Some observations about e-books and illegal downloading.
Those wishing to enter the quiz only have until midnight my time tonight. It's still very much worth a shot. Those hard questions have foiled a lot of people.
First up, some news. Last night Tor.com announced their Twelve Doctors of Christmas, a series of blogs about the different leads in Doctor Who, starting on Boxing Day. On the 28th, I'll be writing about the Third Doctor, and I'll be joined by such luminaries as Seanan McGuire, Pia Guerra, Graham Sleight and Mark Waid. Should be good!
And the latest issue of SF fanzine The Drink Tank is online, looking forward to Worldcon in Reno next August, and giving Hugo voters some ideas as to what to nominate this time round. (The Hugo nomination phase starts on January 1st.) Tim Powers being the Guest of Honour, there's a distinct Powers slant to the issue, do check it out.
Now, I've been saying for months that I'd do a blog about e-books, but I've been putting it off in sheer terror. Because, and let me quote a fellow author here...
'E-books, self-publication and agents are like abortion, marijuana and taxation - it seems no one can discuss them rationally' - David Levine.
And I've seen the truth of that every time I mention this subject online or in public. But having done some research, I don't want to let it go to waste. So I thought I'd break it down into a few bullet points, and then stand ready at my comments list with a shotgun and a nervy smile.
1: Publishers have always thought that when you buy a hardback, what you're paying more for is the chance to own it on the day of publication. Paperbacks are cheaper because they come out a year later. The reading public, on the other hand, always thought what they were paying more for was the extra physical mass and quality. (Actually, a hardback costs, one publisher told me, only from 50p to a couple of pounds more to make.) So obviously publishers think an e-book, out on the day of publication, should cost the same as a hardback. And obviously the reading public think it should cost less than a paperback. From this difference in perception stem all subsequent horrors.
2: British publishers are faced with an additional cost for e-books in the form of V.A.T., Valued Added Tax, currently set at 17.5% of the sale price going to the government, set to rise to 20% next year. This tax doesn't apply to printed books. I asked Ed Vaizey MP, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, if this was going to change, and was told there were no plans to alter the V.A.T. rate at the moment.
3: The concept that one should give away the e-book version of a title online, and then make money through sales of the physical version of that book, as espoused by some well-known authors, only makes financial sense (to anyone making a living purely on their writing) while the e-book market forms a small percentage of the general market. If, as seems possible now, e-books become the favoured format, then authors doing that will be left sitting on the kerb with signs saying 'will write for nothing'. I've been present when one major author, known for their support for this system, changed their mind in the face of recent developments. To bet one's career on the idea that a new delivery system will fail to become a major force seems to me to be betting against the future, which is surely an unwise stance for any SF writer.
4: People just like stealing stuff. As a recent Wired magazine article pointed out, every utopian excuse for illegally downloading music, from the presence of Digital Rights Management on tracks to the inability to move tracks between systems, has now been swept away by a market desperate to sell more music. There's literally no excuse any more. But this year illegal music downloading continued to grow, with 1.2 billion tracks being stolen in the UK alone.
5: It's hard, these days, to tell people they've done a minor wrong. Because one is now either a saint (or whatever the atheist version of that is) or a paedophile. Illegal download sites look perfectly normal, and ominous orchestral tones don't strike up when you visit one. 'Everybody' does it, and people who do are often quite surprised at the thought that they're doing something wrong. But they are. A small thing. They're each stealing small sums of money from creators. But put those minor wrongs together, and they become an enormous problem. Villifying these people rather than educating or preventing them will just convince them that their minor wrong is cool and rebellious. A lot of them tell themselves that already. They're sticking it to the man. The trouble is, the man in question is me. And those like me.
6: If everybody did illegally download, it couldn't continue as a practice, because no further music or movies could be made. (Except by those willing, through existing wealth or poetic poverty, not to make a living.) Illegal downloaders rely, parasitically, on an honest mainstream who purchase this stuff. The 'alternative revenue sources' that might fund every creator who's not already rich enough not to care simply haven't appeared for the vast majority. And it's hard to see where they'll ever come from when illegal downloading can simply put an end to a market.
