An Open Letter to Those Terrified of E-Piracy – Gary Gibson Guest Blog

There are many pro writers out there worried by piracy, who see the internet as the greatest illegal intellectual land-grab of all time. Here’s the deal:  if you’re worried enough to want to stop it, you’re not only going to have to stop people’s internet connections, you’re also going to have to ban photocopiers, computer scanners, OCR software, and computers. At the least.

gary gibson

The vast majority of those books floating around on bittorrent sites were derived from print copies of books. You scan the pages with a scanner and run OCR software that creates an unedited, error-filled file that is then saved as a PDF – surely the most unwieldy ebook format ever created – and uploaded. No professionally edited ebook files were involved.

All right; so let’s say you’ve banned computer scanners. OCR software is out the window too. Perfect world, right? Except…oh, look, the new Harry Potter/Dan Brown/Stephen King is online an hour after publication. How do you get that book online despite the new anti-OCR and scanner laws?

Easy. Find a hundred obsessed teenage Hogwarts fans online (oops, you’re going to have to ban online forums too. And possibly places where people gather in public in crowds of more than two). Assign each of them four or five pages from the book (a copy having already been breathlessly acquired at a special midnight opening from some downtown bookstore). Each one then types those few pages up and either someone at the heart of the operation manually stitches them together or uses handcrafted code (gotta ban programming, too) to first assign specific pages to each user prior to compiling them automatically. Presto, one instant online pirate copy.

Of course, to get hold of that file you first have to know what a bittorrent site is, where to find it, how to run a bittorrent client, and a whole range of what might be mundane online tasks to some but represent some kind of weird tech voodoo to the majority, who can’t even get sufficiently motivated to set the time on their video recorders.

Of course, if we do manage to ban computers, emailing, the writing of software, computer scanners, and so forth, we’re also going to have to ban those temples of criminal sin so extravagant as to flaunt themselves openly on our streets: I am, of course, talking about second-hand bookshops, that flagrantly refuse to pay authors their share for each book sold.

And then there’s the libraries, which equally allow people to read books for free without paying the author (unless your books are stocked in UK libraries). You’re also going to have to ban people from loaning each other physical paperbacks. Or, you know, leaving them lying around in public places for other people to read (there goes!) without paying the author.

And the charity shops that also sell used books! The staff would, of course, have to be rounded up and fined for acting as participants in a criminal movement of money away from the author. Or, more likely, the publisher. Or, even more likely, whoever recognises social paranoia as an important business niche, sets themselves up as a ‘copyright protection agency’ and starts raking in the money, like all those pesky DRM companies that make it nearly impossible to read ebooks on my Sony Reader even though I typically buy dozens of books every year.

Does this mean I’m an advocate of piracy? Of course not. But most of those pirates are hyperactive teenagers with too much time on their hands who probably aren’t going to read 98% of what they download. It’s also worth remembering that the people who download the most have been shown to be the people who spend the most – i.e., your biggest fans.

Remember, also, that word of mouth publicity is the most efficient way of making a book popular; how many authors did you get into because somebody insisted you read someone’s book that blew them away, and they wanted to share the experience? Or because you found one of their books free on the shelves of a library, or picked it up for loose change in a charity shop on a whim? That 13-year-old pirate might just turn into your biggest (paying) fan in another ten years, once they’ve graduated, bought nice houses to go with those jobs in computer engineering, and found themselves looking longingly at those empty shelves just waiting to be filled with books by their favourite authors.

Before the internet, if I wanted to read an author I liked, I had to go into the city from the small town where I lived and hope they had his or her new book on the shelves. If they didn’t, I might have to wait weeks or months for it to appear. I had no access to reviews of genre works because they rarely if ever appeared in the press, whereas now I can find dozens of such reviews at the click of a mouse. My only other alternative to get my hands on the writing I craved was to go on an occasional spending spree when a science fiction convention came to town, maybe once every couple of years.

I remember getting a friend to hunt down a book I desperately wanted to get hold of when he went on a trip to the States in the early ’90s, when there was no other way to get my hands on it (no Amazon!). Between first hearing of the book and actually getting hold of a copy, something like a decade had passed.

I don’t ever want to go back to those times. If I could have bittorrented that book, I would have in a flash, despite the inevitable tweak of guilt. If I could have bought an ebook of it for a few measly pounds or dollars, let alone an actual paperback via some online store, I wouldn’t even have had to think about it (I now own it in paper – second-hand, since it’s also long out of print. Ironic, or what?)

