I should start by saying I know a lot of you are going to disagree with this post. But please, read it and think about it.
I really really don’t understand the way piracy, theft and sharing are conflated and confused both by the ‘big’ publishers and the authors who feel shock/horror every time someone reads one of their books without buying it.
Yes, piracy is wrong, very wrong, if we mean the taking of content and reselling without giving the profits to the original writer/artist/publisher. Yes, anyone downloading from pirate sites is committing theft because they are depriving the original producers of profit. They are also aiding and abetting the crime of piracy. No arguments from me, there.
However, I do think that some of the mega media moguls must share a little of the blame; they have been so arrogant about release dates, pricing, etc. that people have, in a world where news spreads instantly, felt tempted to obtain the offered goods in whatever way seemed most convenient. For example, sometimes my fellow writers recommend a book that turns out not to be available on UK sites. I’m not condoning the illegal downloads, just pointing out that it’s sometimes understandable, more often in the case of films than of books or music, but people do tend to repeat behaviour that works for them.
Then there’s sharing.
Publishers would have us think (and have convinced some authors) that sharing is piracy/theft. Their argument seems to centre on the fact that whilst if you lend a paperback book you don’t have access to it while your friend reads it, if you send them a digital version you retain your own copy. (Although with the paperback you still retain ownership. The only occasion when theft enters the picture is when the reader does not return the printed book to the owner. )
Nobody mentions the fact that sharing is probably the very best advertising an author or any artist can get. When people were asked by Neil Gaiman, at a lecture in London, how they found their favourite authors, the vast majority said that they found them through loans from friends, second hand book shops, charity shops, and libraries. Nobody mentioned browsing either in shops or online. Nor, perhaps more surprisingly, did they mention recommendations from friends. Once found, a favourite author is one the reader will buy again and again and will recommend to their entire social circle.
None of the above ways of finding books gives any immediate profit to the author or publisher. Neither does it prevent a sale because the new reader would probably never have found the book in the first place. What it does do is to ensure that at least some of the new readers will become customers for further books by that author, and maybe for their own copy of the one they ‘borrowed’.
Traditionally, the fame of books has spread by recommendation, either by critics or by friends. I know I’m more likely to read something a friend lends me, if only because they’re going to ask me what I thought of it. Reading is a social activity as well as a solitary one. We share opinions on books, we buy them as gifts, we leave them in guest rooms, we compile lists of favourites and lists of things to avoid. We read bits out to each other, sometimes to the annoyance of all concerned. We listen to books read on the radio together. We form book clubs. When we read reviews we ask around to see if anyone we know has read the book concerned.
I have two Kindles. (This was almost accidental but there you are.) So if I buy an e-book I can read it and pass it across to my daughter or my husband or someone else in my family who might be interested and they read it too. I haven’t lost it. It’s still in my library ‘cloud’. And they haven’t gained it. They’re using my Kindle, after all. But this constrains me artificially. I used to share books with two or three friends. Now that most of my books are e-books I no longer do this. (Even with two Kindles I’m unlikely to let one out of the house.) But I am so tempted to share my favourites with them. And who knows? I might gain a new customer for that author.
Recently I subscribed to a book via Unbound. As well as the hardback version they sent me a download link. I don’t need two copies (although it’s a good book) and I am very tempted to give the download link to a friend. After all, I paid (quite highly) for it and I need a Christmas present for her.
I also have a ‘wishlist’ that includes a lot of books. My nearest and dearest can’t buy them for me because they know I would prefer the e-book versions (otherwise the wish list would have more bookcases at the top). I gather that things like Amazon tokens are not considered to be quite the same. And yes, some of the indie sites allow gifting, but not all of them do, and Amazon certainly doesn’t.
Television companies have dealt with the problem. They ‘lend’ us their programmes for a number of days or weeks, accessed via catch-up sites. Although Amazon has some kind of lending feature, many e-books don’t fall into its net, and I’m sure we don’t particularly want to force everyone in the world to have an Amazon account in order to borrow books. I would have thought it should be possible to provide lending copies, time limited, with books. Since that hasn’t happened, is anyone truly surprised that people share their books? I should perhaps add that it has happened, for libraries, but not for individuals unless you have close family members who share your account details.
I dislike my desire to share being compared with theft. It diminishes my relationship with books (and fellow readers) and is an aspect of e-books I thoroughly object to. When we can’t share, because of the nature of e-books, we lose something very important about reading and about our culture. And I am totally convinced that we, as writers, lose customers.
I also dislike, intensely, the criminalisation of an activity that has been the ‘norm’ in literate societies, one of the things that help culture to grow and solidify, and the way it has been compared, unfairly in my opinion, with the very real crimes of theft and piracy.