7: Illegal downloading is already changing the shapes of markets. Profit margins on comics are such that if an ongoing title doesn't sell hugely, it ends after five issues. This is why you don't get many of those quirky, second string titles that fans used to love, and see so many events and crossovers. Worried that The X Factor TV talent show is dominating the British pop music charts? That plays to an older audience who wouldn't know one end of an illegal download from the other. No SF on TV? SF fans, like any niche audience, are more likely to illegally download, and those 'ratings' are invisible to advertisers. The anime market is a particularly sensitive one, where many titles now never make it to the west, because theft has almost destroyed the legal market. Again, it's the children's and more mainstream titles that have avoided this. You can't protest about these changes in culture if you're illegally downloading, because you're one of the things driving them.
8: I think, and have had many conversations to support this view, that a large majority of creators in all media loathe illegal downloading. But few of them are willing to say anything in public. Reasons range from a desire to be seen to be cutting edge, to a fear of alienating one's audience, to fear of a denial of service attack on one's website. I've been on a lot of panels where, asked that question, everyone answers an entirely different one, about how 'e-books are the future'. I feel that the one thing we can do, as creators, to affect illegal downloaders is to make it clear that we withold our approval. You can't be an enthusiastic and beloved fan of a great writer and at the same time steal their stuff.
9: I hate how saying this stuff in public results in friends and close associates of mine getting into terrible wheedling conversations with me about it. They're almost like the debates children have with adults about where naughty behaviour begins. 'You're stealing 6p off me every time.' 'Ah, but if I asked you to lend me 6p...' 'That would be fine.' 'If you gave me 6p...' 'That would be fine.' 'If I found 6p in the street...' 'Yes, yes, all that would be fine. You putting your hand in my pocket and taking 6p from me is what isn't fine!' And as for 'Well, you should be fashionable and technologically savvy enough to just make 6p appear out of thin air. Like I did when I took it out of your pocket. It's hardly my fault you can't do that!' or 'I'm probably going to give you your 6p back, possibly 12p or even 24p!' Well, statistics don't support your highly optimistic view. Statistics say most people who nick my 6p just keep it. And forgive me if I can't feed my family on 'probably'. Most friends of mine at least don't go that far. These conversations are about guilt, about weighing perceived mini-societal approval of theft against a creator's disapproval. But do me a favour: we can still be friends if you've stolen my stuff, just don't seek my approval for having done it. You can't get it.
10: Oh, and people who have those awful conversations with me, in person or online, where they try to find all sorts of intellectual justification for minor theft, always start by using my first name. 'Paul...' It gives their speech the air of a wise old head talking down to someone who's obviously new in the world. Yeah, that annoying.
11: I've done it too. I taped music when I was in college, I used to have a pirated word processor program. I stopped doing that when I realised it made me a hypocrite. I wasn't a war criminal when I did it, and neither were you, illegal downloader reading this. We were both just doing minor wrongs that, across populations, add up.
12: Some authors with smaller profiles have benefited from 'alternative revenue streams' like befriending illegal downloaders and asking for their 6p afterwards. I'd say that their success, which I wouldn't at all begrudge them, is a question of having gone from nearly nothing to a tiny something. And stemmed from an emotion that only stretches so far: making guilty people feel better. I don't know if it'll fly as a career. (Which is not to say, I emphasise, that I'm decrying the quality of the work involved.)
13: Of course, obviously, hugely, there remain, considering e-books only, a number of problems in terms of satisfying both reading public and publishers. The market isn't where digital music's is. These problems have formed the meat of almost all discussions about this subject, to the point where I hoped I could get through this post without mentioning D.R.M. or 'the agent model'. Because these discussions are mazes full of mirrors, the source of much of what makes David Levine sigh. And the comments thread will do this stuff without me saying again the same things many people have said already.
So what am I against?
