Saturday, January 1, 2011

Where Books are Concerned: Digital Distribution and Piracy

This year seems to be the point at which e-readers will start to see real use. I'm reading (and writing) about them everywhere. The readers are of course a minor issue in comparison to digital distribution, which has already transformed how we interact with nearly every other form of entertainment. When a new industry comes up against digital distribution, there is inevitably a lot of fear and trepidation. Writers and publishers should be able to skip a lot of this -- while this is a great time to write and to read, it's difficult to imagine things getting all that much worse for books, financially speaking. We should be ready to try just about anything to find and engage with new audiences. And we also have the advantage of being late adopters: while the analogies aren't perfect, we should be able to study the responses of other industries to digital distribution, watch what went wrong, what went right, and to consider how we can emulate the best strategies of others.

An HTMLGiant thread has made it clear that we aren't doing this as a community. I would attribute this to three related and mutually reinforcing issues. 1) As in academia, where little is at stake it can be the hardest to let go. You would think that people who are accustomed to making $0 on their writing wouldn't be so concerned with the possibility of piracy (they're giving it all away anyhow) but there you have it. 2) Writers have what I would generously call an unrealistic sense of their own value to society. Because they produce Words, which are hallowed in their eyes, they think that they're entitled to rigid morality they don't expect people to apply in most other parts of their lives.  3) Writers don't understand money. They don't think they should have to, partly again because they create Words. Listen to a poet complain sometime about how it's impossible to make a living on their books, or a tenured writing professor complaining about their (quite high) wages sometime: it's incredible.

I would like to see us benefit from the experiences of other industries. I'm going to attempt to lay out here some thinking on the practicalities and morality of digital distribution and piracy. This isn't meant to be the final word but I do want to contribute something useful to a conversation that too often gets caught up in hysteria and moral abstractions. This will require retreading what will be familiar ground for some of you but I want to be as clear in my thinking and argument as possible.

1. Consider the Music Industry

I would argue that music has become more interesting -- and, more importantly, interesting music has reached more people -- as a result of digital distribution and piracy. Twenty years ago if you had an incredible band that would appeal to maybe 3% of the population you could maybe convince some eccentric record label to pay for the production of several thousand copies of your album. That number represented more or less the absolute upper bound on the number of people who could own that album: people could pass it around if they had access to the right community, they could listen to it in groups, but still there was a very real limit on the number of people who could hear and benefit from the music. The up-side was that piracy was relatively rare: various technologies made it possible, but the copies were poor. Mostly you had to buy your music or steal it. This had an appealing moral simplicity -- stealing a record is clearly wrong in a way that copying it illegally is not, because if you steal the record that makes it impossible for someone else to buy it. You're hurting sales.

This system sounds fine, especially for a band with extreme niche appeal -- the sort of band that only appeals to 3% of the US -- until you realize that 3% of people is way, way more than a few thousand albums can reach. By definition, most of the people who would have benefited from an album not only weren't hearing it, they couldn't hear it. That sucked.

In a world with digital distribution, your art can theoretically reach every single person who would benefit from it. It won't, of course, but it might get a lot closer than before.

Digital distribution hasn't always been a financial boon to musicians, especially established musicians who already had the resources to print enough records to consistently meet demand. By all accounts, revenue in the music industry is falling, and will probably continue to do so until it reaches an equilibrium that will shock many recording artists and executives. However, the last decade has seen the rise of many previously obscure  musicians to prominence, or something like it: because there are potentially infinite copies of any album, a band can take off without taking the risk of printing a lot of CD's. Anyone, at any time, can catch fire. While the Internet has become a bit less wild and as a result you don't see as many surprise hits now as you did maybe a few years ago (or at least I don't feel that this is happening as much as it was) the potential is always there.

Barriers to entry are so low that anyone with the resources to record an album can definitely attempt to find an audience. However, this has a down-side: as the cost of distributing a product approaches zero, so does the price of that product. Because we know there is an unlimited supply of the product and that delivering it to us is essentially free, most people are reluctant to pay more than a dollar for an mp3 -- even as the real value of a dollar declines. As a result, it's unlikely that there will be very many truly wealthy musicians in the future. However, it's very likely that there will be more and more musicians who reach the people they should be reaching, and who make enough money for a modest living or a nice supplementary income, which is really the most any artist should ask for.