This is the future. Get used to it, take advantage of it, or take the risk of being left behind. Instead of focusing on ridiculous messages of doom, find a way to make the online world work for you and make the vast majority who do pay aware of your work. Baen Books practically gives away the majority of its titles as free e-documents, and I don’t recall hearing any stories about them having to panhandle on the street for money for food.


  1. Good article. Although library books do pay the author something in the US, even if it is just for one copy. The readers don’t really get the book for free either since we all pay taxes into the system. It works differently in each state, but most people are paying between 30 and 300 dollars a year. I’d bet many of them don’t check out enough books to get their money’s worth. Then there’s me…

    I think the authors that stand the most to gain from ebooks are those that can republish their out-of-print backlist. These authors already have a following (one can assume) the backlist has been professionally edited and so on. If they make it available on Kindle and Sony and so on–at an attractive price, there’s no real need for someone to go hunting down a used copy or a pirated copy. Pretty easy to one-click on Amazon or wherever.

    It’s been interesting to watch just how much the whole ebook thing has taken off this last couple of years. I think it’s going to get even more interesting.


  2. gary,

    I generally agree with your sentiments, but as a partial counter argument, Baen just closed down their online magazine because panhandling on the street wasn’t bringing in enough money.

  3. Not being in the business of selling or writing books it’s hard for me to have something I’d all a complete view to offer an opinion, but as somebody who has spent some years dealing with publicity (online) of books I’ve always felt that the difficulty getting digital copies to review. It often seems much easier for publisher to send me manuscript, galley, hardback, than a year later the paperback 9 (all of one book) and 5 contest copies then to give me a single digital copy.

    I never understood that why on a publicity level this wasn’t done. Sure, some reviewers refuse digital copies (and we certainly used to not prefer them), but you can easily placate the few significant reviewers if that is their preference (by significant I mean the trades, major papers or if Colbert or Oprah invites you on). In the SF/F corner, the number of online venues who should have true bargaining power are virtually (pun not intended) non-existent beyond a handful – Io9, SciFi are among the few who are slamdunks (and neither really focus on books). I imagineSciFi and Gawker have stacks of Kindles version 10.0s in their guest bathrooms!

    Obviously we know why they don’t want to do this, but I’m not sure if the damage is so profound to worry about it. Seem like a waste of time to me, but then again I fully admit I don’t have access to studies or eve real statistics done by publisher to gauge the potential loss–they may be well founded in their practices.

    That said, It does seem a bit like the whole, old Kid Rock thing with Itunes.

  4. Steve,

    I think the reasons for Baen going away are tad more complicated based on my reading of Eric Flint’s letter (and also reading the forum boards). Yes, they thought they’d get more buyers/readers, but they also mentioned distribution problems that they couldn’t get around. The other key point is that Baen was paying extremely well and pulling in popular author names. Not that this is a bad thing at all, but they did have a high expense ratio from that standpoint. Even Eric…or was it Resnick? I think Resnick who wrote the article–anyway, one of them pointed out that done right, they still think they could make it work and they may give it another go.

    I’d like to see them make the mag more available as well–like formatted for the popular readers like Kindle and sold via Amazon–just for the eyeballs if nothing else. Too many people didn’t even know about the magazine.

    Which I guess is what Gary is trying to do here…come to think of it!

  5. I’d agree that DRM in e-books is a bad idea. Leaving aside the desirability of such a system, it just isn’t very practical.

    You can’t both deliver information to the public and protect it from them at the same time. As the column points out, there are numerous ways round it and it only takes one determined person to defeat it.

    If you accept it, the burdens DRM imposes also shortens the life of consumer data considerably, since it tends to tie the data to a device. This lifespan is already pretty short – witness the raft of obsolete data formats that have come and gone from the home (both physical and electronic). Anything that requires special sockets, sprockets or software is inherently doomed. (That includes all you pod-people in Apple’s locked-down, faux-Bohemia.) I don’t see how this can fail to devalue the work in the eyes of the consumer.

    DRM doesn’t serve the publishers or the consumers. It is snake-oil, providing only a false sense of security to those that buy into it.

    On the opposite end, I’m not convinced by the long-tailed economists who believe giving everything away for free will just work out because wishful thinking wants it to.

    Writers will still write and readers will still read. I expect a lot more wrangling as the new social contracts for publishing are worked out and the business of being a bookseller/middleman mutates. I don’t expect DRM to be the last mistake in that process.

    (Although the direct-to-the-public thing is much heralded, I don’t think the death of the middleman is coming any time soon. Thog knows, there are limits to how close I want to get to the slush pile, or even any given publisher’s chosen output.)

Comments are closed.