Pirates!

Dear reader, I ask that you accompany me on a little sojourn into the land of the music industry to take a gander at their sales model.  First let’s consider the chief sales device:  the albums.  Years ago there was much ado when Napster came into widespread use and people proceeded to download albums–for free.  Those albums, ultimately still creations of artists, yield very little by way of money to the performers and instead serve as a great tool for the execs to make $$ off the creative types they’re *cough, cough* bank-rolling.  For revenue upon which they can actually live many performers rely upon merchandising as well as concert tours.  In fact, due to the low payment on albums, some artists even let their fans download albums for FREE from their own websites.  So, if you decided to not pay for the album but did decide to put that money toward a concert ticket you actually have supported the artist/band far more fiscally than if you bought the album then sat at home when they came around and performed.

Let’s take a little jump over to the publishing industry and see what it holds for us.  [In the interest of brevity I am going to skip over some steps here but, suffice it to say, an author doesn’t “just” get published when the book is finished.  At least most of them don’t, ‘kay?  ‘Kay.]  An author writes a book and it gets published.  Now that e-readers are gaining some pretty serious heads of steam I think it is quite certain one can say that most books will be available in the e-pub format thusly making it that much easier to have access to it without actually buying it (i.e. STEALING it).  Authors generally get a meagerly advance when their book is sold to an editor/publisher then, after paying out of that advance for their own publicity so the book will sell, wait a couple years for the royalties to start rolling in.  There is no concert or merchandising in most cases just that one little product that more than likely took someone several months of their life to create.  [Not all books are made into movies so put down that copy of Twilight, the calendar as well as that T-shirt and pay attention.]  When that author who might have written the best book you never paid for goes to look for a publisher for the even better best book you never will pay for and the sales records are lousy- do you think he/she/they will get a big advance?  For that matter do you think they will necessarily get a publishing deal?  All things are possible but if we’re talking about a firm putting forward capital so a book can get published they’ll want to be sure the risk of flopping will be minimal.  This means those sales records of the previously published work matters a great deal.

The people who can weather such storms are those who sell so many copies REGARDLESS of the amount of pirated issues circulating are in the very slightest minority of published authors.  People like Dan Brown, Nora Roberts and Stephen King, who were already established publishing industry heavy hitters before the big e-reader boom.  That is not the market we have today.  In twenty years or so, when those authors have passed on to write their novels in the great beyond and we can’t read them anymore- who will we be left with?  Okay, so we’ll probably still have Dan Brown writing about Tom Hanks, errrr, Robert Langdon and Meyer talking about Team Jacob, but who else?  What other newly minted phenom will be able to write books every year or so to keep us entranced by their prose and enraptured by their characters if stealing digitally formatted manuscripts takes off the same way Kindle sales have?

I would contend the literary community would be sorely lacking in new, thought provoking material but, even if I’m wrong- how would we ever know?  The best book you never paid for could very well wind up the best book never published and languishing in a land of obscurity due to the extreme economic hardship of the publishing industry and the unwanted risk.  To break into an industry like publishing is incredibly difficult and takes a good deal of luck, a great deal of tenacity and still there’s no gaurantee of getting that big fat advance some authors have made headlines with.  The least we can do, should we want to read a book and we don’t want to wait for it to arrive on our library’s shelves is to pay for it.  And, let’s face it, aren’t those hours spend in front of your e-reader, or even getting ink upon your fingers from the pages, totally worth the price of admission?

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4 responses to “Pirates!

  • Jan

    I know of people who only read library books. They refuse to buy a book because of the way libraries work, they don’t need to! I was taught that when I love a book, it is a delicious luxury to add it to my collection. Unfortunately, sometimes it is that! a luxury. I am currently re-reading books I have loved and find that I am in such a different “place” at this time, I am getting a whole new perspective from the ones I am reading, fact and fiction alike!

    • kimberlyloomis

      Purchasing a book can indeed be a luxury but it not does not mean one is entitled to own that work for free. Borrowing a book from a friend/library who paid to own that work is perfectly acceptable and reasonable.

  • Chris

    My take on this topic is the same as my take on the topic of pirated music. The problem here is that the creation and distribution of this media (literature) isn’t keeping up with technology and the basic human condition of greed. It’s patently absurd to blame people for stealing something that distributors have artificially inflated the cost of 1000x.

    There’s plenty of information in the press about how e-books are exploding. Without any evidence to back it up, I would say that within a few years, just as in the music industry, we will see just as many sales of electronic books as we see paper books.

    The problem here is that the current model for a writer to create and publish a book is horrific. As you pointed out, they get a meager advance of pay, and typically have to wait years to see substantial royalties.