14: Regionality on books seems Victorian in the same way regional DVD releasing is. I decided when I got my iPad to only buy e-book fiction from now on. If I can't download Mary Robinette Kowal's Shades of Milk and Honey now, I'll wait until it does appear as an e-book (such a wait being not an excuse for theft, but rather a temptation towards it, to deal with another often ethically muddied area of complaint), not give in and buy the hardback. Regionality exists to aid marketing campaigns and help prevent illegal downloading. There are good reasons for it. As the e-book share of the market climbs, those reasons may decline in importance. I've heard some clever ways of setting your reading device to enable accessing e-books from outside your region, but I've also sought the opinion of a lawyer (I won't name the source, because they stress it's their personal opinion and not formal legal advice), who says that this may constitute fraud. I've presented their complete assessment as an appendix at the end of the post.*
15: If it's not out now as an e-book, I'd like to know when it will be. A list of forthcoming titles somewhere, anywhere, would be excellent.
16: E-books are still treated as an afterthought by many publishers. The design and navigation are often all over the place. I love the e-edition of Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine beyond all reason, but does anyone there even know that the little description of each story that's meant to go above the title (and often ends with 'as you'll find out in...') goes below it in the e-book version? And the sheer hoo-hah of downloading it edition by edition from Fictionwise (if you have a Kindle, you can subscribe) is only made worthwhile by the sheer quality of the magazine itself. And don't get me started, in terms of novels, on texts that slip between pages, tables of contents that don't work, etc.
17: The e-book market is still the wild west. Having paid what I see as a fair price (around £10) as an advance order for The Quantum Thief on Amazon Kindle (very much my store of choice, considering iBooks' high prices, narrow selection and bad layout, and yes, I do wish we had Nook in Britain), I was staggered to see it go up to nearer £15 on the day of release (as expected) but then drop to around £6 a day later! (I've heard this was down to Amazon, before the agency model came into play.) If e-books are going to make up a majority of the market, then legal e-book customers should feel the same sense of security that those who buy physical books do, not like we're trying out version 0.1.
18: Online stores continuing to list free and very low price titles alongside mainstream titles is another way in which e-book customers are made to feel like they're lab rats. It emphasises hugely that price is overwhelmingly the most powerful factor when buying e-books (which is not the case in physical bookstores), and that no edition is cool enough to counter that (in a physical bookstore, nice new Jane Austens do better than cheapo out-of-copyright-label editions). But it also means that right next to our list of priced SF e-books, we can see that in with a bullet at number two in the free SF top twenty (behind, of course, Frankenstein), is Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton's account of his 1914-1917 expedition to Antarctica. (Why is that SF? What did he find?!) If it's a mistake, it's one that's been hanging around, untended to, for several months now. Even if it's correct, this is us browsing a musty second hand shop, not being cutting edge consumers in a new medium. I genuinely admire the pluck of self-published writers like Barry Nugent, whose excellent adventure in taking his Fallen Heroes to number one on the Kindle Contemporary Fantasy chart is described here. And mainstream SF writers like Gary Gibson have also benefited and found a new audience from having a low price point set for their back catalogue. But I would say that, instances like those guys apart, a low price is no guarantee of quality. We're not selling this stuff by the yard. And the way these charts are set up (unlike for instance the pop music charts, where a minimum sale price is set for a single to qualify) makes it look like we are. It's brilliant that new authors now have more ways to get audience attention. It's not so brilliant in the case of Captain Shackleton.
19: I do think the market will sort a lot of this stuff out in the next few years, as it has for digital music. I think that punishing authors for prices set by their publishers (with low star reviews on Amazon, for instance) is wrong. Some publishers (I won't name them here because I don't want to favour one over another) have set a low price point for new e-books and are thus influencing what the market will become. I'll continue to hold out and only buy new fiction for myself in e-book editions. I just hope that publishing and distribution catches up with the desire and enthusiasm of the market, and that illegal downloaders don't destroy the relationship between the two.
Phew. Maybe I should write about unicorns and pixies next? Actually, there's another potentially turbulent one in the last two of the Twelve Blogs. Why do I do this to myself? Until tomorrow, Cheerio!
*For those of a legal disposition, here's the full text of what that lawyer told me: