going to win you any fans.

For whatever it’s worth, my suggestion is not to blame the individual fans who download pirated copies of your book (or whatever other media). Take a look at the sellers, see how much they’re jacking up prices or what kind of proprietary software they’re using, and change things. If it’s so essential to your income, you need to put aside a bit of your time each week to figure out who you need to serve take-down notices to. Heck, you can even ask your readers to report any unauthorised sites selling or giving away your book so you can get to it easier.

Don’t start from a place of suspicion. Engage readers in a dialogue, make them want to protect your work, and you’re more than halfway there.