Friday, December 2, 2011

Book Piracy: Is There an Upside?

By Vicki Stevenson


            People are selling my books and collecting money for them, and I’m not getting my piece of the pie.  The books are not theirs to sell.  Selling something that doesn’t belong to you is unlawful.  Case closed, right?  Well … maybe.
            There’s a little wrinkle to this.  A few online entities now provide free copies of lots of books and ask for a voluntary donation to enable them to carry on.  So they aren’t actually selling my books, they’re providing free copies.  It’s kind of the reverse of the popular bug killer, the Roach Hotel (“roaches check in, but they never check out!”): books are checked out, but they’re never checked in.  It’s a strange twist on the public library system.  And it makes you stop and think.


            My local library buys a copy of a book and makes it available to as many people as want to read it.  For new bestsellers, one copy is often read more than a dozen times in its first year alone.
            A couple of months ago, I borrowed a copy of a classic Agatha Christie novel.  I was surprised to find that the library has owned this particular (very well worn) copy for over fifty years.  It still had the envelope inside the front cover that was once used to hold information about the book and its whereabouts.  (Now it also has a little chip in the back, and all the information is computerized.)  I was sort of awestruck.  How many others had held and read that very copy over the last fifty years?  Maybe hundreds.  One at a time.
            Nowadays my library also loans ebooks.  Their system lets you download a book that’s “checked in” and then erases it from your computer (supposedly) when it’s due to be “returned.”  There are safeguards (supposedly) to ensure that only one reader at a time has a copy of the ebook.
            One of the librarians told me that their funding is based partly on the number of books borrowed, so they’re really happy to have voracious readers like me as patrons.  In turn, I’m really happy that they exist.  The library has made it possible for me to read hundreds of books without having to buy them. I never could have bought all those books; the expense would be horrendous.
            The library does have a fairly good selection of modern lesbian classics and currently popular gay male novels from the larger publishing houses, and I’ve read most of those.  But for the latest lesfic, I have to look elsewhere.

            These days, most of my bookstore shopping is of the online variety.  I buy several lesfic books per year online because they aren’t available at the library or at mainstream bookstores, and there isn’t a brick-and-mortar LGBT bookstore nearby.
            Even now, my purchases are mostly print books.  After reading them, I pass most of them along to friends, but keep a few of the ones I think are exceptionally good.  Every year or so, my partner points out (gently, but firmly) that the “exceptionally good” lesfic books are causing an overflow situation.  So I cull them and make a contribution to our local LGBT center.
            Bottom line: for most of the lesfic books I buy, after I’ve read them they go “somewhere else.”  I have no idea where they end up or how many people eventually read them, but I hope it’s a lot.
            Fifty years ago I bought Ann Bannon’s books at my local Rexall Drug Store.  On my meager allowance, fifty cents was a financial sacrifice.  But they were my one and only lifeline.  I had to have them.  Nowadays, people I call heroines work hard for no pay to make quality lesfic available for free.  I’ve contributed stories to “Khimairal” and “Read These Lips” because I know how important it is to have access to stories that cast us in a positive light.

The Money

            Money?  What money?  Every three months, I get a royalty check that just about covers printer cartridges, paper, coffee, and my labor at the rate of ten cents per hour (yes, that’s ten whole pennies).  That makes writing lesfic a break even proposition if you plant your tongue firmly in your cheek.  So why do I do it?  Because I enjoy the challenge, and I want to share my thoughts and stories with as many people as possible.  And this is where the “piracy” situation gets dicey for me.
            I realize that my books might be read in ebook format by people who didn’t pay for them.  Honestly, this doesn’t bother me.  Is there a difference between a print book read serially by ten people over the course of ten weeks and an ebook read simultaneously by ten people in one week?  That’s debatable.
            I’ve read lots of books that I didn’t pay for (mostly library books).  I chose them because I thought I might like them, but I never would have paid money up front for most of them.  That’s why I don’t believe it’s true that every pirated ebook represents a lost legitimate sale.

What to do?

            As an author, I am conflicted.  If I were to lose a few bucks due to piracy and giveaways, it wouldn’t make much difference in my life (assuming I even found out about it).  It might also result in more people reading my stuff, which I hope would make a positive impact on the lives of the lesbians who read it.
            On the other hand, it’s possible that piracy and giveaways could significantly reduce publisher revenues.  There is no way to estimate the amount involved.  But if the publishers who depend on lesfic for their livelihood are driven under by this, we would be left with only our dedicated volunteers to continue their publishing ventures.  That would not be good.
            But are we trying to get blood out of a turnip here?  Let’s face it: we are very tiny frogs in a very big pond.  Are we getting ahead of ourselves, with so many small publishing houses and such a limited customer base?  Realistically, just how many people can make a living off of lesfic?  We have a just cause, and we know there is a long uphill battle still ahead of us before we’re able to take our rightful place with the bigger players at the publishing table.  Most authors realize that lesfic has to be a labor of love.  Our mission is to spread our message as far and wide as we can, and in the current situation lesfic publishers could get hurt financially along the way.
            Should we sit on the sidelines as our cause advances at the expense of publishers?  Or should we follow the money and advocate for the rightful financial interest of the publishers who are trying to make a livelihood from this and sacrifice a bit of our mission?  Beats me.  That’s the conundrum.

~Vicki Stevenson, author of the Family of Choice Series.

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  1. Piracy just makes me gnash my teeth. Thanks for posting.

  2. Like you, Vicki, I'm ambivalent about the piracy issue. It hurts publishers, and that worries me, but so do library sales, used book sales, lending to friends - and I doubt those will ever be stopped. In fact, they're accepted as part of doing business. The big sites that exist to "steal" books and give them away for a monthly fee or a trade-in are a different story. Those, I abhor. Maybe some of those readers will decide to buy hard copies of books they like, and maybe some of those readers never spend money on books. Who knows?

    The unedited versions of my first three books are posted online, and I'm still getting sales from them eight to ten years later. Have those online freebies hurt or helped my sales? Who knows?

    I only know I'll keep writing and hope readers keep buying so the publishers can survive.

    Thanks for your post.

  3. One of the HUGE downsides of the Internet is that there is no one actually policing it. If you went into a bookstore, swiped books off the shelf, then went down the street to your own shop and put them up for sale, you would be arrested for shoplifting and fraud. Not so on the Internet. Who do we report those thieving "shops" to? Why are there no repercussions for what are clearly illegal acts?

    This is the same situation with spammers. We get inundated with crap-emails that are scams and frauds, and why doesn't anyone do anything about it? It's pretty clear that the Internet, run by the US government, is *letting* all those scammer/spammers, many from other countries, send literally MILLIONS of spam and virus mails that take up bandwidth, clog up the whole system, and wreak havoc on our computers.

    It's clear that something needs to be done about these issues, but who is responsible? That's what I want to know! There aren't many other areas of commerce with so few rules, and without rules that are enforced, we are all going to continue to be spammed, hacked, and pirated. The Brave New World of the Internet isn't very hospitable after all.