    To me, the problem isn’t the technology, it’s the economics of distribution. This holds true for the music industry as well. When I go to the bookstore and buy a physical book, let’s say it costs $10, I get to keep that book forever, barring normal physical wear of paper. More importantly, there was a massive supply chain involved in the manufacturing of that book.

    A lumberjack was hired to cut down a tree. That tree was taken by a tree distributor and sent to a paper mill where people cut it up and turned it into paper. That paper was then sold to a printer to put words on it, and then bind it into a book. More than that, engineers were needed to design the printing presses, and tool-and-die shops were created to machine the presses themselves, and produces replacement parts for wear and tear on that machinery. This supply chain, for the paperback novel, employs thousands, probably tens of thousands, of human beings, all whom need to be paid, and justifies that $10 book cost.

    When I go to Amazon and see that I can buy Dan Brown’s latest book in hardcover for $12 (plus shipping), but I can get the e-book for $9.60, a little part of me can’t help but weigh the economics of the situation and realize that Amazon is bending me over the chair. A 20% discount in price for an ephemeral piece of literature hardly seems worth it. Especially when the cost to manufacture that book is virtually non-existent. No lumberjacks, no mills, no nothing.

    I think your typical person is capably of looking at the economic calculus of e-books and realizes that they’re getting screwed. As a result, publishers and distributors like Amazon are screwing every single person backwards in the supply chain, working their way right back to the writer.

    I don’t agree that piracy is right, but publishers and distributors are shifting the economics towards piracy themselves. If all bakeries suddenly started selling bread for $100 a loaf, and then put them out in front of the store with nobody watching, you’d be a fool to think people wouldn’t steal it. It’s simply human nature, and is unreasonable to expect people to simply behave better in the face of simple economics.

    Rather, it seems that this industry, just like the music industry, has to come to grips with the fact that the writer/publisher/distributor model is dead, and a new model has to be established that makes the cost of electronic literature more commensurate with its true cost of its manufacture.

    In the music industry, some artists have rallied against the record label and established their own electronic labels so that they can recoup 100% of the cost of their work. Why give someone else all of your money for something you can do yourself. iTunes has revolutionized music distribution by allowing me to buy one song at a time (even though $1 is still outrageous).

    More recent news shows that online music sales are up and piracy down, since most people are _willing_ to pay for things, assuming they’re reasonable. More to the point, electronic sales continue to climb, and CD sales diminish because people would _rather_ buy electronically!

    If the publisher and distributors would stop wildly inflating the costs of e-books, and start giving authors reasonable percentages for royalties, or if authors would simply make their works available on their own, I firmly believe you would see piracy of e-books sharply decline, and you would start seeing authors making real money off of their works.

    Imagine a site like Amazon.com that acted as a bazaar for authors to sell their own books, rather than a market for publishers to sell books. The author could sell the book for $1 and reap 100% of that profit, instead of selling it to a publisher and getting pennies worth of royalties for each one years after the fact.

    Beyond that, the industry could better harness the economies of scale that the electronic publishing world offers, giving them the ability to make even more money! People _will_ pay for e-books, but not if they’re ridiculously over priced, and the entire publishing industry, from author to Amazon, has to accept it and change accordingly.

    • kimberlyloomis

      I completely agree with all you said, Chris. There are many issues with the current publisher/agent model and it all works as another form of bureaucracy which, let’s face it, always seems to pay for the bloat on the back of the person/people it relies upon. I’m really glad you brought up the e-book pricing as well- it’s a good point and one that needs to get addressed. Another part of that is, of course, the publishers charging Amazon a certain amount of money (just as they do on paper books) to “carry” the product. [Thanks to Amazon/Wal-Mart/Target and the ridiculous price war they had on new releases recently the publishing industry is only more fastidiously digging in their heels with prices and marketing thus continuing the problem while delaying doing anything productive with the issues at hand.]

      There are still a great many people who read and don’t have the Kindle or Nook making print the best option to have a widespread reading audience so the cost of printing, the refusal of many large book sellers to carry self published works, as well as the stigma many people have about self-pubs makes it very difficult for authors to pursue such an avenue due to the necessity of breaking even (at the very least). I think once e-readers are “main stream” there will be a shift in mentality of the populace as well as the industry itself making self-pubs much more accepted.

      I still have an issue with piracy being the avenue of choice for people when it comes to being upset about pricing. If you’re upset about it, wait for it to be available at your library, buy a used (or new) copy through Amazon, wait for prices to come down but, for crying out loud, don’t steal the damned thing.

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