On Digital Books and Piracy

When I started releasing Rx back in the serial novel days, one of the questions I was asked the most was my opinion on my piracy. My best and most elegant answer was:

“Please don’t?”

I’ve recently stumbled across this quote by Neil Gaiman on the matter, and it is both more elegant and more best than my own efforts:

“We don’t normally find the people we love most by buying them. We encounter them, we discover that we love them, which is why I decided early on I was never going to go to war [on piracy], I was just going to encourage, I was going to go for word of mouth.”

This phrasing is much better than my own simpler, stupider request in the sense that “please don’t” makes you think I’m wholly against piracy. When in fact, I never actively discourage it. I can’t say I’m die-hard in favor of piracy either — you should absolutely pay your preferred creators in exchange for their hard work, or else this whole damn thing falls apart and we have to get real jobs with pants and everything. But when it comes down to it, it’s not much different than a library. One way or another, you can (and always could) get most books for free. How can I rail against piracy then, when I discovered most of my favorite authors at a library? I wouldn’t have found them just visiting book stores. I never would have taken the chance on them if it cost me $15 a pop to do so. I pay for all of my favorite author’s books now, of course, but that initial discovery process needed to be free.

It’s hard enough to justify the time required to take a chance on a new artist (reading a book can take up to 20 hours, depending on length – that’s a serious commitment in this age of fierce media competition; that’s two video games; ten movies; a whole season of a TV show) — if you asked me for a significant upfront fee just to take that chance as well? No. As a reader, why would you take that risk? You can always revisit your favorites instead. They’re safer bets. You could buy a new book from an author you already love, or better yet, reread something you already have – that’s free! Like it or not, the natural inclination of most human beings is to tread safe water, and that impulse is both boring and ultimately unfulfilling to the reader, as well as financially disastrous for any but the most established authors. If you want people to take a chance on you, you have to make taking a chance easy

Piracy is almost a necessity these days, because we haven’t quite worked out how digital books should function yet. You can’t “lend” digital books like you would a physical one (at least, not without severe limitations). You can’t give them away permanently at all, and setting up artificial hurdles in libraries — like limited amounts of digital copies and forced wait times — just leads to frustration. I have Google alerts set up for the titles of my books, and I see torrents pop up there all the time. I have never and will never take action against them. Yet I still say “please don’t,” when talking about piracy. If only because you’re risking a virus. Don’t do that. Just email me and I’ll send you a copy. It takes me ten seconds. It’s nothing, and you will not nearly be the first person to ask – I must have sent out a hundred copies to people who didn’t want to (or in most cases, physically could not) pay for my book. It’s fine. There’s no shame in it. I spent the first half of my 20s living paycheck to paycheck myself. Weekly library trips were the only means I ever acquired entertainment that didn’t involve spinning around until I fell over.

I only ask that, if you like one of my books, you tell your friends about it and try to buy the next one. That’s the same deal authors have always had with readers, and that doesn’t need to change with the digital age. But please do remember to support authors, artists and other creators whose work you already know you enjoy – we really, seriously and severely do not want to put on pants.


4 thoughts on “On Digital Books and Piracy

  1. Orion

    I have to agree, wholeheartedly. If it wasn’t for your work on Cracked, I wouldn’t have ever heard of you or your novel Rx, my absolute favorite works of literature. It was the articles you created that allowed me to discover your new work- had they not been free I don’t know if I’d taken the chance, and would have missed out tremendously. This is the most fair and reasonable look on piracy I have seen from the multitudes of authors and artists, (although to be fair I haven’t looked too deeply) and really hits home for me personally. May I say, thank you for the laughs good sir.
    And to hell with pants.

  2. Derek Pennycuff

    I really like the way Rifftrax approaches this.


    It acknowledges the realities of the current market, doesn’t judge too harshly, and provides a dead simple way to burn off some karmic debt. Rifftrax is a particularly interesting case because in the old days before they moved primarily to video on demand I think piracy of their stuff was as much about distribution as it was economics. A pre-synchronized single video file (with our without dual audio capabilities) provides a much better experience for the consumer. I assume they realize this and that has fed into their move towards more VOD content and fewer MP3 commentary tracks.

    Also, I love libraries. But it’s pretty hard to find stuff like Rx or This Book is Full of Spiders or Ready Player One on the shelves of small branch libraries. In this sense I think some book piracy is also as much about distribution as it is about the economics of free.

  3. Tingler

    Well stated. It’s the world we live in that demands that things be given away for free.

    On one side it’s nice and friendly that things come for free. I have friends that believe everything should be free. Everything. That no person should have any wholesale on what they want and can have. In my corner I think they are mostly insane. After all, someone has to mosey up the money to produce art. Whether it be supplies, ideas (drugs/sex or really good ideas), or time, they have to make magic with their art and produce something out of thin air that makes masses, or fews, very happy to experience. To me, at least from a very small perspective, that is a helluva load on the artist that wants to sustain a livelihood. I absolutely love Mr. Brockway’s books…he has a definite wit and a singular devotion to making me laugh my ass off, but in the end we all have to live with what inclinations make us prosper or at least survive. I hate to think of the term piracy but understand it’s seedy nature to provide. Hopefully they can come together some day and make piracy legal and fun. Maybe a piracy sex game that requires piracy to sex things, I guess? I’m sure it’s already a movie or something…just saying.

  4. violafury

    I agree as well and as I’ve never earned dime one, I couldn’t help but be slightly tickled by the fact that someone had poached one of my posts “Playing the Violin and How To Avoid It” and was selling it. This was back in the early days of my blogging and writing experience and another blogging friend found it. I wrote the company a very nice letter and explained that while I was not currently earning money, nor attempting to, my friends were, and that this company was taking money from them, and would they please stop doing that. By standing four-square with my brothers and sisters in blogging who relied in their blogs for money, and being nice about it, the company complied. They are also no longer in business, but I highly doubt that has anything to do with my one little email. Stealing is stealing, and there are organizations in music, that I am much more familiar with, such as ASCAP and BMI that deal with these things, Still, when it comes to e-media, it takes a lighter touch and a more agreeable one, as you pointed out. You might have a future customer.


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