There will be fewer Britney Spearses in future generations, but human welfare generally will improve as we a) get more interesting music to the people who will benefit from hearing it and b) allow more people access to an audience and modest income through their art. If you share my sense that music has gotten better and more interesting over time, these effects are probably why.

2. Okay, but what about pirates?

The question to ask is why people pirate music. There are three common answers to this question. Some pirates simply don't feel like paying for music when they can get it for free. These people suck. Some pirates buy much of their music but don't pay for it when they don't really love the artist: pretty much no one feels guilty stealing music by Britney Spears. Some pirates meanwhile (and I would place myself in this third category as someone who only rarely pirates music) pay for what they can afford to buy and then if they really want something more pirate it. I would argue that this third reason is not only morally acceptable, in practice it's preferable to only listening to music you can afford.

Consider the following scenario: Steven loves music. Steven is fifteen years old and very shy; he has trouble communicating with other people. He's interested in a lot of different bands and styles of music. However, he doesn't have very much money. He works hard but most of his cash goes toward buying his own clothes, schoolbooks, and other necessities. His family is very poor. Every other week, on payday, he buys two records. He has to choose them very carefully. There are many, many more he would like to own: records that would help him deal with his shyness, records that would provide him subjects of conversation with other human beings, records that would make him feel less alone.

Do you really believe the world would be a worse place if he were to pirate the music he can't afford? His digital copy does not detract anything from the original: the musicians he's "stealing" from don't lose anything in the bargain. However, Steven benefits from their labor, and they can benefit from pride in the fact that they've got a new listener whose life is genuinely improved by their work. It's pretty much a purely positive-sum interaction. Everyone comes out ahead, and the world actually has more happiness in it than it did before: human welfare is enhanced.

If we can agree that this is a morally correct pragmatic solution to the problem if finite money and potentially infinite supplies of music, then we should be able to agree more generally to the fact that piracy can be moral.

Is it preferable to pay for the art you love? Of course it is, and I encourage you to do so. But in the grand scheme of things, art theft is a pretty small crime, especially where supplies are infinite: and whereas before an artist had to engage an audience in a way that made them love their work enough to pay for it, they now have exactly the same thing. The context has changed, but the interaction really hasn't. Artists have to try to make great art. People have to decide whether to encourage them with money or other incentives. Our collective decision-making is our responsibility, and not only do attempts to make this decision on behalf of the community not work (see the RIAA lawsuits and harsh legislation) but they aren't, to my thinking, especially healthy. They constitute the subsidy of art that the community does not find sufficiently engaging or beautiful, and I'm not sure why we as a society need to subsidize such art. This stuff isn't magic or sacred: we can make more ourselves.

3. Musicians have the luxury of letting people pirate their work because people like music enough to buy it anyway or support them by other means!

Well, okay, fair enough: but if people don't like your book enough to pay for it, what are the odds it's very good? Many writers appeal to the fact that most people simply aren't willing to pay for books as evidence that we have to force those people to pay. But why should people have to pay for something they don't love? Outside the world of art, it's universally understood that supply and demand will put a ceiling on your prices. Sometimes the ceiling is very low. Sometimes, in fact, it's $0. Outside the world of art, when that happens, the business closes down and people move on. In the world of art, many people feel entitled to more money than consumers are willing to pay. They need to get over themselves. The world can support few professional artists. If you love it enough to do it without pay, you should be an artist, and maybe you should even be a professional. If you don't love it enough to do it without pay, you shouldn't be an artist, and you definitely don't deserve to get paid. And hey, good news: You probably won't.

4. Television and Film

Piracy of film has increasingly become a problem for movie studios and, probably to a lesser extent, television. This is largely, in my experience, because the studios that make film and television still exercise excessive control over distribution of their products. With the widespread availability high-quality digital storage formats and increasing access to high-definition televisions (as well as a public increasingly accustomed to watching film on small screens such as those of their phones and netbooks) people are less and less interested in seeing films at the theater. However, advertising for films is usually at its most intense during their theatrical runs, buzz is at its height, and water cooler conversation follows, all of which produces the desire to see the film before it comes to DVD. Most people give in to the desire and pay excessive ticket prices for the big screen; however, many of us would prefer to simply purchase or rent the DVD itself. This often leads to piracy. So does the desire to watch the film without paying. On television, meanwhile, it may be impossible for a consumer to watch the show when it broadcasts, or they may not be able to afford access to the channel with the show. Or they may simply not want to do either of these things. So people pirate the show. Television is actually the main thing I pirate in a given year -- but, and this is important, I've gone on to purchase the DVD of nearly everything I've ever downloaded within the next couple years. I suspect television and film benefit the most consistently from their pirates; i.e., piracy of a TV show or film is often likely to lead to a sale.

Why? Because people like film and television.

5. What all this means for books.

Let's start by considering the library. Some people consider libraries the foundations of a democracy. I wouldn't go quite that far, but it's a damn useful thing. Of course you don't pay to read a book at a library. They buy a copy of a book, or several, and then as many people can read it as the book will survive. Library purchases can be a nice source of revenue for an artist, they're of course worth far less to a writer than would be the money of everyone who reads the copy for free. This is perceived as radically different from piracy, but in practical terms I'm not sure why: while piracy probably doesn't lead to purchases or material support as often as digital triumphalists often seem to believe, it's noncontroversial to say that piracy does sometimes lead to a sale. I'm not aware of an easy way to confirm or disprove this, but I suspect that piracy actually leads to sales more often than library use. If our concern isn't moral abstractions but practical means of getting money into writers' pockets, I wouldn't be surprised at all to learn that piracy is actually more effective than are our beloved libraries. 

Now let's consider the state of books as a business. In many ways, we're remarkably close to where music was twenty years ago. It's time- and capital-intensive to produce a book, and doing so is usually a massive risk: you don't know if anyone's going to be interested, even if the book has broad appeal, which it usually doesn't, especially as our culture increasingly becomes one where "broad appeal" is a phantom. Your book almost never reaches even a large proportion of the 3% who might benefit from it, and not only does your print run largely determine the upward bound of your readership, many books will be destroyed when they fail to sell quickly: you don't have time to build an audience for a book over several years, you need one NOW, because in a decade your meager print-run will be gone. Books are fairly expensive and most people don't want them.

Those who claim the publishing industry is at its end of days are overstating the case; however, it's difficult to imagine books being much less popular. Most writers will never have nearly the sort of readership they might like, and as competition from other forms of entertainment (DVDs, CDs, video games, the Internet, etc.) increases the book will naturally decline somewhat in influence. At this point, if you've got a reader at all, you count yourself lucky, and short fiction and poetry, for which most people are extremely reluctant to pay, are increasingly being given away online. In other words, we've got nowhere to go from here but up.

Given the way writers value libraries, given the way good writers generally value readership over sales, and given the experiences we've had watching other industries move into digital distribution, and given the fact that the current model simply isn't performing as well as it could, we should be eager to embrace digital distribution and even piracy. While I ultimately think our culture should be better about exerting pressure on people to pay for art they love when they can afford to do so, a reader, paying or otherwise, is a potential future sale, and a person who can communicate with other people about your art in a positive way. They are also human beings, whose welfare we should prioritize over abstract concepts of ownership, especially in a world with unlimited supplies. As writers and publishers move into digital distribution, we have an opportunity to engage each other more richly and immediately, to produce more interesting and risk-taking work, and to explore new models of sharing. My personal goal as a writer is to establish myself as someone worth taking seriously and then to engage these new models as vigorously as possible. For now, I'll be honest: Uncanny Valley will be publishing something digitally soon, and if you pirate it we won't be upset. We trust you to make good decisions. We believe you can handle it, with all the much-more-important stuff you're worried about in your day to day. 

In the future, I hope more people will trust you to be responsible. I hope they'll learn to distribute their art to you in a way that fits your needs. And I hope -- I believe -- that we'll all be better off for it.


  1. I honestly didn't even know lit piracy was a problem before I read that HTMLGiant thread, and I'm still not sure I believe it's a problem, if you consider literature outside of the blockbuster category. Most of the people I know who put critical effort into their lit choices--who go beyond the front of the bookstore, I mean, and get weird with their selections--seem savvy to the importance of supporting the writers and publishers who produce the stuff. So I can't imagine someone who would pick up an indie lit book, something from Dzanc, say, pirating it outside of desperate circumstance. And I can't imagine someone who would casually pirate books bothering to know about an indie lit book.

    The difference between lit and other media you can pirate that applies here, I think, is in the requirement of engagement. Some kid in a dorm can pull down 300 albums and sort of casually plow through them, but nobody's going to pull down 300 books just to idly read through.

  2. Yeah, I don't actually think it even really happens much, and I doubt it will ever achieve the sort of frequency you see with other piracy, for the reasons you state and others. But people get so worked up when they feel like they're being stolen from, especially when they didn't have anything in the first place.